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In February, scientists at a government wildlife breeding facility in northern Colorado announced a breakthrough: They had cloned, for the first time, an endangered species native to North America. It was a black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann.
The idea behind this yearslong effort to clone endangered ferrets was one of preservation. The existing population is small and lacks genetic diversity — all of the remaining ferrets are as closely related as siblings or first cousins — making it more vulnerable to threats like disease. Cloning animals that lived decades ago, when more individuals roamed the Great Plains, is a way to inject much-needed new genes into the mix. Scientists cloned Elizabeth Ann using DNA from a ferret that lived in the 1980s.
“I think these technologies can really provide a basis for ensuring that we have wildlife populations in the future,” Oliver Ryder, director of conservation genetics at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, who was involved in the cloning process, told NPR in March.
Black-footed ferrets weren’t the only animals to score major victories in 2021. Monarch butterflies that overwinter in California rebounded, year over year, for example, and a small fish at the center of a pivotal Supreme Court case in the 1970s is now officially considered to have recovered.
But it was also a year of losses. In the US, wildlife officials formally declared almost two dozen species extinct. Meanwhile, environmental catastrophes, from severe drought in Arizona to oil spills in California, took countless animal lives.
Which is to say: Through the eyes of wildlife, 2021 was a year of highs and lows. Here are 11 kinds of animals that experienced these extremes; each of them teaches a lesson for us to carry into the new year.
We recognized octopuses, lobsters, and crabs as sentient beings
Octopuses seem to feel irritated with each other on occasion. Sometimes, females launch silt at males that won’t leave them alone, according to some scientists, and they’re also known to squirt ink at unsuspecting researchers when kept in a lab. But is that all they feel? Do the eight-armed creatures experience pain? Sadness? Happiness?
A report published this year in the UK found evidence to show that octopuses — as well as lobsters, crabs, and some other sea creatures known as decapods and cephalopods — are sentient. That means they have the capacity to have feelings, such as pleasure or pain. “A sentient being is ‘conscious’ in the most elemental, basic sense of the word,” the authors of the report, commissioned by the UK government, wrote.
Following the report, the animals joined an official list of sentient creatures that could get protection in the country under a new animal welfare bill. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which is now under debate, could require all parts of the UK government to consider animal sentience when crafting policies. The bill had previously only recognized animals with backbones, known as vertebrates, as sentient beings.
“The Animal Welfare Sentience Bill provides a crucial assurance that animal well-being is rightly considered when developing new laws,” Lord Zac Goldsmith, the UK’s Animal Welfare Minister, said in November. “The science is now clear that decapods and cephalopods can feel pain and therefore it is only right they are covered by this vital piece of legislation.”
Scientists learned that endangered California condors can reproduce without a mate
If you’ve ever tried to hatch an egg from a carton in the refrigerator — guilty! — then you probably know it doesn’t work. One of the problems is that those eggs aren’t fertilized — that is, a rooster hasn’t inseminated the hen who laid them. No sperm, no baby birds. Right?
Not always. This fall, geneticists uncovered two cases where endangered California condors laid unfertilized eggs that hatched, producing chicks with genes that come only from their mother. It’s the first known case of what’s called “virgin birth,” or parthenogenesis, within the avian species. (As the Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang points out, the females that laid those eggs are not technically virgins because they had previously produced young with other males.)
The discovery was especially surprising because virgin births are rare among birds, and so far seen only in turkeys, finches, and domestic pigeons. It also suggests the phenomenon may be more common than scientists previously thought.
Parthenogenesis could potentially help some species recover from a decline in their population. California condors are threatened with extinction; there were just over 500 of them in 2020, up from a low of 23 in 1982. Yet there’s also evidence that some animals born through parthenogenesis — including the two condors — have health issues, such as stunted growth, Zhang writes.
The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared extinct
The year wasn’t as kind to one of the most charismatic and controversial animals in the US: the ivory-billed woodpecker. In September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to formally declare the bird extinct. It’s been decades since the last verifiable sighting of the species in the old-growth swamp forests of the southeastern US, the birds’ native habitat, although there is debate within the scientific community today over whether it is, indeed, gone for good. The government declared another 22 species extinct, as well, including the Bachman’s warbler and several kinds of freshwater mussels, based on the “best available scientific and commercial information.”
As we’ve previously reported, it’s hard to prove a species is extinct with 100 percent certainty. The ivory-billed woodpecker had become something of a poster child for “missing” species as habitat loss caused the crow-sized bird to decline. This made them increasingly rare and more difficult to spot. The government officially classifying the animal as extinct marks the end of an era.
We can try to learn something from these losses, and let them shape our approach to species preservation in the years ahead. Some scientists say we need to fundamentally rethink our hyper-focus on charismatic species like the ivory-billed woodpecker, because doing so diminishes a much larger scale of loss that’s flying under the scientific (and political) radar. It’s about paying attention to other metrics of loss — and also looking at what’s been gained.
“I’m a strong believer in flipping this on its head and really starting to talk about the positive stories,” Barney Long, senior director of conservation strategies at the nonprofit Re:wild, told Vox in September. Extinction is what we want to avoid, he added, “but what do we want to achieve?”
A once-famous fish recovered, proving environmental laws can rescue endangered species
In late August, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that a tiny fish called the snail darter — once threatened in rivers of the southeastern US — is no longer at risk of going extinct.
Despite its small size, the snail darter is a big deal. Named after the river snails it eats, the 3-inch fish became the center of a legal battle in the late 1970s that made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
It’s a long story, but here’s the gist: In 1975, the US government gave the fish protection under the then-new Endangered Species Act. At the time, a developer was constructing a dam that threatened the fish’s survival, so a small team of lawyers from the University of Tennessee sued the developer and the case advanced through the courts. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the fish because it was protected under the Act, and stopped the construction. It was the first case to demonstrate the power of the Endangered Species Act.
“It may seem curious to some that the survival of a relatively small number of three-inch fish among all the countless millions of species extant would require the permanent halting of a virtually completed dam for which Congress has expended more than $100 million,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in 1978. “We conclude, however, that the explicit provisions of the Endangered Species Act require precisely that result.”
After the Supreme Court ruling, Congress passed an amendment that exempted the dam from review under the Endangered Species Act, which President Jimmy Carter signed into law in 1979. The dam was completed shortly after. Nonetheless, over the next four decades, the fish recovered — thanks, in part, to efforts to relocate it to new, healthier areas. Today, there are at least 16 breeding populations of the fish, the government said.
Monarch butterflies rebounded in California
More than 200,000 Western monarch butterflies streamed into the California coastline this fall, where they’ll cluster in tall trees to ride out the winter. That’s up from less than 2,000 of the iconic butterflies that volunteers counted in California last year.
“This is the largest increase in a single year in terms of percentages,” Emma Pelton, senior conservation biologist for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, told the Laguna Beach Independent in December. “Insect numbers bounce around and this is a bounce up.”
Monarchs make epic migrations each spring and fall, not unlike migratory birds. The butterflies that breed east of the Rocky Mountains travel to one patch of forest in Central Mexico — a journey of more than 2,000 miles — and those that live west of the range overwinter in California.
Over the last few decades, industrial farming and pesticides have decimated native milkweed, the only plants that monarch caterpillars can eat. That’s caused a steep decline in the number of butterflies that winter in California and Mexico.
Although millions of monarchs used to arrive in California each fall, this year’s tally is still an encouraging sign. It indicates that monarchs, like many insects, can recover quickly under the right conditions. “They lay hundreds of eggs,” Karen Oberhauser, a monarch expert and professor of entomology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, told Vox in December. “Good conditions can lead to quick increases in their numbers.”
Thousands of salmon died in marine heatwaves
For Pacific salmon, the year hit a boiling point.
The destruction of streams, over-fishing, and dams already threaten the fish across the western US, and drought and rising temperatures linked to climate change are only fueling the problem. Wildlife officials in California said they expected young Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River to face a “near-complete loss” because the water was simply too hot this summer. (Warm water can wreak havoc on the salmon immune system, making them more susceptible to disease, and can also cause birth defects by speeding up development.) This explains the state Fish & Wildlife Department’s plan to haul 17 million salmon in trucks, from spawning grounds to chillier coastal waters, in efforts to help the fish recover.
Meanwhile, sockeye salmon in the Columbia River “boiled alive” this summer when a record-setting heat wave raised the water temperature above the threshold that salmon can endure. Thousands of Chinook salmon in Washington State also fell victim to a bacteria that thrives in heat. (Hundreds of people across the Pacific Northwest and Canada died in the heat waves, in addition to more than an estimated 1 billion marine animals.)
The situation is now so dire for salmon that scientists are running out of fish to study. “We’re at the point with some populations where we have to be hands-off” and not take any, Steven Cooke, a biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, told Hakai Magazine earlier this month. “We don’t want to study them to extinction.”
Not all salmon are in decline, however, and many people and tribes are working to help those that are. Indigenous communities in Alaska are banding together to help wild salmon, as High Country News reported. Declining salmon populations in the Klamath River have prompted Yurok tribal elders to work “to restore the river and reclaim Indigenous food sovereignty,” as the Guardian reported. And in June, a major legal victory came down in favor of Alaska Native corporation protecting its land, including sockeye habitat. The ruling goes against a large proposed gold mine project that tribes say would threaten the salmon grounds.