Sophie Parker

sophie-parkerSophie Parker is an ecologist working out of the Los Angeles office of The Nature Conservancy. She has provided scientific leadership and support on Conservancy projects and initiatives within the South Coast and Deserts of California since 2008. As a fifth generation southern Californian, Sophie’s career has focused on using science to protect ecologically important lands and waters throughout the southern region of the state. Sophie received her Ph.D. from the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at UC Santa Barbara in 2006. While at UC Santa Barbara, Sophie studied the ecology and restoration of California grasslands. She focused her research belowground, examining the roles played by soil fertility and symbiotic fungi on plant roots in preventing the reestablishment of native bunchgrasses in previously invaded grasslands. In addition to focusing on soils in California, Sophie has studied terrestrial slug populations in the forests of New England, dog olfaction at Konza Prairie in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, and global climate change above the Arctic Circle in Sweden. She has been both educator and mentor, serving as a guest speaker for undergraduate courses in geography and biology, teaching a lecture-based course in Environmental Ecology to 100 students, and leading small field-based ecology courses at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.


Sophie's Posts

Dead Heat and June Gloom: Connecting California’s Disparate Summer Climates

Summertime, and the living is easy? Or are we in the midst of the dog days of summer? It depends. In California, you can go from the hottest place on record to the oft-quoted “coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” California ecologist Sophie Parker reflects on California’s widely varying summer and what it means for ecosystems and people.

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Gone to the Dogs: Conservation’s Star Canines

My introduction to working with dogs came fifteen years ago, on the tall grass prairie of Kansas. With the assistance of two very willing Australian shepherds and one more restrained Samoyed, the dogs’ owner and I designed and carried out an experiment to test how far canines could smell, and how their prodigious noses might be affected by changes in environmental conditions such as air temperature, wind speed, and relative humidity.

As it turned out, the dogs were able to pick up and alert us smell-challenged humans to the scent of a standard odor attractant pill up to 1 kilometer away if the winds were gentle, temperatures mild, and the relative humidity was high.

While this finding alone was amazing (I could only smell the stinky pill if it was within an arm’s length of my nose), what our study implied was even more interesting.

You see, we were using the dogs as models for their wild cousins, the coyote (Canis latrans), to better understand the population dynamics of coyotes on the prairie, and large predator ecology of the region more generally.

To study coyote population sizes at the time, wildlife ecologists typically set out an odor attractant, surrounded it with spread-out sand, and then came back later to record coyote tracks in the sand.

But this method didn’t provide a good estimate for how large of an area is sampled. The question remained: from how far away could coyotes smell the odor of the attractant pill? Because coyotes are wild animals, designing a method to allow us to judge their ability to smell would have been difficult. Domesticated and agility trained dogs (with otherwise normal smelling capabilities) provide a rough approximation of what coyotes might be observing, thereby opening a window between humans and the wild, and giving us some insight into the coyote’s sensory world.

Posted In: Plants, Science
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Keep It Cool: What Desert Plants Can Teach Us About Climate Change

Climate change isn’t new. The earth’s organisms have faced the “cope, adapt, or die” paradigm presented by changing climatic conditions since the inception of life on earth more than 3 billion years ago.

Some species already live in extreme conditions (a topic I covered in my last blog post) – at the earth’s freezing poles in the dead of winter, at the apex of tropical mountain peaks that receive tens of meters of rainfall a year, and deep in the dry deserts that comprise a third of  the earth’s land area.

The plants and animals able to survive these extreme conditions may have something to teach us about climate change adaptation—especially when the organisms are incapable of crawling up to a cooler elevation or slithering into a deeper riverine pool to escape a heat wave.

As a general rule, plants spend their lives rooted to a single spot on the earth. So they need to be able to withstand 365 days per year of whatever nature can dish out in terms of weather.

Plants from hot deserts—such as the prickly cholla cactus—are no exception, and they have evolved a broad range of impressive strategies for coping with the hottest, driest climate in North America, where a years’ worth of rainfall may come in a single extreme event.

These desert denizens provide us with valuable insight into biological and physical adaptations that allow for survival on a hotter, drier planet that is subject to extreme events (as climate change experts are currently forecasting).

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Everyday Nature: The Microbes Around (and In) Us

Try this: close your eyes and conjure up an image of a “biodiverse ecosystem.”

What do you see?

Perhaps a tropical rainforest, dewy vines glistening, howler monkeys calling through the trees, and butterflies flitting in the sun-dappled heat?

Or maybe you pictured a coral reef, replete with white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, brain coral, and giant iridescent clams? Admittedly, tropical ecosystems in places such as Costa Rica and Indonesia do contain a stunning array of macro-biodiversity– that is, larger plants and animals.

But what about the little guys?

Microbes make up the vast majority of life on earth, and they are ubiquitous; a single teaspoon of your backyard soil may harbor millions of individual organisms and upwards of 100,000 unique microbial taxa.

Posted In: Science
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This Week on Cool Green Science: Change & The Eastern U.S. Forest

Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the Anthropocene. Beginning Monday, July 21, join us for a provocative 5-part series exploring the full complexity facing forest conservation in the eastern United States.

Featured Content

Osprey Cam: Watch Our Wild Neighbors
Watch the ospreys live 24/7 as they nest and raise their young -- and learn more about these fascinating birds from our scientist.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

Innovative Science

Investing in Seagrass
Marine scientists and fishers alike know that grass beds are valuable as nursery habitat. A new Conservancy-funded study puts a number to it.

Drones Aid Bird Conservation
How can California conservationists accurately count thousands of cranes? Enter a new tool in bird monitoring: the drone.

Creating a Climate-Smart Agriculture
Can farmers globally both adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change? A new paper answers with a definitive yes. But it won't be easy.

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