Should Scientists Battle Poachers by Keeping Animal Locations Secret?

iStock
iStock

You can find just about anything through a quick internet search—and it turns out that’s true even for poachers. Wild animal hunters are now using online scientific literature to locate rare and new species. That, two scientists warn in a recent essay, could create serious problems.

Easily accessible online data can help rare and endangered species, providing scientific evidence to support the need for measures to protect them. Accessibility also fosters better replication of scientific studies and greater collaboration among researchers. But "Do not publish," a recent essay in Science, argues that data also helps those with more nefarious intentions.

Essay co-author David Lindenmayer, a researcher at the Australian National University, spells out three potential problems with unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species: surges in poaching; disruption of relationships between researchers and owners of land where studied species are found; and increased habitat disturbance and destruction.

Scientists have documented poaching within months of publishing taxonomic descriptions of new species. Lindenmayer tells Mental Floss that when authorities caught poachers shipping one of Australia’s rarest parrots out of the country in an industrial cooler, the container included copies of scientific papers citing the bird’s location. He also reports targeting of more than 20 newly described reptiles in this way, and an IUCN Red List assessment identified at least 355 reptile species intentionally targeted by collectors. Heavy hunting of an Indonesian turtle following its description in the scientific literature left the animal nearly extinct in the wild.

In fact, Lindenmayer says, if you search for some of these species online, the results will include some sites that claim to sell them.

So-called Lazarus species—those that reappear after having been thought extinct—require especially careful consideration regarding publicity. Scientists found evidence of a population of Sumatran rhinos, thought extinct for some 25 years, in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo in 2013. A later sighting received extensive publicity. Because poaching for rhino horn remains so popular, scientists argued in Biological Conservation that the Kalimantan rhinos survived precisely because few knew about them. The paper states that when publicity "increases the risk significantly relatively to benefits," secrecy should be favored.

Lindenmayer and co-author Ben Scheele also cite personal experience of strained relationships with landowners. The researchers discovered new populations of endangered, pink-tailed worm-lizards. Soon after they uploaded location information to open-access government wildlife atlases, a requirement of research permits, landowners began to complain about trespassers seeking the rare creatures. Those would-be collectors jeopardized relationships that took years to establish.

The trespassers also damaged important worm-lizard habitat. Habitat damage can happen even when people aren't trying to collect animals or plants but simply trying to see or photograph them. A paper in Animal Conservation reports that people frequently displace rocks while searching for snakes and lizards in southeastern Australia. The endangered broad-headed snake and its prey, velvet geckos, shelter in narrow crevices beneath sun-warmed rocks, but researchers rarely found either animal under rocks that people had displaced. The paper concluded that even minor displacement of overlying rocks modifies critical attributes of the crevices—and thus reduces habitat quality for the endangered species.

One potential downside of not sharing data could occur during environmental assessments for new development, Lindenmayer says. Species can't be protected if no one knows they're there.

Fortunately, there are ways to share data with those who need it without making it completely public. Consider how Charlotte Reemts, a research and monitoring ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, approached the publication of her research on the small, endangered star cactus, which is found in only a few South Texas counties. "When I wrote up my research, I purposefully left the location very vague," she tells Mental Floss. "I didn’t put in any maps or give the landowner’s name in the acknowledgements."

Databases such as those kept by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have mechanisms in place to not make locations public in certain situations, Reemts says.

"There is a difference between having scientific information that is not shared publicly, and keeping it from everyone," Joe Fargione, The Nature Conservancy’s science director for North America, tells Mental Floss. "Having a system to share data with qualified researchers allows the scientific community to have the benefit of that new knowledge, without exposing a species to additional risk from poachers."

It's not an unprecedented approach. "Other disciplines have tackled this problem well," Lindenmayer says, noting that archaeologists and paleontologists hold back data to protect important sites and fossil deposits from looters.

In Fargione’s opinion, the trick is to "treat data as sensitive as opposed to secret." He stresses, "Overharvesting of a species can significantly increase risk of extinction, and extinction is forever. So it makes sense not to do anything that would increase that irreversible risk."

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

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