Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Nature of Golf

Most of us live in areas that look like this when viewed from the window of a plane:

It’s astounding to see the changes that humans have exerted on the planet, altering and using almost every habitat within our reach.  In Butler County OH, where I live, the historic landscape where the birds flew and the frogs called looked more like this:

So, it would seem that turning a nice forest into this would be a complete environmental travesty:

          But the research I have done on golf courses leads me to have hope that we humans can use land in ways that minimize the impact on natural systems.  In 2004, I started a study in golf courses in Missouri to examine if amphibians could live in golf course ponds—areas that have a high level of physical and chemical management.  I predicted that few amphibians would survive these environments because of excess contamination from frequent mowing and spraying.  However, I was surprised to find that not only did they survive well in golf course ponds, but there was greater survival for some amphibian species reared in golf course ponds than in reference ponds.  We were rather stunned, but water sampling also suggested that aquatic predators were less abundant in golf course ponds (an indicator of lower water quality), which allowed amphibians to survive in greater numbers because of reduced predation.  We have done related studies in Ohio and found that amphibians survived in golf course ponds here as well, suggesting that amphibians may survive larval development in the aquatic environment successfully.  (Work examining if they can survive in the terrestrial environment is still inconclusive.) 
          What these results suggest to me is that green spaces used for humans for recreation have a high potential for incorporating some of the natural flora and fauna if managers take a few things into to consideration, which could create a win-win situation for both wildlife and humans.   And when you consider that golf courses may be some of the very limited green spaces in urban areas, there is the potential for these areas to harbor some of the local native species with some care.  Audubon International ( is an organization that works with golf courses to help managers design golf courses that are as environmentally friendly as possible.  There are hundreds of golf courses that meet the criteria and they can be found at this link:  For Ohio golfers, there is only one course in Cleveland that meets the standards, unfortunately. 
          A lot of the “must do’s” for amphibians are fairly simple if the golf course managers are aware of them.  In fact, if managers did three simple things to their ponds, they could benefit local amphibian species greatly.  For instance, leaving ponds free of fish is probably the most important factor.  Fish are often added to ponds to reduce algal blooms, but anuran larvae will have the same effect.  Research we and others have done show that even herbivorous fish can eliminate amphibians from wetlands; only a couple of species persist successfully with fish (namely, bullfrogs), and these are not the species that are most at risk to extinction.  Secondly, allowing some vegetation to remain around parts of the ponds can provide terrestrial amphibians with area to hide from predators and live in their terrestrial life stage.  This may mean leaving out of play areas unmown—a savings for managers and a benefit to some of the native species.  Thirdly, most amphibians complete larval development in the late winter through summer months, so it is most beneficial for the ponds to hold water during this time.  Water levels are frequently lowered for irrigation on courses and for pond cleaning, and doing this during the fall or winter can allow amphibians to persist. 
          Because habitat destruction and alteration are going to be an inevitable consequence of growing human populations, minimizing the impact of these changes on wildlife when possible would be a step in the right direction.  Although habitat preservation and conservation are certainly a major goal for maintaining biodiversity for the long haul, this will not be possible in all habitats, which is where smart management will come in.  Things may get worse before they get better, but there are signs that we are going to get smarter about the way we alter habitat.  (Europe is already a lot smarter since their resources are scarcer.)  Golf course managers, in my experience, are people who love nature and the outdoors (as well as golf!), and they seemed interested in learning about the results of our research.  Most people are willing to make simple changes; they just need to know what strategies work.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Leave Me in the Woods

Do you remember the story, Put Me in the Zoo? (by Robert Lopshire) that was part of the Dr. Suess reading series?  The story had a very impressive bear with spots, which ironically was trying to get itself committed to the zoo.  I always think of that misguided bear this time of year when the spotted salamanders start to move.  Spotted salamanders are impressive enough to be shown off at the zoo, although seeing those little polka dots on the move in nature as hundreds or thousands begin the race toward the pond where they very likely started out as eggs is even more impressive.

Today is a nice rainy, chilly day in February.  The weather has been warm enough during the last week that I am starting to contemplate planting flowers, which is a sure sign that the salamanders have noticed that change is afoot too.  In February or March, our spotted salamanders make their yearly debut when the temperature has warmed up and the days are getting longer.  My guess is that tonight spotted salamanders all over the county will crawl out of their underground burrows and will start migrating through the forest toward the pond that they were born in, some 500-1500 meters away.  (The graduate students in my lab are going out to look for them, but they are predicting that it’s a week or more off since the rain is supposed to turn to snow.  And they could well be correct!!)  This species is very common in the area and people often find them in their yards or window wells during late winter migrations.  They are often quite large, 6-8 inches, and they have a nice chunky girth (about the size of your thumb, or at least, my thumb).  Then they have the shocking yellow to orange spots that make you wonder if they have spent their winter underground messily oil painting portraits. 
If all the world is a stage, the salamander theater is the pond and the rest of the year is just preparation for the performance.  Usually the males arrive first (you can tell the males from the females based on the swollen cloaca of the males) and the females will arrive with the next good weather event a few days or week later.  And once the females show up, the play begins.  While the moving colored spots may look like a slow-motion fireworks display beneath the water’s surface as the courtship rituals unfold, there is not a lot of formal romance unless you consider a nosey nudge from a male romantic.  What males lack in refinement, they make up for in sheer enthusiasm.  The males compete for females with their nudges and a bit of nuptial dancing, which will be interspersed with laying down packets of sperm called spermatophore that the females may pick up, if so inclined.  High quality males can lay dozens of spermatophores, a high energy activity that may represent their whole reproductive effort for the year.  So, males have a few strategies to try to increase their odds of producing offspring.  To beat out the competition, they can lay their own spermatophore on top of another male’s spermatophore, a phenomenon called sperm capping.  Females can discriminately choose spermatophore from attractive males, or they can go with a lottery and pick up a few spermatophore.  Over a day or two, all the adults will breed and then they’ll leave the pond to migrate back into the forest to feed and grow.  Just like that, the show is over.  Behind, the females will leave a gelatinous clutch of eggs which over the next couple of months will develop and hatch. 

A male spotted salamander--note swollen cloaca.     

      People go to the zoo to see all sorts of interesting creatures, but we sometimes overlook those lurking in our own backyards and local parks.  One of the wonderful things about nature is that with every season there is some new sight to see and some amazing spectacle to behold, which may not be new but it may be new to you.  To look for a spotted salamander pond near you, find a wooded fishless pond.  If you see their egg masses, that means you may have missed the adults, but you will know where to take a romantic moonlit walk next year when the weather warms just a little and the rain starts to fall.

(Spotted salamander eggs lifted out of the water that were attached to a branch--
a lovely underwater chandelier!)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Optimism in a Time of Environmental Degradation

                Several years ago I read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman ( and it was one of those books that changed my outlook and approach to life.  Seligman is a professor of psychology and I do not know how well he’s respected in his field, but I love his books.  He is a research scientist and effectively uses research to support his hypotheses and strategies, which can turn a pessimist who thinks no one would read her blog into an optimist who can’t wait to share her inspirational thoughts with the blogosphere.  One of the more humorous findings was that pessimists tend to be more realistic, but there are all sorts of mental and physical health benefits to optimism, so what the hay.  And people are drawn to optimists!  They even successfully predicted the elections one year for president, the house, and senate with >80% accuracy a priori by rating the positive language used in speeches.  Optimism definitely helps explain why Bush won & Kerry lost (you can even see it in the lines of their faces) and how Obama made his unprecedented ascent.  The article “Climate-Change Strategy:  Be Afraid – But Only a Little” by Bryan Walsh (,8599,2032405,00.html) highlights that for environmental issues (and probably other) the public also needs a little less gloom and a little more cheer. 
                Adults do not like to be lectured, even if they deserve it.  On one hand, it’s amazing that the “fear strategy” doesn’t work.  I was raised on it and it seemed pretty effective in some respects (I avoided poisonous candy from strangers) and depressing in others (it is safer to avoid humans at all costs).  Fear seemed to work pretty well for the Bush administration; although maybe it was actually his administrations’ optimistic confidence that there was every reason to be afraid (to which there is obviously some truth).  It is a sign of optimism to blame others for faults that may lie within one’s self.  It’s also optimistic to think you can be part of the solution.  I hope we science writers can work on our optimistic spin, while still staying grounded in the realm of reality.  It’s nice that there is apparently some data to support that people respond to the optimistic message about potential solutions and opportunities (ironically) presented by global climate change.
                First, let me make it clear that I think the data overwhelming supports that global climate change is happening and that we should be concerned; and there are things we are doing where it would pay to err on the side of caution.  However, the reality is that the experimental design sucks.  Responsible scientists replicate, and even when they’re doing a large natural “experiment” they would always have a control.  Karen Kidd’s study adding synthetic estrogens from birth control pills to part of a lake while having a control side comes to mind ( ) —not ideal from an experimental standpoint, but the field demonstration provided good evidence for what was expected based on smaller scale studies.  To find that your predictions hold in the field where there’s a lot more complexity is a strong piece of evidence.  But with climate change, we do not have a great control.  It seems like in some cases, it might be useful to acknowledge that this is not the ideal experiment, and that in such cases, a weight of evidence approach can be useful as was used with cigarette’s and lung cancer association.  
                I work on questions related to conservation biology and I have a challenging time reading about some of the environmental problems, because they can be so depressing and demoralizing.  At the risk of melodrama, I love what is mortal.  Jeffery Kluger’s article from 2006 called “Global Warming Heats Up” has a lot of the pitfalls of journalists writing about science; even though I agree that the data supports global warming and found that he had some interesting tidbits, I can see why an article like this is fuel for the Rush Limbaughs of the world.  First, Kluger acts like you’d be an idiot not to “believe in” global warming, which sets up an antagonistic relationship with a skeptical reader.  I do not want to have to believe in natural phenomena—I want to base my assessment on the data, so if the data are so compelling then be even-handed.  Second, the language in many places is extremely biased, which is a turnoff.  For example:  “That is what scientists call a feedback loop, and it’s a nasty one…”  Melodrama indeed.  He uses quotes like this one from Adrian Luckman indicating concern about climate changes in Europe related to changes in the Gulf Stream:  “We in the UK are on the same latitude as Alaska.  The reason we can live here is the Gulf Stream.”  Um, people live in Alaska; just ask Sarah Palin.  He uses language that anthropomorphizes plants, which leads me to dismiss his validity as an author:  “…forests have shifted their tree lines as much as 100 feet upslope, trying to escape the heat and drought of the lowlands.  Such a slow-motion evacuation may seem like a sensible strategy…”  Plants do not make sensible strategies!  It’s called dispersal and directional selection.  Finally, he uses data that is questionable.  The example he gives of amphibians experiencing extinction related with warming has not been substantiated and there’s evidence suggesting that the interpretation of that data are flawed, which at the time of writing may not have been obvious to non-scientists. 
                Many of the faults of this article would not be committed by most scientists, which is a major reason to advocate for scientists having a chinwag with the public.  Providing an “upbeat” message on news that does not always seem upbeat may prove challenging in some respects, but it may motivate not only the public but us scientists as well.  A really great book, Break Through:  Environmentalism, Politics, and Possibility ( talks about the strength of the positive message at length.  So the next time you want to get your message across—in politics, the classroom, the media, or to your own true love this Valentine’s day—put on your rose-colored glasses and, why not, reach for the stars.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pity the Prey

Lentils, a kinder protein.  

                If people read all the good articles and books on food, farming, and livestock, then there wouldn’t need to be so many trees and pages devoted to our dinner plates.  Bleh!  The food chain makes my knees weak as a rule since I cannot help but pity the prey, but reading about the consequences of the way we humans feed ourselves makes your heart weak.  Two articles out of The Best Science and Nature Writing of 2010, “All You Can Eat” (by Jim Carrier; and “Graze Anatomy” (by Richard Manning;, force you to consider the impact your hunger has on the world around you.  Although we are reading these articles (both written by journalists) to consider what is stellar about the writing, I was quickly pulled into the argument that each author was making.  (Surely that’s a sign of good writing!)
                Carrier starts with dumpster diving at a Red Lobster and soon takes us to a meeting with American shrimpers (tearful ones, in fact), to the author’s youthful memories of rare shrimp, to the history of commercial shrimping, to their evolutionary history and life cycle, to the environmental issues of shrimping, and leaves us back at the Red Lobster where we will certainly reconsider ordering any shrimp.  He had personal stories, history, biology, technology and innovation, agriculture, economics, and politics (not to mention food).  Something for everyone!  He said that in the early days of commercial fishing, for every pound of shrimp harvested, there was ten pounds of by-catch.  And although it’s better today, the thought is enough to turn you off of eating animals from the sea. 
                Manning starts with the personal stories of two men, one who started out as a veterinarian working with livestock, which he left because he considered it “so crude and so cruel,” and another who grew up on an industrial-scale farm.  Both ended up using their knowledge for good and eventually went into the business of grass-fed cattle.  The article tells of the environmental benefits of grass-fed cows and the economic payoffs.  His article also draws from personal stories, the biology, economics, and a little politics.  He often uses very nice analogies where the “roots of perennials act like elevators” which aid in understanding and provide interest to what could be a dull (if important) phenomenon.   Manning lays off the horrors of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for animals and the humans who work there, and instead concentrates on all the positive aspects of grass-fed, free-ranging cattle and other livestock—economically and ecologically.  That seems like a very effective strategy.  I get so many emails with subjects like “Help Stop the Slaughter of Yellowstone’s Bison!” and “A New Year Means a New Attack on Wolves!” that I just get overloaded and can’t manage anything but to click the delete button in order to maintain a will to live.  The world is full of so much suffering that we just can’t deal with all of it.  At least, I cannot.  In Break Through:  From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Shellenberger & Nordhaus the authors say that people respond to the “I have a dream” and not the “I have a nightmare” speech that environmentalists are so good at.  Manning manages to focus on the possibility for better things ahead and that was refreshing. 
                Both of these articles were interesting and well researched.  They had a central message, but did not oversimplify it and they added a lot of rich texture, which informs the reader about the complexity of the situation.  At times, I did find myself wondering if these sorts of articles were more in the purview of journalists than scientists.  For instance, we’re unlikely to fly to Long Beach, CA as Carrier did, to see the largest shrimp port for a few paragraphs.  Who knows, maybe that’s where he took his family vacation.  But any scientist working on a particular research topic, especially in the applied fields, ends up doing research into the historical context of the problem so that you can understand how we got where we are today and what other issues might be at play that we haven’t considered.  We’ve got the dirt; we just need to spread it around. 
                By the way, does anyone want a recipe for Lentil Sloppy Joes so you can enjoy your Joes without the worry?