WV Sets Email for Reporting Asian longhorned beetle and the spotted lanternfly

The Free Press WV

West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture has established an email where the state’s residents can send pictures and descriptions of a suspected invasive pest, as well as their locations and any related damage to buildings or plants.

Department officials say landowners who email information to will be notified if their tip raises concerns and someone from the agency will visit the site.

Agriculture authorities note two destructive insects, the Asian longhorned beetle and the spotted lanternfly, are on the watch list for invasive species in West Virginia.

The beetle was first found in Brooklyn in 1996 and has since been detected in several locations including Clermont County, Ohio.

The lanternfly was first discovered in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014, and detected in Delaware in November.

Both are native to Asia.

The Free Press WV

Seized ivory probed for clues that could help save elephants

The Free Press WV

Scientists are using information gleaned from both illegal ivory art and elephant dung to provide clues that could help save the lives of pachyderms that are being slaughtered for their tusks in Africa.

The wildlife detective work involves cutting up seized artifacts including bangle bracelets and statues of Chinese deities and subjecting them to carbon dating to determine when the elephants were killed. DNA from the ivory art is then compared to a DNA database derived from elephant dung to pinpoint where they lived.

What scientists learn may not put a particular poacher in jail, but will tell the story of where and when an elephant died on an African savannah so its tusk could be carved in Asia to make a goddess statue priced at $72,000 in a Manhattan antique shop.

“It’s going to be really helpful not only for scientific purposes, but also to be able to tell people about the individual lives of elephants that ended up as artwork on our streets,” said Wendy Hapgood, director of the Wild Tomorrow Fund, which supports African wildlife preserves, anti-poaching enforcement and efforts to shut down the ivory trade.

The group cut chips from 21 statues, bracelets and mounted tusks that were among $4.5 million in illegal ivory artifacts seized from a Manhattan antiques shop and dramatically destroyed in a rock crusher in Central Park last August. The chips will be analyzed by scientists at Columbia University and the University of Washington.

Previous work by the researchers has provided valuable information to focus poaching law enforcement in Africa and prosecute ivory traffickers elsewhere.

Once numbered at more than a million, the population of African elephants fell 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, to about 350,000, according to the Great Elephant Census funded by wildlife organizations. The decline, at a rate of 8 percent per year, is attributed mainly to poaching for ivory.

The sale of ivory across international boundaries has been banned since 1990. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted a near-total ban on the domestic commercial ivory trade and barred sales across state lines.

Hapgood and colleague John Steward were in Albany recently to saw samples from two massive tusks that were spared the Central Park crusher and locked in a state Department of Environmental Conservation warehouse. The chips will be sent to Columbia University geochemist Kevin Uno, whose radioisotope analysis measures carbon-14 deposited by atomic bomb tests to date the ivory and determine when the elephant died.

Samples were also sent to biologist Sam Wasser, of the University of Washington, who extracted DNA from elephant dung all over Africa in the 1990s to map elephant genetics across the continent. Now he compares DNA from seized ivory to the map to determine where it came from.

Uno and colleagues published a study in 2016 looking at 230 elephant tusks from 15 seizures of shipping containers being illegally transmitted out of Africa. The goal was to determine whether the ivory was from older stockpiles held by African national governments or from elephants recently poached.

“We found 90 percent of the ivory was coming from elephants that died within three years of the seizure date,” Uno said.

In a study published in 2015, Wasser’s DNA studies on large seizures of ivory found shipments tended to come from a few poaching hotspots. Identification of areas of Tanzania and Zambia as hotspots helped persuade a United Nations agency to deny requests from those countries to sell their ivory stockpiles.

The DNA and radioisotope analysis can also help prosecute traffickers. In 2013, Wasser’s lab helped convict an ivory trafficking kingpin in Togo by providing evidence that his ivory came from Cameroon and Gabon, two of the hardest hit countries in the elephant slaughter. Radioisotope analysis by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California showed the ivory came from elephants killed as recently as 2010, not before the 1989 ban as the trafficker claimed.

“The big study we did was on shipments leaving Africa,” Uno said. “Now we’re coming at it from the retail side, so if they seize pieces from a shop, how much of it is recent and how much is old.”

The ultimate goals are to help law enforcement and policy-makers shut down the ivory market and raise public awareness of the plight of pachyderms.

“The extension of that is to slow the killing of elephants and prevent their extinction,” Uno said.

Baby sloth ready for visitors at Pittsburgh National Aviary

The Free Press WV

Pittsburgh’s indoor zoo dedicated to birds has an adorable new member: a baby two-toed sloth.

The National Aviary introduced 5-month-old Vivien Leigh on Tuesday. The aviary says Vivien was acquired from a breeder in Florida.

The sloth will be hand-raised by experts so it will be comfortable around humans and well-prepared for its role as an educational ambassador.

Sloths are rainforest animals, but their habitat is rapidly diminishing due to human activity. The aviary hopes Vivien will help teach visitors ways they can help protect rainforests.

Visitors will also have the opportunity to book an encounter with Vivien beginning in February. They can touch the sloth, take photos and interact with her in a comfortable, private setting.

She joins two other sloths at the aviary: Rudolph Valentino and Wookiee.

Whale biologist says whale protected her from shark

A marine biologist believes a humpback whale shielded her from a 15-foot tiger shark in the South Pacific.

Nan Hauser said she didn’t understand the actions of the 25-ton whale that she met face-to-face in the Cook Islands. Then she saw the shark.

She’s heard on a video telling the massive mammal, “I love you!”

The encounter took place in October, but Hauser didn’t upload the video until Monday. It quickly spread via social media.

Hauser, president of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, tells the Portland Press Herald that whales are “altruistic” and often hide seals from predators, but she has never experienced or read about anything about a whale protecting a human. “If someone told me the story, I wouldn’t believe it,” she said.

The Brunswick resident said she was oblivious to the shark during the tense, 10-minute encounter. The whale started to nudge her, and appeared to push her with its head. The animal also appeared to shield her with its pectoral fin.

Her research companions turned off an underwater video drone, fearing she was going to be mauled to death.

But Hauser kept her video rolling.

She suffered some bruises and scratches from the encounter, but was otherwise unscathed. She said that after she swam back to her boat, the whale surfaced nearby as if to check on her.

While Hauser credits the whale for protecting her, she acknowledges she can’t know what the whale was thinking.

James Sulikowski, a marine biologist and professor at the University of New England who has studied tiger sharks, said he’s not convinced that the whale saved her life. “The shark could have just been hanging around,” he said. “There’s really no way of knowing the whale’s motivation.”

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