Thursday, February 23, 2012

Eating our Biodiversity into Oblivion

I would like to say that I have made an important discovery over the past few weeks but that would be a blatant lie, in reality this information has been in plain sight for all to see for many a year. Perhaps it doesn’t occur to most animal lovers to look for it or perhaps it is conveniently ignored because the implications are simply too disturbing to deal with. Or it could be that a debate on this subject would threaten to focus the uncomfortable issue of our eating habits. The truth is that the exotic meat market is alive and well in the United States, Canada and many other Western countries and it is perfectly legal.

One of my friends has brought to my attention the existence of a website that specializes in the sale of exotic meat:

Upon further investigation I have discovered a number of such websites that specialize in the sale of exotic animal flesh for the purpose of human consumption. The website in question that this post will be focusing on, Exotic Meat Market, sells the meat of several exotic mammals including that of lion and kangaroo. It is, of course, not restricted to unusual mammals and sells crocodilian and iguana meat as well. The sale of lion, kangaroo, and crocodilian flesh is supposedly a sustainable practice as various companies have made their business in trading a hypothetically renewable resource that is overseen by local wildlife management. Of course, if one were to dig a little deeper one will find some questionable practices that go blatantly unchecked.

Among the meat that is for sale is that of rattlesnakes. There are over 32 species of rattlesnake, some of which are protected and some of which are in the midst of state or federal protection. The website does not specify which species of rattlesnake they are selling nor are they explaining where they get their snake meat from. I have been asked: do they get this from rattlesnake roundups? I honestly do not know but it would not surprise me as rattlesnake roundups usually end up with hundreds of pounds of meat that they must either sell or let go to waste. Another item that is for sale is frog legs, a trade that has been condemned by conservation groups worldwide and has been implicated in the spread of the deadly Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (aka the chyrtid fungus) in amphibians.

Exotic Meats Market also sell the meat of turtles. According to the IUCN over 40 species of turtle face the threat of extinction (IUCN). This website is not specific about what species of turtle it is selling for consumption so it may or may not be peddling the flesh of endangered species. Granted, it is most likely selling snapping turtle or alligator snapping turtle meat. The former is currently listed as “least concern” while the latter is listed as vulnerable. Unfortunately, all turtle species are extremely slow to reproduce, often reaching maturity at an older age, laying many eggs (sometimes hundreds or thousands) with very few offspring surviving to reach adulthood. Seemingly stable populations of chelonians might not be able to support a growing or even a steady number of consumers for very long.

On the home page says that all meats being sold on Exotic Meat Market are USDA or state inspected and any agencies are welcome for inspection. The webpage adds that any inquiring press will be provided all information related to the meats being sold upon request. Directly below this statement is a quote from the owner of the company, Anshu Pathak. I am certainly not questioning the legality of the meat in question but this does not mean that I approve of the ethics being practiced by this company. A little over a year ago Mr. Pathak’s company made headlines in Arizona and Los Angeles over the sale of lion meat, which can be seen here:Lion steak sales soar according to one LA Merchant

The lions in question, according to Pathak, are actually raised on farms in the Midwest and slaughtered for their meat and fur. All of this is going on while the status of wild lions in Africa remains questionable. Interestingly enough they also sell the meat of the Burmese python which they say they import from Vietnam, even though there are plenty of pythons in the everglades. While the debate rages over whether or not people should be allowed to keep exotic pets very few seem to be discussing the issue of whether or not the exotic meat industry that appears to be legally thriving in the West should be checked in some way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rare Fungus Killing Endangered Rattlesnakes

Science News

Rare Fungus Kills Endangered Rattlesnakes in Southern Illinois

ScienceDaily (Feb. 21, 2012) — A small population of rattlesnakes that already is in decline in southern Illinois faces a new and unexpected threat in the form of a fungus rarely seen in the wild, researchers report.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus), a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, suffers from habitat loss and environmental stresses wherever it is found, said University of Illinois comparative biosciences visiting instructor and wildlife veterinarian Matthew Allender, who led the health investigation. Long-term population studies of the snake -- in Illinois and elsewhere -- had never turned up evidence of debilitating fungal infections. But in 2008, biologists studying the snake reported to Allender that they had found three sick snakes in a park in southern Illinois, all with disfiguring lesions on their heads. The snakes died within three weeks of their discovery. A fourth snake with a similar syndrome was discovered in the same park in the spring of 2010.
Allender conducted necropsies on the snakes and identified the pathogen that had killed them: C hrysosporium, a fungus that plagues portions of the pet reptile industry but is not normally seen in the wild, he said.
"Chrysosporium causes disease in bearded dragons and in other snakes and it's a bad bug," Allender said. "We see it in captive animals worldwide, but we don't typically find it in free-ranging animals."
Chrysosporium also is emerging as a dangerous infection in humans with weakened immune systems, he said.
Shortly after he first presented his findings at a meeting of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Allender heard from other biologists about similar infections in snakes in the northeast United States.
"They seem to be having a similar problem in timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts," Allender said. Although biologists have sporadically identified Chrysosporium in those snakes, the symptoms they report -- facial swelling and ulcers and malformations of the jaw -- are the same, he said. These infections also occurred only within the last five years.
"Fungal pathogens have been increasingly associated with free-ranging epidemics in wildlife, including the well-known effects of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis on frog populations globally and white-nosed syndrome in bats," Allender wrote in a December 2011 report in Emerging Infectious Diseases. "Both of these diseases cause widespread and ongoing deaths in these populations that seriously threaten biodiversity across the United States."
Allender sees this new occurrence of a fungal infection in endangered snakes as a "yellow flag" that warrants more study.
"Wildlife diseases and human health are not that different," he said. "And often wildlife are our window into a weakened environment that leads to disease in both people and animals."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Decline in Mammals of the Everglades attributed to invasive pythons

With the recent proposed and imminent passing of the ban of the importation of Burmese Pythons, two species of Rock Pythons and the Yellow Anaconda there has been much debate back and forth between ecologist, environmentalist, naturalist, biologist and collectors or breeders. Those on the side supporting the ban believe it is a long time coming even if it may be a little too late to help the issue in the everglades and those opposed to the ban refuse to see the implications these large snakes pose on the ecosystem. Especially those ecosystems as fragile as the everglades. They argue that it is a Florida problem and should remain a Florida problem and those living elsewhere in the country should not have to pay the price in the form of an importation ban. This ban is part of the Lacey act and also disallows individuals who possess these snakes, and breed these snakes to carry them across state lines or sell them across state lines. So.......if you are a breeder in Missouri, you have to keep your snakes in this state. That seems to be the biggest bone of contention among collectors and breeders. I've heard arguments stating that these snakes are not causing issues in other areas of the Country, yet there are known populations in Southern Texas. I've heard arguments stating that people are exaggerating the problem in Florida to serve their own agenda. Yet the research is there to show just how serious the problem is and how serious it has the potential to become. Can these snakes exist anywhere else in this country? Simply put yes. Any subtropical habitat has the potential to host these snakes should they be introduced. We all know how easy an introduction can be. Many argue that these snakes would not survive in cooler climates, but I for one prefer to never say never. Evolution has taught us that adaptations occur and all it takes is a few hardier individuals to develop adaptations that allows them to survive colder climates and viola, you have a snake that is going to pass those genetics along to their offspring and you are creating a snake that is more that capable of surviving most anywhere.  The breeders and collectors are even grasping at straws in stating that our rights are being taken away from us. What inaleinable right promises us the right to own invasive species? No one is going to take away our right to own a dog or a cat or any number and variety of other pets.

The following information was released Monday of this week, that gives evidence of the mounting problem being faced in the Everglades, and before we say "this is a Florida problem", keep in mind this could happen where you live. I for one am glad that the legislation banning these snakes from importation is being passed. This is a step in the right direction in protecting other ecosystems from the same fate as the Florida Everglades. Had this legislature been in place many years ago, perhaps the problem in Florida would not be as severe as it is. There needs to be more control over these animals. If humans cannot take responsibility and stop releasing these animals, then laws will be put in place to do it for them.

Science News
... from universities, journals, and other research organizations

Severe Declines in Everglades Mammals Linked to Invasive Pythons, Researchers Find
ScienceDaily (Jan. 31, 2012) — Collaborative research, led by Michael Dorcas of Davidson College and John "J.D." Willson of Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment, has linked precipitous declines in formerly common mammals in Everglades National Park to the presence of invasive Burmese pythons.

The study, published on Jan 30, 2012, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to document the ecological impacts of this invasive species and strongly supports that animal communities in the 1.5-million-acre park have been markedly altered by the introduction of pythons within 11 years of their establishment as an invasive species. Mid-sized mammals are the most dramatically affected.
"Our research adds to the increasing evidence that predators, whether native or exotic, exert major influence on the structure of animal communities," said Willson. "The effects of declining mammal populations on the overall Everglades ecosystem, which extends well beyond the national park boundaries, are likely profound, but are probably complex and difficult to predict."
Willson is a post-doctoral researcher in the Wildlife Ecotoxicology and Physiological Ecology Program in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech and is a co-author of the book "Invasive Pythons in the United States."
"Dr. Willson's recent work on pythons provides significant insights into the important roles that reptiles can play in community structure and ecosystem processes," said Associate Professor Bill Hopkins, who directs the ecotoxicology program. "Understanding how introduced predators like pythons influence community structure will ultimately prove critical to conserving important ecological systems like the Everglades."
The most severe declines, including a nearly complete disappearance of raccoons, rabbits, and opossums, have occurred in the remote southernmost regions of the park, where pythons have been established the longest. In this area, populations of raccoons dropped 99.3 percent, opossums 98.9 percent, and bobcats 87.5 percent. Marsh and cottontail rabbits, as well as foxes, were not seen at all.
"Pythons are wreaking havoc on one of America's most beautiful, treasured, and naturally bountiful ecosystems," said U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt. "Right now, the only hope to halt further python invasion into new areas is swift, decisive, and deliberate human action."
The researchers collected their information via repeated systematic nighttime road surveys within Everglades National Park, counting both live and road-killed animals. Researchers traveled a total of nearly 39,000 miles from 2003 to 2011 and compared their findings with similar surveys conducted along the same roadways in 1996 and 1997 before pythons were recognized as established in the park.
The study's authors noted that the timing and geographic patterns of the documented mammal declines are consistent with the timing and geographic spread of pythons.
The authors also conducted surveys in ecologically similar areas north of the park where pythons have not yet been discovered. In those areas, mammal abundances were similar to those in the park before pythons proliferated. At sites where pythons have only recently been documented, however, mammal populations were reduced, though not to the dramatic extent observed within the park where pythons are well established.
"The magnitude of these declines underscores the apparent incredible density of pythons in Everglades National Park and justifies the argument for more intensive investigation into their ecological effects, as well as the development of effective control methods," said lead author Michael Dorcas, a professor in the Department of Biology at Davidson College in North Carolina, who co-authored "Invasive Pythons in the United States" with Willson. "Such severe declines in easily seen mammals bode poorly for the many species of conservation concern that are more difficult to sample but that may also be vulnerable to python predation."
The mammals that have declined most significantly have been regularly found in the stomachs of Burmese pythons removed from Everglades National Park and elsewhere in Florida. The authors noted that raccoons and opossums often forage for food near the water's edge, a habitat frequented by pythons in search of prey.
The authors suggested that one reason for such dramatic declines in such a short time is that these prey species are "naive" since such large snakes have not existed in the eastern United States for millions of years. Burmese pythons over 16 feet long have been found in the Everglades. In addition, some of the declining species could be both victims of being eaten by pythons and of having to compete with pythons for food.
"It took 30 years for the brown tree snake to be implicated in the nearly complete disappearance of mammals and birds on Guam; it has apparently taken only 11 years since pythons were recognized as being established in the Everglades for researchers to implicate pythons in the same kind of severe mammal declines," said Robert Reed, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and a co-author of the paper. "It is possible that other mammal species, including at-risk ones, have declined as well because of python predation, but at this time, the status of those species is unknown."
The scientists noted that in their native range in Asia, pythons have been documented to consume leopards. Consequently, even large animals, including top predators, are susceptible to python predation. For example, pythons in the Everglades have been documented consuming alligators and full-grown deer. Likewise, the authors state that birds, including highly secretive birds such as rails, make up about a fourth of the diet of Everglades pythons, and declines in these species could be occurring without managers realizing it.
The authors found little support for alternative explanations for the mammal declines, such as disease or changes in habitat structure or water management regimes.
"This severe decline in mammals is of significant concern to the overall health of the park's large and complex ecosystem," said Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimball. "We will continue to enhance our efforts to control and manage the non-native python and to better understand the impacts on the park."
"No incidents involving visitor safety and pythons have occurred in the park," Kimball continued. "Encounters with pythons are very rare; that said, visitors should be vigilant and report all python sightings to park rangers."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a rule in the Federal Register on Jan. 23, 2012, that will ban the importation and interstate transportation of four non-native constrictor snakes (Burmese python, yellow anaconda, and northern and southern African pythons) that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems. These snakes are being listed as injurious species under the Lacey Act. In addition, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to consider listing as injurious five other species of nonnative snakes (reticulated python, boa constrictor, DeSchauensee's anaconda, green anaconda, and Beni anaconda).

The authors of the research paper, "Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park," are Michael E. Dorcas, Davidson College; John D. Willson, Virginia Tech; Robert N. Reed, U.S. Geological Survey; Ray W. Snow, National Park Service; Michael R. Rochford, University of Florida; Melissa A. Miller, Auburn University; Walter E. Meshaka Jr., State Museum of Pennsylvania; Paul T. Andreadis, Denison University; Frank J. Mazzotti, University of Florida; Christina M. Romagosa, Auburn University; and Kristen M. Hart, U.S. Geological Survey.