Cool Green Science http://blog.nature.org/science Cool Green Science: The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy Fri, 31 Oct 2014 12:39:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Scientists’ Costumes, Missing Oil and Amphibian Quest http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/31/best-science-nature-web-news-scientist-animal-costumes-oil-amphibians/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/31/best-science-nature-web-news-scientist-animal-costumes-oil-amphibians/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 10:00:37 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44747 A researcher dressed as a Whooping Crane. Photo © USFWS Headquarters through a Creative Commons license.

A researcher dressed as a Whooping Crane. Photo © USFWS Headquarters 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

Why scientists wear animal costumes. Hint: It’s not just for Halloween. (National Geographic)

Swim through the oceans at your desk with Google’s 360-degree seaview. (Wired)

Why bring wolves back to the U.K.? (The Guardian)

10 reasons bats are cooler than you think. (Washington Post)

Tall strangers: Despite their popularity, giraffes remain an under-studied animal. (New York Times Science)

Amphibian quest: new book details the search for lost frog species. (Mongabay)

I=PAT: Why population growth might well doom biodiversity, no matter what. (Conservation Bytes)

New Research

Two million barrels of oil from Deepwater Horizon are still missing. (PNAS)

Or maybe not. Deepwater Horizon oil settled far and wide. (Nature)

Hey baby: Ferns communicate to determine sex. (PhysOrg)

New solar power nanomaterial converts 90% of sunlight to heat. (Science Daily)

Climate Change

Hurricane Sandy’s Lesson: Resilience alone isn’t enough. (Harvard Business Review blog)

Naomi Oreskes imagines the future history of climate change. (New York Times)

Less rain in the rainforest? Parts of the Amazon are getting drier, study says. (Mongabay)

The IPCC’s global report: Does it mask regional climate change differences? (SciDev.Net)

Nature News

People want their streams back. How California is turning drainage canals back to rivers. (Los Angeles Times)

And people want their fish back: Native trout restored in Utah stream. (Salt Lake Tribune)

Florida voters will help decide the future of Everglades restoration. (Hatch Magazine)

Google Maps Gombe takes you inside Jane Goodall’s house. (Mongabay)

Rescued from the jaws of death: Western Australia stops its shark cull. (Nature)

Conservation Tactics

How a near disaster for birds was transformed into a sustainable tourism opportunity. (BirdLife)

Technology, consumer demand, and ecosystem services provide hope for the rainforests. (Yale E360)

Science Communications

Turn your paper inside out, but never in your PJs: And other tips for scientist bloggers. (Ecology for Australia)

Miscommunicating gender in science: Do you do it? (SciDev.Net)

This and That

As infrastructure crumbles, trillions gallons of water lost. (NPR)

Earth’s soil is getting too salty for crops to grow. (Smithsonian)

Meet the beetles. On becoming a Citizen Scientist. (Orion)

Forest ecologist: Is there a lonelier job? (New York Times)


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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Decoy: How Fake Birds Aid Real Research http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/30/decoy-fake-birds-real-research-video/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/30/decoy-fake-birds-real-research-video/#comments Thu, 30 Oct 2014 10:00:57 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44749 A “working” yellow breasted chat decoy by carver Chet Wilcox being used in a migration tracking project by Klamath Bird Observatory.  Photo: Sarah Rockwell

A “working” yellow breasted chat decoy by carver Chet Wilcox being used in a migration tracking project by Klamath Bird Observatory. Photo: Sarah Rockwell

By Joe Smith, ornithologist and restoration ecologist

So many of the amazing things we learn about birds require getting those birds into a researcher’s hand.

With a bird in hand, a researcher can take measurements and samples, attach identifying markers, or mount migration tracking devices.

But to get the bird in hand, you have to catch it first.

And catching a bird requires some magic tricks. One such bird-catching trick involves using a decoy – a fake bird.

Enter the decoy.

In using a decoy, researchers capitalize on a bird’s territorial nature in order to lure them into catching range.

Mirror, Mirror: Why Fake Birds Work

An oystercatcher fails the mirror test. Illustration from the book Birds Fighting by  Stuart Smith and Eric Hosking

An oystercatcher fails the mirror test. Illustration from the book Birds Fighting by Stuart Smith and Eric Hosking

To understand why decoys often work, let’s consider birds and mirrors.

Have you ever seen a bird attacking its own reflection in a window or a car’s rearview mirror? This is an expression of territoriality.

For many avian species, the world is carved up into bird neighborhoods composed of exclusively-occupied territories of individual birds or male-female pairs.

You might be asking the question, “Why doesn’t the bird recognize itself in the reflection?

Using behavioral psychology terms, we would say that reflection-fighting birds have failed the “mirror test.”

Only a few animal species have been shown to be able to recognize themselves in mirrors. These include humans, great apes, dolphins, killer whales and at least one bird, the European magpie .

Most birds, though, interpret their reflection as another bird.

The fact that our backyards are “owned” by individual birds or bird pairs usually escapes our notice. But when we see birds fight with each other or with their own reflections, we are reminded that the birds around us are in a constant struggle to maintain their place in the world.

Food and other resources are limited and winning a high quality territory is one way for an individual bird to ensure that it will have the resources it needs for a successful nesting season and other priorities.

Both a car’s rearview mirror and a decoy represent, in research parlance, a simulated territorial intrusion.

Of course, not all birds are territorial and some are territorial only for part of the year.

For example, the duck decoys used to hunt ducks attract ducks not because these birds are itching for a fight, but because ducks like to flock up in the winter. In the case of ducks, birds of a feather flock together.

Souped-Up Decoys: The More Realistic, the Better

Mia Revels with a gaudy craft store bird painted to resemble a Swainson's warbler. Photo: Dan L. Reinking

Mia Revels with a gaudy craft store bird painted to resemble a Swainson’s warbler. Photo: Dan L. Reinking

While hunters can buy all the duck decoys they want, most bird researchers can’t buy a ready-made decoy version of a warbler or sparrow at the nearest Cabelas.

They need to be more resourceful to come up with lifelike renditions of their study species.

I have seen decoys that researchers crafted from wood, paper mache, craft store feathered bird figurines, taxidermy and lately, 3-D printers.

A researcher can even commission a traditional decoy carver to make wooden decoys for research. Many carvers are glad to have the chance to carve a “working” decoy, because in this generation, hand carved decoys are typically collected as objects of art rather than as hunting tools.

When it comes to decoys, the more realistic, the better. Adding motion and sound to a decoy contributes to its effectiveness.

For example, when studying one fiercely territorial shorebird, the American oystercatcher, researchers added remote control car motors to their decoy so they could make their fake oystercatcher rotate at will.

They also added a remote control speaker to make territorial calls.

Their souped-up oystercatcher decoy resulted in maximum provocation of the territories’ rightful owner.

The decoy, the sound and the motion all do the job of getting the bird we want to capture to a particular spot – but the bird still needs to be caught.

Building a Better Bird Trap

A motorized oystercatcher decoy with a noose carpet trap.

A motorized oystercatcher decoy with a noose carpet trap.

Although birds get pretty distracted when they think they need to vanquish an intruder, they are not so distracted that you can walk over and pick them up. You need a trap.

There are various nets and traps tailored to the nature of the quarry.

In the case of the oystercatcher, one of the traps used is called the “whoosh net.” It’s a bungee cord-powered net that “whooshes” over the bird and decoy when a remote trigger is pulled.

Here’s the decoy and whoosh net in action, catching a pair of American oystercatchers.

It may seem remarkable that wild birds are fooled by — let’s face it — roughly-rendered decoy versions of themselves.

I am certain that you can pass the mirror test, but I wonder what you would do if there was a mannequin in your backyard with a recording that said, over and over again, “This is my backyard!”

You might just wander over to investigate too. And let me warn you: it may be a trap!

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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Review: Relicts of a Beautiful Sea http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/29/review-relicts-of-a-beautiful-sea/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/29/review-relicts-of-a-beautiful-sea/#comments Wed, 29 Oct 2014 10:00:57 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44741 Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish. Photo: Scott Hein

Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish. Photo: Scott Hein

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction and Conservation in a Desert World. By Christopher Norment. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 271 pages.

Review by Matt Miller, senior science writer

Consider the pupfish: A “freshwater” species that survives in Death Valley, one of the harshest environments on the planet.

A creature that has seen its lake home dry up into tiny pockets, and still manages to survive and even thrive.

A fish that swims in water so hot and salty that it would turn even a carp belly up in minutes.

I peer into Salt River and see these beautiful little fish darting around, and I’m an instant pupfish fan. How couldn’t you love such a creature, such a survivor?

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm, as certain cable news commentators are quick to remind me, as they rant about “worthless” endangered species. Like the pupfish.

I know well the rhetorical questions those commentators will pose to viewers: Why should a tiny, obscure, unknown animal that no one will ever see stop economic development? Shouldn’t we care more about farmers than fish? Families than fish? Would anyone notice if a knuckle-sized fish living in the desert disappeared? Don’t we have more important issues to worry about?

I’m at first tempted to laugh at the ridiculous simplicity of their arguments. Then I realize that such commentary – even when delivered by someone with the charisma of a rabid badger – resonates with most folks more than anything I can offer.

A knuckle-sized fish? Who cares?

Really, who cares?

Christopher Norment’s Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is a lyrical attempt to answer that question, and more.

Norment, a professor of environmental science and at the College of Brockport, State University of New York, travels to the Great Basin to encounter the desert’s most unusual survivors, including four species of pupfish and two amphibians.

He delves deep into the area’s geologic history and the species’ evolutionary history to tell a remarkable story of survival against the odds. Once, this harsh desert was covered by water.

When those waters receded and eventually disappeared, aquatic creatures were isolated into little springs and creeks – essentially watery islands in the desert. And as with any island, species evolve rapidly to fit the new conditions.

As the Conservancy’s Dave Livermore tells the author, the desert spring complex is “in its own way as magnificent as the Galapagos Islands, in terms of its biodiversity and importance for understanding evolutionary processes.”

On one level, this is  an entertaining book of biological exploration. Norment snorkels into Devil’s Hole to encounter the Devil’s Hole pupfish, the vertebrate species with the most limited range on earth. He camps and hikes and sticks his face in the water, encountering rare critters up close and personal. It’s perfect for wildlife nerds like me.

But it’s more. Many of these animals are in serious trouble. When species are isolated on small islands, it makes them very vulnerable to disturbance. In this case, dramatic human disturbance.

At first glance, the desert may be only slightly more inviting to people than pupfish. But people move there anyway, building cities and casinos and farms. And using water. Lots of water.

All that development and water use brought a wave of biological loss; Norment meticulously details species that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years only to be wiped out by an ill-considered development.

Other creatures, though, are rescued from almost certain doom, thanks to last-second heroics by visionary individuals and organizations (including The Nature Conservancy).

Norment bring a scientist’s observational skills and attention to detail to the topic, but conveys that information with a creative writer’s grasp of language.

I first became familiar with his work in Return to Warden’s Grove, a narrative about Norment’s research on nesting sparrows in the Arctic.

Conducting wildlife studies in a remote locale is an interesting subject in its own right, but Norment went farther afield: he takes on bigger themes like solitude and movement and even killing creatures in the name of science. It makes Warden’s Grove one of the most compelling accounts of field research I’ve read.

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is even better, in part because Norment openly wrestles with that looming question about pupfish and other obscure creatures: What good are they?

Among conservationists, the debate between “nature for its own sake” and “nature for people” has become tiring, if not tiresome. It’s difficult to find fresh perspectives in arguments that can be so acrimonious. So often, it’s a needless argument — we’re all trying to find the best way to protect nature. But what about those small, overlooked, inconvenient creatures?

In Relicts, Norment offers a fresh take on the subject, using pupfish and desert amphibians as a focal point. Any economic or “ecosystems services” argument for these animals feels, at best, contrived.

So why care? Norment finds many people who don’t, like the waitress at a hot spring that was once home to an extinct fish species. When he asks her about them, she answers, “’I think they were pretty tiny, not good for much of anything. You couldn’t eat them. Not like trout.”

Norment listens to those who with similar opinions, as he attempts a response. His goal with the book:

“I have read the technical papers and taken what stories I could from their numbers. I believe, passionately, that it is possible to use the particulars of metabolic rates, premaxillary bones, dehydration tolerance, osmotic regulation, mitochondrial DNA, and growth rates – mostly the adaptive outcomes of evolutionary processes – to help craft an aesthetic and ethical argument for the conservation and appreciation (or say it: love) of rare and beleaguered species everywhere.”

Norment looks to the perseverance of desert creatures as a source of inspiration and strength in the face of human tragedy. He ponders the isolation of pupfish against his own feelings of loneliness.

It’s a beautiful, thoughtful argument for why these creatures matter to us, and matter deeply. I’m tempted to quote numerous passages, and even whole pages, but here’s a taste:

“For all of us, at some time or another, this can be a dogsh** world, unbelieveably cruel and sorrowful and painful. I do not pretend to know much about dealing with the adversity that strikes us all, sometimes with a force that dwarfs anything I have experienced. I have nothing to suggest by way of easy pop-psychology remedies; I would never be so arrogant or condescending. But I will say this: that in my own life I have been consoled and heartened by the strength of pupfish and salamanders, in spite of their otherness, and the 300 million years or more of time that separates my evolutionary lineage from theirs. I value these creatures for their own sake, but also for the ways in which they reassure and comfort me.”

Read this book for its biology – it’s field science writing at its best. But read it too for the conservation argument – of how science and values and story can help us better defend wild places and wildlife.

Even when that wildlife is a knuckle-sized fish in a tiny desert pool.

relicts cover

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: Bat Detective http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/28/citizen-science-nature-conservation-bats-conservation-data-echolocation/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/28/citizen-science-nature-conservation-bats-conservation-data-echolocation/#comments Tue, 28 Oct 2014 10:00:59 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44723 A common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). Photo by Flickr user Steven Robinson through a Creative Commons license.

A common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). Photo by Flickr user Steven Robinson through a Creative Commons license.

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 Bat Detective?

Just in time for Halloween: Where can you hear a sound that most people never hear, teach computers a lesson, and improve scientific data on vulnerable bat populations?

Try the citizen science project Bat Detective!

Bat Detective has a challenge for you. They have collected recordings from iBats, a volunteer bat monitoring program, made with special ultrasonic detectors and slowed those recordings so that the bats are audible to the human ear.

They need you to classify the recordings and report any bat calls so that they can improve computerized systems for monitoring bat populations.

Why Is It Important?

Because bat populations are a good indicator of environmental health.

Bats are vulnerable to human impacts that might be affecting other aspects of an ecosystem in more subtle ways.

For instance, they are sensitive to climate change. And their slow rate of reproduction (1 pup/year) means that they recover slowly from disturbances.

But bats do more than indicate ecosystem health; they eat some pesky mosquitoes and they are important pollinators.

Recently, they have become famous for their role in pollinating agave, the primary ingredient in tequila.

Bats often live in large colonies, which makes populations susceptible to diseases. White-nose syndrome has taken a great toll on North American bats.

So, bats are important. But why can’t computers classify their calls?

Current computer programs can recognize bat calls when there is no other noise, but can’t pick out bat calls out when there is background noise. By contrast, Bat Detective has found that humans are “absolutely fantastic” at finding bat calls among the din.

Bat Detective’s main goal is not to answer a specific research question about bats, but to learn from citizen science classifications and build a better computer program for recognizing bat calls.

They will then make that program available to scientists everywhere so that it can be used to answer a variety of questions and to assist in bat conservation around the world.

How Do You Get Involved?

The project is housed on Zooniverse along with other citizen science projects like Old Weather and Condor Watch, so you can sign in to track your progress or get started classifying sounds.

A brief tutorial will help you to differentiate bat sounds from other noises and to tell bats’ social calls, searching calls, and feeding calls apart. It will also guide you through the process of marking calls correctly.

If you run into trouble, you can visit the discussion forum.

Go to the Bat Detective blog for cool information about bats and updates on the data.

Try it, be a bat detective!

Then come back and tell us what you learned.


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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Shoot Out the Lights: Science, Hydropower & Reality on the Mekong http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/27/science-hydropower-fishing-livelihoods-dams-development/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/27/science-hydropower-fishing-livelihoods-dams-development/#comments Mon, 27 Oct 2014 10:00:48 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44701 Sunset on the Mekong. Photo by Jeff Opperman.

Sunset on the Mekong. Photo by Jeff Opperman.

By Jeff Opperman, senior freshwater scientist, The Nature Conservancy

The old man apparently hadn’t read my script.

My family and I were spending the first night of our trip down the Mekong River in a remote village in northern Laos, and we had just finished dinner at the house of the village headman, our host for the night. The plates were pushed to the center of the table and the old man leaned back against the railing of the front porch where we sat. My wife, Paola, translated for me while my kids slipped away from the table to rummage through our backpacks looking for the iPad.

I asked him about the fish in the river — the what, how and when of their fish harvest — and then the conversation turned toward the dozens of large dams that are proposed for the Mekong and its tributaries. One of those planned dams will be just downstream from his village, and I asked him what he thought about it.

I expected him to focus on the dam’s impacts because it won’t provide electricity to his village (the power will be sold to Thailand), but it will block the migration of the big fish that are an important source of food.

To me, this tiny village was a thumbnail sketch of an epic conflict brewing across five countries:

*  China has built enormous dams on the upper parts of the Mekong and the countries of the lower river are now rushing to keep up.
*  Dozens of dams are planned — or are already under construction — on the lower Mekong and its main tributaries.
*  The region’s governments are so desperate for the energy those dams can produce that they appear willing to sacrifice the largest freshwater fish harvest in the world, one that feeds tens of millions of mostly poor people.

This conflict now generates headlines — even sometimes in the United States — with the standard narrative being that big dam developers are trampling on the lives and livelihoods of the poor rural villages.

At least, that was the narrative I’d brought with me.

‘We Need Development’

But when I asked about the dam, the headman’s response muddied the simple plot lines.

“We need development,” he said, and then he made a circling gesture with his right hand, pointing out toward the absolute darkness that engulfed the village. “Roads, dams, schools, hospitals, we need all of it.”


“perspectives of local people on dams defy simple answers and conclusions.” – Jeff Opperman


 

To me, the darkness here was a welcome respite from my well-lit world, revealing an awesome tapestry of stars that most in the United States so rarely now see.

To him, that darkness was a nightly reminder of the distance of his world from mine. And dams weren’t for him some epic contest of competing visions of sustainable development. They were the thing that would bring light to his status quo darkness.

The rest of the trip I heard a lot of different perspectives and stories, but one thing was clear: perspectives of local people on dams defy simple answers and conclusions.

How Science Can Help Address the Complex Reality of Dam Development

Though fighting dams resides deep in the DNA of environmental groups, this complexity has the Conservancy seeking a broader vocabulary than just saying “no” to dams. Besides, the debate about whether dams should be built is a bit academic — lots of dams will get built, and there’s a clear role for organizations that can find solutions for better outcomes.

Science can deeply inform that broader vocabulary. For example, various analyses can help identify how dams should be deployed in order to generate a desired amount of energy while having the lowest impacts on other values (such as fish populations).

Working in several river basins in Latin America and Africa, Conservancy scientists are putting together a set of spatial tools that planners, developers and regulators can use to quantitatively compare the costs and benefits of different plans for hydropower development — not just environmental, but across economic and social values as well.

The Mekong provides one of the clearest examples of how these analyses can identify promising solutions.

Guy Ziv and colleagues (2012) studied 26 dams proposed for the Mekong’s tributaries and modeled every possible alternative for building those dams. For each scenario they quantified the amount of energy produced and, using a fish population and migration model, they estimated the impact on biomass and species viability of migratory fish species (the most important food species in the Mekong are migratory).

Ziv and his coauthors found that building all 26 dams would reduce the biomass of migratory fish in the whole Mekong basin by nearly 20%. However, by foregoing a few dams, fish losses could be minimized to just 3% — while still producing 75% of the total available energy from tributary dams (see Figure; note that mainstem dams are not part of this analysis, but even with mainstem dams, this type of analysis sheds some light on more balanced alternatives).

Figure. The tradeoff analysis between hydropower generation and fish production for all possible scenarios of constructing 26 proposed dams on Mekong tributaries.  Full development of energy potential would reduce basinwide migratory fish biomass by nearly 20%, but note that three-quarters of the energy potential could be developed with as little as a 3% decline in basinwide migratory fish biomass.  The three red circles indicate different combinations of dams that achieve 75% of the energy but vary dramatically in their impacts on fish biomass. Adapted from Figure 2A from Ziv et al. (2012).

Figure. The tradeoff analysis between hydropower generation and fish production for all possible scenarios of constructing 26 proposed dams on Mekong tributaries. Full development of energy potential would reduce basinwide migratory fish biomass by nearly 20%, but note that three-quarters of the energy potential could be developed with as little as a 3% decline in basinwide migratory fish biomass. The three red circles indicate different combinations of dams that achieve 75% of the energy but vary dramatically in their impacts on fish biomass. Adapted from Figure 2A from Ziv et al. (2012).

The Limits of Science to Inform Action on Hydropower Development

But the Mekong also reveals the limits of science to turn that broader vocabulary into action. It’s government or corporate decisions that ultimately decide how hydropower is developed.

Last year, the Cambodian government approved the single most impactful dam out of the 26 that Ziv studied (Lower Sesan 2) at a site on the Sesan River just downstream from the confluence of three of the Mekong’s most important tributaries: the Sesan, Srepak and Sekong (collectively known as the “3-S rivers”).

Lower Sesan 2 will sever the route that migratory fish follow between the Mekong’s productive floodplains and spawning habitat in the 3-S basin. By itself, this single dam would reduce basinwide migratory fish biomass by nearly 10% — half the losses that would be caused by building all 26 tributary dams — for a relatively small amount of energy.

The next most impactful dam has about 1/10 of Lower Sesan 2’s impact. Unlike the dam I discussed with the headman, which will be thousands of kilometers upstream from the lower Mekong’s floodplains — the engine of the system’s productivity — Lower Sesan 2 would be a wrench thrown directly into that engine.

The government of Cambodia seems ready to accept that engine damage, paying absolutely minimal attention to environmental impacts, solutions or alternatives.


“Lower Sesan 2 is clearly one of those dams for which the word “no” is still relevant.” – Jeff Opperman


 

In fact, a colleague just told me that one of the government’s proposed mitigation strategies is to build a Sesan “museum of the fisherman” to memorialize the fish and livelihoods that will fade away.

Conservationists: Don’t Propose Your Own Museums

To the ears of a conservationist, the proposal for a fisherman museum lands with a surreal thud, comical and tragic.

But it’s also a reality-check reminder to us: don’t propose your own museums.

Arguments against Lower Sesan 2 (or any dam) that rest on subsistence fishing villages remaining subsistence fishing villages must confront the clear demand for material progress — and acceptance of trade-offs — expressed by that Lao village headman.

These sentiments are also echoed by fishermen interviewed in two recent documentaries about the Mekong region (A River Changes Course and Mekong). Each fisherman shared a similar dream: that through education their families could diversify their opportunities, move beyond fishing, and secure stable, higher-paying jobs.

For conservationists, ignoring this yearning for the options that come with widespread economic development risks supporting positions that people in the region may hear as proposals for our own sort of museum, with fishermen hurling their cast nets in real-life dioramas.

Fish market in Laos. Photo by Jeff Opperman.

Fish market near the Mekong. Photo by Jeff Opperman.

That said, there are plenty of stories of subsistence rural communities who are truly fighting hydropower development to maintain their way of life — stories also featured in recent documentaries (even within a different film by the director of A River Changes Course).

Further, while there are some good examples of compensation and economic development programs for people physically displaced by dams and their reservoirs, there is scant precedent of that kind of benefit-sharing for those who are not displaced but who are impacted by major changes to the river, such flow alterations or the loss of migratory fish.

In the Mekong, as in much of the world, orders of magnitude more people will be affected by those river changes than will be directly displaced by reservoirs. Given the current development context in Laos and Cambodia — in terms of governance and the distribution of economic gains — some fishermen may be able to take advantage of expanding economic opportunities in cities.

But many will not. Recent work suggests that Cambodia in particular will struggle to find alternative protein sources and livelihoods for rural populations previously dependent on fisheries.

This situation may seem overwhelmingly complex. But the key word is options, and this is where science — with its ability to quantify impacts and compare alternatives — offers a path forward.

Because its impacts are so high relative to its energy benefits, Lower Sesan 2 is clearly one of those dams for which the word “no” is still relevant.

Science could provide a broader vocabulary. It illuminates Lower Sesan 2’s off-the-charts environmental impacts relative to other options. It can highlight alternative scenarios that can achieve energy targets while maintaining much greater fish populations. That vocabulary makes opposing the dam more than just opposing progress. It makes alternatives seem highly pragmatic.

However, as of yet, government officials aren’t listening, the dam is proceeding, and the current version of this story offers a harsh lesson: science can illuminate more promising options, but decision makers can shoot out the lights.

For more on the relationship between dams and conservation, read Jeff Opperman’s TALK post “Carp and Collaboration” on how conservation organizations are working with hydropower companies to ensure that the coming wave of hydropower development follows a path that makes room for healthy, productive rivers.

Reference

Ziv G, Baran E, Nam S, Rodríguez-Iturbe I, Levin SA (2012) Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:5609–5614.

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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Lek at This, Billboard Fins and Shrinking Goats http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/24/best-science-nature-web-lek-grouse-killfish-goats-climate/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/24/best-science-nature-web-lek-grouse-killfish-goats-climate/#comments Fri, 24 Oct 2014 10:00:10 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44676 Male sage grouse displaying in a lek. Photo by Flickr user Rob Crow through a Creative Commons licencse.

Male sage grouse displaying in a lek. Photo by Flickr user Rob Crow through a Creative Commons licencse.

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

Lek at this: Sage grouse and oil drilling can co-exist, says new report. (Extinction Countdown)

Goats vs. invasives: A natural solution to invasive plants? (Yale E360)

Why don’t swordfish break their swords? (National Geographic)

Billboard fins: Bluefin killfish use fins to advertise social standing and health. (Science 360)

New Research

Scientists “bottle” the sun, using solar energy to split hydrogen from water. (The American Ceramic Society, Science)

10 conservation questions that could be answered with satellites. (Conservation Biology, Conservation Magazine)

Shrinking goats linked to warming climate. (Science Daily)

Climate Change

To no one’s surprise, winter bird communities in the eastern United States now have…more warm-weather-preferring birds in them. (Global Change Biology; HT Conservation Magazine)

How climate change will change fall foliage. (The Conversation US)

Shale gas: not making much of a dent on climate change thus far. (Nature)

Rick Piltz, whistleblower on White House tampering with climate scientist, dies. (Scientific American)

Claim the sky: Teens go to SCOTUS with climate lawsuit. (Grist)

California gears up to cope with a drier world. (NPR)

Nature News

Pesticide linked to honeybee deaths does not increase soybean yield, EPA finds. (Yale E360)

India’s largest dam: granted environmental clearance (but still faces huge local opposition). (The Guardian)

Pumpkins: California drought’s latest victim. (Grist)

Rhino horn demand drops 38% in Vietnam after advertising campaigns. (Mongabay)

Michael Nichols wins Wildlife Photographer of the Year. (The Guardian)

Conservation Tactics

It’s all good: Don’t ignore non-native forests in forest conservation, says the USDA’s Ariel Lugo. (Mongabay)

Energy efficient lighting isn’t the whole answer, but can we agree it’s a step forward? (Dot Earth)

The left might not be anti-growth. But environmentalism is, says Keith Kloor. (Discover)

Don’t plant any crops. Model warns farmers not to waste resources in bad years. (Sci Dev Net)

Science Communications

“O, Cana…”: Scientists call for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to restore free scientific collaboration and communication for Canada’s scientists. (CBC News)

This and That

The Wolf of Wall Street (aka The Great Gatsby) gives $2m for ocean conservation. (Nature World News)

Handle receipts with care. BPA in receipts could affect your health. (Futurity)

The future of urban planning: Life in a “quantified community.” (CityLab)

A sunny option for Georgia energy: Solar energy on the rise. (Forbes)


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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New Study: Where Have All The Rangelands Gone? http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/23/new-study-where-have-all-the-rangelands-gone/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/23/new-study-where-have-all-the-rangelands-gone/#comments Thu, 23 Oct 2014 10:00:25 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44681 Cows on a California ranch. Photo by Matt Miller/TNC.

Cows on a California ranch. Photo by Matt Miller/TNC.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer, The Nature Conservancy

Across the western United States, it’s a familiar conservationist’s lament: rangelands are disappearing at an alarming rate, lost in a sea of “for sale” signs and subdivisions.

But what do the data really say? What are the long-term trends in rangeland conversion? Are conservation easements and other land protection tools making a difference?

A new paper in the journal PLOS ONE by Dick Cameron, a lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy in California, and coauthors presents a comprehensive view of rangeland conversion — and just as importantly, the drivers of this conversion — on a large scale.

The result is a comprehensive look at landscape change. And it’s true: rangelands really are disappearing at an alarming rate.

What are the Losses?

Cameron and his coauthors used a dataset of land-use types to map rangeland conversion in California between 1984 and 2008. They classified the resulting land-use changes with aerial imagery to determine whether it was developed into homes, planted with crops or dedicated to other land uses.

Then they compared this loss against ranchland protection achieved by various conservation measures. They found a loss of more than 20,000 acres of rangeland per year to other uses within California, for a total loss of more than 480,000 acres.

Of the remaining rangeland, only 24 percent was protected against future conversions by conservation easement or fee ownership. About 38 percent had no protection at all.

Is It Just Homes on the Range?

Conservationists often cite residential and commercial development as key threats to rangeland development.

And indeed, researchers found this as a significant factor, accounting for 49 percent of the conversion.

More surprisingly, 40 percent of rangelands were lost to agricultural intensification for a variety of crops. While the land was still in agriculture, a lot of the habitat value and low water usage offered by ranching was lost.

An agricultural tax incentive — designed to discourage conversion of agricultural lands to residential development — was successful in protecting 37 percent of the remaining rangeland.

But those tax incentives don’t protect those lands from being converted to other agriculture.

Why Should Conservationists Care?

Rangelands protect a lot of valuable wildlife habitat, but their value goes well beyond that. They often connect large blocks of public lands, providing room for migratory species as well as those that have large home ranges.

And new research is finding even more benefits of protecting rangelands, including storing carbon — helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Perhaps most significant of all is water savings, especially as Western states like California face severe droughts.

The rangeland that has been converted to intensified agriculture is estimated to use five times more water than all the households of San Francisco combined.

What’s Driving the Change?

Quite simply, economics. It’s not exactly a secret that it’s tough to make a living at ranching. As ranches pass to younger generations, many find that the difficulties are just too much, and choose to sell the property or plant a higher value crop, such as almonds or pistachios.

The authors advocate land-use planning that enables large areas of ranchland to remain intact and for increased incentives to make ranching more economically viable. They call conservation easements “underutilized” for ranchland protection and believe their study can help organizations focus on unprotected properties.

And policies that provide incentives for keeping working ranches working are also vital, they argue. In California, the Williamson Act — passed in 1965 — provided state money allowing local governments to provide tax incentives to protect land for agricultural land uses.

However, state funding of this program ceased in 2009 — and the study’s authors state that this will likely accelerate the rate of land conversion. They urge a return to funding this Act and other policies that provide financial incentives for landowners.

What’s This Paper’s Impact on Conservation?

This paper provides a comprehensive look at regional landscape change, but the tools used to measure that change can be applied beyond Central California.

“Fragmentation of rangelands isn’t just a story of California, it’s a story of the Western United States,” says Cameron. “By analyzing the data to pick up drivers of conversion, we are in a better position to prevent future losses. Knowing where land is protected by different tools can help us prioritize future public and private investments in habitat conservation.”

Cameron calls this approach of tracking loss and protection “conservation accounting.”

Just as the private sector uses profit-and-loss statements to measure the health of a company, this accounting allows conservationists to assess losses against protection.

“It’s an indicator of progress,” says Cameron. “Conservationists have protected key rangelands in California. But this analysis shows that rangeland is still being lost — and points us to the places where our investments can make the most 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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Protecting Sage Grouse Habitat: Does It Benefit Mule Deer Populations? http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/22/sage-grouse-habitat-conservation-mule-deer-wildlife/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/22/sage-grouse-habitat-conservation-mule-deer-wildlife/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 10:49:29 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44661 Mule deer at Torrey Creek Trailhead. Photo © Scott Copeland.

Mule deer at Torrey Creek Trailhead. Photo © Scott Copeland.

By Holly Copeland

Scientists studying Greater sage grouse have recognized for years that these birds require large unfragmented landscapes to survive.

Many have also argued that Greater sage grouse are an “umbrella” species – if you protect them, you can also protect many other kinds of wildlife…such as mule deer.

But is that claim really true, at least for mule deer? That’s the focus of a new study in Ecosphere that I co-authored with other scientists and mule deer experts.

The Test Bed — A ‘Grand Experiment’ in Sage Grouse Conservation

With sage grouse populations in well-publicized decline, there is a grand experiment occurring in Wyoming aimed at conserving them.

The experiment was launched in 2008 with by executive order of Wyoming’s governor — an order now referred to as the Wyoming “core area policy,” which limits development in key breeding areas for grouse.

In addition to protections from the policy, federal, private and mitigation funds from oil and gas have also bolstered conservation easement activity specifically for sage grouse.

Mule deer are also declining throughout Wyoming and the West and use sagebrush habitats to winter and migrate to their summer range. So, the natural question arising from this overlap is whether or not mule deer will benefit from grouse-related conservation activities.

Understanding how single species conservation can benefit other species through “umbrella” based conservation is both a smart and practical form of conservation to work within the system that we have.

To test this idea, Nature Conservancy scientists Amy Pocewicz and I joined forces with NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative scientist David Naugle and a team of mule deer experts at University of Wyoming and WEST, Inc consulting. (Read the full study, published this month in Ecosphere.)

A Doubling of Previously Existing Conservation for Mule Deer Habitats

We synthesized data from two main sources for our study area in the upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming: 1) mule deer GPS collar data from a pre-existing research study and 2) data representing conservation activities for grouse.

Using this data, as well as data on thresholds for tolerance of mule deer to development (Sawyer et al. 2013), we were able to show that sage-grouse related conservation measures doubled previously existing conservation of mule deer habitats.

Mule deer buck at Torrey Creek Road. Photo © Scott Copeland.

Mule deer buck at Torrey Creek Road. Photo © Scott Copeland.

We found that areas identified as core grouse habitat in this region overlap with winter range, stopover areas and migration corridors used by deer — and that grouse core-area provisions are generally sufficient to limit impacts on deer as well as grouse.

Those provisions primarily include restrictions on surface disturbances for activities such as oil and gas drilling.

We also identified current gaps in mule deer conservation in the same study area, providing a road map of conservation opportunities for land trusts and others working on the ground.

Current Policies: Necessary But Not Sufficient for Sage Grouse and Mule Deer?

There is a concern, though, that Wyoming’s core area policy will push development out of sage grouse core areas and increase impacts to migrating mule deer where their migration, stopovers, and winter habitats fall outside of sage grouse protections.

Currently there is no formal statewide protection of mule deer migration corridors, which could be rectified through land management policy changes to reflect consideration of these areas.

Recently, the state of Montana followed in Wyoming’s footsteps and enacted their own sage grouse core area policy with very similar restrictions. The core area policy was designed to protect sage grouse with what was known at the time about their sensitivity to development.

Still, many in the scientific and conservation communities (including me) wonder if it will be enough to keep the populations from a long-term downward decline.

A sage grouse lek at Twin Creek. Photo © Scott Copeland.

A sage grouse lek at Twin Creek. Photo © Scott Copeland.

Last year we published a study in PLOS One examining benefits of these policies for grouse in Wyoming, and found that these efforts will not likely halt, but will significantly stem declines.

There are many nuances in the current conservation policy that depending on how faithfully it is carried out, could determine its long-term efficacy. Nonetheless, the policy represents a much needed step forward in reducing fragmentation of sagebrush.

The Conservancy and partners, in a study funded through the Wyoming legislature, are also now engaged in an effort in Wyoming to establish baseline metrics of sagebrush habitat quality at the time the policy was enacted in 2008, and methods to reliably track conditions over time and tied back to population health.

If we can confidently measure these trends, we will know whether these conservation actions are really working — or not.

It’s a key step to evaluating conservation progress in the unfolding sage grouse story.

References

Copeland, H. E., A. Pocewicz, D. E. Naugle, T. Griffiths, D. Keinath, J. S. Evans, and J. Platt. 2013. Quantifying the benefits of the core area policy and conservation easements to sage-grouse in Wyoming. PLoS ONE 8:1-14.

Sawyer, H., M. J. Kauffman, A. D. Middleton, T. A. Morrison, R. M. Nielson, and T. B. Wyckoff. 2013. A framework for understanding semi-permeable barrier effects on migratory ungulates. Journal of Applied Ecology 50:68-78.

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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Working With Loggers for Forest Conservation: New E&E News Series http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/22/logger-tropical-forest-conservation-ee-news-series/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/22/logger-tropical-forest-conservation-ee-news-series/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 09:59:17 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44651 Logging road and impacts in East Kalimantan: logged forest on the left, virgin/primary forest on the right. Image credit: Wakx/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Logging road and impacts in East Kalimantan: logged forest on the left, virgin/primary forest on the right. Image credit: Wakx/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Conservationists working with loggers to produce better conservation results — a science-based vision of the future, or a pipe dream?

The online news service E&E News has just published a three-part series on how such efforts are playing out in Indonesia — the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, in part because of deforestation there. And The Nature Conservancy’s forest science and conservation efforts there are a cornerstone of the coverage.

Links to each installment of the series below:

1) Can environmental groups and loggers work to limit the destruction of tropical forests?

Reduced-impact logging techniques could reduce CO2 emissions from deforestation by up to 30 percent, according to a Conservancy analysis. E&E News reporter Coco Liu goes into the forest with Conservancy scientist Peter Ellis to find out why the benefits of such a logging approach might often outweigh the costs.

2) The art of the deal: selling loggers on tree-saving practices that make money

How might conservation scientists convince loggers to adopt reduced-impact logging tactics? It’s not easy — but a variety of pitches helps, as the Conservancy’s Bambang Wahyudi and Peter Ellis demonstrate. 

3) Luring forest communities away from ‘slash-and-burn’ farming

Members of the Dayak community — an ethnic group in Indonesian Borneo who used to use blowguns to hunt their food — are now part of a Nature Conservancy program to entice them away from slash-and-burn agriculture toward more sustainable livelihoods.

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: Monarchs Journey North http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/21/citizen-science-monarchs-journey-north-conservation-nature-education/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/10/21/citizen-science-monarchs-journey-north-conservation-nature-education/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 10:00:22 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=44630 A Monarch butterfly in the Boston Public Garden. Photo by Flickr user Nietnagel through a Creative Commons license.

A Monarch butterfly in the Boston Public Garden. Photo by Flickr user Nietnagel through a Creative Commons license.

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

What is Journey North and Why Should You Participate?

Migrating monarchs are one of nature’s wonders — they can travel up to 500 miles in just three days on their 2,500 mile journey from Mexico to Canada and back again over the course of a year.

And they’re also one of the few creatures that gains weight during migration — from 60mg of lipids (fat) when they start their southward migration to 140mg by the time they reach Mexico—because they glide on the wind instead of flapping.

“They’d never make it to Mexico otherwise,” explains Elizabeth Howard, founder and director of Journey North, which works to track monarch migrations. “In flapping flight, they would burn enough fat that they would starve in just 44 hours. Soaring and gliding they can go for 1,060 hours.”

But there’s a lot we still don’t know about monarchs. Which is Journey North is looking for your citizen science observations on the backyard behaviors of this iconic and threatened insect.

Why is Journey North Important?

Monarchs are currently completing their journey south to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. But the migrations get more difficult with each passing year.

The migration and the butterflies are in danger because of threats like climate change and changes in agriculture that have limited the amount of milkweed, a key plant for monarch conservation

In recent years, the population has declined dramatically.

Your observations can help scientists determine the abundance of monarchs and find out if they are overwintering in new locations. The data could help them answer questions like, how do monarchs know when to go to Mexico, how do they know where to fly, and why do monarchs migrate?

Answering questions about when butterflies travel, where they go, and whether or not the timing of their migrations has changed could help scientists to understand how climate change impacts their journey.

It could also help in advising when and where people should plant milkweed.

Monarch Butterfly Fall Migration MapMonarch Butterfly Migration Map Fall 2014. Courtesy of Journey North.

Journey North is also an excellent source of materials and facts for teachers and kids interested in the monarch migration. Even if they don’t pass by your area, you can track their progress on Journey North.

You can find out how to tell a male from a female or hear the story of a monarch that was blown off course all the way to England!

That’s not common, of course. In fact, migrating monarchs seem like they’re on a mission, according to Howard.

“It’s incredible the way they ‘beeline’ towards Mexico during fall migration,” she says. “When you see a migrating monarch, you know it. No matter how many times I see it I’m amazed. They fly overhead as if following an invisible roadway. One at a time, often a few minutes apart, they follow the same flight path.”

How Can You Get Involved in Journey North?

If you live where there are monarchs, just submit your sightings online.

If you aren’t sure where to find monarchs, here are two pro tips from Howard:

a. Find Nectar

If you want to see fall migration, find a large source of nectar. The best places are farm fields with blooming clover, alfalfa, sunflowers, etc. Stick around until sunset, watch the monarchs carefully, and you’re likely to see them gathering into an overnight roost.

b. Look for Little Butterflies

To find a field that’s rich with nectar you can drive around in your car. Watch for little butterflies — like sulphurs and cabbage whites — flitting above the flowers. They are much more numerous than monarchs and so are good clues that flowers are producing nectar and monarchs might be present.

Keep up with the monarch news or watch the maps to find out when monarchs come through your area.

There are many other things that you can do at home to help monarchs. For instance, plant milkweed, provide nectar plants, and avoid pesticide use.

Follow along with the migration online and get ready to record your observations for next year’s journey north!


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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