Best of our wild blogs: 18 Nov 14

Fun at Pulau Ubin for kids and the family on Ubin Day 30 Nov (Sun)
from Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

Bishan otter has a mate
from Life's Indulgences

Morning Walk At Mandai Lake Road (17 Nov 2014)
from Beetles@SG BLOG

Asian Glossy Starlings gathering on the ground
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Take a look inside Singapore’s only national nursery
from The Tender Gardener

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Biodiversity ‘can affect our quality of life’

SIAU MING EN Today Online 18 Nov 14;

SINGAPORE — As the pace of urbanisation picks up, it is important to realise that biodiversity is linked to and can affect one’s quality of life, said Dr Lena Chan, the director of the National Biodiversity Centre at the National Parks Board (NParks) yesterday.

Biodiversity, she noted, is usually discussed in the context of pristine spaces. If you cannot stop people from moving to cities, then cities should be made richer in biodiversity to enhance the quality of life in urban settings, said Dr Chan, who delivered a lecture to more than 150 youths at the Singapore Technologies Endowment Programme — National University of Singapore (STEP-NUS) Sunburst Environment Programme.

This is why the Singapore approach has always been to create habitats or environments that are suitable for biodiversity within urban settings, she said. Dr Chan noted that Singapore developed the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan in 2009 to promote biodiversity conservation. This includes considering biodiversity issues in policy planning, and improving education and public awareness on the topic, among other things.

A self-assessment tool for cities to measure progress of their biodiversity conservation efforts was introduced in 2010 and has been incorporated into the Building and Construction Authority’s Green Mark for Districts. To date, this tool has been used by 37 cities, including Montreal, London, Bangkok and Brussels.

The STEP-NUS Sunburst Environment Programme, which is in its second year, sees students from Singapore and across Asia — aged between 13 and 15 — attending lectures delivered by leading scientists in the fields of biodiversity, conservation and sustainability. It will also see students participate in workshops and environmental study visits, such as nature walks at the Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve and St John’s Island.

Also speaking as part of the programme, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan raised issues such as urbanisation, climate change, pollution and the depletion of natural resources in his opening address. While he noted the importance of preserving biodiversity among the untouched green areas around the world, Dr Balakrishnan also pointed out that urbanisation could be beneficial.

“If you are an environmentalist, if you want to conserve resources in the world, urbanisation is a good thing ... it’s not a bad thing because it allows us to consume (fewer) resources and yet, provide opportunities for the population in the future,” he added.

For example, he cited an example of how compact, dense and well-planned cities could spend less on building infrastructure to provide piped water and electricity to everyone.

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Flash floods hit parts of Singapore

Janice Lim Channel NewsAsia 17 Nov 14;

SINGAPORE: The monsoon season has seen heavy rain falling over many parts of Singapore in the past few weeks. Hougang and Macpherson were affected by flash floods on Monday (Nov 17).

A clip posted on Instagram shows roads in Kovan awash with floodwaters at around 2pm.

In Tampines, the basement car park of Fortune Park condominium was flooded, leaving four cars partially submerged. Mr Dinesh, who called MediaCorp's news hotline (68 22 22 68), sent in photos of the incident.

The rain has also been a dampener for companies that organise outdoor activities such as Forest Adventure. The company, which organises adventure courses, got fewer than 4,000 sign-ups for the year-end school holidays, compared to about 6,000 during the June holidays.

Last-minute cancellations are also common. Said Forest Adventure Managing Director Stephanie Besse: "For instance, on Sunday, we had about 110 bookings on the grand course and about 85 on the kids course. We ended up with only 39 people coming."

- CNA/xy

Monday blues: Flood situation in Singapore
AsiaOne 17 Nov 14;

Areas like Tampines Road, Jalan Teliti Lorong Gambir and Lorong Ong Lye experienced flash floods, with traffic still passable.

SINGAPORE - Flash floods occurred in some parts of Singapore after Monday's afternoon showers.

The Public Utilities Board sent out numerous tweets starting from 1.30pm to warn the public about the flash floods.

Areas like Tampines Road, Jalan Teliti Lorong Gambir and Lorong Ong Lye experienced flash floods, with traffic still passable.

There were flash floods at Hougang Ave 1 and Macpherson Road too.

By 2.30pm, the water levels at these affected areas started to subside. Watch this space for more updates.

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More monkey business in Ang Mo Kio

Yeo Sam Jo and Audrey Tan The Straits Times AsiaOne 18 Nov 14;

AAng Mo Kio has had its fair share of hairy moments this year, with the authorities receiving at least 30 cases of "monkey feedback" from residents in the town.

About half of these cases involved monkeys entering homes to steal food, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) told The Sunday Times.

This is up from just 10 instances last year, the authority said.

Between January and April this year, the AVA trapped and put down three monkeys around Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, after residents said the primates stole food from their homes regularly and that they were "fearful for their safety".

Last month, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5 resident Raymond Fernando, 64, wrote to The Straits Times to complain that a monkey had entered his fifth-floor flat in Block 601. The writer, who lives alone, admitted that the animal was not aggressive, but said: "There is no guarantee it will not attack me."

In response, AVA said it is conducting "monkey control operations" around Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5. It is also working with Ang Mo Kio Town Council to reduce the nuisance.

But complaints overall have not gone up.

As of Oct 15, the authority has received 520 cases of monkey-related feedback this year from residents across the island. Last year, there were 1,860 such cases. More than 100 were about aggressive monkeys, which included the primates snatching things or biting and scratching, the AVA said.

However, out of 10 town councils that The Sunday Times contacted, including Ang Mo Kio, most said they have not received feedback on monkeys this year.

A spokesman for Tampines Town Council, though, said a monkey was spotted in Tampines Secondary School on Oct 7, and the AVA was called in to capture the animal.

Mr Louis Ng, chief executive of wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), said the group had looked into the Ang Mo Kio situation after Mr Fernando's letter was published and found that some residents there were feeding the monkeys.

"Based on the amount of feedback AVA has received this year, it is time to address the root of the problem and stop people from feeding the monkeys," he said. "The effectiveness of culling has not been scientifically proven."

Instead, Acres has suggested that the authorities keep monkeys away from residential areas through monkey herding. This involves a trained guard shooing monkeys away by tapping a stick, umbrella or net on the ground, or by using body language.

Members of the public who have feedback on monkey issues may contact AVA on 1800-476-1600.

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Giant puffball sprouts in Hougang

My Paper AsiaOne 18 Nov 14;

BEST NOT TO EAT: The giant puffball mushroom is a common sight after it rains but it is unclear if they are toxic to humans. The smallest ones are about the size of a 5-cent coin, but they can grow as large as a football, says Prof Tan.

The recent heavy rain has brought an unusual sight to Hougang - a giant brain-like mushroom as wide as a person's face.

Nurse Lau Wing Lup, 30, found the mushroom while walking past a grass patch in a Buangkok View housing estate on Thursday afternoon.

He initially thought the beige-coloured mushroom was a loaf of bread, Lianhe Wanbao reported yesterday.

But as he got closer, he realised it was a mushroom that was larger than his palm and about as wide as his face.

"It had grooves and ridges so it also looked like a human brain," Mr Lau told My Paper. He saw a similar mushroom two years ago at a similar spot but the one had not been as large.

Mycology expert Tan Teck Koon said in a report two years ago that the mushroom Mr Lau found was a giant puffball.

While a common sight after it rains, the size of giant puffballs can vary greatly. The smallest are about the size of a 5-cent coin but they can grow as large as a football, said Associate Professor Tan, a mycologist at the National University of Singapore's Department of Biological Sciences.

He said the mushrooms can grow very quickly, a day after it rains. But "unlike other mushrooms, giant puffballs are quite 'tough' and may be around for a few days", he told My Paper yesterday.

"They usually grow in grassy areas and are likely to appear where they have appeared before, if the environmental conditions are suitable for them to form these large and visible fruiting bodies," he added.

But since there is insufficient research on the mushrooms here, it is unclear if they are poisonous, he said. So it is best not to eat them.

It's raining mushrooms

Linette Lai The Straits Times AsiaOne 22 Nov 14;

In recent weeks, mushrooms have sprouted up overnight all over Singapore in the wake of the wet weather.

This is because mushrooms thrive on moisture and have a very fast growth rate, said mycologist Tan Teck Koon of the National University of Singapore.

But if their rise is fast, their demise comes quickly too. They tend to be short-lived, and start to rot after two or three days.

"They can be found where there is decaying soil and plant material, which serves as a source of food for these fungi," said Associate Professor Tan, of the NUS department of biological sciences.

He estimates that there are between 100 and 200 different species in Singapore.

Last week, a large beige mushroom - known as a giant puffball - was seen on a grass patch in Buangkok View. This species can be as small as a five-cent coin or as big as a football.

Mushrooms are the reproductive structures of fungi, said Prof Tan, and they grow out of the ground to disperse their spores when conditions are right. However, not all species are edible and some may even be deadly.

He said it is a misconception that all poisonous mushrooms are brightly coloured, and warned against collecting mushrooms that look similar to edible ones sold in markets overseas.

"My advice is - don't. Many poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms appear very similar to the layman," he said.

He said the best thing to do is to just leave the mushrooms alone.

"They don't keep well, so there is no point in collecting them," he said. "Just admire them in their natural habitat and give them a chance to sprout, expand and disperse their spores for survival."

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Malaysia: ‘Insane’ profits from farms in Camerons

FARRAH NAZ KARIM AND ALIZA SHAH New Straits Times 17 Nov 14;

KUALA LUMPUR: PROFITS from illicit farming in Cameron Highlands is so insane that authorities fear it will be an uphill battle to stop the illegal clearing of government land and forests in the highlands.

New revelations have suggested a gaping difference between the “official” output from land under Temporary Occupation Licences, and the actual tonnage of produce harvested from the highlands.

The New Straits Times was made to understand that some 500,000 tonnes of farm produce, from three harvests, are exported from the highlands each year. This is all supposedly from farms under TOLs. Income derived from these exports is in the region of a whopping RM1.5 billion a year.

Agricultural experts and authorities told the NST that the kind of tonnage coming out of Cameron Highlands would have been from at least 5,300ha of farmland.

However, official documents suggest that only some 2,000 TOLs were issued for agriculture in the highlands, covering an area of roughly 2,000ha.

The number of state-issued TOLs for Cameron Highlands in 2003 was 1,843. By 2012, it had increased to 2,041. Each licence is roughly for a tract of land between 0.8ha and 1.6ha. Illegally expanded farms are a different story.

The output of farm produce from 2,000ha of land in Cameron Highlands, according to agricultural experts, should logically be in the region of 180,000 tonnes a year, if harvested three times annually.

“Unless the officially allowed acreage for TOL land cultivation had been expanded by 3,300ha (from 2,000ha to tally with the output of produce from 5,300ha of farm land) since 2012, it is rather perplexing to see so much produce coming out of legal cultivation.

“Just how do you explain the difference in tonnage? Where did the rest come from? I think we all know the answer,” said the expert.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Ministry’s Horticulture Division director Normah Othman told the NST that records showed that 50 per cent of the farm produce from Cameron Highlands were exported to Singapore.

“The up to 500,000 tonnes of produce that comes from Cameron Highlands we are talking about are all from TOL land. For every kilogramme of farm produce, the average profit is RM3,” she said.

If basic calculations are anything to go by, greedy and unscrupulous farmers have been laughing all the way to the bank, with some RM890 million every year, thanks to the dubiously sourced produce tonnage.

This latest revelation has also prompted stronger calls for a thorough audit of official data of land approved for cultivation under TOLs against farming currently being carried out in the highlands.

Malaysian Institute of Integrity Datuk Dr Mohd Tap Salleh said only by doing so would the authorities know the extent of the damage that irresponsible farmers had done.

“The institute welcomes the positive response from the state government to the suggestion by NST for a full land audit to be carried out.

“We also welcome the National Audit Department’s response that they would soon send their auditors for the purpose,” he said.

The NST had been running a series of issues besieging Cameron Highlands.

Among others, it had exposed the existence of a highly-confidential document known to those in business in the highlands as surat kuning. This “recommendation letter” is usually sent to the district office by influential figures.

This newspaper then called for a thorough audit of the highlands’ administration, including the issuance of land development permits, if the state was serious in arresting the ongoing land encroachment problem in the highlands.

Pahang Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob responded to the NST, agreeing to an audit that would cross-check the development of land against what had been set in the highlands’ development plan.

He said in the district’s planning, land-use categories had been pre-identified and marked and that “all development programmes needed to tally with the plan”.

In his statement, he denied that the surat kuning from palace officials, was among the root causes of problems that Cameron Highlands was facing, saying that it was only normal for many applicants to get testimonials and recommendations from whom they think could lend support to their applications.

He said testimonials and recommendations from all, including palace officials, were looked into, but in the end, it would be the state authorities who would decide, based on merit.

The NST has learnt that the issuance of new TOLs has been frozen since 2001.

‘Illegal clearing may have reached Perak, Kelantan’
New Straits Times 18 Nov 14;

IPOH: An environmental group has cautioned that illegal land clearing in Cameron Highlands could spill into the Perak border.

Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands (Reach) president R. Ramakrishnan said there was a likelihood that encroachment into the Perak side of the highlands might have taken place already.

“The hilly area that forms the border of the three states, Pahang, Perak and Kelantan, is our own ‘Golden Triangle’ and is a remote place.

“Based on information received by Reach, some of the illegal clearing in Cameron Highlands has extended across the Kelantan border.

“Though it could not be verified if the same had happened in the forested areas of Perak, Reach does not reject the idea that small parts or portions may have been affected already,” he told the New Straits Times yesterday.

Ramakrishnan, who had been vocal against the massive land clearing on the highlands for more than a decade, said the Perak Forestry Department should increase monitoring activities along the Pahang-Perak border.

He said the Perak government and state Forestry Department should take leaf from the ongoing destruction in Cameron Highlands by not allowing encroachment or giving approvals to either state agencies or companies to turn forest land into agricultural areas.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia field officer Meor Razak said the state government should not consider the idea of opening land on the Perak side for farming purposes.

He said under the National Physical Plan, the forested area on the Perak side formed an essential part of the Central Forest Spine and Wildlife Corridor.

“To do otherwise would be a blatant violation of the National Physical Plan. It is the duty of the state government to conserve and protect the rich flora and fauna of Perak.”

Meor, however, said the Perak government had already given approval to the Perak Agriculture Development Authority to develop more than 100ha of forested area in a hilly part of Kampung Orang Pawong near the Simpang Pulai-Kampung Raja road, not too far from the border with Pahang.

The matter, he said, had been referred to the State Appeal Board for a review of the approval.

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Malaysia: Cement company blows up limestone hill and renders snail extinct

Malaysian snail among hundreds of species to become extinct as a result of fishing, logging, mining, agriculture and other activities to satisfy our growing appetite for resources
Jo Confino The Guardian 17 Nov 14;

Humble snails are no match for the might and indifference of the global cement industry. So it has proved for the now extinct Plectostoma sciaphilum, a rather beautiful snail that lived only on a single limestone hill in Peninsular Malaysia. A cement company blew up the entire hill and all remaining molluscs with it. All that is left of its former habitat is a big hole in the ground filled with water.

Its extinction was highlighted by the global environment network IUCN when it launched a major new study showing that 22,413 out of its 76,199 assessed species are threatened with extinction.

The neighbouring isolated hills are being quarried by Malaysian multinational YTL, owner of Wessex Water, where snails such as the bizarrely-shaped Hypselostoma elephas are in critical danger.

While attention is often drawn to iconic species threatened with extinction – the IUCN report highlights the vulnerability of the Pacific bluefin tuna among others – it also chose the demise of the tiny snail as an example of the damage being done by the extractive industry.

According to the IUCN: “The future of several other species in the region is uncertain for similar reasons. Whilst some mining companies are starting to take the necessary steps to reduce impact, IUCN is urging stronger commitment to prevent further extinctions.”

IUCN’s intervention comes just weeks after Guardian Sustainable Business revealed that another snail was at risk in Malaysia. The mollusc, recently discovered living on an isolated limestone hill called Gunung Kanthan in the northwest of Peninsular Malaysia, was named Charopa lafargei after Lafarge in a bid to prevent the global and aggregates giant from decimating it. The IUCN says this snail is critically endangered and that the “continued existence of the species will depend in large part on the actions of the company.”

Tony Whitten, Fauna & Flora International’s Asia regional director, says the humble snail should not be seen as any less important than iconic species. “Snails have a marketing problem because they are small and in general are considered joke animals because they are slow and slimy,” he says.

“But they have beautiful shapes and colours and on a personal level I abhor the idea of extinctions when it results from deliberate ignorance. A species is a species and we are morally bound to protect them. When I ask people why they think snails are less worthy, they don’t really have an answer.

“Some people may see species such as the bluefin tuna as being more important but that is only because we can identify with them because of their size and the fact we like to eat them.”

Whitten says the reason the cement industry has been able to escape scrutiny until now is because limestone is not considered a strategic mineral so regulation tends to be governed at a local level, and because the companies rarely need international financing. Cement is a basic commodity and margins are razor thin. Whitten says because companies focus on volume to maintain profits, they are unhappy to set aside protected areas within quarrying sites.

It is not only in Malaysia where snails and other species are at risk from the cement industry. “This is a global issue,” he says. “Wherever in the world limestone occurs it has a special fauna and flora but the problems are especially acute in countries such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the US where you get isolated limestone hills.”

A common problem among cement mining companies, according to Whitten, is that environmental impact assessments they carry out are often of a poor quality and focus on birds and mammals and don’t give enough attention to limestone-associated species. The reports are not made public and cannot be scrutinised independently.

Worse still, Whitten says the cement industry has become fixated with trumpeting the restoration of sites they destroy, rather than taking a rational, proactive landscape approach which would include sustainable management and protection.

“No cement business has ever admitted the scale of the problem,” he says. “They tout their biodiversity pages in their websites and sustainability reports with pictures of ducks and frogs and children enjoying the wetlands created from the hills they remove. They give and receive prizes for their restoration work – but do not acknowledge what is being lost.”

The snail at Lafarge’s quarry was named after the company to make it pay attention to inconspicuous animals. “They would never have taken note of the snail unless the scientists had named it after them,” Whitten says. “Lafarge did not like it ... But the reality is I had been talking with them for 15 years and you get to the point where that discussion gets nowhere. This led Fauna & Flora International to resign from their international biodiversity panel. We are, though, having positive discussions with the local senior management.”

The IUCN’s Red List, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant, animal and fungi species, shows that Plectostoma sciaphilum is one of 901 species of the 76,199 assessed to have become extinct through fishing, logging, mining and agriculture.

One of others to become extinct is the St Helena Giant Earwig, the world’s largest known earwig which reaches a length of up to 80mm. Previously found in Horse Point Plain, a protected area on St Helena Island in the South Atlantic, its habitat was damaged by the removal of nearly all shelter-providing surface stones for construction.

The Bluefin tuna has moved from the least concern category to vulnerable, which means that it is now threatened with extinction. The species is extensively targeted by the fishing industry for the sushi and sashimi markets predominantly in Asia. The population is estimated to have declined by up to a third over the past 22 years.

The Chinese pufferfish has entered the IUCN Red List as critically endangered. Its global population is estimated to have declined by 99.99% over the past 40 years due to overexploitation. A popular food fish in Japan, it is eaten as as sashimi.

Other species on the Red List include the American Eel, which is threatened by climate change, pollution, habitat loss and commercial harvest as well as the Chinese Cobra, among the top animal species exported from mainland China to Hong Kong for the food market.

“The growing food market is putting unsustainable pressure on these and other species,” says Jane Smart, Global Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Group. “We urgently need to impose strict limits on harvesting and take appropriate measures to protect habitats.”

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Extinction risk not the answer for reef futures

ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies Science Daily 17 nov 14;

"Extinction is the final endpoint, but coral reefs are in deep trouble long before we get to that point. We need to take action much earlier," says Professor David Bellwood from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University.

"The goal should be to maintain reefs that can support corals, fish and humans" Professor Bellwood says.

In a world first study published in the journal, Current Biology, researchers tested the concept of 'double jeopardy', which is widely used to assess extinction risk. It is based on the assumption that the risk of extinction is greater if a species has both a small geographic range and low numbers.

The researchers counted the numbers of individuals of more than 400 species of fishes and corals across a 10,000km swath of the Pacific Ocean, from Indonesia to French Polynesia.

Professor Terry Hughes from the Coral CoE says they found no relationship between each species abundance' and its geographic range. To the contrary, the researchers found that some species with a small range had large numbers while some with a vast range spanning the Indo-Pacific Ocean were quite rare. The widely held assumption of double jeopardy is false.

"Our findings call into question the growing practice of assessing extinction risk of coral reef species without knowing how many of them are out there," says Professor Hughes. This is the first study to systematically count corals and reef fishes at a geographic scale."

The researchers argue that coral reef systems are threatened long before individual species are in danger of extinction. They say extinction threat is a poor approach to take to ensure the future of coral reefs.

"Many species on coral reefs are critically important for maintaining ecosystem health. Many reefs are in serious decline, even if the chances of individual species going extinct are slim."

Professors Bellwood and Hughes argue that the criteria for the IUCN threatened species Red List, used to assess extinction threat, are inappropriate for widespread marine species.

"The vast majority of marine plants and animals are comparatively resistant to global extinction because of their high rates of reproduction, ability to disperse widely, and huge geographic ranges which span up to tens of millions of square kilometres," Professor Hughes says.

"Rather than guessing at which species are threatened, we need a focus on local action to avert or recoup the loss of ecosystem function caused by habitat destruction and severe depletion of key species," Professor Hughes says.

Professor Bellwood says "This paper calls for caution when identifying species at risk of extinction on coral reefs. It highlights the potential weaknesses in current approaches and offers an alternative approach where species are valued for the services they provide for both reefs and humans."

Journal Reference:
Terry P. Hughes, David R. Bellwood, Sean R. Connolly, Howard V. Cornell, Ronald H. Karlson. Double Jeopardy and Global Extinction Risk in Corals and Reef Fishes. Current Biology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.037

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Virus implicated in massive die-off of North American starfish

Will Dunham PlanetArk 18 Nov 14;

Scientists investigating a huge die-off of starfish along North America's Pacific coast have identified a virus they say is responsible for a calamitous wasting disease that has wiped out millions of the creatures since it first appeared last year.

The scientists said on Monday they identified the pathogen as the Sea Star Associated Densovirus, or SSaDV, after ruling out other possible culprits including certain bacteria, protozoans and fungi.

More than 20 species of starfish, also called sea stars, from southern Alaska to Baja California are dying from a wasting disease that causes white lesions to appear before the animal's body sags, ruptures and spills out its internal organs.

"They basically fall apart into a pile of goo on the bottom of the seafloor," said Cornell University biological oceanographer and microbial ecologist Ian Hewson, who led the study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

SSaDV is a parvovirus, a tiny form of virus that can cause illness in animals and people.

The researchers detected it in older starfish samples, museum specimens from as early as 1942. They said it may have been present at low levels for years and only recently became a large-scale threat due to some kind of viral mutation, environmental trigger, starfish overpopulation or other factor.

"It's probably the largest epidemic in marine wildlife that we know of," Cornell ecologist Drew Harvell said.

"That's the million-dollar question in all this: Why now? What is it that changed that created the conditions for this outbreak? And we don't have the answer to that. But certainly a viral mutation would be one explanation," Harvell added.

The disease was first spotted in June 2013 and has shown no signs of slowing.

"There are 10 million viruses in a drop of seawater, so discovering the virus associated with a marine disease can be like looking for a needle in a haystack," Hewson said.

"Not only is this an important discovery of a virus involved in a mass mortality of marine invertebrates, but this is also the first virus described in a sea star."

Scientists prefer calling them sea stars rather than starfish because they are not fish but rather echinoderms, cousins of sand dollars, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Most have five arms, although some have more.

The disappearance of so many starfish threatens to disrupt coastal ecosystems because they are important predators in the waters between the shoreline and open sea, the researchers said.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

Virus blamed for starfish deaths along US Pacific Coast
AFP Yahoo News 18 Nov 14;

A mysterious virus affecting starfish along the US Pacific coast causes the limbs of the sea stars to …

Washington (AFP) - A mysterious plague that has killed off millions of starfish along the US Pacific Coast since 2013 is now believed to be a virus that causes the creatures to melt, US researchers said Monday.

Known as densovirus, the microorganism has been found in diseased and dead starfish, and is the likely culprit for the massive upsurge in deaths, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The virus causes the limbs of starfish, or sea stars, to pull apart and their skin to waste away, and has been wreaking havoc on populations from Baja, California, to southern Alaska.

Ian Hewson of Cornell University led the genomic analysis on sea star associated densovirus (SSaDV), a type of parvovirus commonly found in invertebrates.

"There are 10 million viruses in a drop of seawater, so discovering the virus associated with a marine disease can be like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Hewson, a professor of microbiology.

"Not only is this an important discovery of a virus involved in a mass mortality of marine invertebrates, but this is also the first virus described in a sea star."

Researchers found the virus present at low levels in museum samples of sea stars collected in 1942, 1980, 1987 and 1991.

Overpopulation, pollution or mutations in the virus could have contributed to its sudden surge to epidemic proportions, the study found.

Densovirus has also turned up in water filters from public aquariums, sea urchins and brittle stars.

More research is needed to find out what triggers outbreaks, said co-author Drew Harvell, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"It's the experiment of the century for marine ecologists," said Harvell.

"It is happening at such a large scale to the most important predators of the tidal and sub-tidal zones. Their disappearance is an experiment in ecological upheaval the likes of which we've never seen."

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Cornell University's David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

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U.S., EU override Australia to put climate change on G20 agenda

Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell PlanetArk 17 Nov 14;

U.S., EU override Australia to put climate change on G20 agenda Photo: David Gray
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (R) stands near Russian President Vladimir Putin after officially welcoming him to the G20 leaders summit in Brisbane November 15, 2014.
Photo: David Gray

The G20 communique will include a significant passage on climate change, EU officials said on Sunday, as the United States and other heavyweight nations override host Australia's attempts to keep the issue off the formal agenda.

Much of the meeting of world leaders in Australia has been overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, with Western leaders warning Russian President Vladimir Putin that he risked more economic sanctions if he failed to end Russian backing for separatist rebels.

On Sunday, momentum swung back to other major concerns for the Group of 20 leading economies, including climate change.

That is something of an embarrassment for Australia, which had argued it was not a clear economic issue and so should not be discussed at the G20. Indeed, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has questioned the science behind climate change.

"The most difficult discussion was on climate change," an EU official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "This was really trench warfare, this was really step by step by step. In the end we have references to most of the things we wanted."

The official said the passage included practical measures that countries could take and a reference to contributing to the Green Climate Fund, which U.S. President Barack Obama committed $3 billion to on Saturday.

The United States and Europe led the push to have climate change discussed at the meeting, with Obama using a speech on Saturday to warn that Australia's iconic Great Barrier Reef was under threat.

"Here in the Asia Pacific nobody has more at stake when it comes to thinking about and then acting on climate change," Obama said. "Here in Australia it means longer droughts, more wildfires."

Asked on Sunday if he accepted that climate change was potentially one of the biggest impediments to global economic growth, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey said: "No. No I don't. Absolutely not."

"You just look at China. China is going to continue to increase emissions to 2030," he said. "Australia is doing the same amount of work on climate change as the United States over a 30-year period. Frankly, what we're focused on is growth and jobs."


EU officials said the communique, likely to be three pages, down from 27 last year, would also include an anti-corruption action plan.

China had agreed to a G20 deal aimed at cracking down on companies masking their ownership, after initial concerns about the proposal, the EU official said.

"This was difficult for China but they managed to clear that," the official said.

A working group at the Group of 20, under Australia's Attorney-General's Department, has been seeking agreement on how to improve beneficial ownership transparency and combat the use of shell companies that can hide ill-gotten money or avoid taxation. China had said on Thursday an agreement was still in discussions.


The separatist war in eastern Ukraine, where more than 4,000 people have been killed since April, is expected to be discussed further on Sunday after a series of one-on-one meetings between Putin and leaders including Obama.

The European Union has demanded Moscow withdraw troops and weapons from Ukraine and put pressure on rebels there to accept a ceasefire, after the latest fighting wrecked a truce agreed in September.

Obama, who met with key regional allies Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe early on Sunday, is due to meet with European leaders to discuss Ukraine later in the day. EU foreign ministers will meet on Monday to consider further steps, including additional possible sanctions on Russia.

Western nations have imposed successive rounds of sanctions on Moscow, accusing it of sending troops and tanks to back pro-Russian rebels fighting to break away from Ukraine. Russia denies the charges.

On Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied speculation that Putin would leave the summit early, saying he would take part in all G20 events.

(Additional reporting by Ian Chua, Matt Spetalnick and Matt Siegel in Brisbane; Editing by John Mair)

G20 pledges lift Green Climate Fund towards $10 billion U.N. goal
Alister Doyle PlanetArk 17 Nov 14;

A promise by Japan on Sunday to give up to $1.5 billion to a U.N. fund to help poor nations cope with global warming puts the fund within sight of a $10 billion goal and brightens prospects for a U.N. climate pact next year.

Japan's pledge, at the G20 meeting of world leaders in Australia, raises the total promised to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to $7.5 billion, including up to $3 billion by U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday.

The Seoul-based GCF Secretariat in a statement hailed the pledges as a turning point before a first donors' conference in Berlin on Thursday. The United Nations has set an informal target of raising $10 billion this year.

The cash, to help emerging economies curb their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to changes such as heatwaves, mudslides and rising sea levels, is widely seen as vital to unlock a U.N. climate deal meant to be agreed in late 2015 in Paris.

"These pledges bring us a giant step closer reaching a global climate agreement in Paris," said Athena Ballesteros of the World Resources Institute think-tank.

Hela Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the GCF, said she hoped the U.S. and Japanese pledges and an unexpected G20 focus on climate change would translate into further significant contributions by other countries.

Nations including Britain, Italy, Canada and Australia have yet to announce pledges. Among other big donors, Germany and France have previously each promised about $1 billion for a first round of funds for the GCF, lasting four years.

The GCF is a major part of a plan agreed in 2009 to raise financial flows to help developing nations tackle climate change, from public and private sources, to $100 billion a year by 2020.

G20 leaders put a spotlight on climate change despite efforts by host Australia to focus more narrowly on economic growth. [ID:nL3N0T44NX]

Christiania Figueres, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, welcomed the U.S. and Japanese pledges and other recent action on climate change, saying they had triggered a positive atmosphere for the Berlin meeting.

Last week, the United States and China set goals for curbing climate change, brightening prospects for Paris even though their promises, including Beijing's plan for a undefined peak in greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030, were vague.

(Editing by David Holmes)

Obama, in latest climate move, pledges $3 billion for global fund
Lincoln Feast and Timothy Gardner PlanetArk 17 Nov 14;

President Barack Obama on Friday pledged a $3 billion U.S. contribution to an international fund to help poor countries cope with the effects of climate change, putting the issue front and center of the G20 Leaders Summit in Australia.

The large size of the contribution took climate policy watchers by surprise and doubles what other countries had previously pledged ahead of a Nov. 20 deadline. It would be the second major move on climate change taken by Obama after big Democratic losses in last week's midterm elections.

"Along with other nations that have pledged support, we'll help vulnerable communities with early-warning systems, stronger defenses against storm surges, and climate-resilient infrastructure," Obama said in remarks ahead of the official opening of the G20 summit.

"We'll help farmers plant more durable crops. We'll help developing economies reduce their carbon pollution and invest in clean energy."

The timing of the announcement was seen as putting pressure Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is hosting the summit and once described climate science as "absolute crap". Abbott had hoped the G20 summit would focus on growth and jobs.

"When most nations are saying we have to finance climate change responses, whatever Australia desires, it has to agree or it risks looking like the spoiler at what should be Australia's moment," Tim Costello, the head of World Vision Australia and the C20, or Civil Society 20, told Reuters.

Highlighting Australia's exposure to climate change, Obama said longer droughts and more wildfires were likely.

"The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened. Worldwide this past summer was the hottest on record. No nation is immune and every nation has a responsibility to do its part."

The Green Climate Fund will work with private sector investment and help spur global markets in clean energy technologies, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and manufacturers including those from the United States.

"The fund will be able to deploy innovative instruments. That is the key distinguishing characteristic of the GCF; it has the opportunity to mobilize significant flows of private capital," Abyd Karmali, managing director of climate finance at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC.N).

Rich countries had pledged in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries tackle carbon emissions.

Earlier this week, Obama announced a climate deal with China. The United States will strive to cut total greenhouse emissions by about 25 percent by 2025, while China will aim for a peak in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

In the run-up to the global climate talks in Paris next year, developing nations view finance as a vital part of any deal.

Hela Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the fund, lauded the U.S. pledge as a game-changer. "It could have a domino effect on all other contributions," she said.

The U.S. pledge roughly doubles the $3 billion already promised for the fund, which will hold a first donors' meeting in Berlin on Thursday.

Germany and France had earlier pledged $1 billion each, and Mexico, South Korea, Japan and others have pledged smaller amounts.

The UN has set an informal goal of raising $10 billion for the fund before a meeting of environment ministers in Peru, next month. Developing nations have been urging $15 billion.

Some environmentalists were unimpressed by the pledge. Friends of the Earth said $3 billion "falls magnitudes below what is actually needed by developing countries."

(Additional reporting by Ros Krasny and Valerie Volcovici in Washington, and Alister Doyle in Oslo; Editing by Susan Heavey, Bill Trott, David Gregorio and Michael Perry)

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