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From Muriqui to Malagasy Rosewood: Endangered Species Research Around the World

Scientific research and communication through publication can be an incredibly powerful tool in the fight against the extinction of threatened species. In honor of Endangered Species Day, this collection of articles recently published in PLOS ONE highlights ongoing research into threatened and endangered species, including the monitoring of species populations, and efforts to recover species currently in danger of extinction.


Doing right by phytoplankton: Right whales break up fecal matter to support plankton growth


Right whales play an important role in the coastal ecosystems of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, their numbers have been dwindling since the 1930s due to commercial whaling, and they are currently listed as highly endangered. In a recent PLOS ONE article, Joe Roman and his colleagues  measured the effect that right whales have on nutrient distribution in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. They found that the NH4+  released from the fecal matter of right whales promotes the growth of phytoplankton, or microscopic marine plants. The researchers also observed that when the right whales congregate in surface-active groups, or SAGs, the activity of the whales breaks up the fecal matter and spreads it across a large area of the ocean, creating a nutrient rich hot spot where phytoplankton can survive. Their research confirms and builds upon several other recent studies highlighting the ability of right whales to distribute nutrients and support ecosystems in the North Atlantic, pointing to the potential for further research on this critically endangered species.

Right Whale:  Roman et al. / CC-BY 4.0 


Using historical population data to identify future Muriqui habitats


Meanwhile, in Brazil, researchers from the Instituto de Pesquisas Cananéia are focusing on another critically endangered species, the Muriqui. This incredibly cute primate is known for being one of the only species of primates that has nonhierarchical, egalitarian relationships between males and females. In their study, the researchers used Maxent software to create an environmental suitability model of the Muriqui habitat, for both the current species distribution and the historical distribution of Muriqui in the area. They were able to identify suitable habitats for two different endangered types of Muriqui, Bhypoxanthus and Barachnoides. Not surprisingly, they found that historically, the limits of the species’ habitats had been defined by geographical features such as rivers and mountains. Identifying areas where the Muriqui have lived historically is useful as it enables conservationists to focus on developing the species in these areas, increasing the chances of successful species management.

Muriqui: Photo by Kenny Ross14 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Modern technology helping to track Jaguars’ journeys


Attempts at monitoring endangered species can be challenging, especially when they are often on the move, and range over a large territory. The jaguar (Panthera onca) is one such species. However, advances in technology can aid researchers’ efforts to track these species. In their PLOS ONE article, a team researchers from Brazil, Argentina and the USA fitted 45 jaguars across Brazil and Argentina with GPS collars and measured  their movements between 1998 and 2016. They found that the size of the jaguars’ home ranges varied based on how much their habitats had been disturbed by human populations. In areas where the natural habitat had been significantly disrupted, or where human populations were high, jaguars had much higher home ranges due to the fact that they were forced to travel further to find resources and mates. Interestingly, they found that male jaguars had larger home ranges and traveled further on average each day across the board, regardless of the level of habitat disruption or human populations. The information gained from this study has the potential to be useful in additional efforts to manage and conserve the jaguar populations in these areas.

Jaguar: Photo by Charlesjsharp / CC BY-SA 4.0



Forest Forensics: Using DNA barcoding to identify endangered rosewoods.


Illegal logging and deforestation is currently a threat to many species of plants, including the Malagasy rosewoods in Madagascar. These trees, of the genus Dalbergia (Fabaceae) are highly sought after by illegal loggers, and are highly threatened. It is important for law enforcement officials to be able to accurately identify these trees, in order to continue efforts to conserve them. In their latest research, Sonja Hassold and colleagues used DNA barcoding with partial sequences of three plastid markers (matK, rbcL and trnL (UAA)) to attempt to differentiate Malagasy rosewoods native to Madagascar from other rosewoods. They found that while DNA barcoding was able to differentiate between different Dalbergia species successfully, it is not always able to identify the specific geographical location from which the timber samples originated. However, DNA barcoding has the potential to be a useful tool for conservation efforts in the future.

Rosewood Logging : Wikimedia commmons CC-BY-SA-3.0

Giant Pandas profiting from more nature reserves


A common form that conservation efforts take is the establishment of nature preserves. The authors of this study, intrigued by an increase of new nature reserves in China since 2000, measured how effective nature reserves are in efforts to conserve the Giant Panda. Guan and his colleagues consulted data from Giant Panda population surveys conducted in 2000 and 2012. Interestingly, they found that while the overall population of Giant Pandas remained relatively stable, local populations experienced significant flux. The most successful of the nature reserves measured in this study was the Caopo Nature Reserve. The researchers have speculated that this is due to the large, highly suitable habitat in this reserve, as well as the fact that it connects with the Wolong Nature Reserve. This indicates that Giant Panda conservation efforts may be aided by ensuring that Pandas have access to a highly suitable, well maintained, connected network of nature reserves.

Giant Panda: Photo by Xiao Liwu / CC BY-SA 3.0



Roman J, Nevins J, Altabet M, Koopman H, McCarthy J (2016) Endangered Right Whales Enhance Primary Productivity in the Bay of Fundy. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0156553.

Morato RG, Stabach JA, Fleming CH, Calabrese JM, De Paula RC, Ferraz KMPM, et al. (2016) Space Use and Movement of a Neotropical Top Predator: The Endangered Jaguar. PLoS ONE 11(12): e0168176.

Ingberman B, Fusco-Costa R, Monteiro-Filho ELdA (2016) A Current Perspective on the Historical Geographic Distribution of the Endangered Muriquis (Brachyteles spp.): Implications for Conservation. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150906.

Guan T-P, Owens JR, Gong M-H, Liu G, Ouyang Z-Y, Song Y-L (2016) Role of New Nature Reserve in Assisting Endangered Species Conservation – Case Study of Giant Pandas in the Northern Qionglai Mountains, China. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0159738.

Hassold S, Lowry PP II, Bauert MR, Razafintsalama A, Ramamonjisoa L, Widmer A (2016) DNA Barcoding of Malagasy Rosewoods: Towards a Molecular Identification of CITES-Listed Dalbergia Species. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0157881.


Attributions for photos:

Right Whale:  Roman et al. / CC-BY 4.0 

Giant Panda: Photo by Xiao Liwu / CC BY-SA 3.0

Jaguar: Photo by Charlesjsharp / CC BY-SA 4.0

Rosewood: Wikimedia commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Muriqui: Photo by Kenny Ross14 / CC BY-SA 2.0



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