News Briefs March 30, 2017

Bumble bee species declared endangered

The rusty patched bumble bee, more technically known as Bombus affinis, has become the first species of bumble bee to be declared endangered and listed as such. On Mar. 21, legislation passed allowing for the species to gain federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 (National Geographic, “First U.S. Bumblebee Officially Listed as Endangered,” 3.22.2017). Prior, several species of Hawaiian bees received protection under the same act last September (The Washington Post, “Bees Were Just Added to the U.S. Endangered Species List for the First Time,” 10.3.2016). The Obama administration had intended to officially list the rusty patched bumble bee as endangered on Feb. 10, but as the new presidency settled into office, one of Trump’s issued executive orders put a hold on the federal regulation.

In their executive summary, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the rusty patched bumble bee had significantly declined in both abundance and distribution. Before 1999, the species had been observed at 926 populations, but as of now, numbers have dropped to a mere 103 populations—meaning there has been an 88 percent decline (USA Today, “Environmental Group Sues Trump Over Delay of Listing Bee as Endangered”, 2.15.2017). The range of the species has also fallen drastically as well. Originally, the rusty patched bumble bee had occupied areas stretching across the East, upper Midwest and southern Quebec and Ontario—which included 15 ecoregions, 31 states and provinces and 394 U.S. counties and 38 county-equivalents in Canada (Federal Register, “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Endangered Species Status for Rusty Patched Bumble Bee,” 1.11.2017). Since 2000, the species has occupied only six ecoregions, 14 states and provinces and about 55 counties in total. The loss of distribution indicates that the species is slowly losing habitable environments.

The reasons for the decline of the species range from habitat loss induced by climate change to the use of insecticides on crops. Widespread use of insecticides ends up harming bees more than the intended pests. Fungicides and herbicides have more of an indirect influence as they affect these animals by reducing available floral resources. They end up being absorbed by plants, and the toxins find their way to the pollen and nectar (Scientific American, “U.S. Lists a Bumble Bee Species as Endangered for First Time”, 1.11.2017). Moreover, climate change has caused irregular flooding, droughts, increased temperature and precipitations. This leads to the degradation of the habitats in which the rusty patch bumble bee lives and further destruction of potential food sources (NPR, “U.S. Puts Bumblebee on the Endangered Species List for 1st Time,” 2.11.2017).

The rusty patched bumble bee’s listing as an endangered species means the federal government must take drastic measures in order to prevent the collapse of the species. This means formulating a plan of actions that can include a vast array of tools such as imposed restrictions on insecticides, the preservation of habitats and publicity campaigns to raise public awareness (The Verge, “After Some Bumbling, a Bee Buzzes onto the Endangered Species List,” 2.21.2017). Ultimately, the rusty patched bumble bee’s addition to the endangered species list has been a victory for environmental advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. Still, concerns have been raised about whether the Trump administration will end up weakening the ESA and gutting the budgets of agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in favor of more economically friendly regulations (Time, “A Bumble Bee Species is Now Officially Endangered in the U.S.,” 3.22.2017). Pollination has already declined globally and the loss of more bee species could spell out a disaster in the near future.

-Steven Huynh, Guest Reporter

Cold Case of “Ötzi” the Iceman Reopened by Munich Detective

When Angelika Fleckinger called Detective Inspector Alexander Horn about a cold case in need of another look, Horn was less than optimistic. He specializes, after all, in homicide cases gone cold for the Munich Police Department in southern Germany.

Fleckinger was calling, luck would have it, for help investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of “Ötzi,” a Neolithic Man preserved until the 1990s—organs, skin, and all—in the now-melting glaciers of the Alps. The site of Ötzi’s discovery on Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley glacier is located in the same modern-day province of Italy as the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, the institution which has housed the Iceman’s remains since 1998. The Museum is also Fleckinger’s place of employment.

The Neolithic man has captured public interest since his discovery by two hikers in the Ötzal Alps, in a popular tourist area on Italy’s border with Austria. His remains, dated around 5,000 years old, are among the oldest of their kind, and by far the best preserved. His personal effects, which were also found intact, include hunting and cooking gear, such as a small dagger and sheath of arrows, as well as clothing made from the fur of ten distinct animal species. Standing at 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 110 pounds, the “Iceman” was likely around 45 years old—yet still in his physical prime, even as he was approaching old age by the standards of the Copper Age (The Huffington Post, “Solving the 5,000-Year-Murder of Otzi the Iceman,” 2.11.16).

Early theories have speculated that Ötzi was a lost shepherd, a shaman, or a victim of ritual sacrifice. The presence of a valuable copper ax among his belongings, however, as well as the fact that his hands had been spared the lifelong wear and tear of manual labor, suggests that Ötzi was no common field hand during his life.

Inspector Horn hypothesizes that Ötzi was passing through the area after having visited a village in the neighboring valley, a supposition supported by recent research—the contents of the Iceman’s stomach, as well as the pollen of hornbeam blossoms found in his lungs and digestive tract, indicate that he had travelled from another mountainous region nearby and subsequently through an area of lower elevation within the previous 48 hours. (National Geographic, “Last Hours of the Iceman,” 9.07.).

It was during this respite in the village that the Iceman likely sustained a deep injury to his hand, which cut through to the bone and could have been debilitating. “It was a very active defense wound, and interesting in the context that no other injuries are found on the body, no major bruises or stab wounds, so probably he was the winner of that fight, even possibly he killed the person who tried to attack him.” (The New York Times, “Who Killed the Iceman? Clues Emerge in a Very Cold Case,” 3.28.17).

The Iceman was fatally shot with an arrow to his left ribcage a mere half hour after digesting his last meal, a fact that Inspector Horn maintains reveals a lack of urgency on the part of Ötzi. This lack of urgency, Horn reasons, rules out his assailant from the day previous as the perpetrator of the eventual homicide.

-Ashley LaMere, Guest Reporter

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