What we’re reading: Night fish, pollution-fighting rice

rice paddy in Indonesian village

In countless villages around the world — including this one in Indonesia — farmers grow rice as a staple crop. New research has identified rice varieties that may require less fertilizer, which is good news for people and the planet. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world.

1. Some fish tackle global warming by pretending it’s night

The story: Australia’s Planet Ark Environmental Foundation reported on an unusual method some fish are adopting in order to acclimate themselves to the changing ocean chemistry resulting from climate change. Carbon dioxide levels in the ocean naturally vary between day and night; algae, seaweed and other ocean-dwelling plants are more active during the day when they can absorb more sunlight and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. A recent study found that in order to adapt to increased ocean acidification, a species of damselfish in the Great Barrier Reef is altering its body clock to permanent nighttime levels.

What’s next: Scientists are cautiously optimistic that this change demonstrates one method fish might employ to adapt to climate change. However, Dr. Philip Munday of Australia’s James Cook University believes that “more study is needed to see how far beneficial genes can be inherited.” Higher acidification levels and other climate change impacts may also reduce the ability of fish to reproduce and pass on such beneficial genes.

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From the archives: How Brazil’s environmental decisions affect the world

(© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Wild golden lion tamarins like this one are found only in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which provides critical fresh water to some of the country’s largest cities. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

This month, all eyes are on Rio de Janeiro as the city hosts the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the first time the iconic sporting event has been held in South America.

Although Rio’s environmental issues related to the Games have been well-documented, as a nation Brazil has taken some important steps toward sustainability in recent years.

As the Games begin, learn more in this re-share of an August 2015 post — and remember that, like the Olympics themselves, Brazil’s decisions stretch far beyond Brazil. They affect the wider world we all call home.

Ben Koses is an intern for Conservation International.

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Further reading

In Kenya’s famed ‘green hills,’ saving water means saving forests

Namawe Sompol, village of Illtalal near Kenya's Chyulu Hills

Namawe Sompol, a mother of two who works as a clinical health worker in the village of Illtalal near Kenya’s Chyulu Hills, has noticed a decline in fresh water available to her Maasai community in recent years. (© Conservation International/photo by Christina Ender)

Ernest Hemingway called them “The Green Hills of Africa” in 1935 — but these days they’re not so green.

In 2009, a severe drought killed as much as 90 percent of livestock in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills. Chronic drought, deforestation and overgrazing are taking an increasing toll on the hills, whose springs are a major water source for the more than 1 million people living in the downstream city of Mombasa.

Namawe Sompol, a mother of two who works as a clinical health worker in the village of Illtalal near the Chyulu Hills, has witnessed the change in the ecosystem over the years. “Water shortages during the dry season are a serious problem,” she said.

This has become a common story: a watershed in which a cycle of more people, less rain and fewer trees creates a dangerous spiral. In the face of widespread poverty and unsustainable development, how can communities like Sompol’s protect their life-giving springs?

If done right, putting a price on the value of nature’s benefits can help people across Africa protect and benefit from their historically rich resources. One project in the Chyulu Hills could show how.

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Your forest reading list: 6 must-read books about trees

Curl up somewhere comfortable and let one of our recommended books transport you to a serene and majestic location, like this scene of Peyto Lake in Canada. (© Sergi Akulich)

Curl up somewhere comfortable and let one of Conservation International’s recommended books transport you to a serene and majestic location, like this view of Peyto Lake in Canada. (© Sergi Akulich)

Summer in the Northern Hemisphere isn’t over yet — which means there’s still time to curl up in a hammock in the shade of a leafy tree with a good book. Relax and venture into the woods with one of these forest-related book recommendations by Conservation International staff.

1. “White Waters and Black, by Gordon MacCreagh

“This is one of my all-time favorite books. The Amazon basin is famous for its biological diversity and new species are still being found all the time. No one even had a firm estimate of how many kinds of trees are in the Amazon until a great new study came out, just this month. What we know about the Amazon is built on the work of thousands of scientists and their expeditions, and ‘White Waters and Black’ is a laugh-out-loud, irreverent account of a major expedition from 1923. Well worth a read!”

– Steven Panfil, Technical Adviser of REDD+ Initiatives

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From the archives: Small farmers, big data in Africa

Vital Signs researchers record data onto a tablet in Tanzania

Vital Signs researchers record data onto a tablet in Tanzania. (© Benjamin Drummond)

For effective conservation, you have to go where the people are.

When Conservation International’s Sandy Andelman led the creation of Vital Signs, a tool that collects data on how ecosystems support agriculture in Africa, she thought an online platform would be the best way to share data with government leaders and farmers. She soon realized that that wasn’t what people wanted — or needed.

“In many of the African countries where we’re working, the main — or even the only — way people access the Internet is through their cell phones,” Andelman said. “Cell data access is good pretty much everywhere … Internet access is touch and go.”

As part of our month-long spotlight on conservation issues in Africa, we’re re-sharing an article from February highlighting an innovative effort that uses cutting-edge science to better understand nature’s value across the continent.

Read the full interview.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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Eating wild animals: Commonplace, cultural, complicated

black-and-white ruffed lemur, Madagascar

Black-and-white ruffed lemur in Madagascar. Lemurs are frequently hunted and eaten by locals. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

No matter where you live, it’s likely that if you try hard enough (and are willing to pay the price), you can get your hands on some monkey meat.

Bushmeat markets are most prominent in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, but globalization has spread the (often illegal) sale of wild animal meat across borders and into major cities on every continent.

Due to high extraction rates, the hunting of bushmeat has been termed unsustainable in most of the places around the world where it is practiced. This overharvesting of animals is becoming a growing issue not just for conservationists, but also for the people who rely on forests for their food. In Central Africa, the supply of wild meat is expected to drop 81 percent by 2050 due to overhunting.

However, the consumption of bushmeat — and the trade that makes it possible — takes place amid complex economic, geographic, political and cultural realities that make it incredibly difficult to regulate and reduce it to a sustainable level. Here are a few of the complicating factors.

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6 things you need to know about mangroves (but never thought to ask)

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Editor’s note: Tuesday, July 26, is International Mangrove Day.

“I love mangroves.” That’s a phrase you’ve probably never heard anyone say. Mangroves don’t inspire awe and wonder the way coral reefs, rainforests or wide-open grasslands do. In many parts of the world, they’ve long been frowned upon as dirty, mosquito-infested tangles of roots that stand in the way of an ocean view.

Even environmentalists tend to think of mangroves’ ecological role mostly in terms of protection from storms and nurseries for fish. As climate change threatens to increase the frequency and severity of storms, mangroves provide a stout defense against storm surge. Mangrove roots also provide habitats for fish and shellfish, crucial to sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities.

But that’s just the beginning — mangroves do so much more. In fact, there’s a case to be made that mangroves are the most useful ecosystem on Earth. Here are six reasons why.

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Amazon facing worst fire season on record, expert says

Sunrise from a canopy tower overlooking the Amazon Forest. If something isn't done, these trees could go up in smoke before we know it. (© Luana Luna)

Sunrise from a canopy tower overlooking the Amazon Forest. New technology could help countries and rural communities fight wildfires before they start. (© Luana Luna)

Editor’s note: As the world’s attention turns to Brazil for the upcoming Olympic Games, the region may soon draw attention for a different reason: This year’s fire season is slated to be the worst on record in the Amazon region.

The good news: Technology is getting us closer to fighting wildfires before they start, as Karyn Tabor, director of early warning systems at Conservation International, explained in a recent interview.

Question: Why is this year looking so bad for fire risk in the Amazon region? What does the “worst fire season on record” mean in real terms?

Answer: The past two severe droughts in the Amazon have been predominantly driven by the warming of the North Atlantic Ocean. But this year, the severe drought was driven purely by a severe El Niño and scientists are saying climate change could cause more frequent and intense El Niños.

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The future of Africa in 6 charts

Aerial view of Cape Town, South Africa

Aerial view of Cape Town, South Africa. As the African population grows larger and more urban, preserving a balance between cities and nature will be crucial to sustainabe economic development on the continent. (© grahambedingfield)

The last large source of arable land, minerals and fossil fuels, Africa may also be the continent that is the least-equipped to manage and protect its resources sustainably. If pursued with nature’s value in mind, Africa’s growth could mean long-term prosperity for its people; if not, it could bring unsustainable consumption, resource extraction and environmental degradation.

Here are some of the changes facing the continent.

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Snakes on mysterious island live in trees, impregnate themselves

An endemic gecko species which lives only on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste

This gecko spotted on a recent CI biodiversity survey on the island of Atauro, Timor-Leste, is thought to be found nowhere else on Earth. (© Conservation International/photo by David Emmett)

Editor’s note: In June, Conservation International (CI) conducted a biodiversity survey on and around Timor-Leste’s little-studied island of Atauro. Mark Erdmann recently blogged about the expedition’s ocean findings; today, David Emmett reports on what the group discovered on land.

Lying within sight of Timor-Leste’s capital, Dili, Atauro is becoming increasingly popular as a tourism destination. Yet the island remains very undeveloped (it’s home to only around 8,000 people), and the biodiversity of its grasslands, forests, beaches and fringing reefs is poorly understood.

I visited Atauro in May 2015 as part of a CI terrestrial survey team. This trip found relatively low diversity of terrestrial species but very high rates of endemism, or species found nowhere else on Earth, particularly among the reptiles.

CI Timor-Leste is assessing the marine and terrestrial diversity of Atauro to ensure the most important species and ecosystems are properly managed as part of a sustainable development and ecotourism plan. In June, we returned to the island to conduct a broader terrestrial survey, with a focus on understanding the geographic distribution of a handful of species that live only on this island.

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