Medicated salmon, cold-water coral, insect rescue: 3 big stories you might have missed

Grasshopper in Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Human Nature shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

  1. Human drugs are polluting the water — and animals are swimming in it

Pharmaceuticals are flowing from homes and factories into freshwater rivers, streams and lakes, harming aquatic species.

The story: Medication is entering freshwater ecosystems worldwide through our toilets and sinks — and its trip through the human digestive tract isn’t dampening its effectiveness, Rebecca Giggs reported for The Atlantic. According to recent research, a platypus living in a pharmaceutical-contaminated stream in Melbourne is likely to ingest more than half the recommended adult dose of antidepressants every day.

The big picture: While symptoms from exposure depend on the species and dosage, scientists have already observed a measurable effect on wildlife. Atlantic salmon smolts (young, developing salmon) that are exposed to anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Valium migrate twice as fast as unmedicated smolts, which causes them to arrive at sea before they’re fully developed and harms their chances of survival. Scientists estimate that if humans continue releasing pharmaceuticals into waterways at the current rate, the concentration of these drugs in freshwater ecosystems will likely increase by two-thirds in the next 30 years.

Read the story here.

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  1. ‘Dr. Suess’s Garden’ yields a deep-sea discovery, but it already faces threats

Two new cold-water coral species were discovered off the coast of New England — but they may not be there for long.

The story: The region where the new coral species were found is expected to warm three times faster than the rest of the Atlantic ocean, Kendra Pierre-Louis reported for The New York Times. Cold-water coral species grow much more slowly than other coral — it took one cold-water coral 4,000 years to grow only four feet — meaning if the reef gets too warm and bleaches, it could take thousands of years to recover.

The big picture: Coral reefs are vital for millions of people that rely upon them for food, livelihoods and protection from extreme storms. But climate change is causing ocean waters to warm and acidify, bleaching coral as a result. As we explained last week, if coral species die after bleaching, they are no longer able to reproduce — halting the reef’s ability to grow and recover.

Read the story here.

  1. Where are all the bugs going and what can I do about it?

Insect populations are declining worldwide, but there’s action you can take to help them.

The story: If you’re concerned with recent news about the global insect decline, there are some simple steps you can take to help, Eve Andrews reported for Grist last week. Start by planting native plants in your yard, encouraging your members of Congress to increase government funding for research on insects, and practicing “citizen science” to record, catalog and share insect activity in your area.

The big picture: Scientists can’t pinpoint one exact reason for the insect decline, but climate change and habitat loss driven by development and agriculture are likely culprits. Losing insects would be catastrophic to life as we know it: Insects not only help to manage waste by recycling it naturally (think maggots transforming garbage into fertilizer), but they’re also a vital part of almost every food chain and they help to pollinate fruits, vegetables and grains that we eat.

Read the story here.

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

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