Category: Plants

Profiles in Xeriscaping: Habitat for a Disease-Fighting Lizard

Yes, xeriscaping saves water and attracts pollinators. But the practice of planting native and drought-tolerant plants can have some unexpected benefits. Like attracting a lizard that can reduce the threat of Lyme disease. Seriously.

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Profiles in Xeriscaping: The Chocolate Flower

That chocolate brownie smell coming from the front yard? It IS the yard. Meet a drought-tolerant plant that fills the air with cocoa aromas, just one of the biological wonders of an xeriscaped lawn.

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Weird Nature: Is “Ugly” Produce the Next Big Thing at the Farmers’ Market?

Jon Fisher looks at unsprayed but “ugly” produce at the farmer’s market and asks: Could blemished apples be the next big thing? And are there environmental benefits?

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Too Many Deer: A Bigger Threat to Eastern Forests than Climate Change?

Yes, white-tailed deer are beautiful, charismatic creatures. But there can be too much of a good thing. Three Nature Conservancy authors argue that deer are now the greatest threat to Eastern forest. To address the problem means not only managing deer, but managing people. What do you think?

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New Science: Wild Pollinator Habitat Benefits Agriculture

When most people think of pollinators, honey bees are the first thing that comes to mind. But wild pollinators–like bumblebees, sweat bees and squash bees–can be more effective at pollinating than managed honey bees. Despite the evidence of wild pollinators being a viable alternative to managed honey bees, they are only just beginning to catch on as a strategy in the agricultural community, primarily due to a lack of understanding of the costs and benefits of investing in them. The Nature Conservancy has completed an economic analysis of wild pollinator contribution to 10 major crops grown in the northeastern United States – tomatoes, blueberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, soybeans, cucumbers, squash, apples, peaches, and bell peppers.

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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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Disrupting Bacterial “Communication”: A New Idea for Sustainable Agriculture

Group communication may seem tough at times for humans, but not for bacteria. But new research suggests that we might be able to disrupt that bacterial “group communication” (also known as “quorum sensing”) in ways that could make agriculture safer without the use of traditional pesticides.

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Matchmaking for Elms: Restoring America’s Iconic Tree Through Genetics

Christian Marks runs a dating service. For elm trees.

As Marks sees it, American elms may be stunningly beautiful, but they could use far more help finding suitable mates than those unlucky-in-love singles scanning Match.com.

Marks, a floodplain ecologist for The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River program, is leading a research effort to restore populations of elms, once one of the most iconic and beloved trees in the eastern and midwestern United States.

Restoring trees might seem simple: plant them and they will grow. But in this case, it will require more than Arbor Day volunteers to return elms. Marks’ project involves quests for hidden survivors, sophisticated plant breeding, clones and extensive monitoring – all aimed at speeding up the process of natural selection.

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The Traveling Naturalist: Solid Gold in the Rockies

Introducing The Traveling Naturalist, a new series featuring natural wonders and biological curiosities for the science-inclined wanderer.

The Rocky Mountains in the spring are a botanist’s delight, with many hills, mountain meadows and buttes awash in color. Wildflowers – many of them with interesting natural and human histories – can be easily found on your public lands. Some exist in bright but tiny cluster on alpine peaks while others cover meadows in a palette of seemingly solid color.

My favorite: the flower that paints many foothills bright gold throughout the West, arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata).

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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.

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Wild Pollinators Are Critical in Keeping our Picnic Baskets Full

Bees may seem like uninvited guests at your picnic – but before you shoo them away from the fruit salad, think twice, as they play a critical role in making your picnic possible.

Some of the most healthful, picnic favorites – including blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumber, avocados and almonds – would not make it to the table without the essential work by bees and other insects.

Most crops depend on pollinating insects to produce seeds or fruits. In fact, about three-quarters of global food crops require insect pollination to thrive; one-third of our calories and the majority of critical micronutrients, such as vitamins A, C and E, come from animal-pollinated food crops.

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Sage Grouse, Sagebrush and Science

They appear like ghosts before light: small groups of plump birds standing amongst the sagebrush. They puff up, tail feathers erect, chest extended. Large air sacs are inflated on their breasts, making a distinct plop.

I’m on the spring display grounds of the greater sage grouse, one of the arid West’s most iconic birds. Each spring males gather on these grounds, known as leks, to impress females with their display.

You have to get up early in the morning and sit motionless in the high desert. But you’ll be rewarded in the soft light of dawn, as sage grouse begin their show. It’s not unusual 15 males vying for the attention of female grouse on a lek, a site that grouse use year after year. (I’ve seen more than 50 on a lek at The Nature Conservancy’s Crooked Creek Preserve).

It’s one of the world’s most memorable wildlife spectacles. But finding it has grown increasingly difficult, as sage grouse continue to decline across their range.

Why are sage grouse on the decline? And is there anything we can do about it?

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The Monarch Butterfly Decline, and What You Can Do About It

For the past month, monarch butterflies have caused a lot of buzz in both the news and in conservation circles. The reason: a report published by the World Wildlife Fund and others that documented a 59 percent decline in monarch populations this year.

This week, Yale360 published perhaps the best piece yet on this alarming decline, Richard Conniff’s interview with Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. It presents a number of interesting issues that conservationists should notice.

It’s well known that almost the entire eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinters in a few clustered forests in Mexico. These tiny islands of habitat make the butterflies vulnerable. Many U.S. residents believe that the population decline is, in fact, due to logging in Mexican forests. But as Taylor points out, the Mexican government has done an excellent job stopping illegal logging.

So why the decline?

The study’s authors point to agricultural fields. Taylor suggests that the monarch butterfly is likely “collateral damage” from the use of genetically engineered crops, namely Roundup-ready corn and soybeans. These crops have resulted in significantly higher pesticide use, wiping out the milkweeds that monarchs need to survive.

As Taylor says in the interview:

Now you are really hard pressed to find any corn or soybeans that have milkweed in the fields. I haven’t seen any for years now because of the use of Roundup after they planted these crops. They have effectively eliminated milkweed from almost all of the habitat that monarchs used to use.

Additionally, due to biofuel and high crop prices, there are more acres in corn and soybean production than any year since just after World War II.  This has meant that a lot of land has been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and a lot of marginal land–where milkweeds once grew– has been tilled.

That’s a lot of lost habitat for wildlife, including monarch butterflies.

And here’s where you come in.

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Review: When Conservation is Successful (Too Successful)

Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness. By Al Cambronne. Lyons Press, 2013. 264 pages.

Last week’s wildlife news brought a familiar parade of depressing subjects: Poachers killed more rhinos, this time at Ol Pejeta Ranch, a reserve specifically fenced and fortified to protect the animals from this fate. Seventy percent of forest elephants have been killed  in the past ten years, and conservationists are finding gruesome scenes of slaughtered herds. And on, and on.

Then a completely different wildlife story came across my desk,  Al Cambronne’s well-reported Deerland. In contrast to the stories of rhinos and forest elephants, Cambronne’s book is about a seemingly hopeless wildlife situation that turned into a wildly successful conservation story.

Perhaps, as it turns out, too successful.

Deerland is about the white-tailed deer, yet another of those North American species that we take for granted today, forgetting a century ago the species was facing similar perils to orangutans today.

Whitetails were slaughtered for their hides and meat. Their forest habitat was logged and leveled. Deer, it appeared, were on their way out.

However, white-tailed deer were more adaptable than many conservationists believed. Given legal protection and effective law enforcement, together with the reforestation of logged habitat, deer populations began rebounding.

And thrived: Today there are more than 100 times more whitetails than a century ago. Think we can’t save declining large wildlife species? Maybe we should look to the whitetail.

Conservationists today are fond of talking about building constituencies. Cambronne argues that no wildlife species has a more effective constituency than the whitetail: an active force of advocates in the form of deer hunters, deer feeders and people who just love having large animals around.

And what about science? White-tailed deer are arguably the most studied wildlife species on the planet, with more 3,260 peer-reviewed papers published on the species between 1985 and 2010.

Policy, constituency, science, measurable success: Everything conservation needs, all working exactly as planned.

And yet, as Cambronne vividly portrays, the white-tailed deer conservation effort has become too much of a good thing, creating a host of new problems in its wake.

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The Yucca and its Moth

It sounds too good to be true; two species helping each other survive for millions of years – each getting as much as they give.

For more than 40 million years there has been a relationship between yucca plants and yucca moths.  It’s a particularly important one because neither the yucca or the moth can survive without the other.  The moth’s larvae depend on the seeds of the yucca plant for food, and the yucca plant can only be pollinated by the yucca moth.

In the central United States, soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca) is pollinated by a moth known as Tegeticulla yuccasella.  Each spring, adult moths emerge from underground cocoons and the males and females meet up with each other on yucca plants to mate.

When a female is ready to lay eggs, she first goes to a yucca flower to collect pollen.  Unlike most moth species, yucca moths have two short tentacles near their mouth that they use to scrape pollen from the anthers of the flower.  As she collects the sticky pollen, the yucca moth packs it into a ball and sticks it under her head.  She then flies off to another yucca flower.

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Forest Dilemmas

Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the 21st century. Join us for a provocative 5-part series exploring the full complexity facing forest conservation in the eastern United States.

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.

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