Cool Green Science Cool Green Science: The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy Thu, 29 Jan 2015 16:56:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Meet the NatureNet Fellows: Trishna Dutta Thu, 29 Jan 2015 10:00:07 +0000 Trishna Dutta, NatureNet Science Fellow. Photo courtesy of Trishna Dutta.

Trishna Dutta, NatureNet Science Fellow. Photo courtesy of Trishna Dutta.

By Cara Byington, Science Communications Specialist

India, the second most populous country in the world, has put infrastructure development high on its list of priorities – especially for transportation, and energy production and delivery. The country’s planning commission, helped by foreign investment, is expected to make an investment of $1 trillion (US) in such development over the next decade.

That’s potentially a lot of roads, dams, mines, railroad tracks and power plants.

“It is not a question of whether or not there will be infrastructure development in India,” says NatureNet Fellow Trishna Dutta of Columbia University. “The question is when, and more importantly, where this proposed development will take place. And it’s that question of ‘where’ that interests me.”

With only about 4 percent of the country’s forest cover protected for biodiversity, wilderness areas outside this protected area network are under increasing pressures from infrastructure development for transportation, mining, hydropower and other human needs.

And it is in this gap — between the importance of protected areas and the need for development — that Trishna Dutta is working to make sure conservation science has a voice in where proposed development does and does not take place.

Smart Infrastructure Development

“One of the key components of my Fellowship project,” says Dutta, “is to identify areas that are critical to wildlife, but also identify areas where you could have some kind of infrastructure development with minimum impact on wildlife movement pathways.”

The idea is to find areas that are critical to wildlife but also have different development scenarios of, if we have a proposed coal mine here, what is going to be the impact on wildlife connectivity? If we have this mining activity elsewhere, does it contribute towards both economic and ecological security?

Sampling in India. Photo courtesy of Trishna Dutta.

Sampling in India. Photo courtesy of Trishna Dutta.

“The objective,” explains Dutta, “is to find the areas outside the protected area network that are critical to animal movement where: we (a) cannot afford to lose any forest, (b) where we should be restoring forests, and where (c) it is okay to have infrastructure development with minimum impact. By the end of my project, one should to be able to point at a map and say, ‘put a mine here or here, but don’t put it here’ because there is conclusive data that shows carnivores of conservation importance (such as tigers and leopards and sloth bears) need and use this land to move between protected areas.”

Dutta’s conclusive data goes far beyond camera traps and community surveys. She can show – in detail – how animals are using the corridors because she has the genetic evidence to prove it.

“I’m a population geneticist who is transitioning into a landscape ecologist,” explains Dutta. “What I found in my previous research using genetic tools is that the existing corridors between protected areas in Central India are functional. Genes are moving from one protected area to another – for tigers, for leopards, for sloth bears and jungle cats. These are four species that have very different ecological requirements and they are all using the same corridors – so clearly these are important places.”

Dutta’s genetic work shows that there is high biodiversity within the protected areas, and the best way to preserve it is to protect the corridors that allow successful dispersal between the different source populations.

Numerous studies have shown that small, isolated populations of plants and animals are at a high risk of local extinction. They can be wiped out by one catastrophic event – such as a storm or disease, or the lack of genetic diversity means a population can eventually succumb to defects. An exchange of genes between different populations is important for keeping the plants and animals and the whole ecosystem – and the services it provides, like clean water – healthy into the future.

“So I have the science – the clear genetic evidence – that shows the importance of the corridors,” says Dutta. “But you know, to a policymaker making decisions about where to cite development, genes – alleles – are a little abstract. How do you say ‘this area is critical and I’m not going to sanction a mine here,’ based on genes? They need to be able to see it for themselves.”

To solve that problem, Dutta added landscape ecology to her areas of expertise. And under the auspices of her NatureNet fellowship, she will be working to develop a suite of map products that could be used as planning tools, to help policymakers visualize and weigh the potential impacts and tradeoffs of their development choices and decisions for themselves. Her project will:

*  Map the existing connectivity in the landscape – to identify bottlenecks for animal movement, and identify priority areas for restoration or mitigation.
*  Build actual ‘if-then’ scenarios for infrastructure expansion across the landscape – so that decision makers can model the likely tradeoffs when making decisions about where to place development, and so that scientists can make clear science-based recommendations to business and government.

“I’m excited to be part of the NatureNet Fellowship program,” says Dutta. “And especially excited to be part of The Nature Conservancy’s first project in India. I’ve been working in the protected areas of Central India for more than a decade, and it’s rewarding to me to have the opportunity to put science into action to help my country make smart, science-based development decisions.”

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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Can We Restore…Everything? 100 Words from Hobbs, Ellis, Marvier & Others Wed, 28 Jan 2015 10:00:59 +0000 Weeds in a vacant lot. Photo © Michael Coghlan/Flickr.

Weeds in a vacant lot. Photo © Michael Coghlan/Flickr.

Can a vacant lot be….a dangerous idea?

Yes, argued a paper last fall in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, if you think of that lot as a place that can’t be restored to a natural state before people turned it weedy and parkable (as in, “can be parked on by cars” — not “can be turned into a park”).

The paper highlighted one of the biggest scientific fault lines in conservation: Can such “novel” and “hybrid” ecosystems like that lot — human-altered places that include about 36 percent of Earth’s ecosystems, everything from farms to aquaculture to the plant-colonized sides of ruined buildings — ever be restored back to their prehistoric states? If so, which ones — and at what cost?

The paper’s authors, led by Carolina Murcia of the University of Florida and the Orgainzation for Tropical Studies, said the evidence is clear: Any ecosystem can be restored, given enough resources.

They argued that the very concept of the irreversible, phase-shifted novel ecosystem is unsupported by evidence. And they went on to say that the idea of novel ecosystems is a step back for conservation — providing a “license to trash” or “get out of jail” card for companies or others who want to sidestep the hard but ultimately beneficial investments restoration and biodiversity protection require. (Dan Simberloff, a coauthor on the paper, and Murcia have amplified on their argument in a recent piece for

Science is always about the play of ideas. So we asked seven scientists — including Erle Ellis, Richard Hobbs and Michelle Marvier — for their 100-word responses to the TREE paper. The answers are as various as ecosystems, novel or otherwise. (Editor’s note: The following should not be taken as responses to the Simberloff et al. Ensia piece.)


Meredith Cornett: ‘The fuss over labeling takes time and energy practitioners lack.’

Conservation practitioners find it hard to shake the feeling that dallying with “novel ecosystems” equates to giving up. Murcia et al.’s cautionary tone is therefore reassuring, although their recurring emphasis on the lack of “proof” of ecological thresholds detracts from a critical point: the fuss over labeling an ecosystem “novel,” “hybrid” or “historic” takes time and energy practitioners lack. Our core challenges remain: clearly define objectives, assess progress and adjust course as needed. No matter what we call them, those objectives should reflect the dynamic nature of the systems we manage and the emerging stressors that threaten their resilience.

Meredith Cornett is director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

Erle Ellis: ‘Novel ecosystem science and conservation aim to expand the view of what “natures” are worth conserving’

I found the paper less than useful, scientifically and for conservation. The novel ecosystem community already knows, as the authors assert, that detecting “explicit, irreversible ecological thresholds [that] allow distinctions between ‘novel ecosystems’ and ‘hybrid’ or ‘historic’ ones” may be impossible. We also don’t intend to present a “clear message as to what practitioners should do with a ‘novel ecosystem.’” Novel ecosystem science and conservation instead aim to expand the view of what “natures” are worth conserving — beyond a return to “pristine nature,” a hopeless impossibility (e.g., Marris et al 2013) — and to explore all options and reasons to do so.

Erle Ellis is associate professor of geography & environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a visiting associate professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. 

Craig Groves: ‘Decisions about managing ecosystems are colored mostly in shades of grey’

Thirty-six years ago I arrived in the western United States to a region dominated by sagebrush ecosystems that today has been transformed to large landscapes of an invasive Asian grass. Whitebark pine forests where I had hunted forest grouse only a decade ago are now largely dead or dying. Climate change is implicated in both cases; successful restoration efforts have yet to materialize.

Murcia and colleagues make valid points about the value of traditional restoration. Their critique of novel ecosystems, however, is limited by an impractical, black and white view of ecosystems, thresholds, and restoration itself. Decisions about managing ecosystems, unfortunately, are colored mostly in shades of gray.

Craig Groves is executive director of Science for Nature and People (SNAP). 

Pallets in a DC lot. Photo © apium/Flickr.

Pallets in a DC lot. Photo © apium/Flickr.

Richard Hobbs: ‘Restoration and conservation have always absorbed new insights, challenges and opportunities’

Recently I visited a bald cypress swamp in Louisiana — beautiful, but with a floating understory of non-native water hyacinth that we soon found sheltering a native juvenile salamander. I’ve also seen thriving wetlands in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta without a single native organism.

These are real-world hybrid and novel ecosystems — a world Murcia et al would prefer we ignore regarding restoration and conservation options (especially when deciding whether something can’t or shouldn’t be restored). They fear derailing restoration and conservation; but these young disciplines have always absorbed new insights, challenges and opportunities, becoming better equipped to manage and restore systems for today and the future. Isn’t that what we all want?

Richard Hobbs is Australian Laureate Fellow with the University of Western Australia’s School of Plant Biology.

Michelle Marvier: ‘I thought troublesome ideas were the point of science’

Murcia and colleagues contend that “[t]he ‘novel ecosystem’ label may provide a ‘license to trash’” and “scientists should exercise caution” when discussing such ideas. They cite ecosystems’ ability to recover from past disturbance as evidence that the novel ecosystem idea is misguided.

Ironically, I recently discussed the same studies regarding ecosystem recovery. In response, Miller, Soule and Terborgh cautioned that “blanket predictions about nature having a high level of resilience are premature and may promote ecological tinkering.”

Somehow it’s unsafe to say nature sometimes cannot recover and it’s unsafe to say nature often can recover.

When did scientists start worrying so much about the dangerous implications of ideas? I thought troublesome ideas were the point of science.

Michelle Marvier is professor of environmental studies and sciences at Santa Clara University and the co-author (with Peter Kareiva) of Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature (Roberts & Co.)

Erik Meijaard: ‘Conservation: Let’s just get on with it.’

The term ‘novel ecosystems’ is an attempt to create a fundamental distinction between old and new thinking or functioning. Instead, it is nonsense, creating unhelpful polarization. Conservation is about negating human impacts on ecosystems and species. Murcia et al. are correct: no threshold exists beyond which we cannot return to a historic state. Leave my office alone for 1,000 years, and a verdant tropical rainforest replaces it. All ecosystems are in flux, and their ‘stability’ depends on how closely we look. Similarly, some parts of Earth need new conservation, while others do nicely with the old style. Let’s just get on with it.

Erik Meijaard is a founder of Borneo Futures.

Beth Tellman: ‘Returning to arbitrary reference points will require the dislocation or livelihood transformation of hundreds of millions of people’

Seeking to return to “the historical trajectory of ecosystems before human activity” (if we actually knew what that was) would require the dislocation or livelihood transformation of hundreds of millions of people in places like Bangladesh, Haiti or Latin America. If we care about people as much as other species, this line in Murcia et al — “all ecosystems should be considered candidates for restoration, regardless of the requisite resources” — should instead be about restoring socio-ecological systems for their ecosystem services. Novel ecosystems like urban wetlands and rain gardens will be critical to restoring such services as watershed infiltration capacity (Tellman et al).

Beth Tellman is a PhD candidate in geographical sciences at Arizona State University and a member of the SNAP Working Group on Water Security. She uses geospatial data and software to research how land-use changes impact ecosystem services for flood mitigation. She co-founded Fundacion CEIBA, an El Salvador-based NGO that focuses on disaster risk reduction, violence prevention, environmental issues and youth participation.


Marris, E., J. Mascaro, and E. C. Ellis. 2013. Perspective: Is Everything a Novel Ecosystem? If so, do we need the Concept? Pages 345-349 in R. J. Hobbs, E. S. Higgs, and C. M. Hall, editors. Novel Ecosystems. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Murcia, C., J. Aronson, G. H. Kattan, D. Moreno-Mateos, K. Dixon, and D. Simberloff. 2014. A Critique of the ‘Novel Ecosystem’ Concept. Trends in Ecology and Evoloution. 29: 548-553.

Tellman, B, Saiers, J, and Ruiz, O. Participatory watershed modeling: Precision and people in urbanizing Salvadoran catchments. In prep.

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: iNaturalist Tue, 27 Jan 2015 10:00:31 +0000 A bronze shoulderband snail (Helminthoglypta arrosa). Photo © Ken-ichi Ueda.

A bronze shoulderband snail (Helminthoglypta arrosa). Photo © Ken-ichi Ueda.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

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

What Is iNaturalist?

Scientists have cataloged around 1.6 million species on Earth, from Dendrobaena octaedra (an earthworm) to Haliaeetus leucocephalus (Bald Eagle) to Crotalus adamanteus (Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake) to Ailurus fulgens (Red Panda).

But, there are an unknown number yet to discover.

“Our knowledge of what organisms exist and when and where they occur is woefully limited, and it’s hard to conserve things if you don’t know what they are, where they are, and when they’re there!” says Ken-ichi Ueda, naturalist, web developer and founder of iNaturalist.

But now, there’s iNaturalist and anyone with a little curiosity and an internet connection can help scientists answer the whats, wheres and whens. The program recruits legions of citizen scientists and naturalists to record observations of all kinds of species (plants, animals and any living things you can capture with a camera) and their locations, all over the world.

Are you going for a walk in your local park? Did you notice a strange bug in your back yard?

Snap some photos of the plants and animals you see as you go about your day and submit them to iNaturalist.

“Scientists like our colleagues at the California Academy of Sciences,” explains Ueda “are constantly working to address these gaps, but there aren’t enough professional scientists in the world to give us the breadth of data collection we need to get a comprehensive view of Earth’s biodiversity.”

Why Is iNaturalist Important?

In today’s frequently rushed, increasingly urban societies, people sometimes lose track of their connection to nature.

iNaturalist is working to reverse that trend by reminding people to pause and look closely at the natural world and to share those moments.

“Every single iNat observation represents a moment when someone spent just a little more of their time considering the natural world than they would have otherwise, and as a result they have a record of that experience they can share and discuss with the world,” says Ueda.

Lichen on a Branch (Parmotrema chinense). Photo © Colin Brown/Flickr.

Lichen on a Branch (Parmotrema chinense). Photo © Colin Brown/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Maybe you’re not the only one who admires the many varieties of lichens? Do you visit a natural area to see birds, but wonder about all of the amphibians around you?

Whatever your naturalist passion or your curiosity, chances are that iNaturalist can connect you with others who share your fascination. Once you put up an observation, other iNaturalist members can comment on it or suggest an identification.

For instance, a member interested in lichens could search within Observations just for Beard Lichens and comment on posts by other lichen aficionados. Fans of a specific place, like Cumberland Marsh, could find one another by searching under Place.

“I’m slowly teaching myself to recognize land snails, largely because I know there are other people on iNat who are into them (yes, land snails!),” says Ueda. “Same goes for lichens. I’ve learned that there there’s always someone somewhere who shares your interest in some strange aspect of life.”

iNaturalist is not a science project (though it can provide data for one) or a mapping tool (though it displays recent observations on maps).

It is an invitation to take note of the natural world, to enjoy nature, interact with it and be in awe of it.

How Can You Get Involved In iNaturalist? 

iNaturalist got it’s start in 2008 and it has grown into a flourishing, ever expanding community of naturalists.

To join them, create an account on iNaturalist or sign in with one of the myriad social media options.

Then get outside and take some pictures, record some sounds, or simply write down what you see and where you see it.

Shiras Moose (Alces alces shirasi) in Grand Teton National Park. Photo © Al_HikesAZ/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Shiras Moose (Alces alces shirasi) in Grand Teton National Park. Photo © Al_HikesAZ/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Have a picture, but don’t know what it is? Submit it to iNaturalist and ask the community for help identifying it. Multiple people can submit identifications to build a community consensus.

If you’re using your phone, it’s helpful, but not required, to have the geotagging enabled.

You can share this data most easily through the free iPhone and Android apps, but if you’re semi-old-school, record your observations on the web.

“We can’t conserve everything in a constantly changing world, but I think it’s vital that we maintain our ability to observe, appreciate, and ultimately love the world we were born into,” Ueda remarks.

If you don’t have any observations yet, see what other people are finding; curiosity will inspire you to get outside!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] 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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10 Great National Parks You’ve Never Heard Of Mon, 26 Jan 2015 10:00:31 +0000 Petrified Forest National Park. Photo: © Andrew V Kearns VIP/NPS,

Petrified Forest National Park. Photo: © Andrew V Kearns VIP/NPS.

By Justine E. Hausheer, science writer for The Nature Conservancy

Grand Canyon. Great Smoky Mountains. Yellowstone. Yosemite. You’ve heard of, or maybe even traveled to, our nation’s most popular national parks, from Acadia’s rock beaches to Rocky Mountain’s snow-capped peaks. But the United States is home to 59 national parks, many of which are off the beaten path.

Entrance to all national parks is free on President’s Day weekend. So avoid the crowds, cars, and noise of the popular parks — famously called “National Parking Lots” ­­by Edward Abbey — and get your dose of the great outdoors at one of these lesser-known national park destinations.

1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

Tucked away in Colorado’s southwestern corner, the sheer scale of this 48-mile-long canyon takes most visitors by surprise. Sculpted by the Gunnison River over 2 millions years, the canyon walls are nearly 2,000 feet tall, with near-vertical drops down to the river. Trails along the north and south rims wind through pinyon-juniper forests and gambel oak thickets typical of the Colorado Plateau. Hiking within the canyon is limited to experienced rock climbers willing to make their own route — there are no maintained trails to the bottom and crumbling rock makes the climbing difficult. Even if you’re not a climber, the views from the rim alone are worth a trip. Don’t miss the much-photographed painted wall, it’s the tallest cliff in Colorado at 2,250 feet high.

The Painted Wall. Photo: © Damian Manda.

The Painted Wall. Photo: © Damian Manda.

2. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

The park is famous for its vast quantities of petrified wood, often in massive pieces that still look like tree trunks on a forest floor. These fossilized trees date back to the Late Triassic period, more than 200 million years ago. Petrified wood isn’t the only fossil found here — paleontologists have uncovered several fossils of dinosaurs and other dinosaur-like animals. While the red, grey, and cream-colored rocks of the park may look like a barren desert, in between the mesas lies a grassland ecosystem. Visitors should watch for herds of pronghorn antelope, which are a common sight within the park. Geocachers can test their skills searching for three hidden geocaches, while history buffs can drive part of historic Route 66, which runs through the park.

3. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This 27,000-acre park protects the largest intact stand of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the entire southeast. Because much of this forest was spared when industrial logging swept throughout the southeast, visitors can catch a glimpse of the ancient forests seen by early explorers. In fact, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through the area in the 1540s. Congaree is especially famous for its trees. More than 75 different species are found within the park’s borders, including several champion trees — the tallest or largest of their species. Ancient bald cypress trees tower above winding waterways and sloughs, which are best explored by canoe or kayak. More than 30 miles of trails cross the park, too, but lookout for creeks and occasional flooding.

A waterway in Congaree. Photo: © Hunter Desportes.

4. Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Just across the border from Utah, this park captures the best of the basin and range topography that covers much of Nevada. Dominated by sagebrush, the Great Basin ecosystem is under threat from invasive cheatgrass. Native to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa, cheatgrass spreads quickly, is extremely flammable, and is difficult to eradicate. The park also contains Wheeler Peak, one of the state’s tallest mountains. An 8.6-mile long trail to the summit offers a tough hike and outstanding views. Hiking on the mountain also offers a chance to see one of the oldest living organisms on earth — the bristlecone pine. One of these trees, nicknamed Prometheus, was cut down as part of a scientific study in 1964. Researchers later discovered that the tree had 4,900 growth rings, meaning that it was nearly 5,000 years old. (Bristlecone pines grow so slowly and in such harsh conditions that they don’t always grow a ring each year.) At the time, it was the oldest living bristlecone pine ever identified.

5. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic is a geology enthusiast’s dream: bubbling mud pots, boiling pools of water, steaming ground, and volcanic vents are found throughout the park. You can also find all four types of volcanoes: shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite. As its name suggests, this park is powered by volcanic activity deep beneath Lassen Peak. The southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, Lassen Peak forms part of a chain of volcanic hotspots around the entire Pacific Rim. Visitor’s needn’t worry about being caught in an eruption: the last one occurred in 1915, and the hotspot only erupts every few thousands years.

A geothermal hotspot in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo: © jankgo.

A geothermal hotspot in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo: © jankgo.

6. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef’s brilliant rock layers, spires, canyons, and arches are part of the Waterpocket Fold, a fold in the Earth’s crust nearly 100 miles long. Called a monocline, this geological formation is named after the pools of water that form throughout the rocks when rainwater erodes the sandstone. Pinyon-juniper forests are home to a wide variety of desert animals, including desert bighorn sheep and canyon bats, the smallest bats in North America. You might also catch a glimpse of the ring-tailed cat, a long-tailed relative of the raccoon that lives throughout the desert southwest. In many parts of the park, the soil is covered with a thin, crunchy, black crust. Called a biological soil, this crust is actually full of cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens, mosses, and algae. Horseback riding and pack trips are allowed inside the park, but check the list of approved trails before you saddle up.

7. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

About 265 million years ago, this national park was at the bottom of a vast tropical sea. The dramatic limestone formations visitors see today are actually a fossilized reef, which stretched 400 miles along the ancient seashore during the Permian Era. The park’s most recognizable feature is El Capitan, a towering cliff named for the Capitan limestone found in the park. Trails through the foothills offer a glimpse of the Chihuahuan desert ecosystem, with desert-dwelling plants like yucca, agave, and dramatic ocotillo. Other trails into the park lead to McKittrick Canyon, where a creek feeds an unexpectedly lush deciduous forest, famous for its fall color.

El Capitan. Photo: © Never Stop Climbing

El Capitan. Photo: © Never Stop Climbing.

8. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The tallest sand dunes in North America aren’t found at the beach. This national park has 30 square miles of undulating dunes, which formed about 440,000 years ago when winds piled sand from an ancient lake bottom into 750-foot tall dunes along the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. While the dunes may look barren, hundreds of animal species call the park home. Entomology enthusiasts should keep an eye out for the predatory Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, one of six insect species endemic to the dunes. Great Sand Dunes National Park also includes mountains, alpine tundra, and wetland habitat called sabkha. These wetlands are fed by fluctuating groundwater, which leaves behind white alkali deposits, which are similar to baking soda. When you’re sick of hiking, try your skill at sandboarding and sand sledding on specially designed boards.

9. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Nearly 70 miles off of Key West, the seven small islands that form Dry Tortugas National Park are the very end of the Florida Keys chain. You won’t find crowds here, as the park is only accessible by boat or plane. The ruins of Fort Jefferson dominate the park’s skyline. Built in the 19th century to protect the nearby shipping channel through the Gulf of Mexico, the fort’s construction was delayed by the Civil War, and then later abandoned. Offshore lies a network of thriving coral reefs, where snorkelers and divers can see multitudes of fish, sea turtles, and the occasional American crocodile. Surprisingly, the park is also a renowned birding hotspot. While few species reside year round, these small islands provide critical resting habitat for colorful neotropical songbirds migrating across the Gulf of Mexico between North and South America.

Fort Jefferson. Photo: © Matthew Paulson.

Fort Jefferson. Photo: © Matthew Paulson.

10. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Anchored by three lakes, this park is a labyrinth of waterways, peninsulas, and islands spanning 340 square miles of Minnesota’s northern border. In fact, 40 percent of the park is water; the rest is forested with rock outcrops scraped clean by glaciers about 10,000 years ago. Voyageur’s forests are unique ­­— the park lies at a transition point, where southern boreal forests of jack pine and spruce meet northern hardwood forests of maple, ash, and elm. Beavers are common along the waterways, while moose and gray wolves are spotted occasionally. The park is also home to a healthy population of bald eagles, and scientists band eagle chicks hatched in the park to help monitor the ecosystem’s health. Don’t let the northern snows deter you — winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing.

Eager for more? Check out this interactive map from the National Park Service listing every national park, seashore, historic site, monument, and preserve.

You may also be interested in these blogs: 10 Favorite National Wildlife Refuges and 10 Great State Parks for Wildlife

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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10 Field Guides for the Serious Naturalist Wed, 21 Jan 2015 10:00:05 +0000 Some field guides that you won't want to leave behind. Photo © Matt Miller/TNC.

Some field guides that you won’t want to leave behind. Photo © Matt Miller/TNC.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

I’d just as soon leave binoculars and camera at home than head afield without field guides.

I know some now prefer apps: they’re undoubtedly lighter and even allow you to hear bird songs. (And you can check out birder Tim Boucher’s favorite bird apps in our previous blog).

But I still prefer an old-fashioned paper field guide. I love paging through the (often beautiful) illustrations, using the books not only to identify species but to plan future adventures.

Roger Tory Peterson created the first modern field guide in 1934, Guide to the Birds. Before that, naturalists relied on complicated scientific keys. Peterson’s field guide changed natural history and made birding a hobby anyone could enjoy.

Today, field guides exist in an almost mind-boggling variety, covering just about any flora or fauna you’d like to identify.

These guides now take innovative approaches to natural history. Here are ten recent favorites. I’ve focused on North America for this blog, with guides appropriate for a range of skill levels and interests.

Let me know your own favorites in the comments section.


The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Illustrated by David Allen Sibley. (Knopf)

“Life listing” birds can have an unfortunate side: it can reduce birds to mere tokens to be “ticked” in a competitive game. Obsessive birders race around just to notch the most sightings; at its most extreme, it seems to have very little to do with birds.

This guide – a companion to the popular Sibley Guide to Birds – offers a remedy. It’s a guide to what birds do, encouraging observation of behavior and habits.

It includes information on taxonomy, food and foraging, breeding, migration and conservation. And it will help you find birds: a lot of the information is loaded with useful tips on where to look for bird species at different times of year.


Hummingbirds: A Life-Size Guide to Every Species. By Michael Fogden, Marianne Taylor & Sheri L. Williamson. (Harper Design)

I’m not sure if this is a small coffee table book or a field guide. What earned this one a place on this list is its novel approach – the hummingbirds are pictured life sized.

These smallest of birds lend themselves to such an approach. It covers all the hummingbirds of the Americas, so it could serve as a guide when going to a hummingbird-rich hotspot like Southeast Arizona or Ecuador.

But it’s also a visual feast, creating a nice reference and a nice book to page through on a wintery evening.


The Warbler Guide. By Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle. (Princeton University Press)

Even for experienced birders, warblers are difficult to identify. Standard field guides just don’t have enough space to provide all the plumage variations and differences among juveniles and adults.

This comprehensive book provides just about any view of the 56 North American warblers that you can imagine.

It represents a useful new approach to birding guides – comprehensive and specific guides that help birders identify particularly difficult groups of birds. There are now guides for shorebirds and raptors and even gulls. If you’ve reached that point in your birding career, these guides can be indispensable.


Squirrels of North America. By Tamara Eder. (Lone Pine Publishing)

A field guide to squirrels? What could be so difficult about identifying these backyard rodents?

Actually the North American squirrel family – which includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs and marmots – represents 35 species. Many are found in some of the most scenic and iconic landscapes in the United States.

Many mammals are nocturnal or highly elusive, which can make keeping a “life list” very difficult (although even that doesn’t deter some enthusiasts). But squirrels are active and highly visible during the day.

To see all the squirrel species in this book would take you to many of North America’s great national parks and mountain ranges, from Utah’s canyonlands to the Olympic rainforest to Rocky Mountain peaks. And beyond.


Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes. By Lawrence M. Page and Brooks M. Burr. (Peterson Field Guides)

Increasingly, conservation-minded anglers recognize that a sport fishing mentality emphasizing just a few game fish – brown trout, rainbow trout, largemouth bass – has devastated native fisheries and aquatic habitats.

Many anglers now recognize that all native fish species have value, and keep life lists of species caught. There are “microfishers” who focus on minnows and other tiny fish, and “rough fishers” who seek out species of sucker and gar.

Other enthusiasts don’t even catch the fish – they observe them underwater via snorkeling.

Whatever the case, this book is the best source I’ve found to help you identify this amazing freshwater diversity. Expand your angling horizons and start seeking out the native fish in your area – all far more fascinating than stocked hatchery fish.


Dragonflies & Damselflies of the Rocky Mountains. By Robert DuBois. (Kollath & Stensas Publishing)

Dragonfly spotting has been called the new birding. Dragonflies are charismatic, they undergo similarly long migrations and they are often found in the same places as birds.

There are a number of excellent dragonfly spotting guides. I chose this one because it’s the one I use for my backyard and surrounding areas in Idaho.

It includes excellent photographs as well as key identification features. The Princeton Field Guides Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is similarly excellent. There are also a number of state-specific guides. For birders, Dragonflies through Binoculars applies bird ID techniques to dragonflies.

So you have many options to help identify these charismatic insects. Pick one and head to your nearest marsh.


Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets of the United States.  By John L. Capinera, Ralph D. Scott & Thomas J. Walker (Comstock Publishing Associates)

Crickets and katydids are the evening summer soundtrack for many of us. And there are even interesting citizen science projects around identifying the different katydid calls.

But really, let’s be honest: If you have this title on your shelf, you are either (a) a professional entomologist or (b) on the lunatic fringe of wildlife watching.

Still, if you must know what that grasshopper is hopping away, why not go all in and get this comprehensive guide?

You’ll amaze (or alarm) your friends, and besides, this is a well-done guide with full-color identification of 56 species, as well as information on ecology and behavior.


Falcon Nature Guides to National Parks. By Ann Simpson and Rob Simpson. (Falcon Guides)

Say you’re heading on a family vacation to a national park. What field guides do you bring? Birds, wildflowers, mammals, reptiles? If you have varied interests, pretty soon you can have a whole library bogging down your daypack.

A new Falcon Guide series helps solve this problem with a field guide to all the common flora and fauna of specific national parks. Current titles are available for Shenandoah, Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway.

These books probably won’t work for the serious life lister, focusing on rarely seen shorebirds or elusive nocturnal mammals. But they provide a great overview for a family vacation, enabling you to identify most of the creatures you’re likely to see.


Bison: A Falcon Pocket Guide. By Jack Ballard. (Falcon Guides)

This is another interesting approach from Falcon Guides: a field guide to individual species. In addition to bison, the series includes guides to black bears, grizzlies, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and moose.

Many of these are species you’ll see on national park visits. What I like about this approach is that it encourages park visitors to stop and observe, rather than snap that bison photo and rush onto the next sighting.

The book includes detailed information on the behavior you’re likely to see while observing the herds at Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley or a Rocky Mountain meadow.

Few people have spent as much time photographing and observing these critters as Jack Ballard, so the slim volumes are packed with useful details.


Wildlife of North America: A Naturalist’s Life List. By Whit Bronaugh. (University Press of Florida)

Finally, here’s a book to help you track all the interesting species you’ve seen using the guides above.

This massive tome is about as far from a handy field guide as you can get.

But it is a complete reference (and check list) of the species you’d commonly track on life lists: birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, butterflies and dragonflies. It also includes space for notes on each sighting.

If you’re serious about listing, it offers a useful, old-school format to track your sightings.

What are your favorite field guides? Let us know in the comments!

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: AirCasting Tue, 20 Jan 2015 10:00:59 +0000 A look at air pollution from particulate matter (PM) in the area of New York City on the AirCasting online map.

A look at air pollution from particulate matter (PM) in the area of New York City on the AirCasting online map.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

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

What Is AirCasting?

Do you know what you’re breathing? Or do you only think you know?

Out of sight and out of mind. Because air pollution is usually invisible, it’s easy to believe that it’s not a problem in your neighborhood.

Now a revolution in wearable tech lets you learn more about exactly what you’re breathing as you go about your day.

AirCasting, a citizen science project led by the non-profit HabitatMap, displays the data from palm-sized, wearable sensors around the world on detailed air quality maps.

“The negative impacts of air pollution rank it among the most serious and widespread human health hazards in the world. Breathing dirty air causes chronic illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis and contributes to terminal illnesses such as cancer and heart disease,” says Michael Heimbinder, founder and director of HabitatMap.

AirCasting transforms people’s access to air quality data. Not only can people track their personal exposure to air pollution, the project’s mapping tools make the invisible pollution around us visible.

Why Is AirCasting Important?

You can’t escape hearing about the contributions of greenhouse gasses to climate change. You may also have heard about how air pollution impacts ecosystems.

But, you may not be aware of the extent to which these pollutants can impact your health.

“Government-run air quality monitoring networks are sparse, and publicly available air quality measurements don’t translate into an accurate assessment of personal exposure,” Heimbinder explains.

The AirBeam air quality sensor. Photo courtesy of AirCasting.

The AirBeam air quality sensor. Photo courtesy of AirCasting.

One pollutant of concern, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is not an exact material, but rather a term for any material suspended in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. You’ve probably never heard of it, you can’t see it, but you’ve almost certainly been breathing it.

Airborne particles of this size are a serious health concern because they can get into your bloodstream, affecting your lungs and heart.

HabitatMap’s AirBeam and DIY versions use a light scattering method to measure PM 2.5 in the air. To put it simply, sensors estimate the number of particles in the air based on the way that an LED light reflects off of them.

The AirCasting team is working to ensure the accuracy of the AirBeam by comparing measurements to the Thermo Scientific pDR-1500 monitor, a device often used by the government and academic researchers to track air quality.

Getting accurate local readings of air quality is key, because pollutants can be surprisingly localized.

“One unexpected finding from our AirCasting sessions were the invisible plumes of particles puffing forth from street level subway vents,” Heimbinder recalls. “We discovered that the characteristic rumble of subway trains underfoot was invariably accompanied by a spike in PM 2.5 measurements as particles were ejected from the vents that line the roadway median strips and sidewalks in NYC.”

Researchers, students (see AirCasting Youth) and citizen scientists across the world can use AirCasting data in their studies. They can share the results with government officials, city planners, and industries to encourage better practices.

“Our experience has shown that when AirCasters know how a measurement is made they feel empowered: they are better able to share and explain their findings to others and use that information to critically evaluate the quality of the data being collected,” Heimbinder says.

How Can You Get Involved In AirCasting?

Buy an AirBeam (coming soon) or a different air quality sensor (prices vary greatly from the Air Quality Egg to the Thermo Sciencific pDR-1500 Aerosol Monitor). You can also build your own—the cost will vary depending on how many things you want to monitor, but the parts for a typical AirCasting device cost around $180.

Connect your sensor to the AirCasting App via Bluetooth.

Carry your sensor whenever you are outside. It’s designed so that you can wear it in a number of ways; as a necklace, on your backpack, or attached to your belt. It fits in the palm of your hand and only weighs about 7 ounces.

The AirBeam monitors the air immediately around it by drawing it through a sensing chamber on the face of the device. (Don’t cover the face!)

Even if you don’t have a device, you can learn about air quality in your area and around the world by looking at the map. You can set it to show particulate matter, temperature, humidity, noise pollution and more.

Check out the blog to get the latest AirCasting news.

Find out what you’re breathing! Then share that information with AirCasting.

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] 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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Sea Turtle Tasks: A Night in the Life of a Researcher Mon, 19 Jan 2015 10:00:54 +0000 The Conservancy's Kemit-Amon Lewis. Photo: © Marjo Aho

The Conservancy’s Kemit-Amon Lewis. Photo: © Marjo Aho

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Seeing a sea turtle lumber onto a beach and lay its eggs is, undeniably, a spectacular experience.

For sea turtle researchers, it also means a lot of work.

I recently joined the Conservancy’s Kemit-Amon Lewis and his team of volunteer researchers at their sea turtle project on St. Croix.

A large part of what has made this project so successful has been careful monitoring and data collection, and a standardized process for each turtle that comes ashore to lay eggs.

Here’s what you could expect as a sea turtle researcher. And it’s for every turtle that lays eggs, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., five nights a week.

Sea turtle researchers and volunteers wait on the beach. Photo © Marjo Aho.

Sea turtle researchers and volunteers wait on the beach. Photo © Marjo Aho.

Part 1: The Waiting Game

As dusk settles over St. Croix, tourists head off the beaches and are starting to flock to seafood restaurants and bars. As a sea turtle researcher, though, your work “day” is just beginning.

It’s dark and you’re on the beach, waiting for turtles. You are assigned a stretch of sand, where you’ll document every green and hawksbill sea turtle that comes ashore.

During peak times, there will likely be several turtles coming ashore, and some already beginning to nest.

As they beginning showing up, you make a mental note of the turtles: a green sea turtle is digging, a hawksbill is heading into some bushes, two more are on the edge of the water.

You head to the green sea turtle digging its nest and set up sit nearby – using every precaution not to disturb the turtle. Red lights (the turtles aren’t bothered by red) and quiet are the order of the night.

The turtle digs for 45 minutes to an hour. Enjoy it: the calm before the storm. Time to make sure your GPS unit and flashlight are functioning, and perhaps to gaze at bioluminescence in the bay or stars overhead.

Close-up of a sea turtle on the beach of St. Croix. Photo © Marjo Aho.

Close-up of a sea turtle on the beach of St. Croix. Photo © Marjo Aho.

This particular turtle finds its nesting site unsuitable, and returns to the ocean. Time to find another nest.

Part 2:  Measure for Measure

You’ll soon learn to assess where the turtle is in its nest digging process. The current one you’re watching is slowing down, and fluttering the sand in a way to camouflage what it’s doing.

It’s going to lay eggs.

The turtle enters a trance as it begins to lay eggs. In this state, it is not bothered by human presence.

A researcher prepares to measure a sea turtle. Photo © Marjo Aho.

A researcher prepares to measure a sea turtle. Photo © Marjo Aho.

Now is the time to gather data. There’s no time to dawdle. Once the turtle lays its eggs, it will be fully alert and head back to sea.

Here’s your checklist:

First, check for an existing tag. If the turtle has been previously tagged, record the number.

If no tag, attach a tag to the edge of the flipper. The turtle will be then recorded every time it returns to the beach.

Do a careful check of the turtle’s condition. Is it healthy? Any abnormalities or signs of illness? Check carefully for shell damage, fouling from barnacles or algae, flipper injuries or tumors.

Measure carapace.

Finally, use triangulations methods to mark the location of the nest, and physically mark the location with a flag. The eggs will hatch in approximately 60 days.

Make sure you have recorded all the data, to be entered tomorrow afternoon back at the preserve.

Then look for the next turtle.

Repeat as necessary.

Part 3: Nest for Success

Sixty days later – yes, you’re still on the job – it will be time to return to those eggs you saw being laid.

A researcher counts the eggs from a sea turtle nest. Photo © Marjo Aho.

A researcher counts the hatched and unhatched eggs from a sea turtle nest. Photo © Marjo Aho.

Perhaps you’ll be lucky and see dozens of baby turtles high-tailing it for the water.

More likely, you’ll see lots of curvy little tracks coming from the nest – a sure sign they hatched earlier that day.

Either way, it’s time for a new part of your work: excavating the nest.

As you dig, you almost immediately find a wiggly surprise: a baby sea turtle, slow to dig itself out of the nest.

You set that one free in the water to begin its perilous journey.

Now it’s time to dig, dig, dig. You’ll understand how difficult it is for a sea turtle to create a nest using only flippers.

Soon, you’ll find lots of the leathery remnants of hatched eggs. As you scrape sand, you pull each egg out. You count the number of successful hatches. Then you push the egg remnants back into the hole and bury them.

You pause for a moment, realizing you’ve witnessed a large part of the nesting process. A new generation of sea turtles is on its way into the dangerous seas. The lucky ones will return 15 to 30 years later to start their own nests.

But before you can get lost in the reverie, you see another dark form down the beach. And your walkie-talkie is crackling, with one of your colleagues asking for help with a hawksbill in some deep brush.

You look at your watch. It’s only eight at night. You have five more hours of sea turtles. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kemit-Amon Lewis and volunteer researchers gather around a sea turtle nest. Photo © Marjo Aho.

Kemit-Amon Lewis and volunteer researchers gather around a sea turtle nest. Photo © Marjo Aho.

A special thanks to photographer Marjo Aho for accompanying this field trip and providing all images used in this blog.

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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Q&A with Stephanie Wear: A New Tool to Predict Coral Reef Recovery Thu, 15 Jan 2015 22:10:29 +0000 In the foreground is a very good example of coral bleaching. Photo © Ian Shive.

In the foreground is a very good example of coral bleaching. Photo © Ian Shive.

By Justine E. Hausheer, science writer for The Nature Conservancy

Since the devastating coral bleaching event in 1998, scientists and managers have been working hard to understand why coral reefs have varying abilities to recover from bleaching. Now, reef managers have a powerful tool to predict which reefs are likely to recover, thanks to new research published yesterday in the journal Nature.

I talked with coral expert Stephanie Wear to discuss this breakthrough research. Wear is the lead scientist, spokesperson and NatureNet Science Fellow for coral reef conservation at The Nature Conservancy. She specializes in developing new strategies to reduce threats to coral reefs.

Justine Hausheer: Do we know why some reefs survive bleaching and others don’t?

Stephanie Wear: In 1998 there was a devastating bleaching event — the biggest event that the world has seen yet. Up to 90 percent of the reefs in the Seychelles, where this study was conducted, died as a result. Across the tropics, some reefs survived, some died, and others didn’t bleach at all. Since then, scientists have been trying to figure out why coral reefs respond differently, and what characteristics make them resilient. This is really important for conservationists trying to figure out how they should focus their conservation and management efforts.

We’ve learned that fish play a really important role in the reef, especially herbivorous fish that eat seaweed. We also know that it’s important to have good water quality for a reef to recover. And we know that having space for baby corals is critical to support long-term recovery on a reef.

Hausheer: So what does this paper reveal about recovery?

Wear: What this particular paper does that’s so important is point out four factors that predict which reefs will recover, with great accuracy. And two of these factors — water depth and structural complexity — are easily and cheaply identifiable by somebody managing a reef. One of the biggest challenges that reef conservationists face is where to invest their limited resources — they have to make difficult choices. What this study does is provide a big leap forward by identifying factors that are easy to measure that can be used to predict recovery.

Vibrant coral reef in Palau. While looking healthy, the white corals are the early signs of a struggling habitat as they begin to bleach. Photo © Ian Shive.

Vibrant coral reef in Palau. While looking healthy, the white corals are the early signs of a struggling habitat as they begin to bleach. Photo © Ian Shive.

Hausheer: What does a structurally complex reef look like?

Wear: A structurally complex reef is like a mountain, with lots of nooks, crannies, caves, holes, and pathways going through it — a rugged-looking mountain. A structurally complex reef has lots of space and surface, with variations in the shape of the reef — bumpy, lumpy, sharp or jagged, with overhangs, cliffs, and lots of different variety. All of that variety creates habitat for creatures on the reef, from tiny crabs to big grouper. A less complex system is like a flat plain with some rolling hills, but no nooks and crannies or places to hide and avoid a predator. Structurally complex reefs are more productive and they’re generally more diverse, simply because there’s more space.

Hausheer: So were these results surprising?

Wear: Not exactly. There are many factors that have been proposed or identified as being important for reef health. What is surprising is how accurate the factors identified in this study are in predicting recovery to a major bleaching event. The study found that, when combined, water depth and structural complexity predicted recovery 98 percent of the time. It’s insane to have that level of predictive power. That’s what’s surprising, and I think that is what’s going to make this research very useful to coral reef practitioners. This paper gives reef managers an easily measurable tool that can be used to predict recovery and resilience.

Hausheer: Can these findings be applied to reefs elsewhere, outside of the Seychelles?

Wear: That’s the big question. The results of this study are pretty powerful, and the study design was ideal, because they had solid before and after data for a major bleaching event, which is pretty unusual. What happens next is that scientists studying other regions will be looking to see if these factors can also predict reef trajectory in other parts of the world. It’s hard to know how broadly these findings can be applied, but I think it’s likely that they will be applicable beyond the Seychelles.

Hausheer: Is The Nature Conservancy going to do anything differently based on the findings of this paper?

Wear: At the Conservancy, we work quickly to get the latest science into the hands of the people that need it most, the people that are tasked with managing coral reefs and protecting natural resources around the world. The first thing we’ll do is share this paper with our Reef Resilience Network, our global network of coral reef practitioners in more than 75 countries. Since this is a really important new finding, we will adapt our recommendations to coral reef practitioners to incorporate these results.

Hausheer: Will this research change the way conservationists protect and manage coral reefs?

Wear: I imagine that this paper will be very helpful to coral reef practitioners. With two simple factors that require very little under-water study and monitoring, reef practitioners are going to be able to better prioritize their efforts. In a world where resources are limited and prioritization is key — it is going to make a big difference.

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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Ghost Hunters: Recovering Lost & Abandoned Fishing Gear Saves Fish Wed, 14 Jan 2015 10:00:12 +0000 The Nature Conservancy and partners work to remove "ghost" crab pots from Quinault Nation waters. Photo © Matt Miller/TNC.

The Nature Conservancy and partners work to remove “ghost” crab pots from Quinault Nation waters. Photo © Kyle Antonelis/Natural Resources Consultants.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Long after commercial fishers have pulled into dock, their lost and abandoned gear continues fishing – threatening marine wildlife and habitats around the world.

Some call it “ghost fishing.”

A recent NOAA study found that abandoned and lost fishing gear has “persistent and pervasive” impacts on U.S. waters. It also found that these impacts are largely reversible.

A good case study is the recovery of derelict crab pots on the Washington coast, a comprehensive effort involving Tribal and non-tribal commercial fishers, scientists, agencies and organizations like The Nature Conservancy.

The bottom line: collaborating on crab pot removal benefits both fish and fishers.

The Ghosts of Crab Pots

The Dungeness crab is one of the most important fisheries in Washington, with an average of 14 million pounds of the crustaceans harvested annually.

The crabs are captured in wire traps, called crab pots. About 90,000 to 100,000 of these pots are set in Washington waters annually.

Crab pots are not inexpensive; each one costs about $225. Still, heavy winds and other harsh conditions mean that about 10 percent of the pots are lost each year.

That’s a lot of pots in the water. Still fishing.

There are the direct impacts: crabs and other wildlife continue to be caught. As they die, the traps become what NOAA calls “self-baiting” – continually attracting new predators until the trap is buried.

Polyethylene lines and buoys. Photo © Kyle Antonelis/Natural Resources Consultants.

Polyethylene lines and buoys that have been recovered. Photo © Kyle Antonelis/Natural Resources Consultants.

The trap is attached to a buoy by polyethylene line that poses threats to both whales and boats.

Derelict crab pots are truly ghosts that continue to haunt the seas.

The challenge is obvious: You’re looking for ghosts. In the ocean.

Prevention & Recovery

The old cliché about an ounce of prevention is true here. Crab pots will be lost. But their impacts can be prevented in part by trap design.

Traps can be assembled using a biodegradable binding that breaks down over time. This shortens the crab pot’s “ghost fishing” capabilities.

Despite this, sediment can sometimes build up and keep the pots open and operating even if the binding material degrades.

As such, recovering the pots is the only real way to ensure the crab pots aren’t having negative impacts. The State of Washington allows fishers to go out and retrieve pots – even those that don’t belong to them – after the fishing season ends.

“That policy has been very effective in cleaning up pots,” says Eric Delvin, community conservation coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Washington.

But the policy does not apply to Tribal waters. The Quinault Indian Nation manages a significant Dungeness crab fishery, with about 40,000 pots in the water annually.

Recovered crab pots. Photo © Kyle Antonelis/Natural Resources Consultants.

Recovered crab pots. Photo © Kyle Antonelis/Natural Resources Consultants.

The Conservancy and Quinault Nation partnered to remove derelict pots, seeking every possible way to get them out of the water.

Ghost Hunters

The Tribal fishing waters cover 155 square miles. And crab pot removal faces some notable logistical challenges.

“We have a very short window of opportunity to do the removal,” says Delvin. “The currents are so strong on the coast. It can pull buoys under the water. It takes four hours to get a boat to the removal project. So we have to be as efficient as possible.”

How to accomplish that, especially when crab pots are spread over a large area? Here’s a look at what has worked in Quinault-Conservancy partnership.

Take to the Air. Crab pot buoys can be seen from a boat. But it’s even more effective to find and map them by airplane.

“We fly the area and estimate how many crab pots are out there, and estimate where the greatest accumulations are,” says Delvin. “Due to sea currents, the pots tend to accumulate in certain areas. The air enables us to focus our time on places we’ll have the most impact.”

Divers Manual. The most low-tech approach is to remove the traps manually, by sending divers down and retrieving them.

It’s effective, but it’s also expensive. Conditions also have to be relatively calm to ensure safety – not a given in rough Pacific waters.  Even in the best of conditions, visibility is low.

Sand Blasters. One of the biggest challenges is that the pots can be buried by sand, making manual recovery seemingly impossible.

Enter a hydraulic pump. It liquefies sand around the pot, allowing the team to easily remove pots buried up to four feet.

The ship returns from a mission about five miles offshore. Photo © Kyle Antonelis/Natural Resources Consultants.

The ship returns from a mission about five miles offshore. Photo © Kyle Antonelis/Natural Resources Consultants.

Cutting the Line. Some pots are buried below four feet, so even the hydraulic pump won’t work. In this case, the trap will remain. But there is still the risk from the polyethylene line. Even a small amount of line can harm wildlife.

In the past, a diver would have had to go all the way to the sea bottom to cut the line. But an innovative line cutter – developed by Crayton Fenn of Fenn Enterprises and Kyle Antonelis of Nature Resources Consultants – travels down the line to the bottom.

Researchers then snip it off at the ocean floor so that no line remains suspended in the water column.

“Our goal is to recover every pot,” says Delvin. “We know we can get pots buried up to four feet. After that, we get the line out as quickly as possible. Then it’s on to the next pot.”

Initial results are promising with more than 150 traps removed in just four days in 2014; Delvin says an even more concerted effort will begin in 2015. And the Conservancy is looking with other partners and opportunities to remove gill nets and other derelict gear.

“Pacific fisheries are well managed and in relatively good shape,” says Delvin. “Our goal here is to work with fishers to make their industry even more sustainable.”

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: Chicago Wildlife Watch Tue, 13 Jan 2015 10:00:28 +0000 A gaggle of geese in Chicago. Photo © ellajphillips/Flickr.

Geese in Chicago. Photo © ellajphillips/Flickr.

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

What is Chicago Wildlife Watch?

When it comes to wildlife in the city, it turns out, we can throw out most everything we know about wildlife ecology.

Early research into the ecology of urban systems suggests that expected ecological behaviors do not apply. For instance, fox squirrels in urban environments spend less time engaging in anti-predator behaviors than their rural relatives.

Since the majority of wildlife studies have been conducted in wild or rural areas, many unanswered questions about urban wildlife remain. You can help find the answers.

Chicago Wildlife Watch (a collaboration between Adler Planetarium, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Zooniverse) has deployed cameras in the third most populous city in the US in hopes of learning more about how wildlife adapt to urban life.

That’s right, camera traps are no longer just for research in remote areas like Serengeti National Park, islands inhabited only by penguins, and wild areas of the US West; cameras are now documenting the urban wilderness of Chicago.

By answering questions about the locations frequented by urban creatures from pigeons to coyotes, conservationists can make better plans to conserve urban biodiversity and prevent conflict with humans.

Why is Chicago Wildlife Watch Important?

How do wildlife interactions change? How do wild animals respond to the presence of people or pets? Which types of urban habitat (industrial, residential, etc.) do different animals prefer.

Chicago Wildlife Watch is working to answer these vital questions about how ecology changes in urban environments.

Their scientists have gathered many pictures from camera traps and are looking for help. Take up the challenge for urban conservation science by helping classify the animals, people, and yes, even vehicles in the camera trap photos.

Researchers will compile the data to find trends in wildlife behavior, diversity, and location. Insights from this study will provide much needed guidance for managers looking to relocate, reintroduce, and protect species.

A squirrel in Chicago. Photo © Alex Szymanek/Flickr.

A squirrel in Chicago. Photo © Alex Szymanek/Flickr.

By comparing the ratio of species’ photos in various locations scientists can learn not only which habitats a species prefers, but also may provide clues to predator-prey interactions. For example, previous studies have shown that foxes tend to avoid areas frequented by coyotes.

Identifying how deep in the city animals venture gives researchers a sense of which animals might seek out or ignore humans, and which go out of their way to avoid human contact.

All of this information will help city planners make better decisions when designating protected areas or strategically planning development to have the lowest impact on biodiversity.

Bonus, Chicago Wildlife Watch is a fun way to get kids excited about wildlife. It may be of special interest to kids living in or near Chicago, but anyone in the world can participate.

How Can You Get Involved?

Just visit Chicago Wildlife Watch and start classifying.

The tutorial is very helpful and the interface is user friendly. Remember that in addition to the living things, you should note any bikes, cars, or mowers in the picture.

You will also note whether the animal’s head was up or down relative to its shoulders. This simple difference in posture indicates whether an animal perceived its environment as risky (head-up) or safe (head-down) at the moment the picture was taken.

If you like to track your results for this and many other citizen science projects, you can create an account with Zooniverse.

There are educational materials online for teachers who want to get their class involved. For young kids, a curated set of images that are more likely to have animals but still need classification makes the project more exciting.

Get a fresh look at city wildlife and try out Chicago Wildlife Watch!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] 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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