Timber rattlesnakes threatened by mountaintop removal mining


This 2014 video is called Facts about the basic biology and ecology of timber rattlesnakes.

From the Ecological Society of America in the USA:

Does mountaintop removal also remove rattlesnakes?

Mining operations in Appalachia permanently alter habitat availability for rattlesnakes

January 3, 2019

Summary: Timber rattlesnakes, according to the study’s author, are among the most docile creatures in Appalachia. They choose places to hibernate that are more likely to be surface mined due to their ridgetop locations. Mining thus put this species at a disadvantage and reduces the biodiversity of the area.

On the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Kentucky, surface coal mining is destroying ridgelines and mountaintops, and along with them, the habitat of a surprisingly gentle reptile species — the timber rattlesnake.

“Timber rattlesnakes may be the most docile, calm animals of their size in eastern US forests,” Thomas Maigret, a researcher from the University of Kentucky, said. “On several occasions, I’ve witnessed spiders using a rattlesnake as an anchor for a web. Females, especially, move very infrequently, and pose almost no threat to a careful human.”

Unfortunately for the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) and other species in this region — both plant and animal — surface coal mining requires complete removal of mature forest cover and the upper soil layers. This means that soil is scraped away, rocks disturbed and dug out, plants and trees removed, or the ridgetop landscape flattened and made more uniform to reach the coal buried in the earth. This alteration eliminates many diverse, unique places for animals to live and hibernate. The central Appalachia region spans eastern Kentucky, northeastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and southern West Virginia and is one of the most diverse non-tropical ecosystems in the world with thousands of plant and animal species, many that are only found there.

Maigret and his colleagues tracked timber rattlesnakes in a study published today in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The researchers implanted radio transmitters in snakes of the Cumberland Plateau and tracked their movements until they retreated to hibernation sites in the fall. The data gathered provided a roadmap for identifying other potential hibernating sites, or “hibernacula”, across the study area.

“Snakes of the eastern U.S. vary in their hibernacula selection behavior, and for many species not much is known about hibernacula preferences,” Maigret explained. “For example, many aquatic snakes prefer damp hibernacula near the streams where they reside during the summer. But for other species, any warm, protected crevice they can fit into seems to suffice.”

By analyzing remote-sensing and satellite imagery, mining maps, and permit data from the USGS and other sources, the researchers were then able to determine how mining might affect a wide range of hibernation sites.

They found that because timber rattlesnakes tend to hibernate in the same places that make ideal mines, surface mining disproportionately alters or eliminates their preferred habitat. “Other species with habitat preferences similar to timber rattlesnakes — including some snakes — may also be affected disproportionately by mining. On the other hand,” Maigret said, “species associated with middle or lower slopes will not be affected by mining to the same extent.”

In other words, the mining operations here are selecting against timber rattlesnake habitat, effectively cutting into the region’s biodiversity.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 does not require mining companies to reforest the area to the original mountaintop landscape after mining has wrapped up. The law does dictate that the “approximate original contours” of a site be re-established, in an attempt to not leave the area uninhabitable by the species that once lived there. However, it is rare for forests and biodiversity to fully recover from mining-related disturbances, to the detriment of many animals and their habitats.

Is the damage done to mountain-tops irreversible? While researchers are actively improving the ability to restore habitats on reclaimed mine lands, surface mining acts as an eraser of unique ecosystems, creating a uniform landscape where there once were diverse habitat options. In the Cumberland Plateau, mining leaves conservation and management efforts very little to work with even after an operation restores the approximate original mountaintop landscape.

Still, Maigret is optimistic about the future of restoring mined areas for the docile rattlesnakes. “Coal mining in central Appalachia has serious economic headwinds,” he stated, “and may never return to the rates of surface mining of the late 20th century. Timber rattlesnakes are resilient, and their ability to adapt to previous landscape changes — including massive deforestation in the 19th and early 20th century — should not be underestimated.”

Beaked whales threatened by mining


This 19 March 2018 video says about itself:

This is What Gervais’ Beaked Whales Look Like From Above | National Geographic

This mysterious whale is so elusive that it wasn’t seen alive in the wild until 1998. Gervais’ beaked whales live in the waters of the central and north Atlantic Ocean.

By Carolyn Gramling, 7:05pm, August 21, 2018:

Beaked whales may frequent a seabed spot marked for mining

A series of seafloor grooves look a lot like those made by the deep-diving marine mammals

Whales may have made their mark on the seafloor in a part of the Pacific Ocean designated for future deep-sea mining.

Thousands of grooves found carved into the seabed could be the first evidence that large marine mammals visit this little-explored region, researchers report August 22 in Royal Society Open Science. If deep-diving whales are indeed using the region for foraging or other activities, scientists say, authorities must take that into account when planning how to manage future mining activities.

The Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, or CCZ, is a vast plain on the deep seafloor that spans about 4.5 million square kilometers between Hawaii and Mexico. The region is littered with trillions of small but potentially valuable rocky nodules containing manganese, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements.

Little is known of the seafloor ecosystems in this region that might be disturbed by mining of the nodules. So several research cruises have visited the area since 2013 to conduct baseline assessments of what creatures might live on or near the seafloor.

A 2015 cruise led by Daniel Jones of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton in England is the first to find evidence that suggests that whales may have dived down to visit the seafloor in the region. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle to scan the seafloor at depths from 3,999 meters to 4,258 meters, Jones’ team found 3,539 grooves in all. These depressions tended to be arranged into sequences of as many as 21 grooves, spaced six to 13 meters apart.

It’s difficult to determine exactly when the marks were made, because sediment settles very slowly through the deep water to fill in seafloor depressions. The oldest marks were made within the last 28,000 years, the team estimates. But some newer tracks appear to overlap older tracks.

No known geologic mechanism could produce the grooves, report Jones and his National Oceanography Centre colleagues, deep-sea ecologist Leigh Marsh and marine geoscientist Veerle Huvenne. But living creatures might: Some scientists, including biologist Les Watling of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and marine ecologist Peter Auster of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, previously suggested that certain deep-diving whales, known as beaked whales, can make such markings as they use their beaks to forage for food hiding in the seafloor.

The new research is intriguing, Watling says, but adds that the biggest question mark is whether a beaked whale could really dive so deep. “When we published our paper, we were extending the probable depth of diving of the whale by several hundred meters”, he says. “These authors are doubling the depth that we talked about.” But, he adds, the new paper also points out that some anatomical studies suggest that a Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris), at least, may be able to survive a 5,000-meter dive.

Auster adds that the researchers were careful to consider other possibilities for what might have made the markings and systematically eliminate those options, leaving only the whales. And that’s definitely a matter that prospective miners will have to pay attention to, he says. Before mining proceeds, he says, future seafloors studies in the region should include efforts to detect whales, using passive acoustic monitoring, for instance.

“This is a huge finding”, says Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist at the Natural History Museum in London. She has previously cataloged a wealth of seafloor life in the CCZ, including new genera of jellyfish, starfish and sponges. That abundance may be attributable to the variety of sediment types in the region, she adds: Soft seafloor sediment and hard rocky nodules offer numerous places for life to get a foothold.

But whales can be a game changer, because large, charismatic marine mammals can garner public attention in a way that smaller seafloor-dwellers don’t, she says. Although the new study can’t pinpoint when the grooves were made, she says, “this is why more work needs to be done.” Even if the observed grooves were made by whales thousands of years ago, the whales’ behavior may not have changed significantly in the ensuing years, given the stability of the deep-sea environment.

“I would expect that if they were [making the depressions] a couple of thousand years ago, they’re probably still doing it now,” she says.

To date, the International Seabed Authority, the organization that oversees both mining licenses in international waters and environmental regulation of those regions, has issued 16 exploration contracts within the CCZ. Contractors working in the area must record marine mammal sightings within surface waters, as well as sightings of migratory birds, Amon says.

But, she adds, “the fact that these whales may be diving about a thousand meters deeper than was previously known” — and using seafloor that could be irreparably altered [by mining] — has the potential to change the way we manage the CCZ.”