January 31, 2010

Thoreau's delicate sensibilities & the "womanish" weakness of environmentalism

When I was piecing together the post about the recent studies that have used a data set started by Henry Thoreau, I came across an interesting piece by Robert Louis Stevenson originally written in Cornhill Magazine in 1880, 18 years after Thoreau's death. The article is sharply critical of Thoreau in the beginning, calling him a "skulker" for the removal of himself from society and his somewhat unorthodox views on politics. I can agree with Stevenson's criticism of "skulkers" like Thoreau up until the point where he paints the man as "womanish" and "unmanly", terms denoting weakness and moral decrepitude at the expense and to the discredit of women; terms that have been applied in different ways to the environmental movement for quite some time.

January 30, 2010

Climate change, invasives and extinction in Thoreau's Woods

...I walk encouraged between the tufts of Purple Wood-Grass, over the sandy fields, and along the edge of the Shrub-Oaks, glad to recognize these simple contemporaries. With thoughts cutting a broad swathe I “get” them, with horse-raking thoughts I gather them into windrows. The fine-eared poet may hear the whetting of my scythe. These two were almost the first grasses that I learned to distinguish, for I had not known by how many friends I was surrounded — I had seen them simply as grasses standing.
From "Autumnal Tints" by Henry David Thoreau The Atlantic Monthly October 1862. In this photo from 1908, the rocks mark the location of his cabin in relation to Walden Pond.

ResearchBlogging.orgAround 1851, after completing the retreat that inspired Walden, Thoreau had taken his interest in nature and made it a more scientific part of his work routine, walking the woods and fields around Concord, Massachusetts recording his observations of plants and animals through the seasons in the area. He paid particularly close attention to the flowering days of local plants, which has been of interest to the scientific community of late.

The data that Thoreau collected is meticulous enough to be considered a viable, useful data source by modern researchers. Thoreau's records of the area's wildlife have been carried on by others, providing us with over 150 years of data regarding the phenology of Northeast American flora; that is, life cycle events like fruiting or flowering days or migration and how these events are influenced by the seasons and the climate. Simply put, after 150 years of suffering the effects of disturbance and climate change, the natural communities of Concord are not quite the forests and fields of yore.

In the past two years or so there have been a handful of studies based on the data set that Thoreau started. In February 2008, Rushing and Primack published a study in Ecology discussing how global warming had affected flowering times in Concord. The average temperature has increased in the area by approximately 2.4° C since 1852, which has, on average, pushed flowering times up by 7 days since Thoreau's time. It was also observed that two non-native plants common in the Northeast, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), could be useful as bioindicators of the future effects of climate change due to how quickly they responded to the changing temperatures; their mean first flowering days shifted forward approximately three days per 1° C increase in temperature.*

Later that year, Willis et al. published a study in PNAS using the data set started by Thoreau, this time looking at the data from a phylogenetic perspective. It was shown that flowering time was strongly correlated with abundance and that the species seemingly incapable of a relatively quick response to the change in climate were declining. The pattern is phylogenetically selective, strong evidence of climate change as an extinction risk.

In the near term, this pattern of phylogenetic selectivity is likely to have an accelerated impact on the loss of species diversity: groups of closely related species are being selectively trimmed from the Tree of Life, rather than individual species being randomly pruned from its tips.

A more recent study from Willis and his colleagues published in PLoSONE takes a look at how these flowering times differ between native and non-native species, determining how each has been able to respond over the past 150 years. It was previously demonstrated that the non-natives St. John's wort and highbush blueberry have been apt conformers to the changing climate, but neither are considered invasive.

The researchers placed the Concord flora in four comparative categories for analysis - Native vs. non-native, Native vs. non-native, non-invasive, Native vs. invasive, Non-native, non-invasive vs. invasive - and examined phenologically and ecologically important traits such as plant weight at maturity and flower diameter.


The results are remarkable, and reveal another layer of danger to native plants in the area. In general, non-natives were shown to adapt to changing temperatures better than the natives. Invasive species are particularly apt; they flower 11 days earlier than natives and 9 days earlier than the non-native, non-invasives. The results of the study also backed up earlier evidence that abundance was tied to earlier flowering days; invasives displayed greater relative abundance than the natives and non-native, non-invasives. But in general, non-natives in the area are equipped with certain traits that better prepare them for changes in climate.

Already the Concord area has lost about 27 percent of the species that once inhabited Thoreau's woods and another 36 percent have become incredibly rare. If the projections of 1.1° - 6.4° C increases in average temperature over the next century are correct, this trend will continue, progressively selecting traits that promote invasive growth and pushing natives that much closer to extinction.

*It's not always a boon for the flowering days of plants to be pushed forward in the season. If flowering too early, they may miss their pollinators or succumb to a late frost.

Willis, C., Ruhfel, B., Primack, R., Miller-Rushing, A., Losos, J., & Davis, C. (2010). Favorable Climate Change Response Explains Non-Native Species' Success in Thoreau's Woods PLoS ONE, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008878

Willis CG, Ruhfel B, Primack RB, Miller-Rushing AJ, & Davis CC (2008). Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau's woods are driven by climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (44), 17029-33 PMID: 18955707

Miller-Rushing AJ, & Primack RB (2008). Global warming and flowering times in Thoreau's Concord: a community perspective. Ecology, 89 (2), 332-41 PMID: 18409423

January 28, 2010

Draw A Dinosaur Day

Tomorrow, January 29th is the first day to start uploading your dinosaur drawings to the Draw a Dinosaur Day web page. Here are last years submissions and here's mine for this year.

An Ankylosaurus...with ears. I know dinosaurs didn't have ears like mammals have but...he's shaped kinda like a red panda, so ears fit. Right? Or maybe I just see red panda everywhere.

Climate change drying up streams, reducing the reproductive success of bats in the Rockies

From left to right: fringed myotis (Myotis thysanodes), the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) and the long-eared myotis (Myotis evotis).

ResearchBlogging.orgWith the widespread effects of the changing climate on biological communities and landscapes across the world, it has become increasingly important for ecologists to identify indicator species among these ecosystems that can indirectly relate information about environmental changes that are not apparent or easily accessible. So it is in the west, the Rocky Mountains and in particular the Colorado River Basin, where temperatures have increased more than anywhere else in the contiguous United States, an average 1.2° C higher than the 20th century averages. The biggest increases in temperature happens at the highest elevations, which is

With warming temperatures comes less precipitation and less snowpack, which means during the summer months, the breeding season for most species, there is significant reductions of stream discharge, which has reduced the flow of the Colorado River. Thirty million people rely on the water provided by the Colorado River, and the Basin is foundational to all life in such a dry environment. Bats, as this article in Ecology explains, are particularly sensitive to these changes and, due to their enormous numbers, are integral to food webs as predator and prey. They may be that indicator ecologists are looking for.

Using capture and environmental data from over 12 years - 1996 to 2008 - Rick Adams from the University of Colorado has demonstrated dramatic correlations between the reduced availability of water and declines in the reproductive success of certain species of bats in the west. Bats are particularly sensitive to evaporative loss because of their small size, large surface area to volume ratio and uninsulated wings. Reproductive females are particularly sensitive considering that 76 percent of their milk is water. Lactating fringed myotis bats have been demonstrated to drink 13 times more often than non-reproductive females from nearby sources like streams or pools.

The study area was in the foothills of the Rockies, between 1650 m and 2250 m, a mix of montane meadows, shrubland, pine woods, riparian woodland and mixed coniferous forest, the habitats of nine species of bats; data was collected on the five most common: small-footed myotis (M. ciliolabrum), little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus), big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), long-eared myotis (M. evotis), and fringed myotis (M. thysanodes). The 2,329 bats captured were put into one of four categories: Non-reproductive, Pregnant, Lactating or Post-lactating.

The reproductive output of these bats has declined, especially when stream discharge dipped below 7 cubic meters per second. During the hottest and driest years, 2007 and 2008, Adams captured more non-reproductive females. Among two species, M. thysanodes and M. lucifugus, the percentage of non-reproductive females was remarkably high, 56 percent and 64 percent respectively.

Both of these species use maternity sites having south or southeast aspects that promote highest solar gains throughout the diurnal roosting period (Adams and Thibault 2006; Adams and Hayes 2008), maintaining internal temperatures between 27° C and 36° C (Adams unpubl. data). Such microenvironmental conditions within roost sites promote high evaporative water loss and consequently a greater need for water intake, especially during the lactation period.

The other myotis species are more likely to roost in cooler, more humid microclimes, closer to the ground.

So if bats - mammals with high mobility* - are facing difficulties from a reduction of water availability, what about other animals more restricted to certain areas? How is this aspect of climate change affecting them? Bats, Adams says, are good bioindicators, organisms that can help scientists predict similar, indirect effects of climate change in other regional animal populations.

Current predictions from the IPCC tell us that this is just the beginning; it's "very likely" (90 percent confidence) that ecosystems will be significantly affected if the warming trend continues. In the next century, due to continued average temperature increases and an increase in the frequency of heat waves and drought, the Colorado River is facing a potential 8 - 11 percent reduction of flow. This will certainly exacerbate the bats' reproductive problems, but perhaps the continuance will afford ecologists the opportunity to transpose data to study similar problems among other animals and propose meaningful, sensible solutions - even if they are bandaids, like providing artificial water sources for vulnerable populations, temporary but viable, buying much needed time for more comprehensive applications.

*Bats are mobile, but they stick to their traditional maternity sites, still focused in a local area.


January 27, 2010

The Expanse: Refuge and Reclamation

It was the mid morning sun that finally woke him, needling through the lone rip in the tent canvas he had meant to repair for weeks. Wandering in the dark for hours, soaked to the bone by the torrent sweeping off the bay and inland, he searched for a place to finally rest for the day, a small hillock or cairn. When the weak light of his headlamp touched the façade of an old shore home, he collapsed, hurriedly constructing a shelter as close to the wall as he could get.

The distant sound of waves was all he could hear as he moved across the great, flat peninsula yesterday, between bay and ocean, but as long as daylight lasted, he only glimpsed water from a distant middle point, trying to keep his movement mostly north to hit the mainland again. This morning he stirred and listened closely. The waves were close; the sound of their advance and retreat was crisp.

January 24, 2010

Get out of your basement and go see The Book of Eli

It's like watching someone else play Fallout!!!111!!

The car's been in the shop for while now waiting on some parts to ship, but I finally caved and rented a car, so for the first time in two weeks we went out for the day, and saw the first movie that I've actually wanted to see in two years: The Book of Eli.

As other reviewers have pointed out, it's Kung Fu, Mad Max and a bit of Fahrenheit 451, a post-nuclear disaster movie with bandits, refugees, warlords and cannibals - typical fare for a movie with such a desperate setting.

I was caught in the first 15 minutes, as soon as I heard the first measure of Al Green's How Can You Mend a Broken Heart that played on Eli's (Denzel Washington) commandeered mp3 player while he sat back for the night in the fried remains of a suburban home after taking new boots from a hanging corpse in the closet. The Hughes brothers really came through with the soundtrack and as a huge fan of Al Green in that time period (I'm Still in Love with You, Let's Stay Together, some of the greatest music ever made), that really pulled me in. Al Green was always a light touch. Even in his saddest accounts of failed relationships there is a melancholy beauty, a soft resignation. It's subtle and comfortable, music starkly opposed to the scalding ruin Eli walks.

I won't disclose much else in the movie with that detail, but don't read any further if you don't want any more spoilers.

January 22, 2010

Coastal dune ecology: Invasive grass driving native herb to extinction through direct and apparent competition

ResearchBlogging.orgI was reading through this study from Ecology yesterday, which tells the interesting story of how coastal dune ecology in northern California was invaded in the 19th century and subsequently disrupted. In order to stabilize the ever-shifting sand dunes, a grass called Ammophila arenaria, the European beachgrass, was planted along the coastline. A. arenaria grows from a strong, thick network of branching rhizomes, allowing it create a fast hold on loose soil and, as the coastal managers intended, create a framework that slowed erosion.

A. arenaria

Of course, what was preferable to coastal managers wasn't for the native wildlife. A. arenaria has spread all the way up to British Columbia since then, supplanting the native populations and potentially pushing one particular species of plant to extinction in the near future.

Lupinus tidestromii (link to the researchers' project homepage with some great photographs) was flowering on the dunes of northern California long before the European beachgrass arrived. The beachgrass is a direct competitor with L. tidestromii for the basics - sunlight, water and territory - but according to the authors, there are two other ways in which A. arenaria threatens L. tidestromii.

First, A. arenaria has limited L. tidestromii's seed scarification and germination. By anchoring the sand dunes, the invasive beachgrass has greatly reduced the chance for strong winds to remove the top layer of soil and vegetation from the dunes, which can expose and disperse dormant seeds. The researchers believe that L. tidestromii probably thrived when this mode of scarification was more prevalent since its seedlings are usually the first to establish after such "blowouts", but are quickly overtaken by A. arenaria.

Second, there is not only direct competition between the invasive and the native, but also a type of indirect competition called "apparent" competition that is playing a greater role in L. tidestromii's decline. In general, this type of competition revolves around two producers and a shared predator. One producer's population changes, which leads to a change of the predator population and finally, a change in the second producer's population (this is not exclusive to invasive populations, this mechanism applies to native communities as well). In this case, the invader A. arenaria is providing housing for L. tidestromii's main pre-dispersal seed predator, the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), which is bolstering their numbers and increasing pre-dispersal predation within 100 meters of these refuges. The beachgrass covers large areas of coastal land, giving these animals plenty of places to hide and plenty of opportunities to snatch up seeds en masse before they can be dispersed.

In order to restore L. tidestromii's dwindling population, the beachgrass needs to be removed, which will reduce the area of refuge for the deer mouse, reduce their populations and alleviate some of the pressures on the lupine's seed dispersal. The researchers have already projected an increase in one population of L. tidestromii, from only a marginal reduction in seed predation.

(I tried to keep in mind while reading that this is only two species evaluated regarding an introduced species that affects many other organisms in a wider ecosystem; that the effects are so pervasive in so small an interaction is remarkable.)

The authors believe that apparent competition may be responsible for homogenization and certain cases of selective extinction dependent on predator preference:

When invasive plants compete strongly with native plant communities via apparent competition, native species preferred by consumers are selectively eliminated from the community. As a result, invaded communities will ultimately contain a more homogenous composition plant species that are not preferred by consumers.There are many examples where changes in the abundance of an herbivore or introduction in an exotic herbivore changes plant community composition towards less preferred species. Throughout eastern North America, white-tailed deer have increased in density due to habitat fragmentation, supplemental food sources and the eradication of large carnivores; this in turn causes a reduction in the relative abundance of their preferred plant species (Augustine and McNaughton 1998). In addition, the introduction of exotic cattle to American landscapes similarly shifts plant communities toward those species that are not preferred (Fleischner 1994).

Two of the three populations of L. tidestromii that were analyzed are on a projected decline to extinction. Unless measures are taken to reduce the omnipresent influence of European beachgrass, this unique little lupine may disappear for good.

Dangremond, E., Pardini, E., & Knight, T. (2010). Apparent competition with an invasive plant hastens the extinction of an endangered lupine Ecology DOI: 10.1890/09-0418

January 20, 2010

The importance of saving Yasuní National Park

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s become easier of late for people to dismiss the perpetual dangers of the planet’s rainforests. These places are dynamic, illustrative examples of the profound influence human activities have on areas with such a high density and interdependence of life, so environmentalists and scientists lean on the rainforest as a symbol of the movement. There are few images more powerful than those that display the results of deforestation in the Amazon. It serves as a reminder to me of what needs to be done.

But I think the public at large tends to roll their eyes at standbys in general. We’re so inundated with sensory information in the 21st century, most of which is geared toward selling us something - products or ideas – that we learn to fend off some of the incoming barrage. The more repetitious, the more likely that it’ll be tuned out. It’s easy to brush aside the latest research from the Amazon as old news. Yeah, it’s still in trouble. Yeah, people are jerks.

But this paper from published at PLoS ONE is so detailed, so comprehensive, it demands a close read and another look at rainforests in peril, thick jungles still wild and unknown, not merely the iconography of NGO rhetoric. It’s a powerful study, one that brings the western Amazon alive through extensive data and hands the reader ample evidence of what lives there, how it is threatened, why it’s worth protecting and where we go from here. It’s the story of Yasuní National Park, ten-thousand square kilometers of unique, wild, protected land under pressure by common threats: oil prospecting, overhunting, colonization, deforestation and other modes of habitat loss.

Yasuní is small compared to many other protected areas that have been evaluated for landscape-level diversity, but the park and its borders exhibit a remarkable richness and density of vertebrates and vascular plants.

Yasuni Threatened

Starting top left and moving clockwise: Bush dog, Lowland tapir, Poeppig's woolly monkey, Giant armadillo, Giant otter, Amazonian manatee and Oncilla..

The assessment of this biodiversity was performed across taxonomic groups at a local level (alpha diversity, community) and on a landscape level, or at the scale of the park (gamma diversity, the product of alpha and beta diversity, beta being a measure of unique species between communities, αβ = γ). As the researchers note, Yasuní is approximately the size of your typical landscape-level biodiversity analysis, 10,000 km2.

Yasuní is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world at both scales, local and landscape. I don’t want to delve too much into the specifics of these statistics, as you can find them in giant tables and lists of stats in the article, but there were a few items that I want to highlight that I found outstanding. Keep in mind much of these data are preliminary.

Herpetofauna: Individually, Yasuní is a world leader in the richness of its reptile and amphibian populations, but together the numbers are particularly stellar. At the Tiputini Biodiversity Station on the border of Yasuní, 247 species of reptiles and amphibians have been documented in the 6.5 km2 area, the world record on a local scale.

Fish: There are 562 species of fish in the greater Napo River Basin and 382 in Yasuní itself; that's more fish species in the park than in the entire Mississippi River Basin.

Birds: At the landscape level, a full third of the known Amazon species are represented in Yasuní, 596 species.


Mammals: Over 200 species of mammals coexist in the area, 169 within the park and 35 more based on range data (expected). An estimated 12 different species of primates live sympatrically, a number only exceeded by primate communities in Peru and Africa. Ecuador has the 9th highest mammal diversity in the world; it’s remarkable that nearly half of that number can be found within only one of its parks, according to the authors.

Bat diversity has set another record in Yasuní, with over 100 coexisting species estimated (typical bat assemblages estimated, based on rarefacted data gathered on phyllostomids).

Vascular Plants: Yasuní National Park is nestled in one of only nine centers of global plant diversity, areas with over 4,000 species per 10,000 km2. In a single hectare of the forest, researchers found 655 species of trees and 900 species of other vascular plants. In the first 25 hectares of the Center for Tropical Forest Science Yasuní plot, 1,100 species of trees were documented; that number is expected to expand to 1,300 when the last 25 hectares is evaluated, making it “the richest CTFS 50 ha plot yet sampled in the world.”

So it’s very clear that Yasuní houses some of the most complex systems of organisms within its bounds (I recommend taking the time to read all of the biodiversity figures, they are staggering), but why? There are currently no precise, concrete answers to that question, but the suspicion is that the plant and amphibian diversity in particular is due to heavy rainfall compared to the rest of the Amazon (3,200 mm avg in Yasuní compared to 2,400 avg for the Amazon as a whole), and a limited dry season. Food is available for animals year round and plants are not stressed by lack of water or low temperatures.

Perhaps more importantly, Yasuní is a haven for many threatened and endemic species. The giant otter is one of the more charismatic of these, populating the Yasuní and Pastaza Rivers in the park. There are less than 250 breeding adults in Ecuador; Yasuní is home to 20 groups of five individuals, including a reproductive pair. The toad Atelopus spumarius also makes its home here, an amphibian facing significant declines in the future due to the spread of chytridiomycosis.

It’s well known that endemic populations – species found only in the area – face far greater consequences in the wake of habitat destruction. There are 43 endemic vertebrates in the Napo Moist Forest region, the area encompassing Yasuní: 20 species of amphibians, 19 species of birds and four species of mammals. The Round-eared bat and the Streaked dwarf porcupine are only found in the forests of Ecuador.

According to current data and projection, there are anywhere from 220 – 700+ species endemic to the Napo Moist Forest region and five of those have been found only within Yasuní National Park, including a recent find, the non-photosynthetic, myco-heterotroph, Tiputinia foetida (which I’m assuming from the name, doesn’t smell like roses).

All of these factors add up to a very robust and self-sufficient slice of the western Amazon, certainly as close to a wild frontier as any national park can get. Yasuní is special not only because of its delicate components, but also because of its scale. The park provides enough resources and unfragmented space for the species it protects, particularly large vertebrates, which ecologists hold as indicators of a healthy system. There are plenty of predators, herbivores and seed dispersers with plenty of room to function. According to the researchers, the Woolly and Spider Monkeys alone are responsible for the dispersal of seeds from over 200 species of trees. They are successful because they are able to function as they have evolved to, without direct or indirect anthropogenic pressures.

The projected effect of climate change on the Amazon, particularly the threat of more seasonal conditions, could drive more species west to Yasuní, where the Andes trap moist air and the area is less likely to face extended dry seasons. In this situation, Yasuní becomes a refuge not only for its historical denizens, but also for migrants seeking more ideal conditions:

Recognizing those factors, Miles et al.’s [152] central conclusion was that, to ensure the greatest resilience of Amazonian biodiversity, the highest priority should be given to strengthening and extending protected areas in western Amazonia that encompass lowland and montane forests. In that context, Yasuni has unique value. It not only protects a lowland forest, but also, given its proximity to the Andes, could also serve as a key ‘‘stepping-stone’’ for climate-change driven species migrations between the Amazon forests and upslope forests found in Sumaco, Llanganates, and Sangay National Parks.

Ecuador is under considerable pressure itself to harvest the estimated 850 million barrels of oil in the so called “ITT Block” (Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), leased oil fields that intersect and underlie Yasuní National Park. In 2007, the president of Ecuador agreed to postpone drilling and focus on the ITT Initiative, a measure that would protect the park indefinitely provided Ecuador was compensated by the international community. The researchers are still concerned with establishing a more permanent protection, however, considering that oil roads have already encroached in the northern portions of the park and the Initiative is lacking funding.

Protected areas

Harvesting oil has a tiered effect on the rainforest allowing for primary and secondary degradation. The primary effect of oil procurement on the rainforest is direct: roads and sites are built on deforested land, and spills and other forms of negligence seep into the surrounding land and water, affecting water-dependent species like the giant otter. The secondary effect is colonization. The oil roads are used in Ecuador to access new parts of the forest by hunters, farmers and other migrants, causing further deforestation and overhunting. Bass et al. have a very detailed example of a proposed “controlled” harvest of oil from a major company that ended up doing little to keep the ecosystems it invaded intact.

Their management solutions are necessarily restrictive, and dovetail with their exposition:

Permit no new roads nor other transportation access routes—such as new oil access roads, train rails, canals, and extensions of existing roads—within Yasuní National Park or its buffer zone.

Permit no new oil exploration or development projects in Yasuní, particularly in the remote and relatively intact Block 31 and ITT Block.

Create protected biological corridors from Yasuní to nearby higherelevation Andean parks for species on the move due to climate change.

Create a system of strict protected areas and no-go zones (i.e., off-limits to oil exploration and exploitation) in the northern Peruvian Amazon.

Establish a protected corridor between Yasuní and Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve that, together with the Peruvian reserves, would form a trans-boundary megareserve with Yasuní National Park at its core.

How many areas on the planet are like Yasuní? Perhaps more importantly, how many have we hollowed out and lost already? This place, like many others, is a living artifact, a big piece of our history, but as many times as that’s said, the repetition of moral arguments and political will weighs heavy on the communal dialog, dragging it down from its noble purpose. People don’t want to be told what to do because someone said so, they want to be shown. I believe this paper is important because it goes to great lengths to do so. It’s an excellent exhibition of data and simultaneously, an eloquent plea for action in a place that should be dear to all of us.

Bass, M., Finer, M., Jenkins, C., Kreft, H., Cisneros-Heredia, D., McCracken, S., Pitman, N., English, P., Swing, K., Villa, G., Di Fiore, A., Voigt, C., & Kunz, T. (2010). Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador's Yasuní National Park PLoS ONE, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008767

January 19, 2010

Some Thoughts on Art

Triangles are... Fill in the blank. I had a recent critique with a local museum curator and decided to write a little about it on my other blog. Jeremy didn't say no link backs so maybe, it's not quite cheating. Hey!!! It does so count as a post.

January 18, 2010

Protecting herbivorous fishes significantly increases rate of coral recovery


Grazing fishes in the Caribbean, like the many species of parrotfish pictured here, can help corals recover by keeping macroalgae, a main source of food for the fish, under control.

ResearchBlogging.orgPerhaps one of the most integral contributors to any ecosystem anywhere is the coral, reef building, habitat-providing colonial organisms facing big challenges from bleaching and disease, pressures which have been linked to climate change.

Two major events led to declines in coral populations in the Caribbean, the worldwide bleaching events of 1998 and Hurricane Frances, which swept through the Bahamas in 2004. The damage sustained by colonies in the wake of a hurricane can be debilitating; often macroalgae (colloquially known as seaweeds, marine algae observable without a microscope), are given the opportunity to dominate, especially in an environment where populations of herbivorous fishes (particularly the parrotfishes) are reduced by fishing, limiting their ability to keep the algae at bay through grazing. This is further compounded by the massive die-off of the sea urchin Diadema antillarum in the 1980's, another major regulator of algae in these waters.

January 17, 2010

My First Post

Hello Voltage Gate readers! Jeremy has made me a partner in his blogging adventures. How it happened? We were on our nightly dog walk when it dawned on the both of us that if we teamed up, combining my art with his writing, we could rule teh interwebz. Mwahahaha!

Anyway, Jeremy sent me the link to The Phylomon Project and said "you NEED to do this". It really is totally what I love (cuteness, animals, fun, science) so it wasn't hard for me to come up with some submissions. This is my Flickr page to my Phylomons, let me show you them.

New look, new direction

I spent most of the day implementing a few changes on the blog, some of which are immediately apparent and others that may not be. First and foremost the banner has changed, which Heather provided, based on the wildlife found in the Galapagos Islands. From left to right: Galapagos penguin, Sally Lightfoot crab, Galapagos sea lion, one of the many species of Darwin’s finches, and of course, a Galapagos tortoise. Accommodating the banner took more work than I thought it would; Blogger was being relatively uncooperative.

The most important change is the direction TVG will be taking. I've already started incorporating some of my creative work into the blog along with the usual, but after talking with Heather a while I decided that it would be interesting to have an artist's perspective on the site as a science and nature enthusiast, not only in contributing regular, original artwork to compliment research reviews and the like, but also in being a blogger at TVG with the freedom to contribute.

So if blogs are supposed to be reflections of our interests and our lives, this is a much more accurate representation, exploring art, writing, the creative process and culture, where those elements meet and intersect the science of ecology and zooming in on ecological research in isolation to illustrate the planet's complex systems and how those systems work and are disrupted. The connecting thread is a fascination with systems, how things connect: our own methods of creation in art, writing and music and the boundaries built in to that process or the creative process of analyzing ecosystems, teasing out the details of machination through tedious observation, often indirectly, and formulating a method of contextualizing and reasoning through raw data. I suspect that these processes are inherently the same; to some degree, I think Isaac Asimov would agree:

How often people speak of art and science as though they were two entirely different things, with no interconnection. An artist is emotional, they think, and uses only his intuition; he sees all at once and has no need of reason. A scientist is cold, they think, and uses only his reason; he argues carefully step by step, and needs no imagination. That is all wrong. The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers.

I think one of the mistakes, however, in comparing the two disciplines in general is too often perceived as a statement of equivalence in their products (not value-based). Where art and science align is in the process, not the product. The "solutions" the artist and scientist find are worlds apart, with different intent and purpose, to be evaluated by different communities of experts and enthusiasts, at least in their own context.

In the coming weeks, I'll be synching some of the material written over at ScienceBlogs to unify my work, but not as contemporary reposts, not yet at least. Just want to collapse the archive, so to speak. So there's a bit more administrative work that needs to be done, but we're in a good position to focus on content. Glad to be back and looking forward to work in the future.

January 16, 2010


Things might be a little messy here today. Going under a bit of reconstruction. I'll have more later on.

January 14, 2010

My phylomons, let me show you them

Dave Ng's new brainchild, the Phylomon Project, sounds like a fun idea (and a good opportunity to explore the success of alternate science education strategies, as Jessica points out), one that I believe he alluded to in the past: IRL pokemon cards, complete with taxonomic info, original art and best of all, no weeaboos allowed (j/k).

Sounds like an excellent venue for artists looking for an excuse to draw cute little animals or giant armored battle-boars running really fast (you can tell precisely how fast by the relative obscurity of the scenery in the background - again, kidding). Heather is already making plans for her submissions. Red panda, I'm certain, will be one of the first.

Awesome idea as usual, Dave. I for one am looking forward to observing the process from beginning to end.

Irreplaceable natural services: A look at the plight of the Chihuahuan grasslands and the black-tailed prairie dog

ResearchBlogging.orgI've written in general about grasslands before, as a biome, making sure to note that these treeless plains have always been the stage of expansive growth and decline for both the animal world and the human world, a stage upon which our skill at mastering our environment and bending it to our will is most apparent. Our achievement in converting grasslands from complex ecosystem to agricultural workhorses is only matched by our negligence in understanding how these delicate systems work and the potential danger of reaching a point of no return in grasslands management.

This article from PLoS ONE,  provides a very clear, apt example of just how delicate this biome can be, and illustrates the services that native animals can provide in an ecosystem that would cost considerable sums to replace. Grasslands are rapidly being converted to shrubland and in some cases, bare ground. Agriculture has disturbed a major architect of the grasslands of northwestern Mexico: the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus).

These photos show the rapid loss of prairie dogs within the largest colony of the Janos grasslands, following two decades of intensive land use and drought. Note the sparse coverage of annual grasses and forbs and the lack of perennial grasses, which is characteristic of degraded grasslands in Janos. These plants are only available during the rainy season and most of the year the area is bare ground. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008562.g002

The 55,000 hectare prairie dog complex (an assemblage of eight colonies) in the grasslands of Janos Valley in Chihuahua was fragmented and reduced by 73 percent from 1988 – 2005. The researchers saw prairie dog densities drop from 25 per ha to a dismal 2 per ha and the average colony size from approximately 6,250 ha to 437 ha (though a couple of larger colonies do still exist). Almost across the board, vertebrates in the grasslands would suffer similar declines in the same time period.

January 10, 2010

Copernicus, The Mars Volta

I bought Octahedron when it came out this summer, but just wasn't in the mood to explore a new album at the time, so within the last month I started playing the music I bought this year and never listened to.

I've been looping "Copernicus" on my iPod at work and home when I'm writing. It's haunting and touching at the same time, the most beautiful piece TMV has done thus far, in my opinion. Lyrics and video after the fold.

Online and offline discussions: Civility and honesty (and trolling)

There's a good discussion about "online civility" going on (mainly on Janet's blog, but here and there also) in preparation for one of the sessions at ScienceOnline 2010. This post and this one particularly peaked my interest, regarding the advantages of discussing issues online. I'm almost completely the opposite; I dislike online communication in general because it lacks the immediacy and the non-verbal elements of an actual conversation, which add important layers of context to the discussion, such as level and purpose of interest, sincerity, humor, sarcasm, and perhaps most importantly, a true grasp of the concepts being discussed (severence from Google in other words)*. This is my particular preference of course; I'm not making value judgements here.

January 7, 2010

The Voltage Gate has moved... back?

I suppose it's appropriate to start this back up after the new year in a new decade with pretty even numbers, but the urge to start writing at TVG is a resolution now months old. Just the right sequence of events were needed to take those first steps out of guilt to write in a certain medium again, straight out of a gut feeling that my connections to the world are a hell of a lot more shallow than they used to be, and coming back here to keep up is a good way to fix that.

The sequence goes something this, listed in order of accumulating guilt:

  • Spend the summer camping in and around the GA mountains.
  • Spend the fall hiking, writing short stories and finally watching Planet Earth.
  • Spend Christmas vacation in MD visiting the Baltimore Aquarium and my old haunts at FSU.

All of this reminded me of the fun I had blogging here, at my own website, when it was still true to what I was actually doing in my life, a reflection, a record of what was new to me as I studied biology and writing in college as a non-traditional student.