Monday, 10 June 2019

Defrosting dangers: global warming and the biohazards under the ice

Despite frequent news reports on the thawing of polar and glacial ice, there appears to be less concern shown towards this aspect of climate change than many others. Perhaps this is due to so few humans living in these regions; lack of familiarity with something helps us to ignore its true importance. The most obvious effects of melting ice are said to be the increase in atmospheric carbon, rising sea levels and unpredictable weather patterns, but there is another threat to our species that is only just beginning to be noticed - and as yet has failed to generate any mitigation plans.

A report last year confirmed a frightening cause behind the deaths back in 2015 of approximately half the world's remaining saiga antelope population: thanks to warmer and more humid weather, a type of bacteria usually confirmed to their nose had spread to the antelopes' bloodstream. Although not the sort of news to attract much attention even from nature-lovers, this ecological David and Goliath scenario looks set to be repeated in colder environments around the globe. Microscopic and fungal life forms that have been trapped or dormant for long periods, possibly millennia, may be on the verge of escaping their frozen confines.

The various film adaptions of John W. Campbell's 1938 novella Who Goes There? show the mayhem caused by an alien organism that has escaped its icy tomb. The real-life equivalents to this fictional invader are unlikely to be of extra-terrestrial origin, but they could prove at least as perilous, should climate change allow them to thaw out. The problem is easy to state: there is an enormous amount of dormant microbial life trapped in ice and permafrost that is in danger of escaping back into the wider ecosystem.

In the first quarter of the Twentieth Century over a million reindeer were killed by anthrax, with subsequent outbreaks occurring sporadically until as late as 1993. Recent years have seen the death of both farmers and their cattle from infection related to the thawing of a single infected reindeer carcass. In various incidents in 2016, dozens of Siberian herders and their families were admitted to hospital while Russian biohazard troops were flown in to run the clean-up operations. One issue is that until recently the infected animals - domesticated as well as wild - have rarely been disposed of to the recommended safety standards. Therefore, it doesn't take much for reactivated microbes to spread into environments where humans can encounter them.

Of course, the numbers of people and livestock living near glaciers and the polar caps is relatively low, but there are enormous regions of permafrost that are used by herders and hunters. Meltwater containing pathogens can get into local water supplies (conventional water treatment doesn't kill anthrax spores), or even reach further afield via oceans - where some microbes can survive for almost two years. The record high temperatures in some of the Northern Hemisphere's permafrost zones are allowing the spread of dangerous biological material into regions that may not have seen them for centuries - or far longer.

Decades-old anthrax spores aren't the only worry. Potential hazards include the smallpox virus, which caused a Siberian epidemic in the 1890s and may be able to survive in a freeze-dried state in victim's corpses before - however unlikely - reviving due to warmer temperatures. In addition, it should be remembered that many of the diseases that infect Homo sapiens today only arose with the development of farming, being variants of bacteria and viruses that transferred across from our domestic livestock.

This would suggest that permafrost and ice sheets include ancient microbes that our species hasn't interacted with for centuries - and which we may therefore have minimal resistance to. Although natural sources of radiation are thought to destroy about half of a bacteria's genome within a million years, there have been various - if disputed - claims of far older bacteria being revived, including those found in salt crystals that are said to be 250 million years old. In this particular case, their location deep underground is said to have minimised cosmic ray mutations and thus ensured their survival. Sounds like one for the Discovery Channel if you ask me, but never say never...

Even if this improbable longevity turns out to be inaccurate, it is known that dormant spore-forming bacteria such those leading to tetanus and botulism could, like anthrax, be revived after decades of containment in permafrost. Fungal spores are likewise known to survive similar interments; with amphibian, bat and snake populations currently declining due to the rapid spread of fungal pathogens, the escape of such material shouldn't be taken lightly.

So can anything be done to prevent these dangers? Other than reversing the increase in global temperatures, I somehow doubt it. Even the location of some of the mass burials during twentieth century reindeer epidemics have been lost, meaning those areas cannot be turned into no-go zones. Anthrax should perhaps be thought of as only one of a suite of biohazards that melting permafrost may be about to inflict on a largely uninformed world. The death of some remote animals and their herders may not earn much public sympathy, but if the revived pathogens spread to the wider ecosystem, there could be far more at stake. Clearly, ignorance is no protection from the microscopic, uncaring dangers now waking up in our warming world.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Praying for time: the rise and fall of the New Zealand mantis

While the decline of the giant panda, great apes and various cetacean species have long garnered headlines, our scale prejudice has meant invertebrates have fared rather less well. Only with the worrying spread of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in bee hives have insect-themed stories gained public attention; yet most of the millions of other small critters remain on the sidelines. I've often mentioned that overlooking these small marvels could backfire on us, considering we don't know the knock-on effect their rapid decline - and possible near-future extinction - would have on the environment we rely on.

One such example here in New Zealand is our native praying mantis Orthodera novaezealandiae, which for all we know could be a key player in the pest control of our farms and gardens. Mantid species are often near the apex of invertebrate food webs, consuming the likes of mosquitoes, moth caterpillars and cockroaches. I admit that they are not exactly discriminating and will also eat useful species such as ladybirds or decorative ones like monarch butterflies. However, they are definitely preferable to pesticides, a known cause of CCD today and an acknowledged factor of insect decline since Rachel Carson's pioneering 1962 book Silent Spring.

Of course, we shouldn't just support species due to their usefulness: giant pandas aren't being conserved for any particular practical benefit. From a moral perspective it's much easier to convince the public that we should prevent their extinction than that of the rather uncuddly mantis. We still know so little about many insect species it's difficult to work out which need to be saved in order to preserve our agribusiness (versus all the others that of course should be preserved regardless). I’m not averse to careful extermination of plagues of locusts or mosquitoes, but indiscriminate destruction due to greed or stupidity is well, stupid, really.

Down but not out: the New Zealand praying mantis Orthodera novaezealandiae

Back to O. novaezealandiae. I've only seen New Zealand's sole native mantis species three times in the 'wild': twice in my garden in the past two years and once in my local reserve before that. What is particularly interesting is that since initial descriptions in the 1870's, hypotheses regarding its origin appear to have evolved due to patriotic trends as much as to factual evidence. Late Nineteenth Century accounts of its spread suggest an accidental importation from Australia by European sailing ship, since it is a clumsy, short-range flier and seabirds are unlikely to carry the insects - and certainly not their cemented oothecae (egg sacks) - on their feet.

However, some Victorian naturalists thought the insect was incorporated into Maori tradition, implying a precolonial existence. In contrast, A.W.B.Powell's 1947 book Native Animals of New Zealand refers to the native mantis as Orthodera ministralis (which today is only used to describe the Australian green mantis) and the author states it may well be a recent arrival from across the Tasman Sea. So the native species may not be particularly native after all! I find this fascinating, insomuch as it shows how little we understand about our local, smaller scale, wildlife when compared to New Zealand's birds, bats and even reptiles.

The specimens in my garden have lived up to their reputation for being feisty: they seem to size you up before launching themselves directly towards you, only for their wings to rapidly falter and force the insect into an emergency landing. After the most recent observation, I looked around the outside of the house and found three oothecae, two of which were under a window sill built in 2016. These finds are cheering, as it means that at least in my neighbourhood they must be holding their own.

Perhaps their chief enemy these days is the invasive Miomantis caffra. This inadvertently-introduced South African mantis was first seen in 1978 and is rapidly spreading throughout New Zealand's North Island. The intruder - frequently spotted in my garden - has several advantages over O. novaezealandiae: firstly, it is able to survive through winter. Second, it produces rather more nymphs per ootheca; combined with hatching over a longer period this presumably leads to a larger numbers of survivors per year. In addition, and most unfortunately, the native male appears to find the (cannibalistic) South African female more attractive than the female of its own species, frequently resulting in its own demise during mating.

Humans too have further aided the decline of the native mantis with the accidental introduction of parasitic wasps and widespread use of pesticides. After less than a century and a half of concerted effort, European settlers have managed to convert a large proportion of the best land in this corner of the Pacific into a facsimile of the English countryside - but at what cost to the local fauna and flora?

Working to the old adage that we won't save what we don't love and cannot love what we don't know, perhaps what is really required is an education piece disguised as entertainment. Promoting mammals in anthropomorphic form has long been a near-monopoly of children's literature (think Wind in the Willows) but perhaps it is about time that invertebrates had greater public exposure too. Gerald Durrell's 1956 semi-autobiographical best-seller My Family and Other Animals includes an hilarious battle in the author's childhood bedroom between Cicely the praying mantis and the slightly smaller Geronimo the gecko, with the lizard only winning after dropping its tail and receiving other injuries. Perhaps a contemporary writer telling tales in a similar vein might inspire more love for these overlooked critters before it is too late. Any takers?