Cameroon’s Mysterious Crater Lakes

(Photo credit: Harri's Photography/Flickr Open/Getty Images)

Though picturesque, some crater lakes hide a deadly secret. (Photo credit: Harri’s Photography/Flickr Open/Getty Images)

August 21, 1986 started out as a normal day near Cameroon’s Lake Nyos. By the end of the day, however, 1746 people and 3500 livestock in the area would be dead. The cause of the catastrophe was, of all things, an exploding lake. But what caused the lake to explode? More importantly, could it happen again? [Read more…]

Harnessing Earth’s Energy in Iceland

Iceland geothermal plant

Geothermal energy is a significant part of Iceland’s renewable energy program. (Photo credit: naten/Shutterstock)

Iceland is known for its dramatic fire and ice landscape. Visitors come from all over the world to soak in the island nation’s thermal pools, which are heated naturally by underground plumes of magma. However, this geothermal energy is harnessed for more than just recreational purposes – it is also used as an important source of renewable energy in the country and even beyond its borders.   [Read more…]

Gwynt y Môr Wind Farm

wind turbines

Gwynt y Môr is the second largest offshore windfarm in the world. (Photo credit: philipbird123/Fotolia)

Gwynt y Môr (which translates to “wind of the sea” in English) is the second largest offshore wind farm in the world. It is located about 13 kilometers (8 miles) off the coast of north Wales near Colwyn Bay and covers an area of 80 square kilometers (about 30 square miles). [Read more…]

The Sloths of Costa Rica

Costa Rica sloth

Sloths are found throughout Costa Rica’s tropical forests. (Photo credit: Kjersti Joergensen/Shutterstock)

With their shy, seemingly secret-hiding smiles, languid movements, and unique habits, the sloth fits the basic description of a charismatic animal to a T.

These unusual animals can be found in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Their populations are flourishing in their Costa Rican habitat. Sloths can be found in ecosystems throughout this Central American country, except at the highest elevations.

There are two species of sloth found in Costa Rica: Bradypus variegatus, commonly known as the three-toed sloth, and Choleopus hoffmanni, commonly known as the two-toed sloth. Both of their scientific names reflect their slow movement, as Bradypus means “slowness of foot,” and Choleopus means “lameness of foot.” Though they look similar to primates, sloths are actually more closely related to anteaters and armadillos.

Though it was commonly thought that sloths spent most of their time sleeping–previous estimates had sloths spending upwards of 14 hours asleep per day–research from 2008 indicates that these animals actually only sleep 9 to 10 years a day. Scientists think the previous estimates, based on captive populations, overestimated the sloths’ sleep patterns as those sloths lacked the need to be vigilant against predators. In the wild, three-toed sloths are active both day and night, while two-toed sloths are nocturnal.

These animals spend the majority of their lifetimes in the tops of trees. Their slow movement is likely a result of their need to conserve energy due to their extremely slow metabolism. It takes a sloth up to four weeks just to digest a single leaf. Contrast that with humans, who completely digest a meal within a period of 24-44 hours. One of a sloth’s more unique habits is a result of its slow digestion–sloths only relieve themselves once a week. To do so, they climb down to the bottom of the tree where they do their business, losing about 1/3 of their body weight in the process.

One thing that helps sloths avoid predators and blend in with their leafy habitat is the algae that grows on their fur. The species of algae that lives within sloth fur is Trichophilus welckeri, which is found nowhere else. Research indicates that the algae is passed from mother to offspring within a few weeks of its birth. However, a sloth’s fur isn’t just a habitat for algae. It also houses a variety of other insects and fungi. One of the more interesting examples is the pyralid moth (Cryptoses spp.), which relies on the sloth for its entire lifecycle. A sloth’s body could be home to more than 100 moths. The moth spends the majority of its lifetime burrowed deep within the sloth’s fur. The real magic happens when the sloth descends to the base of its tree to do its weekly business. The moths are coprophagous, meaning they eat excrement. Female moths lay their eggs in the sloth’s excrement, and the larvae grow to maturity within the dung before hatching and flying up the tree to find another sloth’s furry back to inhabit.

According to reporting in The New York Times about this phenomenon, “After [the moths] die, their bodies are decomposed by the host of fungi and bacteria in the sloth’s fur. The metabolic products of this decay, especially nitrogen, are the feedstock for the specialist algae that grow in the sloth’s hair shafts. The researchers guessed that the sloths might be eating the algae from their own fur, and that this could be the purpose of the whole system.”

In addition to being unique animals, it appears that the sloth itself is home to a unique ecosystem as well.

More to Explore
Sloth Facts: Habits, Habitat & Diet
National Geographic: Sloth
7 Surprising Sloth Facts
The Sloth’s Busy Inner Life

 

Country: Costa Rica
Location: Costa Rica is located in Central America. It is bordered by both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean and is located between Nicaragua and Panama.
Area: 51,100 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than West Virginia)
Climate: The climate of Costa Rica is tropical and sub-tropical. It has a specific rainy season (May to November) and dry season (December to April).
Terrain: The terrain of Costa Rica features coastal plains separated by rugged mountains, which include over 100 volcanic cones, of which several are major active volcanoes.
Natural Resources: Hydropower
Economics: $57.69 billion (est. 2015)
Environmental Issues: Air pollution, coastal marine pollution, deforestation and land use change, fisheries protection, soil erosion, soil erosion, solid waste management
Source: CIA – The World Factbook

The Plight of the Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian devil

Tasmanian devils are currently threatened by a cancerous facial disease. (Photo credit: ©FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock)

Tasmania, an island located off the southeastern coast of Australia, is home to the Tasmanian devil. Unlike the human adult sized cartoon version, the real Tasmanian devil is only 20-31 inches (51-79 cm) tall and weighs between 9 and 26 pounds (4-12 kg).

While fossil evidence indicates that Tasmanian devils were once found on the Australian mainland, research indicates that the animals went extinct there 400 years ago due to increasingly arid conditions and the spread of the dingo, a type of wild dog. Tasmanian devils were nearly hunted to extinction on Tasmania during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they were considered to be pests by early settlers. The animals were placed under formal legislative protection in June 1941.

Though the Tasmanian devil bears no resemblance to its cartoon counterpart, it does share its terrible disposition. When the animal feels threatened, its puts on an aggressive display of growling, lunging, and baring its teeth. It earned its “devil” name from early settlers after hearing its “otherworldly” scream. However, while it may be aggressive to potential predators, Tasmanian devils tend to be fairly timid and are typically not a threat to people.

Tasmanian devils are nocturnal animals, which means they are active at night. They are carnivorous and generally feed on birds, snakes, fish, insects, and the remains of dead animals. They do not let any food go to waste – they eat the bones, tissue, muscles, and organs of their prey.

Like kangaroos and wombats, Tasmanian devils are marsupials. The animals breed once a year in March. After a three-week gestation period, between 20 and 30 rice-sized young are born. The young, called imps, must race to their mother’s pouch to claim one of her four teats; the majority are too slow and do not survive. The young devils stay in their mother’s pouch for four months, after which they are carried on their mother’s back. The young are fully grown after about nine months.

While in the mid 1990s, there was a surge in the Tasmanian devil population, that time period also coincided with the appearance of a disease called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). This cancerous disease causes tumors to form on the animal’s face, which makes it difficult for it to eat, leading to starvation. Since 2001, the Tasmanian devil population has declined 60 percent.

Scientists are working to save the species from extinction. To do so, they are sequestering healthy populations to prevent the spread of disease. They are also focusing on captive-breeding programs. Currently, over 20 Australian organizations are involved in captive-breeding efforts and more than 600 Tasmanian devils have been bred in captivity.

More to Explore
Tasmanian Devil Natural History
Tasmanian Devil FAQs
Save the Tasmanian Devil
National Geographic: Tasmanian Devil

Country: Australia
Location: Australia is located on the Oceania continent, which is found between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean.
Area: 7,741,220 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than the 48 contiguous United States)
Climate: Arid to semi-arid; temperate in the southern and eastern portions of the country and tropical in the northern portions of the country
Terrain: Mainly low desert plateaus; fertile plains in the southeast
Natural Resources: bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, nickel, silver, tungsten, uranium, petroleum
Economics: $998.3 billion (est. 2013)
Environmental Issues: Soil erosion, urbanization, desertification, habitat destruction (land and marine)
Source:
CIA – The World Factbook

Sweden’s Dedication to Sustainable Living

solar power in Sweden

Solar power is just one aspect of Sweden’s sustainable development initiatives. (Bohner Images/Getty Images)

Sweden has consistently been ranked as one of the most sustainable countries in the world for several years in a row. How has this Scandinavian country embraced sustainable living? [Read more…]

Water Scarcity in Egypt

Egyptian landscape

Water scarcity is expected to be a major issue in Egypt in the upcoming years. (Photo credit: Lin Sen/Shutterstock)

Egypt, located in northeastern Africa, has an arid climate. Only 6 percent of the country is arable and agricultural land; the rest of the country is desert. Over the past 60 years, Egypt’s population has grown by more than 60 million people. Researchers suggest that by 2050, the population could reach between 120 and 150 million.   Given Egypt’s growing population and its arid climate, environmental scientists warn a water crisis is quickly approaching.

The main source of fresh water in Egypt is the Nile River. While the country is positioned at the end of the river’s flow, through agreements with Sudan, Egypt is entitled to 55.5 billion cubic meters of water per year. In Egypt, the Aswan High Dam, built in the 1960s, controls the flow of the Nile River.

Little rainfall occurs in Egypt. Most rains occur during the winter along the country’s coastal region. The total amount of rainfall ranges between 80 and 200 mm per year. Because of the unpredictability of precipitation, it cannot be relied upon as a source of fresh water.

Groundwater in Egypt is stored in aquifers, but due to their deepness and relative inaccessibility, groundwater is also not a reliable source of water. Desalination of the sea is another potential source of fresh water. However, the process is only currently economically viable in tourist developments along the Red Sea, where the value of fresh water is so high that it is enough to cover the cost of desalination.

As the population in Egypt grows, so too does the demand for fresh water. Research indicates that by the year 2020, Egypt will be consuming 20 percent more water than is available. Experts warn that this extreme scarcity could lead to political instability.

Another water issue faced in Egypt is the availability of clean water. Along the river’s course, the Nile is heavily polluted by agricultural runoff, industrial effluent, and municipal sewage. Managing these sources of pollution will be key to ensuring access to clean water for the Egyptian population.

While the future may appear bleak, there are a few measures that can be taken now to help ensure there is water in the future. Because the agricultural sector uses the most water, it is also the area where more water could be conserved. Many farmers utilize flood irrigation to water their crops; experts recommend switching to drip irrigation, which would decrease the amount of water lost to evaporation. Switching to more water-efficient crops would also use less water. Changing planting dates to coincide better with natural climate patterns, such as planting cotton during cooler months rather than hotter ones, could also help to reduce the total amount of irrigation needed.

More to Explore
RISE Encourages Local Farmer Strategies to Combat Water Scarcity
Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster
Water Scarcity in Egypt: The Urgent Need for Regional Cooperation among the Nile Basin Countries
Water Issue in Egypt: Resources, Pollution and Protection Endeavors

Country: Egypt
Location: Egypt is located in northern Africa. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Libya to the west, and the Red Sea, Gaza Strip, and Israel to the east, and Sudan to the south.
Area: 1,001,450 square kilometers. It is about eight times the size of Ohio.
Climate: Egypt has a desert climate that features hot, dry summers and moderate winters.
Terrain: The terrain of Egypt mostly consists of desert plateau.
Natural Resources: Asbestos, gypsum, iron ore, lead, limestone, limited freshwater resources, manganese, natural gas, petroleum, phosphates, rare earth elements, talc, zinc
Economics: $551.4 billion (2013 estimate)
Environmental Issues: Desertification, growing human population, oil pollution, urbanization, water pollution
Source:
CIA – The World Factbook

While EcoZine is on summer vacation, we are posting articles from the archives. This article first appeared in March 2015.

The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

mountain gorilla

The mountain gorillas of Rwanda are the only primate species in the world that is growing in number, making this critically endangered species a success story.  (Photo credit: erwinf/Shutterstock)

The mountain gorillas of war-torn Rwanda are making a comeback. [Read more…]

Japan’s Floundering Bluefin Tuna Industry

japan_bluefintuna

A rise in popularity has led to a steep decline in global Bluefin tuna populations. (Photo credit: FLPA/Alamy Stock Photo)

Once deemed worthy only as an ingredient for cat food, Bluefin tuna is now considered a highly regarded ingredient that catches top dollar at sushi restaurants around the world. Unfortunately, a rise in popularity also coincides with a steep decline in global Bluefin tuna populations. [Read more…]

Greenland’s Melting Ice Sheet

Greenland ice sheet

Greenland is home to the world’s second largest ice sheet, and it is melting at an alarming rate – 287 billion metric tons of ice is disappearing every year. (Photo credit: Global Warming Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Greenland is home to the world’s second largest ice sheet, and it is melting at an alarming rate – 287 billion metric tons of ice is disappearing every year. Several factors contribute to ice sheet melting, including changes in air temperature, water temperature, and precipitation. New research indicates that there is a fourth factor to consider: cloud cover. [Read more…]