Research is continually emerging on the impacts of invasive species, pollution and environmental disasters on ecosystems and communities. Ecological scientists discussed widespread environmental changes - from the recent discovery of genetically modified plants in the wild to the implications of mercury found in bottlenose dolphin skin - at the Ecological Society of America's 95th Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, US in August.
Genetically modified canola plants in the wild
Scientists currently performing field research in North Dakota, US, have discovered the first evidence of established populations of genetically modified plants in the wild. Meredith G. Schafer from the University of Arkansas and colleagues from North Dakota State University and the US Environmental Protection Agency established transects of land along 5,400km of interstate, state and county roads in North Dakota from which they collected, photographed and tested 406 canola plants.
The results provide strong evidence that transgenic plants have established populations outside of agricultural fields in the US. Of the 406 plants collected, 347 (86%) tested positive for CP4 EPSPS protein (confers tolerance to glyphosate herbicide) or PAT protein (confers tolerance to glufosinate herbicide).
"There were also two instances of multiple transgenes in single individuals," said one of the study's coauthors Cynthia Sagers, University of Arkansas. "Varieties with multiple transgenic traits have not yet been released commercially, so this finding suggests that feral populations are reproducing and have become established outside of cultivation. These observations have important implications for the ecology and management of native and weedy species, as well as for the management of biotech products in the US."
Detecting mercury in bottlenose dolphins
Since 1997, researchers have been collecting skin biopsies from the Sarasota Bay, in Florida, US, bottlenose dolphin population as part of an ongoing health monitoring program. Debra L. Miller from the University of Georgia and colleagues performed the first histopathological examination of the biopsies to determine the possible adverse effects and mechanisms of tissue distribution of mercury in the bottlenose dolphin population.
In their presentation the scientists reported, among other findings, that mercury concentrations increased in dolphin biopsy samples as the dolphins aged. Results also suggest greater binding of mercury in the skin during the winter season and a possible link between mercury concentration and keratin production. Miller discussed implications for the conservation of dolphins and other animals and for future knowledge on mercury and human health.
Environmental disasters in the US
During the Opening Plenary Panel at ESA's Annual Meeting, a panel of experts discussed several case studies from prominent environmental disasters, including the discovery of Asian carp in the Great Lakes and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig accident, and will address the ways in which society assesses risk and reacts to, instead of prevents, grave outcomes.
Robert Twilley from Louisiana State University, an expert in wetlands on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, highlighted how wetland degradation exacerbated the impact of hurricanes in the region and discussed the recent oil disaster in the Gulf. - (EurekAlert!, August 2010)