DNA test confirms presence of cave giants in Europe

olm in cave, Balkans

Aquatic salamanders called olms are the largest exclusively cave-dwelling animal in the world. Because they are highly sensitive to changes in their environment, their presence in the caves of the Balkan Peninsula indicates that the groundwater running through these caves — the only reliable source of drinking water for local people — remains unpolluted. (© Gregor Aljančič)

In the flooded caves of the Balkan Peninsula, aquatic giants can survive in near-darkness for up to a century — if they’re not taken out by one of their own kind.

Though they sound like mythical creatures out of a folktale, these salamanders — called olms — are real. Reaching up to 30 centimeters (12 inches) long, they dwarf their closest competitors in this unique ecosystem. However, the inaccessibility of their habitat to scientists has made studying them difficult. Until now.

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3 things no one is talking about this Earth Day

Mussels are just one of the stories no one is discussing this Earth Day.

So few people are talking about the Texas fatmucket (a species of mussel) that we couldn’t find a photo of one. This photo shows mussels in Cornwall, U.K. (© Ant & Carrie Coleman)

Every year on Earth Day, inboxes and social media feeds abound with photos of cute and furry animals, stirring national park scenes and pleas to take Earth-friendly actions like carrying reusable bags.

But you’ve probably heard enough about all those things already. For a change of pace, here are three things almost no one is talking about this Earth Day.

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For critical climate change action, Paris Agreement just the beginning

mangroves, Bahamas

Red mangroves in the Bahamas. Protecting and restoring ecosystems is an important part of the solution to climate change; not only do mangroves, tropical forests and other ecosystems absorb carbon from the atmosphere, they also can help communities adapt to climate change impacts. (© Jeff Yonover)

Editor’s note: In December, the world’s nations made the biggest commitment to climate change action to date with the Paris Agreement. The global agreement is set to go into effect in 2020 — but with escalating climate impacts like massive coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and mounting sea-level rise, there’s no time to waste.

As the U.N. prepares to host a signing ceremony for the agreement on April 22, Conservation International Climate Policy Director Shyla Raghav outlines the next steps countries need to take.

Question: Countries already adopted the Paris Agreement in December. How is this week’s event different?

Answer: In December, the countries adopted the agreement within the framework of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); with Friday’s signing, they will signal their intention to ratify it. We’re expecting 155 countries to sign, which will likely be record-shattering in terms of the number of countries signed onto an international accord so soon after adoption.

I think this will be an important point for countries to renew their commitment to the agreement, as well as to propel momentum for climate change action forward. We don’t want to send the signal that the climate problem is solved, or that we’ve already put in place everything that’s required to achieve the agreement. This is an opportunity for us to leverage existing awareness to ensure that countries are working to fulfill the commitments they have made.

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5 things you might not know about the sky

A herd of wildebeest at sunset in Botswana.

Sky is the air we breathe, the atmosphere that makes Earth livable and the weather that makes it possible to grow food — and it’s under threat from humanity. (© Rod Mast)

If you could drive your car straight up at highway speed, you’d leave the Earth’s atmosphere and enter space in just over an hour.

This thin, delicate band surrounding our planet makes life on Earth possible, yet the health of the atmosphere is being upended by fossil-fuel emissions — with increasingly perilous results. Earth’s atmosphere has more carbon in it now than it has had for 300 million years — with major implications for global climate.

Conservation International (CI) is giving voice to our beleaguered atmosphere with “Sky,” the latest film in the “Nature Is Speaking” series. Voiced by actress Joan Chen, the video calls attention to the state of our skies.

Here are a few things you might not know about the sky.

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What coffee and airplanes could mean for forests

Wife and husband harvest Arabica coffee fruit from their coffee trees on recently deforested land in North Sumatra.

Wife and husband farmers Hasbulah Lubis, 44, and Rofiqoh Nasution, 35, harvest Arabica coffee fruit on recently deforested land in Pagar Gunung village near Batang Gadis National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

When a forest is lost anywhere, people feel it everywhere — even though they might not realize it until it’s too late.

It’s probably good news, then, that in recent weeks, forests have been linked to coffee, groundwater supplies and the airline industry — topics that tend to elicit more concern from policymakers and the public. If these issues can help bring more attention to forests, it might not be too late to save them.

The stories:

1. Could coffee cravings, climate change be forests’ downfall?

Coffee is produced in more than 70 countries on five continents — but the coffee industry will need to produce between 4 million and 14 million additional tons of coffee per year by 2050 to meet growing demand. Meanwhile, climate change is affecting growing conditions and limiting growing regions, influencing how much coffee production can expand to meet demand. A new paper examines how climate change will affect where coffee is grown — and how it could trigger a new round of deforestation if coffee producers are unable to increase productivity on existing coffee farms.

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What we’re reading: Mekong megadrought, melting chocolate

A view of the Mekong river basin from Laos.

A view of the Mekong River basin from Laos, one of the six countries supported by it. (© jmbaud74/Flickr Creative Commons)

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. Mekong megadrought erodes food security

The story: The worst drought ever recorded in Vietnam is parching lands and threatening the possibility of a food crisis in parts of Southeast Asia, Science magazine reported. A U.N. report released in March notes that the Mekong River is at its lowest levels since records began nearly a century ago.

Experts point to the El Niño weather phenomenon as a major cause of the drought, abetted by a proliferation of dams upstream that have further constricted the flow of the river.

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Verdicts in turtle conservationist’s murder a rare rebuke of crimes against environmentalists

baby leatherback sea turtle on beach

Jairo Mora Sandoval, a sea turtle activist who had spoken out against poaching of sea turtle eggs on the Costa Rican beaches where he worked, was murdered in 2013. With the conviction of four men in the recent trial, Costa Rican authorities are sending a message that they won’t let such actions go unpunished. (© Jolene Bertoldi/Flickr Creative Commons)

A recent rash of murders of environmental activists in Latin America has underscored the dangers of speaking up for the ecosystems and species that cannot — and the courage of those who do so anyway.

These crimes often go unsolved — making the recent conviction of four men suspected in the murder of Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval a rare and hopeful sign.

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In recovery from massive typhoon, Philippine town struggles to balance complex motives

fish for sale, Concepcion, Philippines

Fish for sale at the market in Concepcion, Philippines. Since Typhoon Haiyan destroyed many coral reefs offshore, local fish catch has been much reduced; however, thanks to the construction of artificial reefs and expansion of local “no-take” zones, it is beginning to bounce back. (© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello)

In the wake of the strongest storm to ever hit land, how does a flattened town recover?

More than two years after Typhoon Haiyan pummeled the Philippine island of Iloilo, life is somewhat back to normal for many residents of the coastal town of Concepcion. But in a place that expects more frequent, stronger storms as climate change continues to take hold, balancing caution and ambition in plans for the future is a daily challenge.

In this special report, we document how Concepcion is adapting to the “new normal” — despite some contradictions.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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As a vital lake vanishes, a woman fights for the people it leaves behind

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Through groups such as the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim helps to represent the world’s many indigenous peoples in global climate change negotiations. (© Conservation International)

Editor’s note: Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim grew up in an Mbororo indigenous community in south-central Chad. Now, through affiliations with groups including the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, she travels around the world speaking up for the rights of indigenous peoples and women. In December 2015, Vogue named her one of their 13 “climate warriors”; on April 22, she will speak at the U.N. signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement in New York.

In a recent conversation, Ibrahim — a former Conservation International (CI) indigenous leaders conservation fellow — shared what motivates her to keep leading the charge on this important work.

Question: How did you make the leap from your community in Chad to the global stage?

Answer: I never stop thanking my mom. When I was young, my mom had a friend who was sick; one time the woman drank medicine and got sicker. When my mom took her to the hospital, the doctor said that she could have died; the medicine wasn’t for drinking, but because she couldn’t read, she didn’t know. My mom realized this since she was also illiterate, this could have happened to her, too. She decided then that this would never happen to her kids. So she sent all of us to school: my three brothers, my sister and myself. The people in her community thought she was crazy, especially educating girls.

Every time we had a school vacation, we returned from the capital of N’Djamena to my mom’s community. She didn’t want us losing our culture, but she also didn’t want us to miss out on the value of Western education. For many years, she worked incredibly hard — never sleeping, selling cows to pay all our school expenses.

As I got older, I became more aware that across the world, indigenous communities are among the most marginalized populations. In my efforts to create a community organization that would protect indigenous and human rights and encourage environmental protection, I eventually was invited to attend a meeting about indigenous women in Cameroon in 2000; that was the first time I got involved internationally.

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Nature inextricably linked to companies’ bottom lines

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Iguazu Falls in Brazil. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

Editor’s note: Achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals is essential to protect nature and save the bottom lines of businesses everywhere, a leading conservationist told business leaders this week at a meeting of the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, the U.N. Global Compact.

“The goal of protecting nature isn’t an addition — it’s integral to the success of the entire spectrum of the Sustainable Development Goals. You can’t address issues of equity, of health, of hunger without recognizing the role nature plays in addressing these challenges,” said Peter Seligmann, the CEO of Conservation International (CI).

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals that have been adopted by U.N. member states aimed at ending poverty, fighting inequality and tackling climate change by 2030.

Seligmann’s talk touched on everything from current corporate trends in sustainable production to the “Aha!” moment of the conservation movement. An edited transcript of his speech follows.

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