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News from the Brink: Good News for Tasmanian Devils, Puerto Rican Parrots and Southern Right Whales

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Not every story about endangered species is horrible. Sometimes there’s some good news mixed in with the bad. Although none of these stories is worth dancing in the streets over, each nonetheless merits at least a little bit of celebration.

Tasmanian devil DNA

Scientist from Penn State University and other institutions have completed sequencing the genome of two Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii), research, which they hope could help lead to the development of a method to protect the species from the deadly, contagious cancer known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). The devils sequenced both had DFTD, but one, a male named Cedric, had famously shown resistance to two different strains of the virus before dying from a third. Tasmanian devils already show a very low genetic diversity (something the team confirmed by analyzing some genetic markers from 175 other devils from around the island), so it is hoped that this research can help conservation teams to protect animals that might also show resistance to some of the DFTD strains. More than 70 percent of Tasmanian devils have died of DFTD since it was first observed a little more than 10 years ago.

Previously in Extinction Countdown, “Glimmer of hope”: A Tasmanian devil colony displays possible immunity to deadly facial tumor disease

Right whales return to New Zealand

For the first time in more than a century, southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) are returning to their ancestral calving grounds off the coast of mainland New Zealand. Historical records indicate that 30,000 right whales used to migrate to the mainland from distant sub-Antarctic islands to give birth ever year, but that concentration of animals made them tempting hunting targets, and the entire population was wiped out.

“We used DNA profiling to confirm that seven whales are now migrating between the sub-Antarctic islands and mainland New Zealand,” Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said in a prepared release. Baker is one of the authors of a new study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Albino humpback returns to Australia

In other whale news, the world’s most famous humpback whale–an albino named Migaloo–has been seen off the coast of Queensland, Australia. He’s just one of 13,500 humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrating there this year, a record number. Migaloo was first observed back in 1991.

France’s hamster problem

The long saga of France’s European or Alsace hamsters (Cricetus cricetus) continues. As I wrote nearly two years ago, the European Union (EU) has long been threatening France with a lawsuit and millions of dollars in fines for not protecting this endemic animal, which has almost disappeared from Western Europe. Well, France still hasn’t done anything to protect the hamster, and now the EU once again threatened France with fines. Of course, there’s no word on when the EU would actually levy the fines, and French officials have no comment on the hamster or the ruling, which requires the country to adjust its agricultural policies.

Okay, I’m not so sure this one qualifies as good news, but at least it’s one more tiny step toward protecting this tiny hamster.

What was lost has now been found

Several previously “lost” species have been rediscovered in recent weeks. A pregnant brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus) was found on Sicily, the first time the species has been seen there in 40 years. A yellow mangrove species (Ceriops tagal) was found on an island in the Indian state of Kerala, 150 years after it was last observed. Several bird species believed to be regionally extinct have returned to rainforest fragments in Brazil, particularly some areas where agriculture is on the wane. The species are still “in flux,” Louisiana State University ornithologist Philip Stouffer told Smithsonian Science, last week, but “they’re not doomed.”

Breeding success for rare parrot

And finally, the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot (also known as the Puerto Rican Amazon, Amazona vittata) has had a population boom to about 150 adult birds, plus around 80 chicks born at two captive breeding centers. A 1975 census found just 13 birds in the wild, down from historical estimates of 1 million parrots in pre-colonialtimes.

 

Photo: Puerto Rican Parrot by P.Torres, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service





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