GOOD

As the World’s Large Animals Disappear, So Does a Vital Ingredient for Life: Their Poop

Earth’s largest conveyors of essential nutrients are disappearing.

Via Flickr user libraryems

One of the important functions large animals play in their ecosystems involves a behavior that they (and we) learn from birth: They don’t poop where they eat. As animals travel through their natural habitats—eating and pooping, eating and pooping—they are also distributing vital nutrients through wide swaths of land and sea.


But what happens as those large animals—like rhinos, whales, and elephants—begin to die off? As research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in the Washington Post demonstrates, losing those creatures’ poop can spell trouble for the environment.

A team of scientists led by Chris Doughty of Oxford University zoomed in on one important nutrient found in animal poop: phosphorus. Phosphates are essential ingredients in all life; they are necessary components in all DNA and in cell membranes. Now that there are fewer large animals, the scientists wondered, is our world less biologically productive?

“I wanted to know whether the world of the past with all the endemic animals was more fertile than our current world,” Doughty told the Post.

The research finds that the world is most certainly less fertile. Compared to the late Quaternary Period (1 million to 500,000 years ago), marine animals are moving phosphorous to the ocean’s surface at 23 percent of their former capacity. And land animals are moving phosphorus from sea to land at just 4 percent of their former rate.

In fact, the scientists warn that the world’s readily accessible supply of phosphate rock could run out in as few as 50 years. “How might civilization sustain agricultural productivity once those supplies are exhausted?” they wonder.

Not all of this decrease can be directly attributed to human activity. But the scientists say that humans are certainly not helping. The aggressive, large-scale hunting of whales (which began in the 17th century) means there are many fewer large marine mammals alive today to bring nutrients to the seas’ surface. Though some conservation efforts have helped to nurture formerly endangered whale populations, many are still threatened by human activity.

Via Flickr user Robbie Shade

The researchers also say that popular methods of raising livestock contribute to the decreased circulation of nutrients. Though large populations of livestock exist in many places—eating and pooping, eating and pooping—their movements are often constrained inside fences or indoor spaces. That means they’re not able to spread nutrients as widely as they once did.

The scientists suggest raising more animals in free-range environments, or in areas with a wider diversity of animal life (“such as cattle, sheep, horses, goats, and camels,” they write).

“A world bereft of large wild animals, whether they are whales, salmon, albatrosses, or elephants, is a less productive place—and one that has lost much of its magic," Joe Roman, a University of Vermont researcher who worked on the study, told the Post. "We can turn these effects around by restoring native populations of large vertebrates around the globe.”

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This article was produced in partnership with the United Nations to launch the biggest-ever global conversation on the role of cooperation in building the future we want.

When half of the world's population doesn't share the same opportunity or rights as the other half, the whole world suffers. Like a bird whose wings require equal strength to fly, humanity will never soar to its full potential until we achieve gender equality.

That's why the United Nations made one of its Sustainable Development Goals to "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." That goal includes providing women and girls equal access to education and health care, as well as addressing gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.

While there is still much work to be done, history shows us that we are capable of making big leaps forward on this issue. Check out some of the milestones humanity has already reached on the path to true equality.

Historic Leaps Toward Gender Equality

1848 The Seneca Falls Convention in New York, organized by Elizabeth Lady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, is the first U.S. women's convention to discuss the oppression of women in sociopolitical, economic, and religious life.

1893 New Zealand becomes the first self-governing nation to grant national voting rights to women.

1903 Marie Curie becomes the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She is also the only woman to win multiple Nobel Prizes, for Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911.

1920 The 19th Amendment is passed in the U.S. giving women the right to vote in all 50 U.S. states.

1973 The U.S. Open becomes the first major sports tournament of its kind to offer equal pay to women, after tennis star Billie Jean King threatened to boycott.

1975 The first World Conference on Women is held in Mexico, where a 10-year World Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women is formed. The first International Women's Day is commemorated by the UN in the same year.

1979 The UN General Assembly adopts the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also known as the "Women's Bill of Rights." It is the most comprehensive international document protecting the rights of women, and the second most ratified UN human rights treaty after the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

1980 Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland becomes the first woman to be elected head of state in a national election.

1993 The UN General Assembly adopts the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the first international instrument to explicitly define forms of violence against women and lay out a framework for global action.

2010 The UN General Assembly creates the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) to speed progress on meeting the needs of women and girls around the world.

2018 The UN and European Union join forces on the Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year initiative focused on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.

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As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is redoubling its commitment to reach all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality. But it will take action and effort from everyone to ensure that women and girls are free from discrimination and violence. Learn more about what is being done to address gender equality and see how you can get involved here.

And join the global conversation about the role of international cooperation in building the future by taking the UN75 survey here.

Let's make sure we all have a say in the future we want to see.

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