Cool Green Science http://blog.nature.org/science Cool Green Science: The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy Mon, 20 Oct 2014 10:00:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Why Conservation Letters is Going 100% Open Access http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/20/conservation-letters-open-access-impact-factor-data-sharing/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/20/conservation-letters-open-access-impact-factor-data-sharing/#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 10:00:54 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44543 Photo courtesy of Eddie Game.

Photo courtesy of Eddie Game.

By Bob Lalasz, director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy

Conservation science: You’re finally about to get a little freer.

Conservation Letters, a research journal aimed at policy audiences, will go “gold standard open access” as of January 1 — making all of its content (including its archives) free to download and reuse.

Letters — which is associated with the Society for Conservation Biology — is the first high-impact applied conservation science journal to go completely open. Which might surprise some observers, since the field’s purpose is to influence conservation practice and how conservation is included in land-use planning and other societal decision-making.

Most insiders, however, know conservation is notorious for lagging behind other disciplines in terms of data- and knowledge sharing. In fact, a recent review in Conservation Biology of 20 journals aimed at conservation practitioners found that only 9 percent of their papers published since 2000 were freely downloadable — compared to 32 percent of journals in the field of evolutionary biology.

Making this development even stranger was that taking Letters gold standard open access was the idea of its publisher John C. Wiley & Sons — the same John C. Wiley & Sons whose science, technology and medical division made $106 million profit in 2011, and who (along with Elsevier and other big for-profit STM publishers) has been vilified by open access proponents.

What’s behind the move? And might it galvanize more openness for the rest of conservation science publishing? Eddie Game, associate editor for Letters and Nature Conservancy senior scientist, gave me his take.

 

What ‘Gold Standard Open Access’ Really Means

Eddie Game: Completely free to all readers, all material reproducible. When we discussed it, we decided: What’s the point of going open access if it’s not true open access?

So it’ll be freely available for everyone with the same kind of license you have at PLoS journals, where you can take the figures and reuse them. And the entire back catalog of Letters will also be open access with that same licensing arrangement.

Why Go OA?

Wiley came to us with the idea. We thought we needed to be bundled with the standard Wiley package to institutions. And they came back to us and said, “We’ve got one other journal that we’re trialing on an open-access model out. How would you be interested in trying the same?”

Despite our high impact factor, we have a really low subscriber rate. Because of the timing of its release, Letters doesn’t get bundled with a lot of other journals, and hardly any libraries buy journals individually these days. So very few people actually have access to it. And our niche is policy-relevant science, and that relevance was being limited by the kind of circulation we had.

Conservation Letters is not a moneymaking journal for Wiley, and they’re not really depending on it for that.  They want to occupy the niche we fill as much as anything

Why the Impact Factor Might Go Up Under Open Access

The reason why quality often sucks for most open-access journals is that they’re online journals, so the incentive to put more papers out to generate revenue through authors’ fees without any real cost is very tempting.


“I expect the impact factor to increase with the greater exposure rather than decrease.”– Eddie Game


Letters is going to be a little bit different in the sense that, at least for the foreseeable future, we are going to keep the number of issues and the number of articles per issue the same.  We won’t be putting out more content, and we aren’t under any pressure from Wiley to do so.  They would prefer to see Conservation Letters continue to climb in terms of its status and impact rather than publishing more stuff to make money.

So we have to not only maintain our editorial standards but make them even clearer and more consistent.  I expect the impact factor to increase with the greater exposure rather than decrease.

Will Author Fees Be a Problem?

Some of the other editors were concerned authors from non-profits wouldn’t be able to afford the author fee to publish with us. My argument was that by the time non-profits have invested getting a piece of science or their work to the point of publication, they’ve already sunk a lot of money into it, and they want to get the maximum exposure for it.

So paying the extra $1,800 to have it published in a good open-access journal isn’t going to inhibit too many non-profit scientists.  And we are waiving the fee for scientists from developing nations. We pushed Wiley really hard on giving the associate editors and editor-in-chief the right to waive publication fees.

Why Hasn’t This Happened Before in Conservation Science?

I’m not really sure. The discipline is pretty young and still rapidly growing. I wonder partly whether we haven’t matured to the point of thinking: “Our content isn’t increasing—how do we get greater exposure for it?”

Beyond that, it seems kind of bizarrely ironic that this discipline that aims for applied relevance — and it talks about itself as a very applied discipline — hasn’t seen more open access. Maybe people running conservation projects are not well funded, but I just find it really hard to believe that that is any different than evolutionary biology.  Given my experience in the last 15 or 20 years, conservation science has done far better in terms of getting some government grants and resources than evolutionary biologists.  I would be surprised if that’s the case.

Why the New Hybrid Trend in Scholarly Publishing — Levying a Surcharge for Open Licensing — Won’t Work

The hybrid model won’t work for most journals. It might for journals that trade on exclusivity, but it’s been available for a while, and it just hasn’t been very well taken up by the others. With Conservation Letters, we would probably have only one issue in three where an author paid for our hybrid open access. Either you are going to become a journal whose content is available, probably open access available, or it’s just the same journal, essentially. The response just isn’t there.

How Will Letters’ New Approach Impact Other Conservation Journals?

Other senior editors of the other major journals in the field have been really enthusiastic about our move to OA, but none have indicated that they are likely to head down that road.

We can hope, but I can’t see it happening in a really rapid time frame. I think they will all be looking at Conservation Letters to see what happens to our impact factor.


“In 10 years, I suspect that open access will dominate publications…”– Eddie Game


That’s what many of them care about.  If we are able to be, say, like PLOS Biology and keep it high and keep it as a powerful journal, then I think many journals will be thinking seriously about it.

Journals don’t cost that much money to run. And Conservation Letters is online only. So even on the small distribution we have, at six issues a year and 10 papers an issue, Wiley will be covering their costs.

Is Gold Standard Open Access the Future of Science Publishing?

It won’t be too long before the vast majority of funders oblige scientists to put their research in open access.  Soon all government agencies and most private foundations will insist it.  In 10 years, I suspect that open access will dominate publications, just because it’s demanded by the funding sources, and the costs for doing that will come down.

One of the trends I think we’ll see is institutions getting together and agreeing to pay open-access charges, just as libraries pay for subscriptions.  For instance, Wiley has essentially a subscriber program where universities pay a set charge to Wiley, which covers the open access publication costs of their scientists.

For NGOs, the SCB membership discount is kind of a start in that direction, but perhaps we will get to a point where we have a similar institutional subscription. We’re currently exploring options with Wiley, so perhaps TNC will be a leader in this regard.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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I Am Dolphin, Vulture Restaurants and Climate-Smart Military http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/17/best-science-nature-web-dolphin-vulture-restaurants-climate-military/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/17/best-science-nature-web-dolphin-vulture-restaurants-climate-military/#comments Fri, 17 Oct 2014 10:00:05 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44601 Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates). Photo by Flickr user Willy Volk through a Creative Commons license.

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates). Photo by Flickr user Willy Volk through a Creative Commons license.

By Bob Lalasz, Matt Miller, Lisa Feldkamp and Cara Byington of the TNC Science Communications team We find tons of cool conservation and conservation science stuff on the Internets — and share the best of it with you every week in The Cooler:

Biodiversity & Wildlife

Fine dining for vultures: ‘Vulture restaurants’ could boost populations in Africa. (Conservation Magazine)

Ocelot crossings coming to Texas soon! (Strange Behaviors)

Who over-salted the fish? Whales can only taste salty. (Deep Sea News)

Return of the ‘river wolves’ (giant river otters) in Peru. (Mongabay)

A bank with something more precious than money? The Kew seed bank. (Ensia)

New Research

Dolphin ‘breathalyzer’ checks wildlife and ocean health, not blood alcohol. (Analytical Chemistry, Science Daily)

Clean energy benefits outweigh environmental impacts from solar, wind, and hydropower. (Nature)

Are invasives ‘superior’ to native species? (The Loom)

Wild pollinators are good for crop yields. (Frontiers in Ecology)

Climate Change

The Pentagon released a roadmap for a climate-smart military. (Los Angeles Times)

What’s the worst case scenario? Sea level rise of 1.8 m (5.9 ft) by 2100. (Environmental Research Letters, Science Daily)

Nature News

Whole Foods ups the ante on environmental impact labeling with its “Responsibly Grown” ratings. (New York Times)

No fuel needed: New industrial generator runs on waste heat. (MIT Technology Review)

Conservation Tactics

A reason to love power lines: They could make good wildlife corridors. (Yale E360)

Sustainable intensification of smallholder farms has promise to be climate-smart and good for conservation. (CCAFS)

Would legal ivory trade stop the slaughter of elephants or make things worse? (Yale E360)

Science Communications

Scientists share why they do science. (COMPASS Blogs)

The potential for building narrative with interactive sea level rise viewers. (Science Communication)

This and That

“I am dolphin”: New game combines nature and neuroscience. (Washington Post)

3D printing goes solar. (Michigan Tech)

 


Have suggestions for next week’s Cooler? Send them to lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org. Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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From Theory to Practice: Managing Coral Reefs for Resilience http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/16/theory-new-research-managing-coral-reefs-resilience/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/16/theory-new-research-managing-coral-reefs-resilience/#comments Thu, 16 Oct 2014 10:00:44 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44589 Marine researcher recording data on coral reefs on the east side of Palau. © Ian Shive

Marine researcher recording data on coral reefs on the east side of Palau. © Ian Shive

By Cara Byington, Science Communications Specialist

Scientists and reef managers agree: the key to successful reef management is resilience.

While that has been recognized for more than a decade, the challenge is understanding how to manage for resilience. Until now.

A new paper in Global Change Biology “fills a critical resilience-management gap,” says Conservancy climate scientist Elizabeth McLeod and one of the authors of the paper, “by presenting a clear framework and a set of guidelines for how managers can enhance resilience through prioritizing specific place-based management interventions.”

First, a definition: Resilient reefs are those that maintain their fundamental biological processes of recruitment, reproduction, regrowth and repair. A resilient reef is better able to recover from stress events like bleaching and storms.

Think of it like an immune system. A person with a healthy immune system can recover quickly from a cold or minor infection, whereas such a condition might be life threatening to someone with a suppressed immune system. A resilient reef is likewise better able to recover from stressors.

The authors show how the framework can be applied to Caribbean and Indo-Pacific reefs and discuss how the prioritization of management strategies to support resilience changes under different ecological and sociopolitical conditions. They highlight the need to address key stressors facing coral reefs: pollution, sedimentation, overfishing, ocean warming and acidification.

By shifting from a piecemeal strategy that focuses primarily on abating stress from individual (often acute) events to one that prioritizes abating chronic stressors, reef managers can enhance overall reef resilience.

The paper by world leaders in coral reef ecology and climate science, including several authors from The Nature Conservancy, provides a framework for managing for resilience.

“This Adaptive Resilience-Based Management Framework,” says McLeod, “also enables managers to identify knowledge gaps that are limiting their ability to implement the most effective strategies for reducing system vulnerability. Through application, testing and further development, we believe that this framework will support smarter management actions that in turn will support the resilience of coral reefs and the communities that depend upon them in a rapidly changing world.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Conservation and Food Security: The $115 Billion Question http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/15/conservation-and-food-security-the-115-billion-question/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/15/conservation-and-food-security-the-115-billion-question/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 10:00:23 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44522 Allium pskemense B. Fedtsch, a wild perennial related to the common onion. Photo Credit: Crop Wild Relatives Global Portal.

Allium pskemense B. Fedtsch, a wild perennial related to the common onion. Photo Credit: Crop Wild Relatives Global Portal.

Eddie Game is a senior scientist for The Nature Conservancy

Conservationists love talking about the role we can play in food security. And with good reason – there is no more basic or universal need. Be it increased fish production in MPAs, water availability for household gardens, or grass cover during times of drought, conservation has a range of plausible ways to influence food security. But I often get the sense that when talking about food security we’re grasping a little bit, trying to fill a role for which we are not a perfect fit.

Well, there is a much overlooked role we can play, and one that conservation clearly possess the best tools and expertise to do the job: in situ conservation of crop wild relatives (CWRs).

A couple of years ago I was asked to help supervise a student who wanted to investigate how to prioritize conservation of CWRs. For those with as scant knowledge of CWRs as I had at the time, crop wild relatives are taxa that are closely related to domestic agricultural crops.

Typically CWRs are varieties of the same species as the domestic crop but they may also include subspecies or even sometimes congeneric species. Although modern GM technology means that many species are potential gene donors for crop improvement, CWRs remain the taxa with the greatest potential to contribute beneficial traits to their related crops, such as resistance to disease or tolerance to abiotic stresses such as temperature or salinity.

To give a sense of just how important the genetic material from CWRs is, over the past 30 years, at least 60 CWRs have contributed more than 100 beneficial traits to 13 major crops such as wheat, rice, tomato, and potato (Hajjar and Hodgkin 2007) and even 15 years ago it was estimated that the global increase in crop yield as a results of crossing with CWRs represents a value of $115 billion per year (Pimentel et al. 1997).

Many experts also see CWRs as one of the most promising avenues to address the challenges that climate change poses to global food security (Feuillet et al. 2008; Nevo and Chen 2010).


“Over the past 30 years, at least 60 CWRs have contributed more than 100 beneficial traits to 13 major crops such as wheat, rice, tomato, and potato.”


 

Just like many species that are the focus of conservation effort, there is anthropogenic pressure on CWRs in their native habitats (land conversion, degradation, overgrazing, competition from exotic species, etc.), threatening this global source of genetic diversity. Although plant resources can be safely conserved ex situ in seed banks, such as the one under the ice of Svalbard, Norway, in situ conservation is a critical compliment for at least two reasons.

First, the genetic diversity across a species wild range can never hope to be captured entirely in ex situ collections and the traits that are most beneficial for future crop improvement are often adaptations to particular local environmental conditions (e.g., drought tolerance or salt tolerance). Second, in situ conservation allows populations to continue natural adaptation to changing conditions. Conserving CWRs in situ will ensure that their future value for crop improvement is maximized.

Sustaining important species and their diversity in situ is what conservation does. It’s been our core business. It is perhaps a little surprising then that there has been such scant attention paid by conservation organizations to conserving CWRs, and that the subject is gravely under-represented in the main conservation literature. It is not as if it’s contested space – agricultural agencies generally have limited responsibility for wild species conservation.

It would, however, be grossly unfair to suggest that there is no awareness of this potential nexus between food security and classic conservation; reference to CWRs appears in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Nagoya text, there is a CWR Specialist Group within the IUCN, and the FAO has a global initiative on CWR conservation.

Like most taxa, developing countries contain the lion’s share of CWR diversity (which has disproportionately benefited developed nations so far), but are also where the pressures on remaining habitat are greatest and the resources for conservation most inadequate. One could easily make the case that developed nations have both a strong interest and responsibility to help poorer nations conserve CWRs.

Yes, a weedy-looking wild cowpea vine will struggle to compete with a black rhino on charisma, but have we asked the tens of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa who depend on cowpea, which they value the conservation of more? The key, however, is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Existing protected areas and conservation projects are likely to contain a great many CWR resources and present an efficient option for the conservation. In the study I was involved in, we identified 182 existing protected areas across Africa likely to contain at least one important cowpea CWR (Moray et al. 2014).

I was recently with some donors in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, and while I talked at length about the benefits of our work there for threatened and fauna and habitats, perhaps I should have made more of the fact that it’s also a hotspot of diversity for wild soy bean relatives (González-Orozco et al. 2012).

In many cases, I suspect it would not take much effort to incorporate CWRs into the management plans for existing conservation areas.

At the level of a single conservation area, conserving CWRs is neither a guaranteed nor rapid pathway to food security for local communities. However, the challenges of feeding an increasing global population in a changing climate mean that if we’re playing the long game, the potential impact of even a single CWR is staggering.

If we are serious about conservation helping people, CWRs present a role for us in food security that is more important and better aligned than most of us realize.

References

Feuillet, C., P. Langridge, and R. Waugh. 2008. Cereal breeding takes a walk on the wild side. Trends in Genetics 24:24-32.

González-Orozco, C. E., A. H. Brown, N. Knerr, J. T. Miller, and J. J. Doyle. 2012. Hotspots of diversity of wild Australian soybean relatives and their conservation in situ. Conservation Genetics 13:1269-1281.

Hajjar, R. and T. Hodgkin. 2007. The use of wild relatives in crop improvement: a survey of developments over the last 20 years. Euphytica 156:1-13.

Moray, C., E. T. Game, and N. Maxted. 2014. Prioritising in situ conservation of crop resources: A case study of African cowpea (Vigna unguiculata). Scientific Reports 4.

Nevo, E. and G. Chen. 2010. Drought and salt tolerances in wild relatives for wheat and barley improvement. Plant, Cell & Environment 33:670-685.

Pimentel, D., C. Wilson, C. McCullum, R. Huang, P. Dwen, J. Flack, Q. Tran, T. Saltman, and B. Cliff. 1997. Economic and environmental benefits of biodiversity. Bioscience:747-757.


Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Citizen Science Tuesday: Wildlife CSI http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/14/citizen-science-tuesday-wildlife-csi/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/14/citizen-science-tuesday-wildlife-csi/#comments Tue, 14 Oct 2014 10:00:29 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44550 A coyote approaches a compost pile. Photo by Flickr user circulating through a Creative Commons license.

A coyote approaches a compost pile. Photo by Flickr user circulating through a Creative Commons license.

By Lisa Feldkamp, senior coordinator, new science audiences, The Nature Conservancy

What is Wildlife CSI?

Residential composting has become a popular, and environmentally friendly, method of disposing of food waste. But that food also serves as a critter buffet.

How does the local wildlife behave around the compost heap?

Wildlife CSI (Compost Scene Investigation) is on the case, and you could be one of their investigators, joining a crack team of sleuths that includes crowbots

Yes, crowbots.

The project uses camera traps to catch pictures of birds and mammals that visit the compost piles, and they need citizen science help to identify animals in the images.

“As an ecologist with projects that generate innumerable wildlife monitoring camera images, my research relies on the curiosity and generosity of citizen scientists who contribute to our efforts by identifying and counting animals in crowd-sourced images,” says Scott Smedley an ecologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and lead researcher for Wildlife CSI.

Why is Wildlife CSI Important?

By classifying the images caught on camera, Wildlife CSI is working to better understand how composting impacts the foraging ecology of wild birds and mammals.

“Even though residential composting is becoming an increasingly popular, as an environmentally friendly practice, we know surprisingly little about how it influences wildlife ecology,” says Smedley.

“One weird thing that we have discovered is that red-shouldered hawks, a species that you might not typically think as a compost scavenger, are frequent pile visitors, even eating vegetable matter,” Smedley reports. “It turns out that these hawks show an interesting association with crows.”

And that’s where the crowbots come in.

“Most red-shouldered hawk encounters at the compost piles take place with crows, our leading avian visitor.  With crowbots (robotic crows), we hope to investigate whether crow presence actually draws the hawks to the piles,” Smedley explains.

Learning about ecology is not the only goal for Wildlife CSI; they are also exploring many ways that citizen science can benefit people.

The project can also benefit conservation by reminding people of their connection to nature.

“While clearly not a substitute for getting out directly into nature, virtual excursions such as Wildlife CSI may nonetheless have benefits,” Smedley notes. “Participants find viewing our wildlife images to be entertaining, relaxing, and perhaps at times even a bit too engaging (sometimes it’s hard to step away from the computer!).”

Through Wildlife CSI, Dr. Smedley is collaborating with Prof. Lisa Nisbet, an environmental psychologist at Trent University in Ontario on cross-disciplinary research to better understand how connecting to nature affects human well-being.

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and some crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) gather at the compost pile. Image courtesy of Wildlife CSI.

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and some crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) gather at the compost pile. Image courtesy of Wildlife CSI.

And Wildlife CSI is engaging students in citizen science.

“Since a little friendly competition is always enjoyable, we thought that would be fun to introduce an element of team-play to Wildlife CSI,” says Smedley. “Working with my colleagues in IT, we added the ability to have contests where the outcome is based on the number of images teams categorize and their accuracy in identifying and counting the animals.”

Many of the competitions have been between undergraduate students at Trinity. Last year the students of an introductory biology course provided over 110,000 image categorizations (an average over 750 per student)!

“Their citizen science experience is woven into the classroom to deepen the students’ engagement with ecological concepts that they are learning about,” Smedley explains.

And high school classes can get in on the fun too. Teachers from across the United States and Canada can sign-up their classrooms to compete in a Wildlife CSI contest.

Follow them on Facebook or check their blog for updates on new opportunities, updates on team standings, coverage of related ecological stories, and research reports.

That’s not all. Wildlife CSI has a pilot project, currently available in Connecticut only, to study how participating in citizen science can benefit veterans. 

How Can You Get Involved in Wildlife CSI?

It’s easy and free to get started.

Just visit their website and get started by watching the Instructional Video. Do not skip this – there are some handy tips!

Then check out the Field Guide to familiarize yourself with the scavenging wildlife of Connecticut. You’ll be able to come back to this as you need it. The tips for differentiating similar wildlife (like turkey vultures and wild turkeys) are essential.

Then you can get started by clicking Image Database. There is a quick registration (only name and email required) and a 20 image quiz to make sure that you have learned to identify the relevant wildlife. Then you’re ready to start!

If you run into any trouble you can visit the Wildlife CSI Blog or their Facebook page to discuss.

Contribute to a project that’s investigating wildlife, benefiting people, and bringing crowbots into the world!


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Quagga: Can an Extinct Animal be Bred Back into Existence? http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/13/quagga-can-an-extinct-animal-be-bred-back-into-existence/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/13/quagga-can-an-extinct-animal-be-bred-back-into-existence/#comments Mon, 13 Oct 2014 10:00:47 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44572 One of the last quaggas, photographed in a London Zoo. Photo: Frederick York

One of the last quaggas, photographed in a London Zoo. Photo: Frederick York

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

In South Africa, conservationists are attempting to restore the quagga, a type of zebra notable for its unusual coloration and striping patterns.

There’s one major issue: the quagga has been extinct since 1883.

De-extinction – resurrecting species that have disappeared – has become a popular if contentious idea in conservation circles. The discussion has focused on cloning well-known extinct animals like the passenger pigeon and woolly mammoth.

In the case of the quagga, scientists aren’t cloning them. They’re using livestock breeding techniques. And the project is well underway.

Can an animal be bred back into existence? And even if it can, is this a wise use of conservation dollars and effort, or just a gimmick?

The Last Quagga?

Very little documentation exists of quaggas. Photo: Frederick York

Very little documentation exists of quaggas. Photo: Frederick York

As a child, I remember staring at a picture of a quagga in a book of extinct animals. It appeared, to my eye, as a zebra without stripes. A fantastic beast.

That impression was only partly true. The quagga did have some striping but only on its head, neck and front part of the body. Much of the body was brown, with the legs and belly being an unstriped white.

This animal once roamed the Karoo Desert and other arid regions of southern Africa, presumably in large herds.

This region of South Africa began being settled for agriculture by European colonists quite early; you can visit vineyards today that began in the late 1600s. Those European farmers saw the large, grazing ungulates of the Cape as competition, and began eliminating them with deadly effectiveness.

The great herds disappeared. Some animals, such as bontebok and black wildebeest, were reduced to just dozens of animals. Others, like the quagga, weren’t that lucky.

Its demise was swift and poorly documented. The last-known individual died in an Amsterdam Zoo in 1883, but no one even realized it at the time.

Laws were passed in South Africa protecting the quagga from hunting in 1886, three years after its extinction.

Only one photograph of a live quagga exists, and only 23 skins of the animal can be found in the world’s museums.

As such, it achieved an almost-mythical status among naturalists. An animal that disappeared, in recent times, with only the merest of traces.

For years, one of the few things we really knew about the quagga is that it would never roam the veldt again.

And even that might not turn out to be true.

Enter the DNA Evidence

A quagga museum pecimen that was sampled for DNA. Photo: Wikimedia user FunkMonk under a Creative Commons license.

A quagga museum pecimen that was sampled for DNA. Photo: Wikimedia user FunkMonk under a Creative Commons license.

Scientists long considered the quagga as a species due to its unique appearance. Some even considered it more closely related to wild horses than zebras.

In 1984, researchers analyzed the DNA of the existing quagga skins. What they found challenged the conventional wisdom on this animal – and set off a new chapter in conservation history.

The DNA evidence determined that the quagga was not a separate species at all, but rather a subspecies of the plains zebra.

The plains zebra is the zebra everyone knows – the common zebra of Africa’s grasslands, the zebra you’re most likely to encounter in nature documentaries and at your local zoo.

The evidence suggests that quaggas evolved their unique coat pattern relatively recently in evolutionary time, likely during the Pleistocene. They became isolated from the other plains zebra populations and rapidly evolved the less striped pattern and brown coloration.

In scientific circles, discussions of quaggas inevitably lead to questions about what exactly constitutes a species or subspecies. What makes a quagga a quagga? Should DNA alone determine species status?

In the case of the quagga, the lack of specimens and reliable field observations creates more questions than answers.

In all likelihood, the coat patterns of the quagga demonstrated considerable variation, just as plains zebras exhibit considerable variation in striping.

Some quaggas likely more closely resembled plains zebras.

That presumption led some researchers to ask: what if some plains zebras exhibited quagga-like characteristics? If so, could these animals be bred to create an animal with fewer stripes and a browner coat?

In short, could we bring the quagga back from extinction?

How the Zebra Lost Its Stripes

A zebra at Mokala National Park exhibiting quagga-like characteristics, including lack of striping on hind quarters and a darker coloration. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

A zebra at Mokala National Park exhibiting quagga-like characteristics, including lack of striping on hind quarters and a darker coloration. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

One of the scientists who took tissue samples from quagga skins was Ronald Rau. His analysis led him to believe that quaggas could be re-created by selective breeding of plains zebras.

This resulted in the launch in 1987 of The Quagga Project to do just that. The project is funded by a range of conservation organizations and private corporations and individuals.

Just as show dog competitors breed for certain physical characteristics, The Quagga Project selects zebras that exhibit quagga-like characteristics and breeds them. The results are carefully documented and bloodlines tracked.

These “quagga-like” zebras now roam in Karoo and Mokala national parks and numerous private reserves in the South African Cape. The results are varied, but each generation some zebras appear to look more like quaggas.

But is this a good use of resources, or just a stunt? With other, existing species in South Africa facing major crises – in particular, white and black rhinos – why focus on breeding an animal to resemble an extinct subspecies?

Some argue that the quagga is more than its skin – it may have had ecological adaptations and behavioral differences from plains zebras. No matter how “quagga-like” an animal might look, there’s no way to know if it behaves like a “real quagga.”

On the other hand, there’s this: Many of the animals that nearly went extinct — the bontebok, the black wildebeest, the Cape Mountain zebra –  have recovered quite nicely and now roam a number of parks and farms.

Many private ranchers in South Africa have replaced livestock with wild ungulates, turning to sport hunting and wildlife tourism for income.

As such, the Cape now has more large mammals than it had 50 or even 100 years ago. Why not add one more native inhabitant to the mix? Couldn’t herds of quaggas capture the imagination and offer inspiration?

On a recent trip to South Africa, I saw the quagga-like zebras in Mokala National Park. To me, seeing them didn’t seem terribly different than seeing bison on a private ranch, or black-footed ferrets that had been reintroduced after captive breeding.

All are human interventions undertaken to restore a measure of wildness. To some, that’s oxymoronic. To others, it’s hope.

The “quagga” that returns to the African bush will likely be a different critter than the quagga of history. But that’s true of the bison of the Great Plains, too, isn’t it?

There are no clear answers here. Science may very well enable us to replicate an animal that resembles a quagga. Human values will ultimately decide whether we should.

What do you think? Is The Quagga Project an innovative conservation program? Or merely an expensive diversion?

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Know Thy Corvids, Salmon Saver and Garlic Cures Trees http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/10/corvids-crows-salmon-garlic-climate-biodiversity-wildlife-nature/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/10/corvids-crows-salmon-garlic-climate-biodiversity-wildlife-nature/#comments Fri, 10 Oct 2014 10:00:03 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44520 A crow with a twig. Photo by Flickr user patrick wilken through a Creative Commons license.

A crow (Corvus cornix) with a twig. Photo by Flickr user patrick wilken through a Creative Commons license.

By Bob Lalasz, Matt Miller, Lisa Feldkamp and Cara Byington of the TNC Science Communications team We find tons of cool conservation and conservation science stuff on the Internets — and share the best of it with you every week in The Cooler:

Biodiversity & Wildlife

When black bears roamed Manhattan in droves. (The Dodo)

Not your typical Italian holiday: Searching for crested porcupines in Tuscany. (Mammal Watching)

Know your corvids: How to tell a raven from a crow. (Audubon Magazine)

The hidden life of Central Park: the biodiversity a bio-blitz won’t uncover. (The Loom)

How five different creatures flap their wings. One part geometry, one part biology, the art of flight is beautiful to watch. (Fast Company)

Crabs could devastate Antarctic sea creatures. (Conservation Magazine)

Bumble bees, the best friend of your wildlife garden. (Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens)

New Research

Will some coral win in a warmer climate? (PLoS One)

Mr. Fusion is on the way. Fusion reactor could could be cheaper than coal. (Science Daily)

Climate Change

Jon Stewart’s not-so-gentle reminder that it is climate change we should worry about, not ebola or ISIS. (Grist)

After a period of decline, The Times is refocusing its attention on climate change. (New York Times)

With no ice in sight, walruses go to the beach. (Environmental News Network)

Nature News

Threat level “high” for giant weasels:  Fishers endangered by rat poison used on marijuana plantations. (NBC News)

Salmon saver: Scott Hed recognized for his role in protecting Bristol Bay with Angler of the Year Award. (Fly Rod & Reel)

Nobel Laureates call for a revolutionary shift in how humans use resources. (The Guardian)

Conservation Tactics

Garlic. It’s not just for warding off vampires. Scientists in England are using garlic to cure trees of deadly diseases. (BBC)

Poisoned elephant saved in a daring rescue by 15 field veterinarians. (National Geographic)

More roads = fewer birds. Human impacts on biodiversity. (Conservation Magazine)

Science Communications

Getting serious about climate change. Psychologists find ways to convince conservatives. (Science of Us)

This and That

Is civilization natural? (NPR)

What? A world without chocolate? Ghost food: how we might eat after climate change. (The Verge)

Declining populations could be a good thing. (The Economist)

Why are New York bagels so much better? The science of NYC water. (City Lab)


Have suggestions for next week’s Cooler? Send them to lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org. Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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Bark in the Park: How are Dogs Affecting Open Spaces? http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/09/bark-parks-dogs-nature-wildlife-management-ecology/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/09/bark-parks-dogs-nature-wildlife-management-ecology/#comments Thu, 09 Oct 2014 10:00:57 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44456 Offleash dog playing in a park. Photo by Flickr user Jim's Photos1 through a Creative Commons license.

Off-leash dog playing in a park. Photo by Flickr user Jim’s Photos1 through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy. Follow him at @rlalasz.

Rover might be your best friend — but do you really know how he’s affecting your favorite park and its wildlife when you let him off leash there?

Trick question — because nobody really does. Even though dogs-in-parks research has become a hot topic over the last decade, a recent Environmental Management study reviewing 133 such studies finds we still have big knowledge gaps about what free-roaming dogs mean for the ecology of open spaces. Even though some park managers regard dogs as “a major management challenge,” say the authors.

What we do know: Dogs can kill park wildlife directly through predatory action, disrupt normal wildlife behavior and transmit disease to them (as well as humans). No surprise: These bad things happen more frequently when dogs are running loose. (Studies also show many dog owners exhibit “low compliance” with park leashing regulations.) Another non-surprise: Dog owners and non-dog owners usually disagree on restricting dog activity in parks.

Where we need more info, say the authors, is in management-relevant areas like: what else dogs mean for park ecologies; how dogs are being managed effectively in parks (and what’s driving those decisions); behavior differences between dogs in developed- vs. developing-country parks; and why dogs vector more disease in some countries (e.g., Turkey) than others (e.g., Australia).

“Recreation with dogs is a major reason many people visit parks,” says The Nature Conservancy’s James Fitzsimons, who is a study coauthor. “So managing parks that allow dogs is going to require much better understanding of these questions.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Nature as Normal: Our Lead Scientist’s Research Agenda http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/08/nature-normal-tallis-education-green-water-time-poverty/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/08/nature-normal-tallis-education-green-water-time-poverty/#comments Wed, 08 Oct 2014 10:00:29 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44507 People enjoy urban nature out at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. Photo © Jonathan Grassi for The Nature Conservancy.

People enjoy urban nature out at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. Photo © Jonathan Grassi for The Nature Conservancy.

Heather Tallis is lead scientist of The Nature Conservancy

When do you think about nature?

Is it when you wake up? When you turn on the faucet? When you drop your kid off for school? When you pick the investment portfolio for your retirement, or give to a charity that helps the poor?

Of course not. We don’t think about nature as part of our everyday lives. Some people say that’s what’s wrong with the world today — people are too disconnected from nature.

I think it’s the opposite: people are connected to nature in nearly everything we do and value. We just don’t realize it, and so we don’t think it’s that important.

That’s why I’m spending this year as lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy focusing my research on uncovering the hidden connections between people and nature (and fleshing out some of the intriguing connections we need to know more about).

There’s enough to explore in that sentence to fill many lifetimes, so I’m starting with just a few aspects of life whose links to nature haven’t been explored much: education, consumption and poverty.

Education: Could Greener Views Around Schools Improve Learning?

My son started kindergarten this year. Like most privileged parents, we got to choose which public school we wanted him to go to and we had a number of factors in mind when school shopping — student-teacher ratio, test scores, student diversity, and overall funding levels.

About halfway through our school visits, I read a paper that put another question on the list: What’s out the windows? It turns out that the view from the classroom might affect learning, and might even be as important as some traditional factors of quality education.

Only a few studies so far have looked at this question, but their consistent finding that a “greener” view was related to higher test scores was enough to get me thinking. (I crossed one school that I really liked off the list because all the classrooms for K-6th were in the basement.)

And I’ve gone further: I’ve started a study to see how widespread this “greener=better learning” pattern is. We have a pilot for this study underway with 550 schools in California. If that pans out, we’ll look at Texas, Illinois, New York and Florida too, where 40% of US students attend school and where five of our fastest growing cities are.

There are a lot of questions to dig into here: Is this a widespread pattern? If yes, what is it about the view that matters? Does it just have to be green? Or is it the structure of trees and shrubs that breaks up the view? Or does the actual naturalness of the view matter? How far away from the school does the view have an affect?

If we can answer these questions, we’ll know just how much nature affects student performance, and how we might change school designs to take best advantage of nature’s influence on the brain and learning.

Imagine: raising inner city test scores just by planting some trees. Maybe it’s possible.

Heather Tallis, Lead Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.

Heather Tallis, Lead Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.

Water Conservation: Rethinking the Best Ways You Can Make a Difference

Water is another area where we don’t realize how connected many of our daily decisions are to nature.

I often get asked after talks what people can do at home to help the environment, especially to save water. First, off, as Matt Damon has said, stop dumping buckets of clean, filtered ice water over your heads!

Beyond that, the advice we usually give to conserve water — i.e., don’t water your lawn, take shorter showers, turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth — is misleading. These changes are important, but they’re likely not nearly enough. So many other choices we make have so much more to do with water, and we don’t even think about them.

For instance: Was the cotton in that shirt you just bought or the rice in your sushi grown somewhere with abundant water — or in the desert?

Cotton and rice are both extremely water thirsty crops, and we’re growing both right now in the California desert in the middle of a staggering drought.

How much water did it take to make those jeans you’re wearing? Somewhere between 919 gallons (if you believe Levi’s) to 2,900 gallons (if you believe the Water Footprint Network).

In any case, not buying those new jeans would save surprisingly more water than turning off the faucet (which saves 200 gallons/month).

These are interesting tidbits. But for me, the jury is still out on what the biggest ways are that our daily lives demand water, and what the biggest changes are that we can make as individuals to truly make a difference.

That’s why I’ll be leading more research this year into what personal behavior changes could make the biggest impact on water conservation. I’ll be looking at everything from diet choices to clothing sourcing to appliances to transportation and personal habits.

Time: The New Metric of Poverty

How does nature touch the daily lives of the poor? Typical ideas about how conservation can help the poor focus on income. Manage a fishery better, and local fishers can catch more fish and sell them for more income. Improve grazing practices, and there’s more food for both wildlife and cows, which means cattle owners can turn a better profit.

But what may be just as important is how conserving nature could affect how much time the poor have on their hands.

If fish are more abundant near where you live, you can catch them closer to home and spend less time on the water. If forage for your cattle is good near your house, you spend fewer hours herding your cows off to a distant grazing land with good enough grass. If conserving nature in a watershed means clean water is available closer to home, women and children may save hours a day fetching it.

This extra time can be used in other income generating activities, going to school, getting training, engaging more socially or with family, or any number of other things that generally make people feel better off.

The development community has been dissatisfied with the poverty line as our sole means of defining poverty for a long time. Time is increasingly recognized as a key resource, and how much of it we have is being touted more and more by economists and development experts as a good indicator of how well off a person is.

Can we finally get beyond defining poverty based solely on income? That’s another question I’m asking this year with development colleagues, to see if we can redefine poverty based on both time and income.

If we can, we have a richer understanding of poverty in all contexts, and we have a new way to see how conservation can help people out of it.

Nature as Normal

The environment is now a non-issue in politics in the United States. (In the U.S. 2012 presidential elections, “environment” was mentioned exactly zero times in the debates.)

And yet, if the hypotheses I’m testing this year are correct, nature is touching our kids through the classroom window, our clothes, our food… and even our time. If I’m right, then nature is a big part of our daily lives no matter who we are, and we should start acting like it is.

If test scores across the nation are correlated with what’s out the classroom window, I’ll look for schools willing to test this idea directly. Based on what matters with the view, we can experimentally change views and see if test scores respond. If they do, we’ll know a lot about how to better design schools, and you’ll start to see parents asking principals what they’re doing to make sure students have a green view. Nature will become part of the education debate.

What about water? We’ll be able to tell people how they can have the biggest impact on water supplies. People may see that they are most connected to water through the food and clothes they buy, not through the glasses they fill from the tap and the showers they take. Water sourcing — where we only buy foods and clothes from crops grown in water secure regions — may become the next consumer movement.

If we redefine poverty based on both time and income, we may see that people living off of stressed natural resources are even poorer than we thought. Not only do they scrape by on less than a dollar a day, their hours from dawn to dusk are filled with the toil of making ends meet.

But if conservation actions free up some of that time for people to do as they choose, that in itself may make the rest of life more tolerable. Nature then becomes a more important part of development work and our decisions about international aid.

These three areas — education, water and poverty — are key to growing a widespread recognition of how nature is normal. Look for progress reports from me on this research here on Cool Green Science throughout this year and 2015.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Citizen Science Tuesday: Microplastics Project http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/07/citizen-science-microplastics-nature-oceans-wildlife/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/07/citizen-science-microplastics-nature-oceans-wildlife/#comments Tue, 07 Oct 2014 10:00:24 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44491 Plastic and related trash that washed ashore on the turtle nesting beaches of Sangalaki Island, in the Derawan Island chain off East Kalimantan, Indonesia. ©Mark Godfrey/TNC.

Plastic and related trash that washed ashore on the turtle nesting beaches of Sangalaki Island, in the Derawan Island chain off East Kalimantan, Indonesia. ©Mark Godfrey/TNC.

What is the ASC Microplastics Project?

Have you heard of microplastics?  Every time you wash your clothes, you release 2,000 into the water system.

And they’re showing up in ocean water from Maine to Palau, killing some of the wildlife that mistakenly eat them and leaching toxins into the food web.

But now you can help–as a citizen scientist.

Scientists at the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) Microplastics Project are learning more about the concentration and distribution of microplastics in oceans around the world and they need your help.

Microplastic is a term for very small pieces of plastic (5mm or smaller) in the environment.

“Many of our common household items including cleaning supplies and toothpaste have plastic microbeads in them,” explains Emily Stifler Wolfe, Marketing and Outreach Manager for ASC. “Microplastics are also produced when larger plastic items like bottles or bags break down.”

The ASC Microplastics Project is calling on sailors, kayakers, surfers, paddleboarders, and other ocean enthusiasts to submit water samples.

And soon, they’ll be expanding their sampling to fresh water, so that they can better understand upstream sources of the microplastics.

Why is the Microplastics Project Important?

And there are a lot of plastics out there in the ocean. You might have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or of a disturbing new “rock formation” called plastiglomerate.

And plastics, both micro and larger, are being ingested by wildlife, notably endangered Laysan Albatross chicks. But, scientists are gathering mounting evidence that many other birds and ocean creatures are also eating microplastic.

“I was surprised to learn that microplastics attract toxins including DDT, BPA and pesticides, which then enter the food chain when the particles – often resembling plankton – are ingested by wildlife,” says Wolfe.

And that’s bad news for us top predators.

“This is relevant to everyone,” she adds. “As plastics biomagnify up the food chain, they affect ecosystem health, and likely human health.”

The remains of a Laysan Albatross chick that died from plastic ingestion. Photo by Flickr user Duncan through a Creative Commons license.

The remains of a Laysan Albatross chick that died from plastic ingestion. Photo by Flickr user Duncan through a Creative Commons license.

And it gets worse. Scientists with ASC’s project have found microplastics in nearly every liter of ocean water that they’ve examined. That includes samples from Maine, Alaska, Argentina, Thailand and Antarctica.

Where is so much plastic coming from? Some are from places you would expect like broken down bags, but others are quite a surprise.

For instance, Wolfe says, “Turns out, every time you wash your synthetic clothing, 2,000 microplastic particles are released into the water system.”

No typo, 2,000 microplastic particles, every time.

But don’t lose hope; there are many things that we can do to limit the amount of plastic reaching the ocean.

Here are some of the goals the ASC Microplastics Project is working toward:

*  Have the clothing industry alter their manufacturing processes so synthetic products no longer shed microplastics.
*  Create a filter for washing machines that blocks microplastics from entering the water system.
*  Pass a nationwide ban on microbeads in household items and cosmetics.
*  Ban plastic bags at the municipal level.

How Can You Get Involved in the Microplastics Project?

If you are an adventurer, participate in ocean sports, or spend a lot of time out on the water, you can sign up to volunteer for the ASC Microplastics Project.

They will contact you with details about the program.

If you spend more time in fresh water, then check back with the ACS Microplastics Project in 2015 to see if their fresh water sampling has begun. It will start in the Bozeman area, but may expand from there.

Or, you can make a big impact right at home.

“On a more grassroots level, public education is important, because it leads to people using fewer plastic products,” says Wolfe. “It’s all about supply and demand, and we as consumers have a lot of power. People can use fewer plastic products, choosing glass, steel or other reusable containers instead, and only wash synthetic clothing when absolutely necessary.”

So, think about ways you can cut back on plastic use, spread the word about the magnitude of the plastic problem, and, if you can, get involved with the ASC Microplastics Project.

“Everyone who joins [our] project is contributing valuable information to this relatively new field,” says Wolfe.

You can make a difference for wildlife and people. Share your ideas for limiting environmental microplastics in the comments.


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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