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What Are ‘Grasslands’?

A drone photo of the Ulan Maodu grasslands in Xing ‘an League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China on Aug. 15, 2022. CFOTO / Future Publishing via Getty Images

Grasslands — also known as savannas, prairies, steppes and pampas — are ecosystems found in parts of the world that do not get sufficient consistent rainfall to support forest growth, but get enough to avoid the landscape turning into desert. Often, grasslands are a transition ecosystem between deserts and forests.

Found on every continent other than Antarctica, grasslands are typically flat and open, making them more vulnerable to human development. Agriculture, overgrazing, drought, illegal hunting, invasive species and climate change are all threats to the health of grasslands and the wildlife who live in their abundant expanse.

Why Are Grasslands Important? Why Do They Matter?

Resilient and beneficial, grasslands and rangelands provide many essential ecosystem services such as acting as habitat for large mammals, burrowing animals, reptiles and pollinators; mitigating flooding and droughts; water filtration; and long-term carbon sequestration.

Even with all the benefits they provide, less than 10 percent of grasslands are protected globally.

Types of Grasslands

Grasslands go by many different names and are made up of two main types: tropical — also known as savannas — and temperate.

The two types appear similar, but have different kinds of soil and are inhabited by a variety of unique creatures depending on their location. As many as 25 large plant-eating species can be supported by the different types of abundant grasses in any given grassland habitat.

Tropical Savannas

Hundreds of wildebeests on a savanna of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Melissa Kopka / iStock / Getty Images Plus

African savannas are home to many iconic animal species, like elephants, lions, giraffes, gazelles, zebras, cheetahs and wildebeest.

The savannas of northern Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America are examples of tropical grasslands. The climate is warm with contrasting rainy and dry seasons. Savannas get most of their rainfall for the year in only a few months, which means trees are without water for long periods of time, inhibiting their growth.

The soil of savannas is not as rich as that of temperate grasslands. Rainfall can vary from year to year — 10 to 40 inches — and season to season. Temperatures are also highly variable, from below freezing to above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Vegetation height depends on the amount of rainfall a region gets. Some grasses can be less than a foot tall, while others may be up to seven feet high, with roots extending as deep as three to six feet. Two of the many types of grassland vegetation found in tropical savannas include Rhodes grass and red oat grass.

Because of their moderate rainfall and underground biomass, savanna soil tends to be extremely fertile and beneficial for crops.

Temperate Grasslands

A bison herd on the temperate grasslands of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. Amy Toensing / Getty Images

Temperate prairies in the U.S. are lively with burrowing creatures such as prairie dogs and black footed ferrets, bison, deer, elk, pronghorns, coyotes, badgers and swift foxes, as well as bird species like larks, sparrows, raptors and blackbirds.

The rich soil of temperate grasslands means grasses are abundant and tall. Galleta and purple needlegrass — native to California — are two of the species found in the temperate grasslands of North America, Northern Mexico and Argentina.

Benefits of Grasslands

Provide Habitat for Many Plants and Animals, Including Endangered Species

A one-horned rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India. davidevison / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Grassland habitats provide an abundant variety of grasses that wildlife use as a food source, for building burrows and nests and as camouflage from predators and prey.

Wildflowers like hyssop, yarrow and milkweed spring up and carpet grasslands during the rainy season, attracting pollinators that are important to crops and native vegetation. Grassland vegetation has adapted to the grazing, wildfires and drought that regularly occur in the ecosystem.

Mitigate Drought and Floods

Water on a floodplain by the municipality of Eichen in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany on Jan. 24, 2024. Andreas Arnold / picture alliance via Getty Images

The deep root systems of prairie grasses absorb the abundant water that comes with the rainy season, reducing runoff, flooding and erosion. Wells made by roots trap water and act as sponges that slowly release the water into the soil. This ecosystem service is becoming increasingly important as extreme rainfall becomes more common due to climate change.

The deep roots of grassland vegetation also boost drought resistance, as they retain water longer than plants with shallow roots.

Seed Dispersal

Wheat and wildflowers in a meadow in Ukraine. Toltek / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Though most seeds are deposited close to their parent, grassland plants use a variety of creative transport methods to spread their seeds far and wide through the process of seed dispersal. Whether they travel by wind, water or animal courrier, each seed has unique physical characteristics fit for the job.

Some seeds are contained inside fruits animals enjoy, and when they are ingested, the seeds travel with their host until they are deposited somewhere else.

Other plants, like violets, produce seed pods. When they are ripe, they pop open and eject the seeds away from the parent plant. Ants also bring violet seeds into their tunnels where they germinate.

The physiology of seeds like sandburs enables them to get caught on animals, who carry them to another location, sometimes a good distance away. Bison have historically been major seed carriers.

Wind is a common method of seed dispersal for prairie vegetation like milkweed, thistle, wild lettuce, goldenrod, aster and other plants that have little propellers or feathery or wing-like structures that catch the wind. Other seeds are so light and tiny that they are blown easily, like dust.

In moist prairies and wetlands, seeds that are able to float are dispersed by wind, rivers and streams.

Whatever the method, seed dispersal is an ingenious and efficient way for grassland plants to ensure at least some of their seeds have a chance of propagating.

Improve Water and Air Quality

A marsh in Florida. TerryJ / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Grasslands help filter and purify surface water, groundwater and air with their dense, deep roots, which trap rainwater, allowing it to trickle into the soil, where it is cleaned. This is especially important in agricultural areas where harmful chemicals are used. Some farmers plant buffers of grasses alongside ditches and streams to catch excess pesticides, phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment before it makes its way into freshwater sources.

Grassland vegetation cleans the air by removing carbon dioxide — turning it into energy and releasing oxygen as a byproduct through the process of photosynthesis. Plant roots also store carbon in the soil, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

In some areas, agricultural runoff contaminates soil, drinking water and groundwater with chemicals, polluted sediment, manure, bacteria and an overabundance of nitrites and nutrients.

Runoff also harms fish and other aquatic life. Grasslands’ carbon-rich soils and vegetation act as a natural filter of agricultural toxins, preventing them from entering waterways.

Roughly half a million tons of pesticides, four million tons of phosphorus and 12 million tons of nitrogen are applied each year to U.S. crops, pointing to the importance of intact grasslands to help maintain the country’s clean freshwater sources.

Generate, Preserve and Renew Soils

Temperate grasslands have dark soil rich in nutrients from their deep, many-branched roots. When vegetation rots, it binds soil together and provides food for living plants.

Savannas, on the other hand, have porous soil with a thin humus layer that drains water quickly.

In addition to the nutrients that come from decaying roots, the bulk of organic matter in grassland soils comes from animal manure. Only a small portion of the soil’s nutrients comes from plant matter.

The consistently rejuvenating process of growth, decay, nourishment and regrowth keeps grassland soils fresh and robust.

Prevent Erosion

Grasslands’ extensive, deep root systems help to prevent erosion by anchoring soil and holding it in place.

The ability of grassland vegetation to increase water permeation and stimulate soil microbes contributes to improved soil structure and healthier soil overall, which means better plant growth.

The root systems of grasslands are denser and more shallow than those of woodlands and grow laterally, providing the best erosion control.

Control Agricultural Pests

Grasslands provide a natural and sustainable form of “pest” control by providing food, breeding sites and shelter for species — like spiders and ground beetles — who consume them. These services are an alternative to the use of toxic chemicals on crops.

Pesticides meant to kill certain “pests” contaminate soil and water and can end up harming or killing pollinators, other insects and larger animals as well.

Expanding grasslands and other natural habitats like hedgerows and forests near agricultural lands — as well as establishing new ones — can help increase this regenerative form of “pest” management.

Act as Carbon Sinks

Plants grow in the marsh of a rewetted portion of the Sernitzmoor peatland near Greiffenberg, Germany on May 31, 2023. Peatland marshes are highly efficient carbon sinks. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Not only do grasslands sequester a third of the planet’s carbon deep in their root systems and soil, the carbon is not released unless the ground is tilled or dug up. This means that — unlike trees that release their sequestered carbon when they die — undisturbed prairies and savannas are able to store carbon for thousands of years, even when their grasses are destroyed by wildfires.

Their remarkable ability to store carbon contributes to climate stability and helps fight climate change.

Grasslands and Wildfires

Patterns of fire and regeneration in savanna grassland, Marion Downs Wildlife Sanctuary, northern Western Australia. Auscape / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Wildfires can be beneficial to grassland ecosystems and play an important role in keeping grasslands healthy by helping to prevent woody shrubs, trees and invasive species from taking over the landscape. This helps increase wildflower diversity, which in turn supports pollinators.

Wildfires help maintain vegetation habitat for species that need open, sunny conditions to germinate, like wildflowers and oak trees. Fresh habitat is created after a fire, which sometimes attracts new species, but can also lead to a decline in others.

Native Americans help maintain grasslands for bison and other species by setting fires. The grazing animals enjoy the fresh grass regrowth in that area and graze on it more frequently.

Rangers conduct a controlled burn of the grasslands in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India on March 3, 2024. Anuwar Hazarika / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Threats to Grasslands

Conversion to Croplands and Grazing Land

The rich soil of temperate grasslands have led to most in the U.S. being converted into farm or grazing land. The loss of so much grassland has destroyed wildlife habitat, affecting many species, including vital pollinators who depend on grassland wildflowers for food. This in turn affects crops and native flowers, which rely on the pollinators for propagation.

Along with agriculture comes increased sedimentation, soil erosion, pesticides, livestock manure and nutrient runoff, which leaches into groundwater, rivers and streams.

Drought

Drought can have a major impact on grasslands, reducing the productivity of vegetation and causing massive plant dieoff that can limit species’ geographical distribution.

Native grasslands have evolved to adapt to low levels of precipitation, but unusually severe and prolonged drought is a different story. It can reduce plant abundance and affect the amount of forage vegetation for grazing animals.

Drought and overgrazing during rapid growth periods of a plant’s life also lead to less growth the following year. And when drought and high temperatures cause the green leaf area of plants to be removed, or lack of soil moisture limits the production of carbohydrates, plant growth can be delayed or reduced.

The effects of severe drought are predicted to occur more frequently due to climate change. A 2024 study found that the loss of plant growth was 60 percent higher during extreme short-term droughts when compared with historically more common droughts that are less severe.

Abandoned structures in dry grassland during extreme drought on a ranch near Friant, California on July 14, 2021. David McNew / Getty Images

Overgrazing

Overgrazing is a main contributor to degradation of grasslands worldwide. It reduces vegetation cover and degrades topsoil, leading to soil compaction from trampling by wildlife. It also increases soil susceptibility to erosion and reduces infiltration rates.

One of the best ways to ensure grasslands do not become degraded is to support sustainable grazing. Grazing management works best when it takes into account the characteristics of the local environment, as well as factors like elevation, slope, water accessibility and climate.

Reducing the grassland ecosystem’s competitive nature through selective grazing can help thin out some plants while allowing others to become more dense.

Invasive Grasses

Invasive plant species can reduce grassland quality and displace native plants. These non-native grasses may not be able to withstand extreme weather such as wildfires and drought, leading to further loss of habitat.

Illegal Hunting

Illegal hunting has decimated many large animal populations, affecting entire ecosystems. Large animals like elephants crush and eat shrubs and trees, preventing them from overtaking grasses and turning savannas into forests.

Loss of grasses means less vegetation for grazing animals such as the endangered Grevy’s zebra.

Climate Change

As global heating affects Earth’s rainfall patterns, marginal grasslands can turn into deserts.

Additionally, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the cycle of water, carbon and nitrogen, which controls the exchange of air and gasses in plants — particularly grassland vegetation. When carbon concentrations are higher, plant stomata get smaller in order to save water, reducing transpiration. When this happens, the flow from soil to roots and leaves is also reduced, potentially lowering nitrogen uptake and weakening plants’ ability to perform photosynthesis.

What Can We Do to Support Grasslands?

As a Society?

Education is essential to restoring and conserving grassland habitats for wildlife, essential carbon storage and the many other ecosystem services grasslands provide. Educating farmers and the public about how important grasslands are to the planet — as well as about methods to build and protect healthy, chemical-free soil — will help safeguard these vital ecosystems for the future.

Crop rotation is a key part of building and maintaining healthy soil, as greater plant diversity means more accumulation of organic matter and nutrients, which improves productivity. It can also disrupt the life cycles of “pests,” thereby acting as a natural substitute for toxic pesticides.

Not only do we need to protect and restore grasslands, but we need to safeguard wetlands — a crucial part of grassland ecology — at the same time.

Setting aside more of Earth’s terrestrial habitat for nature is one of the most important ways to help protect grasslands. The creation of nature reserves and state and national parks, the enforcing and expansion of endangered species protections and the repurposing of land and land restoration can all work together to preserve and restore natural ecosystems like grasslands. This serves to enhance biodiversity, conserve soils and vegetation and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Bison on the plains of Yellowstone National Park. hartmanc10 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

It is also important to increase investment in key conservation programs to keep grasslands healthy and intact. We must preserve old-growth grasslands through easements and acquisition.

Grasslands can be restored through the thinning of forested areas that were once open. In addition, controlled burning can stimulate vegetation growth while replenishing calcium stored in dried grasses to the soil.

Biodiversity research is essential to understand the complexity of grassland ecosystems so that we can better protect and restore them for future generations. Planning for the future by seedbanking ensures we continue to have the “right seed” when we need it to reestablish grasslands that are at risk of extinction.

In Our Own Lives?

One of the best ways to help preserve our grasslands is to volunteer with a restoration organization. Citizen science projects like vegetation and soil collection and wildlife monitoring can help researchers to better understand these important ecosystems.

You can support legislation that promotes the sustainable use of land, prevents deforestation and looks after biodiversity in your area.

Opting for sustainable methods of gardening, reducing personal consumption and choosing products from companies that use eco-friendly practices are all ways to support grasslands and the environment as a whole.

Supporting the rights and traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples whose stewardship of the land has been sustainable for thousands of years is another important aspect of grassland conservation.

Other ways to help grasslands are to participate in activities like local educational programs, habitat restoration and clean up efforts. Bring friends and family along with you!

Takeaway

An African elephant grazes near Kilimanjaro in Kenya. 1001slide / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Grasslands are vitally important for biodiversity, nature and climate. They are essential habitat for billions of animals — such as the African elephant, long-billed curlew and black-footed ferret — throughout the world. They store roughly a third of the Earth’s carbon while providing climate resilience against heat waves, drought and wildfires. They are crucial for the food security, energy and livelihoods of many communities throughout the planet.

Despite their importance, grasslands are remarkably unprotected. From 2016 to 2020, 10 million acres of Great Plains grasslands were destroyed — mostly for crop agriculture. The destruction of grassland habitats is one of the main contributors to the steep decline of grassland birds, more than 300 species of which call the ecosystem home.

Grasslands provide natural solutions for carbon sequestration while reducing climate change impacts. Restoring and protecting them not only bolsters habitat and improves landscape resilience, it supports wildlife, rural and Indigenous communities and the ecological balance of the planet as a whole.

The post Grasslands 101: Everything You Need to Know appeared first on EcoWatch.

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The Next Great Human Migration: Abrahm Lustgarten on America’s Future Climate

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A 2022 report from the International Panel on Climate Change observed that more than 3.3 billion people around the world are “highly vulnerable to climate change.” And more than one billion people could be exposed to “coastal-specific climate hazards by 2050.”

Here in the U.S., the Census Bureau calculated that 3.2 million adults were displaced or evacuated due to natural disasters of all kinds in 2022. And while climate migration is not easily measurable, as there are multiple factors involved, it is no doubt happening.

Investigative reporter at Politico Abrahm Lustgarten delved into the topic of U.S. climate migration in his new book, On The Move: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America. Seeking to understand what climate migration might look like over the next few decades, Lustgarten used data and reporting from places across the country such as New York City, California, Arizona, Chicago, Texas and the Gulf Coast, the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, and from abroad in places like Guatemala and Africa.

Dense with facts and using modeling from Rhodium Group, a climate and economics research provider, to try and predict future migration patterns in the U.S., Lustgarten concludes that climate change migration depends on what happens next in the world of carbon reduction, politics and several other factors, resulting in a book analyzing “a portrait of American society transformed.” 

Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Lustgarten.

Abrahm Lustagarten author photo by Seth Smoot

What are the most pressing short-term environmental threats that you write about?

Wildfires, coastal flooding, increasing heat, drought and water scarcity. I also collected some associated data on diminishing crop yields, change in wet bulb temperatures across the country and the economic implications of all of those things.

How was 2020 the tipping point, as you called it?

Instead of it being a sort of a scary far off in-the-distant-future idea, 2020 was a year where we were reading about smoke or hurricanes or flooding every day. Just a moment where the country seemed to grasp what we’re coping with.

What did your reporting tell you about who was going where?

The broad thesis of the book is that we will see a future projection of a movement of population from the South and the most extreme areas affected by both heat and sea level rise towards the North, which according to the specific risks that I mapped is the least affected part of the United States. We see current migration that’s sort of unmeasurable coming out of those high-risk areas already. People leaving Florida, people leaving the Gulf Coast, people leaving wildfires in California, anecdotally leaving heat in the Southwest, but it’s very difficult to measure.

Some of the things you write about are the economics of this migration. Tell me generally how disruptive it’ll be.

People move in response to the climate in slow steps and they go the shortest distance possible. It’s more likely that the rural places around them in those states kind of empty out over time because people will seek the support of those urban environments, that urban tax base, the facilities, the school systems, all of the services that are available. I could imagine an American Southwestern Texas that becomes islands of large, relatively wealthy cities, even in a sea of a much emptier rural expanse.

The second way to answer that question is, what’s the risk for places that are in decline? And this is a pessimistic scenario that universally all of the economists that I spoke with warn about, which is just what happens to a community that loses population for any reason. And it’s the same as what you see in the Rust Belt cities after the 1970s, what you see in post-boom coal towns and things like that. As some people leave, the businesses and the business community shrinks, storefronts might disappear, you have less revenue for the town, city, etc. That government can do less, which self-perpetuates this cycle, right? Your potholes don’t get repaved, and your schools don’t get fresh funding. More parents look at those schools and say, well, this sucks. And it is really hot here.

Do you think these kinds of economic impacts in certain areas might make people fully aware of the reality of climate breakdown?

I really think climate migration will happen in the United States, not because people say it’s too damn hot and I want to leave, or we think it’s going to flood and we’re going to move, but when it starts to affect people’s personal economic resilience. It ultimately will be economic-driven migration, which is catalyzed by climate change. It’s inevitable that when those kinds of things happen in culturally conservative parts of southern Louisiana or east Texas, that those people are not going to be hitting the streets complaining about climate change, but they’re going to be saying, “I can’t insure my home any longer. I can’t make a living any longer. Farming just doesn’t work anymore, and we’ve got to move someplace where we can take care of our families and make ends meet.” And a great example of that, of course, is the insurance blowback in Florida.

I wanted to ask you about wealthy people. Do wealthy people have a leg up in this whole situation? There’s been some land grabs up in Wyoming a little bit, and I think in Montana. Do you see that being magnified?

Wealthy people have an added layer of protection for all the obvious reasons. Interestingly, it’s actually kind of upper middle-class folks that are most likely to move, but wealthy people who might be the most protected because they have either the means to own properties in multiple places at once, or to move more spontaneously when they want to. There’s been a movement towards snatching up land in Wyoming or Montana, you know, or even in the Great Lakes — the data is very hard to pin with certainty to climate migration, but it appears to be part of the same kind of trend. Bill Gates is now the largest landholder in the United States, and he’s been buying up thousands of acres in northern Michigan, for example.

Might there be a new era of climate-migration boom towns, like the gold rush?

A lot of that upper Midwest and, you know, along the Canadian border, is rural and quite remote now. What if those cities grew dramatically and became the transportation corridor between the thriving metropolis Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes region? That’s a far-fetched scenario, but one that’s possible. A place like Fargo — what the data says about Fargo is that its winters will be shorter and not as cold, and its summer seasons will be longer. And the data suggests that the crop yields in Fargo will likely increase while they decrease in other parts of the country. Fargo is the type of place that could see a relative improvement in its environment, a milder climate with probably increasing opportunity for agricultural activity. Which could lead to some kind of boom.

What might the abandoned places be like? Will any human ingenuity be able to make those places livable? Will it just be the very poor who will live there and can’t escape to go anywhere else? 

It’s a dark question and a dark image, right? There’s a chapter in the book that looks as an example of this to a place called Ordway, Colorado. It’s a farming community that was very prosperous, but as a result of losing its water over the past 20 years or so has experienced a spiral decline. The people left and the schools shrunk in size. It’s an interesting sort of test case that shows us what the future might look like in other places that you’re asking about. There are people that love living there and will remain there and find their homes and their land beautiful. But, you know, as a community, it’s hard to say that it’s thriving. The people that I talked to there feel very sad about what they’ve lost and not particularly hopeful about the future of their community.

In places like Africa or Central America, in your reporting have you seen that a lot of people there are leaving because of climate migration?

My top line conclusion is I think we’re entering a new era of permanent, very high levels of global climate change migration all around the world. One very influential piece of research has looked at the human habitability niche around the world. And it models that about a third to one half of humanity will be displaced from this kind of ideal habitat in within the next 40 years. We’re talking about two to three billion people on the planet as potential migrants.

I spoke with migrants in El Salvador who, you know, wanted to leave because they’re experiencing gang threats in the city of El Salvador, but wanted to go home to their hometown in the mountains, but couldn’t because climate change had wiped out the coffee crop there. Climate change was rarely the primary driver but was always a present factor in these people’s decisions.

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Elephants Greet Each Other With ‘Elaborate’ Combinations of Vocal Cues and Gestures, Study Finds

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Elephants are highly intelligent and social, forming close family groups and showing understanding, cooperation and empathy in their relationships.

Now, an international team of animal behaviorists have confirmed that elephants greet each other with a complex array of gestures and vocal cues, depending on the individuals and circumstances.

“Elephants live in multi-level societies where individuals regularly separate and reunite. Upon reunion, elephants often engage in elaborate greeting rituals, where they use vocalisations and body acts produced with different body parts and of various sensory modalities (e.g., audible, tactile),” the study said.

The researchers — from the Universities of Vienna, Portsmouth and St. Andrews — observed greetings between nine semi-captive African elephants on Zimbabwe’s Jafuta Reserve for a month in 2021, reported Phys.org.

“Greeting is a tricky context because it’s difficult to understand what the gestures mean. They’re more akin to hugs, kisses on the cheek, or hand shakes that we use when we greet each other. But our next steps are to explore gestures in wild elephants in more explicit contexts that can help us understand what they mean,” Vesta Eleuteri, lead author of the study and a PhD student at University of Vienna’s Department of Behavioral and Cognitive Biology, told EcoWatch in an email.

Illustrations of frequent body act types used by semi-captive African savannah elephants during greeting. Drawn by Megan Pacifici

Previous research revealed that elephants’ extreme intelligence is comparable to that of dolphins and chimpanzees. Their matriarchal social structures are also complex.

“Elephants show advanced intelligence to the extent of non-human apes. They are well known for their long-term memory, remembering paths to resources located km away for years. They have sophisticated discrimination skills — for example, they can distinguish humans of different ethnicities based on how they speak or smell. And elephants are known for their empathetic behaviour towards each other, often helping individuals in need. Elephants live in a multi-level society where individuals form different types and degrees of relationship with one another,” Eleuteri told EcoWatch.

Elephants pay attention to details of perception, such as whether others are looking their way. Most were more apt to make gestures if another elephant was watching, and they used loud ear-flapping to get their attention if they weren’t.

“Elephants were more likely to use visual gestures (such as ear-spreading, trunk-reaching, or trunk-swinging) when their partner was watching,” Eleuteri said, according to a press release from University of St. Andrews, “but used acoustic gestures (such as ear-flapping) or touched their partner when not being watched. This suggests they are able to take into account the other elephant’s visual attention when gesturing.”

Eleuteri said these targeted behaviors indicated they were tailored to their specific audience.

“In terms of their cognition, finding that elephants target gestures to their audience depending on whether the audience is looking at them, our study suggests that they might be able to take into account the visual perspective of others,” Eleuteri told EcoWatch.

The researchers found that it was not just female elephants who displayed evidence of close social bonds.

“In terms of their sociality, what was interesting to find is that our male elephants used the same excited and elaborate greeting behaviour used by closely bonded female elephants in the wild. This may be because our semi-captive elephants live in a tight social group, where individuals [are] likely more socially bonded compared to male elephants in the wild, who tend to be more solitary or form loose associations. This means that, like in humans, social relationships change the way elephants greet,” Eleuteri said.

The researchers discovered that elephants find greeting each other important. When two elephants meet who haven’t seen one another in a while, they both engage in behavior that is evidently meaningful. They may swing their trunks or use them to touch each other or flap and spread their ears. Vocalizations tended to be different types of rumbles.

“When we meet a long-term friend we may hug them strongly or kiss them, while when we meet a stranger we usually shake hands. Elephants do the same. In general, as previous research has observed chimpanzees and other apes altering their visual and tactile gestures according to whether they are being looked at and combining vocalisations and gestures in specific ways, these findings are important because they suggest that these communicative abilities have evolved independently in distantly related (and very physically different!) species sharing complex societies and advanced intelligence,” Eleuteri told EcoWatch.

In the new study, the researchers focused on greetings to find out whether elephants have additional ways to communicate that had not been previously observed.

“Elephants are known to have a rich repertoire of acoustic, visual, tactile, and chemical signals in their communication, so I was already pretty convinced about the complexity of elephant communication. However, the majority of studies on elephant communication concern their acoustic or chemical/olfactory communication. This may be because elephants are known to extensively heavily rely on hearing, while there is the common belief that elephants don’t rely much on vision,” Eleuteri said.

Eleuteri said earlier studies had shown that elephants do indeed use all of their senses when communicating, including sight and touch.

“Previous researchers like Dr. Joyce Poole had reported elephants using many conspicuous visual or tactile body actions in a variety of different social contexts, strongly suggesting that they do indeed rely a lot on vision or touch for social purposes. So it was nice to find that visual and tactile gestures are an important part of their greetings, that they use them by taking into account their greeting partner’s visual attention, and combine these gestures with calls in specific ways and orders. Elephants were also previously known to combine calls together in specific ways. The ability to combine signals in specific ways and orders is a necessary pre-requisite of syntax, so it might well be that elephants have some form of syntactic abilities in their communication, a realm for future studies!” Eleuteri added.

In the field, the research team observed and recorded 1,014 physical actions of elephants greeting each other, along with 268 vocalizations.

“There were thorough descriptions of wild elephants greeting with many different calls and body actions in an apparently chaotic manner, thus finding that they actually combine calls and body actions in specific ways and with some ordered structure was novel,” Eleuteri told EcoWatch. “We also found that elephants greet by appropriately targeting visual, acoustic, and tactile gestures at their audience depending on the audience´s state of visual attention (for example, if we’re in a noisy bar and I want to tell you ‘let’s leave’ and you are looking at me, I might use a visual gesture, but if you are not I might touch you). The ability to target visual gestures was previously shown from captive elephants towards a human. So finding this capacity between elephants, although quite expected for people who know elephants, was also novel.”

Elephants provide many ecosystem services and are essential to the habitats in which they live.

“Elephants are not just clever giants — they are a keynote species playing a crucial role in the environment they live in. They are known as the gardeners and architects of their habitats due to their massive ecological impact,” Eleuteri said.

Elephants face many threats that have caused their numbers to dwindle in the past century.

“It is estimated that, at the turn of the 20th century, 10 million African elephants roamed the African continent. Today, around 400 thousand elephants are left in Africa,” Eleuteri told EcoWatch. “Two of the major threats for wild elephants are poaching for ivory and habitat loss, the reduction of available space for elephants due to human expansion, which leads elephants to live in fragmented landscapes and engage in negative interactions with local communities.”

Despite their threatened status, Eleuteri remains hopeful for the future of these highly intelligent, empathetic and social guardians of the forest.

“Despite the dire situation, I still have hope that elephants will manage to survive and there are amazing people working hard for elephants and their future. There are a few places, like Botswana or Zimbabwe, where today their number is stable and, if left in peace, elephants have a nice growth rate,” Eleuteri said. “I think what people can do is avoid buying ivory to help decrease the interest in it and donate to elephant conservation organisations. More adventurous people can maybe join some volunteering programs to help them first-hand about (and experience how amazing they are!). In general, I think it’s important to raise awareness on how special, ecologically important, and how threatened elephants are to reach a wider group of people who can help them directly or indirectly.”

The study, “Multimodal communication and audience directedness in the greeting behaviour of semi-captive African savannah elephants,” was published in the journal Communications Biology.

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Migrating Freshwater Fish Populations Have Declined 81% Since 1970, Report Finds

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Ahead of World Fish Migration Day on May 25, a new Living Planet Index report has revealed major declines in migratory freshwater fish since 1970. According to the findings, migrating freshwater fish populations have declined 81% from 1970 to 2020.

The Living Planet Index Migratory Freshwater Fishes report focused on data for migrating freshwater fish, or fish that move from one habitat to another for breeding and non-breeding in a seasonal or cyclical pattern. The report was a collaboration among the World Fish Migration Foundation, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Wetlands International and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

On average, the index of 1,864 monitored populations of 284 migratory freshwater fish species from around the world revealed an 81% decline since 1970, leading to an average 3.3% decline per year. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the report noted an average decline of 91%, and Europe’s migratory freshwater fish have declined by about 75%.

“The catastrophic decline in migratory fish populations is a deafening wake-up call for the world. We must act now to save these keystone species and their rivers,” Herman Wanningen, founder of the World Fish Migration Foundation, said in a press release. “Migratory fish are central to the cultures of many Indigenous Peoples, nourish millions of people across the globe, and sustain a vast web of species and ecosystems. We cannot continue to let them slip silently away.”

Although the report found smaller declines in North America, about 35%, and Asia-Oceania, about 28%, the authors explained they had deficient data for these areas, and they did not have enough data to produce an average for migratory freshwater fish in Africa.

Many factors have contributed to the declining populations. According to the report, habitat degradation, loss and alterations, such as building dams in rivers or clearing wetlands for agriculture, made up about half of threats to the fish. Overexploitation made up nearly one-third of the threats.

But in the past 30 years, other threats are becoming more prominent, such as the warming waters and other effects of climate change and increasing pollution in freshwater areas.

Aside from being important parts of their ecosystems, freshwater fish are also an important food source globally, particularly for areas that may face food scarcity.

“In the face of declining migratory freshwater fish populations, urgent collective action is imperative,” Michele Thieme, deputy director of freshwater at WWF-US, said in a statement. “Prioritizing river protection, restoration, and connectivity is key to safeguarding these species, which provide food and livelihoods for millions of people around the world.”

Not all species have experienced declines, though, and the report highlighted that managed habitats and fisheries helped minimize declines for some populations. Management activities including fishing restrictions, no-take zones and bycatch reductions helped reduce declining populations of freshwater fish. Some populations also experienced increasing numbers.

In addition to improved management and monitoring, the report authors suggested removing of barriers such as dams, preserving and restoring rivers, promoting public and political engagement on freshwater fish conservation and increasing international collaboration efforts to save migratory freshwater fish.

Migrating Clanwilliam sandfish in South Africa. Jeremy Shelton / World Wildlife Fund

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