Tag Archives: science

Protecting common species more important than saving endangered ones, new research suggests

Atlantic Cod, the importance of the ordinary animal

The once common Atlantic cod

In wildlife conservation, people tend to pay closer attention to the disappearing creatures. There is a sense of urgency, and rightfully so, to save the few, but new research indicates that it is the common things that need protecting. For if they go, all the ways that they influence the nature of the world will be so disturbed that even the rare will have nowhere left to go. Let’s face it. If things get so bad that even common critters aren’t around anymore, we’re in deep doo-doo.

The research, led by Kerstin Johannesson with the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, looked specifically at marine systems. Johannesson found that a vast number of species in the oceans are so rare, it’s difficult to find even  a few individuals anymore. “Committing most resources to saving individual species is not just an expensive business – it would also risk destroying the foundation for ecosystems,” states a press release on the study.

Common species, found Johannesson, create habitat for other species, so by protecting them, it’s possible to protect the rare animals as well.  Johannesson uses the once common cod in the fjords of the Bohuslän coast as an example of this phenomenon. Their numbers have virtually disappeared.

“Without the big predatory fish, the sea-grass meadows become clogged, with the result that the shallow bays no longer act as larders and nurseries for inshore fish,” Johannesson stated in a press release.

I don’t know if Johannesson’s conservation strategy is the right way to go, moreso than concentrating on endangered species, but who’s to say that we shouldn’t really implement both tactics? Regardless, I have no doubt that we need to understand better the value of the common creatures. After all preventative conservation, sure does sound a heck of a lot smarter and potentially easier than waiting to clean up a mess.

What are your thoughts?

Lead Researcher:

Kerstin Johannesson of the University of Gothenburg

Contact:

Kerstin Johannesson, Kerstin.Johannesson@marecol.gu.se, 465-266-8611


The lazy animals’ guide to survival

Dormouse in winter sleep

For the dormouse, life can be hard. Raising the kids takes obscene amounts of energy. Anyone’s who’s ever tried to raise one knows these little guys are divas when it comes to feeding time. So dormice only breed when the acorns are good.

To the other extreme, they’re also on a lot of menus: owls, weasels, pine martens and both wild and domestic cats all like to eat them. The poor guy is even called the “edible dormouse.”  Basically, a public life for the dormouse is nothing short of a way to punch the ticket. That’s enough stress to tucker anyone out. So how do these guys survive? By sleeping through 8 months of the year.

You can learn more new science about the dormouse from the new study by Professor Thomas Ruf thomas.ruf@fiwi.at at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna or in the journal paper:

Survival rates in a small hibernator, the edible dormouse: a comparison across Europe by Karin Lebl, Claudia Bieber, Peter Adamík, Joanna Fietz, Pat Morris, Andrea Pilastro and Thomas Ruf at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0587.2010.06691.x/abstract


Inuit knowledge helps scientists learn something new about Arctic weather

Disclosure: I work as the science writer for CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, the institute behind this research.

Inuit forecasters equipped with generations of environmental knowledge are helping scientists understand changes in Arctic weather. (Photo/Shari Gearheard, NSIDC)

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Using skills passed down through generations, Inuit forecasters living in the Canadian Arctic can look to the sky and tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud whether a storm is on the horizon or if it’s safe to go on a hunt.

Thousands of miles away in a lab tucked in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, scientists take data measurements and use the latest computer models to predict weather. They are two practices serving the same purpose that come from disparate worlds.

But in the past twenty years, something has run amok with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don’t mean what they used to. The cloud that scatters could signal a storm that comes in an hour, instead of a day.

Now a melding of indigenous environmental knowledge with modern science is helping researchers learn something new about what’s happening to the Arctic climate.

“It’s interesting how the western approach is often trying to understand things without necessarily experiencing them,” said Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. “With the Inuit, it’s much more of an experiential issue, and I think that fundamental difference brings a completely different emphasis both in defining what the important scientific questions are, and discerning how to address them.”

For years, researchers had heard reports of unpredictable weather coming in from Arctic communities. But their stories didn’t seem to match up with the numbers. By scientific measurement, weather around the world appeared to be growing more persistent with less variation, said Weatherhead. The disparity left scientists scratching their heads.

“I had heard about this problem from other environmental statisticians for a number of years,” said Weatherhead, who also works closely with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and is chief author on a new study on the subject. “But the Inuit used a different language than what we statisticians used, and none of us could really figure out what matched up with their observations.”

That’s where Shari Gearheard, a scientist with CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, also part of CIRES, comes in. Gearheard lives in Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island, and for the past ten years has been working with Inuit hunters and elders to document their knowledge of the environment and environmental change.

Weather carries with it a special importance in Arctic environments, where a reliable forecast can mean the difference between life and death. There are those in the Inuit community who possess the skills to predict the weather, but that’s knowledge that is dying off as both the culture and climate change, said Gearheard.

“The impacts of that are a loss of confidence in those forecasters, and concerns about incorrect forecasts. Forecasters don’t want to send somebody out to go hunting if they’re going to be unsafe and be in poor weather conditions,” said Gearheard.

Gearheard meticulously collects the stories told to her by the Inuit and makes systematic records of indigenous environmental knowledge. Through this, patterns begin to emerge, she said.

Changes experienced during spring, a time of transition for many environmental processes, are of particular importance to the Inuit. During a predictable spring, for example, the Inuit would notice that the top layer of the snow melts during the day and refreezes at night, forming a crust.

“In fact in a lot of places, the season is named after a particular process by the Inuit,” said Gearheard. “In cases like this where the Inuit are not seeing that process anymore, it is an indicator to them that something had changed.”

Gearheard’s records created a resolution of detail for Arctic weather observation that, by bringing the two studies together, gave Weatherhead the information she needed to bridge indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. “What was incredibly helpful was Shari’s detailed description of what they were experiencing on what sort of timescales,” said Weatherhead. “That just really allowed us to start focusing in our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations.”

Statistical analysis of day-to-day temperatures at Baker Lake, Nunavut, showed that in May and June the persistence of temperature had recently declined, matching Inuit reports of greater unpredictability at that season. “People hadn’t previously looked at persistence in this way,” said CIRES fellow Roger Barry, also director of the World Data Center for Glaciology at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and a study co-author along with Gearheard.

What they found was a scientific story more in line with what people were witnessing on the ground. Weather along the Arctic latitudes was behaving more unpredictably than in other parts of the world. “That’s an incredibly important parameter to care about,” said Weatherhead. “The way I try to describe it to some people is if we get an inch of rain out at my house in the month of July, I don’t need to turn on the sprinklers. But if we get an inch of rain on July 1, and no rain after that, my lawn is dead.

Ecosystems have evolved under a certain type of pattern. So if that is changing, that could be just as important as a small increase in temperature or some of the other changes we’re talking about,” Weatherhead said.

The new study helps scientists refine and test climate models, while also providing such models with a new category of information to consider, said Weatherhead. And Gearheard’s work with the Inuit is demonstrating the value of indigenous environmental knowledge to modern climate science.

“When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn’t have the place it does now in research,” Gearheard said. “It’s growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it.”

Weatherhead and Gearheard are intrigued by the insights incorporating indigenous knowledge has provided climate studies, but they don’t want to stop there, they said. The new study has sparked an interest in the type of environmental knowledge other communities could provide to climate scientists, from ranchers and farmers to indigenous groups. “That’s when exciting stuff happens,” said Gearheard. “When you treat these perspectives as different forms of evidence or knowledge and see where that takes you.”

The study appears this month in the journal Global Environmental Change. The National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided funding for the study.


Backcountry trek to study Rocky Mountain National Park fish introductions

Vodpod videos no longer available.more about “Backcountry trek to study Rocky Mount…“, posted with vodpod

 

At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have to say that I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. I work as the science writer for CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. My job doesn’t stop at writing about science. Being a photographer and multimedia producer play equal parts.

In this instance, I got to hit the trail with Jimmy McCutchan and Tommy Detmer, a couple of CIRES scientists studying the effects of fish introductions on formerly fishless lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park. Fish were introduced to support fly fishing from the 1800s until the 1960s. Now the National Park Service is working with CIRES to find out what’s happened to those lakes, knowledge that may help guide future management.

Their study also isn’t a bad way to work a little fly fishing into your science.

You can learn more about CIRES science at cires.colorado.edu, or check out the CIRESvideos channel on YouTube.com.

 


WILD9 World Wilderness Congress: Different toolbox, same mission

Young Professionals and some of histories greatest conservationists gather at the Piedradeagua Hotel in Merida, Mexico, to enjoy some fine dining and discussions of how to conserve our planet. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

WILD9, thrusts you into a different world. Standing among so many of your heroes, legendary conservationists like Jane Goodall, and many of the world’s most renown conservation photographers can be an overwhelming experience, especially for a young professional. Everyone comes from a different background, science, conservation, communication, policy and business. Throw into that mix the intermingling of culture all around us, and it’s hard to know where to focus. And as any photographer can tell you, not knowing where to focus makes us just a little bit nervous.

But as the days pass, a transformation happens, and you start relating to each other as fellow human-beings with a common purpose. We are holding different parts of the puzzle and bringing it all together. We are participants. And after a few days, the mayhem begins to settle until you flow between roles and people and conversations.

Sasha, a young professional from Kamchatka, Russia jumps into a doorway to avoid streets flooded from the rains that hit Merida most likely in connection with Hurricane Ida.

I’ve been lucky. Much of this congress has focused on the role of conservation’s next generation. Of which, I am a part. I’ve had the opportunity to participate on panels, giving talks about how to use new media to further conservation messages. And work with the other young professionals on their media training day. It’s quite clear that we are here for a reason.

Last Tuesday night, many of the young professionals attended a special dinner in the ivy-walled gardens of the Piedradeagua Hotel in Merida. Fellow iLCP emerging league photographer Joe Riis was there, along with young professionals with veterinary backgrounds, community planning, and nature conservation management. And we found ourselves dining with the likes of Dr. Kenneth Miller, former Director General of the IUCN. To me this symbolized the culmination of our partnerships and the importance of meetings like the WILD9 World Wilderness Congress – a community of conservationists, each using a different toolbox, and spanning generations, but working together for the future.


Vegetarian spider also a smarty pants

Female Bagheera kiplingi

Adult female Bagheera kiplingi eats Beltian body harvested from ant-acacia Photo/R.L. Curry

For ages, ants have had a monopoly on the coveted acacia, protecting the plant from would-be predators in exchange for shelter and food, or so they thought. Skulking in the background, and recently discovered, is an unlikely competitor of the ant — a spider. And this is no ordinary arachnid. The Bagheera kiplingi also happens to be a vegetarian, and is the first of its kind known to science.

“This is really the first spider known to specifically ‘hunt’ plants,” said Christopher Meehan of Villanova University. “It is also the first known to go after plants as a primary food source.”

The veggie-loving tendency of this jumping spider was first discovered in Central America back in 2001 by Eric Olson of Brandeis University. Since then he has teamed up with Meehan, who independently observed the jumping spider in 2007, to learn more about this unusual creature and the extent to which it likes plants. Not only is Bagheera kiplingi the only predominant vegetarian of 40,000 known spider species with plants making up more than 90 percent of its diet, but it’s showing scientists a complex side of arachnid biology and behavior that indicates the spider’s diet is just the beginning of this animal’s surprising life history.

Bagheera defense

Adult female Bagheera kiplingi defends her nest against acacia-ant worker. Photo/R.L. Curry

Ants are aggressive defenders of the acacia plant making life difficult for outsiders who attempt to encroach on their turf. After all, they want those yummy beltian bodies all to themselves. So how is the jumping spider managing to exploit the acacia for both food and shelter?

Science is still trying to figure that out, but preliminary research shows the spiders take advantage of the invertebrate equivalent of run-down real estate, setting up residence in less-than-desirable regions of the acacia. But their ingenuity doesn’t stop there. Bagheera kiplingi are outsmarting their ant foes, said Meehan, exploiting their intelligence and agility to get around the ants. “Individuals employ diverse, situation-specific strategies to evade ants, and the ants simply cannot catch them,” he said.

As if to add insult to co-evolution, the ants may not even know when spiders are in their midst. Bagheera kiplingi literally dupes the ant by baring young that look like carbon-copies of the ants, and Meehan has reason to suspect that the spiders actually wear a sort of insect perfume that makes them smell like their would-be attackers.

More research is forthcoming, including a look at the possibility that spider dad’s help raise the babies, a virtually unheard of behavior in spider biology. In the meantime, I hear Meehan and Olson’s methods included high-definition video of these smarty-pant vegetarian spiders. Now that would be some footage to see.

Meehan and Olson’s study is available in the October 12 issue of Current Biology.


The high fidelity of alligator love

Two American Alligators (Photo/Matthew Field)

Two American Alligators (Photo/Matthew Field)

Oh alligator love, it’s not as fickle as you might think. Get on a gator’s good side and you may just have found a friend for life, if you’re another alligator of course.

In a study that combines field science with molecular biology, researchers from the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory found that alligators were surprisingly loyal partners and akin to birds in their mating habits. The discovery offers new insights into evolutionary links and behavior of crocodilians, birds and dinosaurs – and certainly, at least where one science writer is concerned, proving there is a lot more going on behind those alligator eyes than a cold reptilian stare.

Researchers trapped and re-trapped alligators at Louisiana’s Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, 76,000 acres of alligator dream real estate bordering the Gulf of Mexico. “Given how incredibly open and dense the alligator population is at RWR, we didn’t expect to find fidelity,” said researcher Stacey Lance. “I don’t think any of us expected that the same pair of alligators that bred together in 1997 would still be breeding together in 2005 and may still be producing nests together to this day.”

Crocodilians have already proven to be more invested in the care of their offspring than most other reptiles, actively nurturing young and defending nests. Crocodiles are even known as considerate egg-layers. As a female drops the egg, she will blindly catch it with a hind leg before it hits the ground and gently place it in the nest. But up until now alligators were thought to be polygamous, mating with several different partners and leading to many fathers for a single nest.

After ten years of following alligators at the refuge, scientists Lance, Travis Glenn, Ruth Elsey and Tracey Tuberville discovered that 70 percent of female alligators stick with who they like. Even if they have multiple partners, the same bachelors get picked year after year, regardless of whether females encounter a new slew of potential suitors.

The study marks the first time fidelity has been observed in any crocodilian species. “In this study, by combining molecular techniques with field studies, we were able to figure something out about a species that we never would have known otherwise,” said Lance. “Hopefully future studies will also lead to some unexpected and equally fascinating results.”

Results of the study were published in the October 7 issue of Molecular Ecology.


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