Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Song of the Dodo: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

One of the lasting questions that Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction left me with was this: Was the evolutionary tree marked to be significantly pruned with the evolution of the large brained (shortsighted) human primates some 200,000 years ago?  As I read Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo that is the subject I most ponder.  Humans traveling the world in energy efficient wind-powered boats were doing what they could to ensure they would survive by inserting themselves into the food webs of the places they traveled.  Food must have dominated their thoughts, traveling across the world with limited provisions, with the prospect of potentially getting stranded out at sea by lack of wind or some other calamity.  Many of these food webs lacked large mammalian predators, so were painfully vulnerable to the odd sailor with a club and a growling stomach.  Their actions were largely out of ignorance of biogeography and endemism of island species.  And who could blame a hungry person for feeding her or himself? Certainly, they had no idea of the evolutionary tree or that they were in fact changing evolutionary history by their actions. 

As news was reported of the extinction of the northern white rhino this spring, I could feel it in my gut, despite realizing these slow-reproducing, large mammals with small populations were likely doomed in a world with humans, just as the mammoths and mastodons may have been when human population was small, but effective.  Just as the species of so many of the islands containing rare endemics are ill fated in a world of humans.  Death and destruction—“Rarity unto Death” as Quammen puts it.  Moreover, we know that the coming months and years will bring similar stories with many species facing the low population sizes and low genetic diversity, which precede extinction.

The 21st century is a test of the human brain’s aptitude to show some foresight.  Five-hundred years ago, (or even 100-150 years ago, really), we didn’t have the knowledge base to fully understand patterns of diversity and extinction, and the extent of the role we were playing or could play.  The knowledge base has changed, but will our actions?  Given the actions we’ve seen so many of our politicians take in the presence of abundant data, I wouldn’t bet on it; they so often *choose* ignorance (and they are not alone, since they are serving as the will of the voters).  How can any species willingly choose ignorance?  We have more data than we’ve ever had—enough information to know at least generally what actions to take. But what will we do?  Is it the nature of humans, like other animals, to serve only the needs of the here and now, or do we have a greater capacity? 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Song of the Dodo: Wallace (and Darwin) and Puzzles

I remember a scientist saying that many of the amphibians around the world are going to go extinct and that it would be better to stop extreme conservation efforts and, rather, study these species so that we will know what we have lost.  What we are losing.  I think this scientist was speaking from a dark place in the face of unprecedented declines.  In other words, he wasn’t in his happy place.  For those of us who love the natural world, it is sometimes hard to find *that* place where we can be filled enough with curiosity and wonder to prevent our knowledge of biodiversity loss trespass into the moment.  

I just started reading The Song of the Dodo (1996) by David Quammen with some other folks in the department—I predict we are going to a dark place eventually, but we are not there yet.  What has struck me most is the journey of Alfred Russel Wallace into the Amazon then onto the Malayan Archipelago.  Or maybe it is simply Wallace who strikes my fancy.  In modern times he would be a first-generation college student.  He does not profit from family wealth or connections, but rather from sheer skill, determination, and tenacity—and a little luck, both bad and good.  It was enough.  As he struggled to figure out how to explain the relationships between species on islands and the mainland, he reached out to his more privileged mentors who sometimes helped him, but who also may have taken advantage of his professional naïveté.  By all rights, Wallace could have scooped Darwin and had he been a little more competitive, perhaps Darwin would be the parenthetical scientist.   Wallace clearly had a more focused vision of what he was looking for when he headed out to study islands than Darwin had when he was collecting his mockingbirds and finches willy-nilly, it turns out, in the Galapagos, failing even to label the islands his specimens came from.  (Given that Captain Fitz-Roy and Darwin’s manservant had labeled *their* collections, one does wonder how young Darwin could have been so lackadaisical. Those of us who have made mistakes in science, however, should sympathize and forgive—I suspect we have all kicked ourselves more than once…and the heat of the field season can cause a poor decision or two.)

Wallace’s (and Darwin’s) world was already missing pieces of the biological puzzle, although they had not fully grasped that extinction was a grim reality as they bagged animal after animal to sell and to study.  They were already part of the beginning of the sixth extinction even if their world was much less trampled then. Even if we could travel back in time to whisper in Wallace’s ear of what is to come—to offer warnings of caution and restraint—should we?  If biodiversity was doomed with the evolution of humans, as Elizabeth Kolbert suggests in The Sixth Extinction and as a good look around would bolster, then perhaps my gloomy colleague was right: best to study these species now to know what we have lost.  In which case, we forgo the challenge of time travel, except for what we find in these pages of history and in the natural history museums that proffer a glimpse back into a world we will never put quite back together.  A glimpse offered by the likes of Wallace and others who better recorded what was found, and seen, and heard, than any who glimpsed a dodo.       

Enjoying the magic of David Quammen’s writing and wondering to what point of despair we are now headed as we read into “The Rarity Unto Death.”    

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Conservation in the News: Some Like It Hot

It's another exciting semester in Conservation Biology and I am helping my students find an excuse to read the newspapers with a little newsy assignment.  The assignment even distracted me briefly from obsessively reading about politics (notice my very neutral tone, achieved with the restraint of every saintly virtue I possess [which is remarkable given how very few saintly virtues I actually possess]). And there's more than climate change out there in the news...there's also vertebrates and climate change!

I came across an interesting report by Chelsea Harvey in Scientific American on a new study that examined the niche evolution and the distribution of vertebrate diversity of endotherms (birds & mammals) relative to ectotherms (amphibians & reptiles) by Rolland and colleagues, and it looks like bad news for our beloved ectotherms.  Those of us who have been obsessed with amphibian population declines since the 1990s will not be terribly surprised, but this study does make one ponder. Rolland et al.’s  data set had over 18 million occurrences of over 11,000 extant birds, mammals, reptiles, & amphibians combined with occurrence documented with fossils.  They found that endothermy was associated with faster niche evolution than ectotherms (see their figure below), which may result from a wider distribution across latitudes, greater dispersal abilities, and greater warming and feeding of their offspring compared with ectotherms.  

So basically, the ectotherms do not appear to be as flexible to responding to environmental change, while endotherms have be able to expand their distribution to a greater extent and evolve at faster rates, all of which Rolland et al. argues has serious repercussions in the midst of global climate change.  All organisms have thermal limits, but because reptiles and amphibians often use behavioral thermoregulation to maintain their body temperature at optimal levels, rapid environmental changes may leave them outside of the optimal temperatures more often, which may negatively impact population persistence and result in range contractions or extinction. 

I wonder how life history traits, like longevity and generation time, may also contribute to a species ability to respond to climatic change.  Many argue the furry megafauna have been doomed since the arrival of humans, and surely they are not able to respond to environmental changes as quickly.  In the end, it may be the furry and feathered underdogs who have the advantage.  With world enough and time, and political leaders with no willingness to deal curb the effects of climate change, I suppose we will find out.  [That is reality, so no saintly restraint appeared to be needed.]

P.S. I hope the journalist realizes that amphibians are not reptiles—they appeared to be equally doomed, yet she seemed to forget them.  Don’t get me wrong, I love reptiles more than the next person, but amphibians put the C in cool.  Given the unprecedented declines in amphibians, limits to climatic niche evolution may be yet another factor that could contribute and one that we have not be explicitly considering.

P.P.S. Birds are reptiles. I know, it's crazy. It's not what we learned back in the olden days, but in the 21st century, birds are reptiles. 


Harvey, C.  2018. Warming threatens reptiles more than birds and mammals.  Scientific American, January 30, 2018.

Rolland, J., D. Silvestro, D. Schluter, A. Guisan, O. Broennimann, and N. Salamin. 2018. The impact of endothermy of the climatic niche evolution and the distribution of vertebrate diversity.  Nature Ecology & Evolution doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0451-9.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Science March, Oxford, OH: Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like

It was DATA that led Rachel Carson to write these words in Silent Spring (1962): 

"We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts. It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts."

Her words helped start the environmental movement and led to legislation that would require scientific evidence to evaluate the risks of pesticides on living organisms.

Science does not tell us what to do or what is sacred, but it allows us to act or not to act based on the things we value in our society, informed with the available information. We can decide that a widespread pesticide that increases the risk of cancer or that interferes with reproduction should continue to be used (there may be societal reasons to justify it)—or we could decide to closely regulate or ban it.  But a society that fails to fund the research & collect the data or that ignores the data in its decision making, is a society accepting a witless fate, rather than a determined destiny.

I grew up in neighborhood built on a drained swamp, and I think of that every time I hear a politician say s/he is going to “drain the swamp.”  The natural world is slowly being emptied as a perceived necessity and by human-domination of land. Nature is pushed to the periphery. A few trees from the swamp persisted. The green anoles could climb on the balusters of my porch and flash their surprising red dewlap like a warning; but ecologically, the drained swamp is a poor substitute for the swamp—a rock in lieu of a gem.  From science, we know that the swamp had provided ecosystem services to humans by absorbing waters from storm surges, which reduces flooding; through filtering and purifying water; by providing food resources like fish.

The former cypress swamp was a Wonderland: home to the shocking yellow of the prothonotary warbler; a refuge to more than 140 species of birds, 50 reptiles, 44 mammals, 40 amphibians, 39 fish, and even more invertebrates. Nearly all were lost once the swamp was gone. 
A drained swamp was not a bad place to grow up, despite the frequent flooding. But still, there has to be another way where humans can find their place in the ecological community. It doesn’t have to be humans vs. biodiversity, and science is helping us get there.

Today, my child, is carrying a sign that says “Nature Rules!” Thanks to science, we can study nature’s rules through surveys to evaluate patterns and associations of factors; through mathematical models to make predictions about expected outcomes now or into the future; or through experimental studies that allow us to determine cause and effect relationships.  There is no better way that humans have ever developed to understand the natural world than science—it is our brightest hope. Science has allowed us to venture beyond our atmosphere and to the oceans’ depths; it has allowed us to discover and then reverse the damage in the ozone layer; it helped us to restore populations of bald eagles and other birds exposed to organochlorine insecticides. It is science that informs us of human-induced climate change and it is science that could allow us to remedy the impacts.

There are children here today who will grow up to be scientists—girls & boys of every sort—we need each of you. There is a place for you at the science table. I, maybe like you, never expected to be a scientist. But, I was worried about the plight of, first whales, later amphibians, in a world of so many humans constantly expanding their residence and reach; I wanted to understand how we could fix some of these problems and science is one road to that solution. There are reasons that I have cast my lot with science. Reasons all of us can put our confidence (even our faith) in this field of study:

First, science is a field of skepticism. That skepticism allows us to evaluate data from multiple angles for flaws and short-comings. We collaborate with skeptical people and then our work is peer reviewed by different and anonymous skeptical people—which, I will admit, can be kind of irritating—but it leads to a body of research that has undergone reasonable vetting that results in the best interpretation and analysis of the data.

Second, science uncovers “Truth” through repeated and independent tests. We do not prove things in science; rather, we collect data that either supports or rejects a hypothesis.  One study is never enough. But through accumulation of data, with many studies by many independent scientists, a theory can emerge. It is an important reason why we can feel confident in scientific consensus. When and only when you have sufficient data – and if your work is corroborated – you can change the mind of the (fairly conservative) scientific community.  A scientist’s views are always pliable in light of a new body of data. 

I remember keenly a morning as a teenager when I was up early sitting on the steps of our porch and a blue heron surprised me as it flew over the house.  It was large and low and close on a misty foggy morning, moving as if surveying, looking for a place it thought was there, but finding little besides rows of small houses and paved roads—its world, slowly transforming.  The fate of so many species is in peril.

I marched for science today, in part, because I know science can provide the data that allows for evidence-based decision making that can help humans live in ways that reduces the risks to the rest of biodiversity—and that data CAN lead to informed policy.

At the end of the day, nature does rule: ideally, we try to understand how nature responds to what we do and how we can minimize the consequences for ourselves and the rest of biodiversity.  We must hold our public officials accountable for making decisions based on data and informed by a scientific consensus of experts. We have put the power of policy in the hands of politicians and if they do not use it sensibly, they must be removed from office. It is the only way to protect our planet, our resources, and ourselves. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Reading Leopold in a Time of Trump

“An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.”  
--Aldo Leopold from "The Land Ethic"

Reading, again, A Sand County Almanac with the Conservation Biology class feels especially poignant given that my heart despairs more than a little for the fate of the natural world in 2017. The country has managed to elect a Congress and a President who does not embrace and sometimes denies science-derived evidence. And if you will not use evidence as a starting point, then one is surely lost. Dealing with climate change was finally on our table with the Paris Accord—we were late to the table, but finally there. Yet now, we are poised to abruptly depart. Environmental protections are already beginning to be removed (such as blocking of the Stream Protection Rule) and with all regulations appearing to be viewed as harmful and evidence viewed as irrelevant by the administration, where will this leave biodiversity and humanity?

It is some 68 years after Leopold’s book was published, and in so many ways, we have come a long way. All the major environmental laws and regulations that have been enacted since A Sand County—the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act—have put us on firmer ground, drinking cleaner water, and breathing less polluted air. Yet still, we Homo sapiens remain “conqueror of the land-community” rather than “plain member and citizen of it.” We continue to “abuse the land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (p. vii).

In 1949, Leopold noted “There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations” (p. 203). Leopold’s comparison always shocks me because it demands that we view abusing or owning the land to be on par with the iniquity of people as property. Yet, perhaps to find our proper place in the community, we must value the land and its inhabitants as dearly as we would another of our own species. A challenge for the best of us, but anathema to those in charge who value our country—both land and inhabitants—solely in terms of economics and power.

What gives me hope is Leopold himself. In Part I, the actual almanac part of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold follows the year on his farm through each month, along each skunk trail, through each season, restoring a worn out old farm with shovel and ax. Things were not good for the environment when he was writing, although there were billions fewer humans. But, does he despair? I imagine he does. However, he also puts hands to work and he does what he can. He buys his 120 acres and he watches every winged visitor and furry resident. He gets both food and if not shelter then warmth from his acreage and he restores what is tattered to something better. He uses his lifetime of knowledge in a way that sows both wisdom as well as pines. At the end of the day, the patches of earth around us, that is something within our sphere of control. We must keep our eyes open and restore what can be returned to life, even while our voices rise up in dissent. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dr. Teska: A Beloved Mentor

Some guy ruining a great picture of Dr. Teska & me and two Sigmodon hispidus (cotton rats) in 1994.  

It has been over 22 years ago since I had a class at Furman University with my undergraduate mentor, Dr. William R. Teska—Bill Teska to many, but beloved Dr. Teska to me.  I have four folders in my file cabinet at work from the two classes I took with him, Ecology and Field Zoology.  Nearly everything else from that time has been parted with—I am not a big saver—but those classes and the professor were precious to me.  What is interesting to me, as I look through those folders, is all the information that was in my notes, about how much he taught us so long ago that I still use in my work and in my classes.  I was expecting to see notes where I wrote the funny sayings he had about doing things “for funsies” or how we should be “quick like a bunny” or advising us not “to stand around with our teeth in our mouths.” Or his famous advice that “you only go around once,” a mantra that I have reminded myself over the years when feeling particularly cautious.  But the folders are full of good, solid information—and what is lost in my notes is the magic that I remember him creating in telling about the Nile Perch or the distribution of ecosystems from global circulation patterns or the global amphibian crisis, back in 19 and 93 and 19 and 94. Turns out I didn’t need to write down the magic—that I have remembered.

His death at the end of June has been laying heavily on me.  I would hear from him maybe only once a year or so, but I placed great value in knowing that I would and that he was out there, now at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, continuing to teach and inspire undergraduates and develop innovative classes.  That he was there if I ever needed a bit of advice or thoughts on teaching.  That I would hear, eventually, of his tropical adventures leading students or discovering a new species of mammal in his summer research.  That he was an email away if I ever needed to tell someone I saw a Sigmodon hispidus, the adorable species of cotton rat that he studied for his graduate work at Savannah River Ecology Lab in Aiken, SC.  (“Any day you see a mammal is a good day to be alive.” Indeed. ) 

When I started college, I knew I wanted to be involved in conservation work, but I did not know how to get from the point of having a vague idea for future employment to having a career.  Dr. Teska provided a road map.  He helped me get an internship with the US Forest Service (where I also met my future husband) and then at Savannah River Ecology Lab where Dr. Teska had worked and where I had some of the best research experiences I could hope for (and where I also met my graduate advisor).  (Meeting both the future husband and graduate advisor were very good things.)  He may have been the faculty member that took me on my first class camping trip.  He helped me see that I could be a scientist—and that it could be wonderful (no lab coats or goggles necessary).  And, later, when I had a job here at Miami U, he sent me one of my very best students.  In faculty jobs, especially when universities are squeezing the life blood out of you, it is easy to forget that many of the students do not quite know how to make the leap from student to scientist.  I am so grateful that he took the time to help me find a path through the forest.  I hope I can always remember to be as generous to the students as he was to me; it is much easier not to be that generous, but he was generous and one should be as Dr. Teska was.

The world has lost a wonderful laugh—as well as a serious biologist and educator.  It is a laugh that I will remember until the day I die.  His lessons, all of them, I will cherish.  I will hope to be half the mammal he was.  Well, maybe we are both equally mammals, but perhaps you know what I mean.  He was the very best.  Rest in peace, Dr. Teska—until we meet again, at which point I will want the scoop over a nice camp fire and a bag of M&Ms, while the heavenly Sigmodon hispidus run through the grasses, free from worry of being caught in a Sherman (or worse, snap) trap. 
P.S. If you would like to help to rebuild a walkway at the OTS' La Selva Biological Station to be named after Dr. Teska--follow this link: A great way to have him remembered in a place he loved.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Ecology of Fear: Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Coates’ Between the World and Me

                I rarely read two books at once, but I have been doing so while rereading a book with my Conservation Biology class (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold) and reading a new book with my book club (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates). These really different books have started talking to each other and having a conversation of their own about the ecology of fear.  One of the most poignant moments to me in A Sand County Almanac is from “Thinking like a Mountain” where Leopold is having lunch on the mountain top when he and his companions see a wolf and her pups and they begin “pumping lead into the pack” (p 130).  They “reach the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes” (p 130).  This is his road to Damascus moment where his life changes and where he sees that the path he is on is headed in the wrong direction. And he converts—he changes, although state after state continues to eliminate the predator from its boundaries. While both the deer and human may have “a mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”  So many of the myths of our culture focus around predators and their danger, instead of focusing on or envisioning, say, their role and majesty in the ecosystem.  What we do, perhaps as a result, is tame the world around us by cutting forests and eliminating the animals that may do us harm in a short-term attempt for safety. 
                In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son about the experiences that have shaped him and about his fears for his son—it is a personal response to the diversity of color and how it shapes and defines (and sometimes destroys) lives in America. He talks of negotiating the streets of Baltimore while walking to school—how it required constant assessment to get there safely and that one false move could result in getting shot or stabbed. He talks of parents so afraid and concerned for their youth that they disciplined them in ways that seemed cruel. He talks of a whole culture and city driven by fear of one another and of their individual futures. He talks about taming that fear so that his son can have a life that is not oppressed by or motivated by fear—he remembers “how [his son’s] eyes lit up like candles…That look was all that I lived for.”

Coates’ book is fascinating and disturbing and thought-provoking in so many respects (it is rich in ways that I am not discussing).  It also has me thinking about fear and Leopold on the mountain top. Do we think we can create a world without fear?  Fear is useful in many respects—it can guide us to safety, whether it is through a forest or a street.  It is when it begins to dominate our lives and our ability to function that it becomes problematic. The hunters eliminating the predators, they have not eliminated fear.  They have just created new problems.  In a sense, we have tamed the environment to an extent that there are no predators in our midst.  Except ourselves.  We are our own worst enemy—and as Coates’ points out, some are more the enemy than others.  In this sense, perhaps, maybe it is Coates who has it figured out—we fear one another most and certainly we can cause the most widespread harm to one another.  We think (in America at least) that we can solve all problems with weapons—that we can eliminate what we fear.  But instead, we create new monsters.