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When Marine Species are Endangered, the GMSA at ODU Raises the Red Flag

  • Carpenter, center with book, with GMSA crew at ODU.
  • GMSA Researcher Beth Polidoro in Costa Rica

Kent Carpenter and his small band of researchers exercise global influence on marine-life conservation efforts from their office suite in the Physical Sciences Building at Old Dominion University. For evidence of that, look no further back than the last week of October.

A marine biologist, Carpenter manages the Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA) program headquartered at ODU. One of GMSA's sponsors is the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which produces the IUCN Red List Assessment for threatened species. Carpenter's position with GMSA makes him the leader - and ODU the headquarters - of the IUCN Red List for marine species.

In other words, if Atlantic tuna or Fiji damselfishes are endangered, Carpenter and his team are the ones who will take official notice.

These various duties put the GMSA group in the middle of a media blitz beginning Tuesday, Oct. 26.

Carpenter was one of the leading authors of a new endangered species study that debuted on Science magazine's Science Express Web site, and, simultaneously at the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan. The study confirms that one-fifth of the world's vertebrate species are threatened, but also indicates that the situation would be worse were it not for current global conservation efforts.

On Wednesday, Oct. 27, New Scientist magazine published an endangered species article with Carpenter's colleague at ODU, postdoctoral researcher Heather Harwell, as a main source. Harwell warned that seagrasses are declining at an unprecedented rate, but reported relatively better outlooks for angelfish, butterfly fish and marbled lungfish.

Finally, in the midst of this activity, IUCN updated its list of threatened species, adding several marine species that come under Carpenter's purview.

"Endangered species work is 90 percent assessment and 10 percent helping to get the word out about the assessments," Carpenter said. "The last few days we've been busy coordinating with scientists worldwide on how we present this information to the world."

The comprehensive new assessment of the world's vertebrates that went up on the Science Express site - and that will be published in Science magazine later this year-was the work of 174 scientists worldwide. Carpenter is the seventh author listed.

The study used data for 25,000 species from the IUCN Red List to investigate the status of the world's vertebrates (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes) and how this status has changed over time. The results show that, on average, 50 species of mammal, bird and amphibian move closer to extinction each year due to the impacts of agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation, and invasive alien species.

"These findings are both good news and bad news," said Carpenter, who is professor of biological sciences at ODU. "The good news is that conservation action is having a significant effect on stemming biodiversity loss. The bad news is that there is not yet enough conservation action and losses continue to be alarming."

Carpenter said the major threats identified were increased habitat loss and exploitation. "Data on direct effects of climate change are still incomplete and this could become a major driver of vertebrate biodiversity loss in the future," he added. "The status of iconic species such as the humpback whale has improved because of conservation mediated bans on exploitation, while extinction risk of lesser known marine birds continues to worsen."

Other ODU staff listed as authors are Beth Polidoro, a research associate, and Jonnell Sanciangco, a geographical information systems specialist, both of whom work with Carpenter. The GMSA team at ODU is composed of eight people, including three undergraduate students. IUCN sponsors the GMSA along with Conservation International.

Part of the ODU team's mandate is to hold workshops around the world. "We typically hold one Red List workshop per month that includes members of our team," Carpenter said. "For example, last month we were in Brazil assessing Atlantic tunas and next month we will be in Fiji assessing damselfishes."

The new article on the Science Express site says Southeast Asia has experienced the most dramatic recent losses, largely driven by the planting of export crops like oil palm, commercial hardwood timber operations, agricultural conversion to rice paddies, and unsustainable hunting. Parts of Central America, the tropical Andes of South America, and even Australia, have also all experienced marked losses, in particular due to the impact of the deadly chytrid fungus on amphibians.

Whilst the study confirms previous reports of continued losses in biodiversity, it is the first to present clear evidence of the positive impact of conservation efforts around the globe. Results show that the status of biodiversity would have declined by at least an additional 20 percent if conservation action had not been taken.

"History has shown us that conservation can achieve the impossible, as anyone who knows the story of the White Rhinoceros in southern Africa", remarked Simon Stuart, chair of IUCN's Species Survival Commission and an author on the study. "But this is the first time we can demonstrate the aggregated positive impact of these successes on the state of the environment."

The study highlights 64 mammal, bird and amphibian species that have improved in status due to successful conservation action. This includes three species that were extinct in the wild and have since been re-introduced back to nature: the California Condor and the Black-footed Ferret in the United States, and Przewalski's Horse in Mongolia.

The IUCN Red List threat categories are as follows, in descending order of threat:

• Extinct or Extinct in the Wild

• Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable: species threatened with global extinction

• Near Threatened: species close to the threatened thresholds or that would be threatened without ongoing specific conservation measures

• Least Concern: species evaluated with a lower risk of extinction

• Data Deficient: no assessment because of insufficient data

• Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct): This is not a new Red List category, but is a flag developed to identify those Critically Endangered species that are in all probability already Extinct but for which confirmation is required (for example, through more extensive surveys being carried out and failing to find any individuals).

This article was posted on: November 1, 2010

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