American arrested for stealing 299 stuffed birds

Here’s a new low in the annals of crime. An American man has been arrested in England for stealing 299 stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, England.

The unnamed 22 year-old has been arrested in connection with a break in at the museum back in June. The birds that were stolen were all rare and would have fetched a fair amount on the black market, showing that the unnamed suspect knew what he was doing. Most of the stuffed birds have now been recovered.

The Natural History Museum at Tring is famous for its collection of more than 750,000 preserved birds, 95% of all the world’s species. If you’re not in the neighborhood, you can still check out their species of the day, a feature running throughout 2010 in celebration of the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Today’s species is the Welwitschia mirabilis, a plant that can live for up to 1,500 years despite living in the harsh Namib Desert.

This seems to be a mixed year for museums. Hundreds of historic treasures have gone missing in Pennsylvania and the Met had to fork over some stolen Egyptian artifacts.

On the bright side, museum attendance is up as people try to save money by visiting sights close to home. Hopefully none of these folks are stuffing dead critters into their coats.

[Photo courtesy Sarah Hartwell]

One in five vertebrates face extinction

The bad news: One in five vertebrates could go extinct within our lifetime, and the number may rise even higher than that.

The good news: It would be a lot worse if it weren’t for conservation efforts.

That’s the verdict of a global study of 25,000 threatened vertebrate species presented to the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in Nagoya, Japan. It found mammals, amphibians, and birds are especially hard hit, with fifty species a day sliding closer to extinction. The main culprits are logging, agriculture, hunting, and alien species.

Yet conservation efforts are saving some animals. The white rhino, like the ones pictured above, was almost extinct a hundred years ago but is now the most common rhino in Africa and its status has been upped to Near Threatened, meaning that while it still needs to be watched, it’s not in any immediate danger. Here’s where ecotourism comes in handy. For example, Niger is hoping to cash in on safari tours by helping a unique subspecies of giraffe, bringing the population from fifty to two hundred in just a decade. Countries where the white rhinos roam are also pushing ecotourism and safaris.

Another success story is the giant marine reserve created in the South Pacific a few years back. This 73,800 square-mile reserve is one of the world’s largest and was created by Kiribati, one of the world’s smallest countries. If tiny island nations and poverty-ridden countries can help out their animals, one has to wonder why any species in the First World are threatened at all. Major food sources like tuna face extinction and even mythical beasts like the Loch Ness Monster may be extinct. When even our legends are dying out, you know we’re in trouble.

[Photo courtesy Joachim Huber]

New report says Amazon reveals one new species every three days

2010 has been declared the International Year of Biodiversity to help raise awareness of the vast numbers of species that exist on our planet and the challenges that now threaten many of them with extinction. There is no place on the planet that exemplifies the concept of biodiversity like the Amazon jungle, which is home to thousands of different animal species and tens of thousands of plants. But as striking as those numbers are, a new report indicates that we’re still discovering new species at a surprising rate.

The World Wildlife Fund recently released a comprehensive study entitled Amazon Alive: A Decade of Discoveries 1999-2009 which details some of the amazing plants and animals that have been found in the rainforest over the past ten years. During that time frame, a total of 637 plants, 257 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds and 39 mammals have been discovered in the Amazon basin. Those numbers represent one new species of plant or animal has been found every three days for the bast decade!

Amongst the new species that were discovered between 1999 and 2009 are a breed of pink river dolphin that exist only in Bolivia and a new species of anaconda that stretches four meters in length and is a master at hiding amongst the trees. Biologists have also found a bald species of parrot that is spectacularly colored and a large, blue-fanged spider that preys on birds.

In the report the WWF also emphasizes how important it is to protect these species and the rainforest in general. The Amazon plays an important role in our planets ecosystem, and in recent years it has come under threat from massive deforestation efforts.

With a new species found every three days, this is just the tip of the iceberg for what has been uncovered in the Amazon over the past ten years. These kinds of reports are a great reminder about how amazing our planet is, and how much we still have to learn about it. It is also a good reminder of why we should take good care of it as well.

[Photo credit: Chris Funk]

Tree cathedral grows in Northern Italy

Anybody that’s ever been to Europe has surely been inside one of the continent’s many cathedrals. But even if you’ve seen all the stone and stained glass you’d ever care to see, the Northern Italian city of Bergamo is giving the cathedral a fresh look by making one of the structures entirely out of living trees.

The man behind the work is the recently deceased Giuliano Mauri, an Italian artist who was commissioned as part of a project for the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. The frame of the building will initially be made up of more than 1,800 fir tree poles, 600 chestnut branches, and 6000 meters of hazel branch, planted in-between with growths of live Beech trees. As the Beeches grow, the wood frame will decompose, allowing the living trees to take over the structure.

Mauri’s work is not only a novel work of art, it’s an interesting contrast to the more permanent stone halls of worship that have come to dominate our images of Christian Europe. A blending of the natural, the artistic and the religious, all in one. Head on up to Bergamo, about 40km Northeast of Milan, if you’re interested in paying a visit.

[Photo courtesy of]

Wonders of the Kapalua Rainforest

I recently went on a “Maunalei Magic Hike” at the Kapalua Maunalei Arboretum Rainforest in Hawaii, and if you think you have to leave the United States to find rich, tropical biodiversity and exotic plant life you’ve never heard of, think again. The Maunalei Arboretum, just below Pu’u Kukui Watershed Preserve, is home to an endless supply of plants thriving in the volcanic soil — some local, some planted in 1926 by D.T. Fleming. And it’s less than an hour to the nearest Office Max.

I saw many amazing things up there — and ate guava and passion fruit right from the trees — but want to tell you in particular about three: banyan trees, moa and awapuhi.

Banyan trees are ficus relatives which grow to over 100 feet tall and have “aerial roots,” long roots that grow down from the branches and eventually plant themselves in the ground, where they continue to grow and eventually look like tree trunks themselves. The aerial roots can cause one banyan tree to look like a whole forest, as was the case with the particular tree above in the Maunalei Arboretum. This tree was so old and so vast, the ground space it covered was larger than my apartment — and you can swing on the aerial roots (click here to watch me do it) and even bounce on the root-filled ground beneath it (above). Can you do that on your ficus? I bet not.
Moa is, as our guide Jaclyn from Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment center at the Ritz-Carlton (she’s featured in that root-bouncing video above) told us, is “nature’s gold bond powder.” Scrape the little yellow bits off this bright green plant and put them wherever you’re sweating — yes, even in your pants — it’s what Hawaiians have been doing for centuries. Oddly enough, “moa” means “chicken.” The weird, section-y, bumpy texture of the plant made ancient Hawaiians think of a chicken leg.

Awapuhi, also known as “shampoo ginger,” is an ingredient you might find in your Paul Mitchell shampoo. Why? Because if you squeeze that bud, it has a rubbery crunch and a natural shampoo pours out — locals have been known to use just that to wash their hair; no other ingredients necessary.

There are a lot of good reasons to visit Maui, but a hike through the Maunalei Rainforest is one of the best. If you’re still not sold, check out the views from the near-summit (mountaintops are sacred in Hawaii, the path stops just a few feet below) in the gallery!

This trip was paid for by Kapalua Resort & The Ritz-Carlton, but the views expressed within the post are 100% my own.