The Eastern cougar, aka the "ghost cat," is officially extinct, the U.S. [skipwords]Fish[/skipwords] and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday. The elusive subspecies has likely been extinct for a long time, with the last confirmed sighting in 1938, but the FWS had to sift through decades of reported sightings to rule out the chance of isolated holdouts. They found none, though, suggesting the eastern cougar really is gone forever.

So why do people keep seeing cougars in the East? The reason, the FWS explains, is that the western cougar is now expanding its range, following the coyote's eastward migration across the country. Much like coyotes are filling an ecological void left by overhunted wolves, western cougars may be filling in for their extinct eastern cousins. "We still have cougars and mountain lions in the United States that look identical to what we had in eastern North America, and that's probably what people are still seeing," FWS cougar expert Mark McCollough tells CNN. "But the scientific and historical evidence point to the conclusion that the eastern cougar subspecies has not existed for a while." In fact, it may never have existed — as the New York Times reports, many biologists now believe it was mistakenly classified as a distinct subspecies in the first place, since it bears little difference from the western cougar. 

Regardless, the now-extinct cougars of the East are yet another casualty of European settlers and American colonists, who were typically brutal to any predator that might threaten livestock. States even put out bounties on cougars in the name of livestock protection, part of a broad anti-predator campaign that killed off cougars, wolves, brown bears and many other meat-eaters. "There was a general attitude back in the late 1700s and early 1800s that any predator was a bad predator," McCollough says. "Some were created worse than others, and cougars were among the worst." The FWS is now working to remove eastern cougars from the endangered species list, making them the 20th U.S. species to officially die off since 1973. But with close relatives repopulating its range, the ghost cat may also be among the lucky few "extinct" animals that ends up returning from the dead.

(Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CNN, New York Times)


Corn-based ethanol is making a comeback, the Los Angeles Times reports, thanks largely to ongoing tumult in the Middle East and North Africa that has sent crude oil prices surging. Domestic U.S. ethanol production reached record levels in 2010, pushing beyond 13.2 billion gallons for the year, according to the Washington-based Renewable Fuels Association.

This couldn't come at a better time for the U.S. ethanol industry, which had to shutter many processing plants during the recession but is now able to start reopening some of them. And according to RFA president Bob Dinneen, the timing is good for America overall, too. "At a time of increased energy uncertainty and volatility, domestic ethanol production ... is helping create the kind of economic and energy opportunities this country will need to regain control over our future," he tells the Times. But this corn-fuel revival isn't all due to overseas chaos — it's also the handiwork of Congress. Worried about foreign-oil reliance, lawmakers mandated in 2008 that the U.S. quadruple its biofuel use to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, with corn-based ethanol guaranteed a 15 billion-gallon share of that market. That's on top of the 45 cent-per-gallon federal tax credit that corn ethanol already receives, not to mention its various state subsidies.

Corn ethanol is already blended into about 10 percent of most unleaded gasoline in the U.S., and the EPA recently approved blends with up to 15 percent ethanol. That might ease the pain of high gas prices, especially since a barrel of oil now costs more than $100 and a gallon of gas is averaging $3.39 nationwide. But not everyone is as pleased by the corn-fuel comeback as Bob Dinneen — many environmentalists say subsidies would be better spent on next-gen biofuels that don't prop up the big agribusinesses and oil companies that dominate the ethanol industry. Many also worry about allocating so much corn for fuel instead of food; an estimated 35 percent of all U.S. corn crops will be devoted to ethanol in 2011, a ratio that some say could drive up food prices. "We have to become energy-independent," former President Bill Clinton said at a USDA conference last month. "[But] we don't want to do it at the expense of food riots."

(Source: Los Angeles Times)


The Earth has endured five "mass extinctions" in the past — with more than 75 percent of all its species disappearing each time — but there hasn't been one since an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That's about to change, though: According to a new study in the journal Nature, a group of biologists and paleontologists warn we're now on the cusp of the planet's sixth mass extinction, and the first during the era of humans.

That isn't exactly breaking news, however, since scientists have been warning about a sixth mass extinction since at least the 1990s. Species of [skipwords]birds, plants, frogs and fish[/skipwords] are shrinking and vanishing at a rate never before seen in human history, and it's widely believed that people are at least partly to blame. But the new Nature study does offer a novel twist to this warning: It might not be too late. The threat of a global die-off is still in an early enough stage that there's hope for stopping it, the study's authors write, if we can just figure out how. "It's not hopeless," paleobiologist and lead author Anthony Barnosky tells USA Today. "Earth's biodiversity is really in pretty good shape, if we can just slow the train of extinction." 

The key phrase there is "pretty good shape," however, since swaths of the plant and animal kingdoms are hanging on by a thread. There are 18,351 species listed as threatened worldwide by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 1,940 of those are "critically endangered," meaning their populations will drop by 80 percent within three generations. If all those animals continue on their current paths and die off — and the overall extinction rate continues unchanged — then we could officially have a sixth global extinction on our hands within 300 years, the authors warn. "Walk outside, look around and imagine three-fourths of all the different kinds of life you see gone," Barnosky says. "Ask yourself if you'd be happy living in that world."

(Sources: USA Today, e! Science News)


Scientists have discovered four distinct species of a Brazilian jungle fungus that turns ants into "zombie" slaves, the Guardian reports, shedding new light onto one of the most bizarre phenomena in biology. The Ophiocordyceps fungus is famous for infecting the brains of carpenter ants, making them abandon their duties and eerily wander off to an elevated location. There they die, allowing the fungus to erupt from their bodies and release its spores into the wind, which carries them on to other hosts (pictured is a related Cordyceps fungus erupting from a wasp).

Detailed in the journal PLOS One, David Hughes of Penn State University and Harry Evans of CABI identified four species of Ophiocordyceps, all living in the Atlantic rain forest in Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil (not in the Amazon). The fungus was first recorded in 1859 by Alfred Russel Wallace, the famed naturalist and peer of Charles Darwin, who found two specimens in Indonesia. Other specimens were later found in the Amazon but were lost, leaving a gap in our scientific understanding of this incredible creature. But that's where Hughes and Evans came in, outlining four distinct species in eastern Brazil that each targets a different variety of carpenter ants. They also found that the fungus has backup plans in case its drifting spores don't quickly infect another ant: Spores that sit on the forest floor for more than a day slowly grow a second spore that stands upright from the ground, allowing it to latch onto ants as they pass.

"It's a fabulously complex organism," Hughes tells the Guardian. "There is a beauty to the whole thing, whether it is the chemicals at work that take over the ant, or the spores, which try one strategy and then another to find a host on the forest floor."

(Source: Guardian)


The U.S. Interior Department is founded, the U.S. Geological Survey is founded, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (western cougar in the Rocky Mountains): ZUMA Press

Photo (corn ethanol plant in Winthrop, Minn.): ZUMA Press

Illustration (asteroid that killed the dinosaurs): National Science Foundation

Photo (Cordyceps fungus erupting from a dead wasp): Wikimedia Commons

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.