Look to the wilderness of Northern Europe and you will find brown bears, grey wolves, wild cats, and some of the best remaining strongholds for large mammals on the continent. Look to the UK on the other hand, and you see a state of overgrazed grasslands, skeletonized hedgerows, and monocultured forests. In the face of the global extinction and climate crisis, even the most praised of Britain’s mammals are facing decline, as the IUCN red list declares one in four species at risk of extinction, and the persecution of wild populations continues.
In this article, I offer a brief summary of some of the UK mammal species that have experienced their share of ups and downs throughout 2020, and hopes for UK mammal conservation for the future.
Image Credit: Lazy Daisie, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped
There’s a certain age you hit when you just can’t name your third favourite mammal anymore. I often quietly pray that the day my kid stops asking weird questions about animal snot never comes, but I know it’s probably not far off. That eagerness to learn at a young age, especially about animals, is what ecologist Sammy Mason has managed to tap into over the last two years of her PhD.
Rodents and primates are periodically cited as some of the more intelligent animals on the planet, but it turns out that the large brains that these mammals possess have evolved more than once in their history. (Image Credit: Drow male, Arjan Haverkamp, ltshears, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)
Encephalization and longevity evolved in acorrelated fashion in Euarchontoglires but not in other mammals (2018) DeCasien, Alex R., Evolution, DOI: doi:10.1111/evo.13633
Some of the most striking footage from documentaries like the recent “Blue Planet II” involve organisms that display remarkable intelligence (the octopus that uses shells to disguise itself and hide from its shark predators was a particular favorite of mine). As humans, we sometimes assume that we have the best brains on the planet and have somewhat of a monopoly on intelligence, so it’s always fascinating and maybe even surprising to see other animals using their own brains to solve problems. In mammals, brains that are larger than expected have evolved more than once, which is somewhat of a surprise given how costly a big brain is. For example, your brain needs 20% of the oxygen that your body uses, so one out of every five breaths is exclusively for your brain.
Larger brains are also correlated with longer lives, relative to the group that the organism in question belongs to. Historically, studies on brain size and longevity have been dominated by primate species, so the concern was that this long life/large brain trend may only be a primate trend, instead of generalizable to all mammals. The authors of this study wanted to analyze this trend across more mammal groups, in addition to studying the relationship between larger brains and longer lives.
Sea otters are one of many charismatic species found along the California coast, yet recovery doesn’t seem to be helping them. Is it something about their habitat that is preventing population growth? (Image Credit: Mike Baird, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
Gaps in kelp cover may threaten the recovery of California sea otters (2018) Nicholson et al., Ecography, DOI:10.1111/ecog.03561
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fur trade was a massive industry in North America. As a result, many species were hunted and trapped to near extinction. The California sea otter (Enhydra lutris) was reduced in population to less than 50 total individuals. The enactment of the Internation Fur Treaty allowed the species (and others) to come back from the brink of extinction, and they now number over 3200 individuals and are spread across 525km of the California coast. Interestingly, although the population is recovering, it has not bounced back as quickly as other protected mammals living in the same habitat. The California sea lion, for example, has a maximum population growth rate more than twice that of the sea otter (11.7% compared to 5%).
Despite the remarkable recovery of the species, the sea otters occupy less than a quarter of their historic range and have not expanded along the coast in 20 years. The authors of this paper wanted to investigate what it is about the sea otters and their habitat that is slowing this population’s growth rate and spread along the coast.
Dingoes are Australia’s largest native predator. but are they capable of suppressing feral cat populations? (Image Credit: Bernard Dupont, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)
Diet of dingoes and cats in Central Australia: does trophic competition underpin a rare mammal refuge? (2018) McDonald et al., Journal of Mammalogy, DOI:10.1093/jmammal/gyy083
Feral cats are a huge problem for wildlife in plenty of continents. However, there’s nowhere they have had quite so severe an effect as in Australia. Mammals between 50g and five kilos have seen huge reductions in numbers, and many species have gone extinct. Yet there are some areas in Australia which appear to present refuges for native mammals, so it’s crucial to understand the mechanisms behind these areas.
The MacDonnell Ranges in South Australia are home to large dingo populations, which prey on the local kangaroo species. Dingoes can also suppress cat populations through direct predation. The purpose of this paper was to investigate to what degree dingo and cat diets overlap, to see whether the presence of dingoes contributes to the formation of a refugee for native mammals.
The sumatran orangutan, one of many species facing extinction in the earth’s sixth mass extinction event (Image Credit: Mike Pennington, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines (2017) Ceballos et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1704949114
The rate at which species and populations have been going extinct in the last couple of centuries has well and truly earned the title of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event. However, most people rarely realize the severity of the situation. Hearing about the loss of two vertebrate species a year or having the last of some far-off species die out doesn’t see to cause much concern in the general public.
A species extinction is always preceded by population declines and extinctions. Perhaps highlighting the state of natural communities at this level might put the severity of the situation in better context. For example, the Living Planet Index (LPI) estimates that between 1970 and 2012, wildlife abundance has decreased by 58%. This paper focuses on the state and trends of populations of vertebrates by analysing i) the proportion undergoing declines or shrinkages, ii) the global distribution of population reduction events and iii) the general scale of population declines among mammal populations.