Cool Green Science http://blog.nature.org/science Cool Green Science: The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy Wed, 26 Nov 2014 23:41:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.3 Video: Wyoming’s Great Migration http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/26/video-wyomings-great-migration/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/26/video-wyomings-great-migration/#comments Wed, 26 Nov 2014 10:00:07 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45156

by Matt Miller, senior science writer

Last evening, as I drove home from work in Boise, it was clear: The deer are here.

Mule deer crossed the road in front of me, browsed in the foothills, moved through new housing developments. They’re moving through my backyard.

Just a few weeks ago, you’d have to look hard in these places to find a mule deer. They were still higher in the mountains, moving to their winter range.

Those of us living in the Intermountain West know that mule deer and other ungulates migrate. When it snows, we expect to see the animals moving out of the mountains, and to begin appearing on the sagebrush flats, in the valley bottoms and in our backyards.

But the reality is, we knew very little about the details of this migration. How far were they traveling? What was their exact route? How did they get past obstacles?

Advances in wildlife technology have filled in a more complete picture. Telemetry has allowed researchers to follow animals over the course of their migration.

And they found that these seasonal movements constitute some of the greatest mammal migrations remaining on earth. Each year, mule deer, pronghorn and other ungulates migrate 150 miles or more in the Intermountain West.

They have likely traveled these routes for millennia, and have continued to do so thanks to the West’s great wildernesses and public lands.

Pronghorn on the move. Photo: © Scott Copeland

Pronghorn on the move. Photo: © Scott Copeland

But the animals face a perilous future, with energy development, subdivisions, roads and other hazards blocking their migrations.

The Wyoming Migration Initiative (of which The Nature Conservancy is a partner) is one effort to research, protect and celebrate these ungulate migrations. The initiative’s excellent web site offers a migration viewer, an interactive way for you to chart the paths these animals take each year.

This video offers a great introduction to the research and focus of its work. It also happens to include some beautiful footage of mule deer, elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep and moose moving across stunning landscapes.

The video also highlights an important message on wildlife connectivity: Yes, wilderness is essential for these large animals. They wouldn’t exist without it. But wilderness is not enough (as The New York Times also recently reported).

These animals need corridors that get them through energy developments. They need intact private working ranchlands, not subdivisions with their cars, dogs and barriers. They need ways to get over roads.

They need land that’s connected.

The U.S. wilderness and public lands heritage is a tremendous gift – certainly one of the things I am thankful for this Thanksgiving eve.

Efforts like the Wyoming Migration Initiative build on this heritage, charting a future where the deer and the antelope can still have a home on the range.

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: SeaWatch http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/25/citizen-science-sea-watch-birds-oceans-sea-level-rise/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/25/citizen-science-sea-watch-birds-oceans-sea-level-rise/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 11:00:44 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45142 A sea gull peers over the rocks at Schoodic Point. Photo © justinrussell/Flickr.

A sea gull peers over the rocks at Schoodic Point. Photo © justinrussell/Flickr.

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 SeaWatch?

Starting to plan next year’s birding trips? Here’s one that will get you skies filled with seabirds – and help researchers gather important conservation data.

The location:  Schoodic Point, Maine, an area known for its spectacular number and variety of birds.  You’ll be gathering data for SeaWatch, and your information will help ensure that these birds continue to be plentiful.

“Seabird populations in general are threatened by increasing human-related encroachment to nesting areas, wintering areas and shipping lanes, as well as sea level rise inundating breeding islands,” says Seth Benz, Director of the Bird Ecology Program at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park.

Data that you collect in just a couple of hours is used to help seabirds face these challenges.

The Schoodic Institute is eager to engage people in their citizen science efforts and is even a sponsor of the newly formed Citizen Science Association. 

Why Is SeaWatch Important?

Many seabirds undertake incredible migrations and they are threatened by human activities along the coasts as well as changes in the climate and environment. 

“Conducting seabird monitoring collects data which helps to determine important migratory pathways, provides basic population-related information, and draws attention to seabird conservation matters where the public has access to seabird monitoring sites,” Benz explains.

Better understanding of population sizes and locations can have a real impact on birds. According to Benz, a centralized network of data on raptor migrations has greatly influenced conservation efforts for raptor species.

Just some of the birds that you could see with SeaWatch. Photo © Schoodic Institute.

Just some of the birds that you could see with SeaWatch. Photo © Schoodic Institute.

“I hope this effort [SeaWatch] will draw attention to seabird conservation as well as the science behind biodiversity monitoring. Beyond the birds specifically, the information ties into ocean conservation and provides a broader understanding of the environment upon which humans depend,” says Benz. “Ultimately, I hope gaining knowledge and understanding of a shared planet, through hands on experience with migration, will influence the lifestyle and behaviors of humans.”

SeaWatch proves that you can make an impact, learn and have fun at the same time.

Citizen scientists at Schoodic learn a great deal, starting with how to identify birds on the wing (an advanced birding skill) and how to count large flocks as they pass by.

You can often hear things like “I didn’t know loons migrate,” “How do you really know what that bird is” and “Whoa, look at that giant flock!” Benz reports.

And you won’t just see seabirds, marine mammals like harbor seals and fish like mola molas are sometimes spotted off the coast.

How Do You Get Involved In SeaWatch?

Whether you live in Maine or farther afield, you can make plans to visit Schoodic Point from mid-August through November.

You can contact the Schoodic Institute for details or show up at Schoodic Point between 7 and 9 AM on Tuesdays and Thursdays, weather permitting, to join the count.

If you’re worried about counting so many birds, don’t be!

“Our site provides a wide span or field of view which the birds are moving through, going in a single, certain direction.  Whether singly or in flocks there is a good amount of time to count each bird moving past with a certain ease,” Benz says.

Do yourself a favor, start planning now and get to Schoodic Point next year for the annual seabird migration!

Or, if you can’t do that, spread the word about the importance of seabird conservation in your community. Help make sure that seabirds fill the sky for many years to come.


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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The Great Turkey Shuffle: How Restoration Has Changed Gobbler Genetics http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/24/great-turkey-shuffle-restoration-gobbler-genetics-conservation/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/24/great-turkey-shuffle-restoration-gobbler-genetics-conservation/#comments Mon, 24 Nov 2014 10:00:05 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45121 A wild turkey is released in Wisconsin. Photo: Paul M. Walsh under a Creative Commons license.

A wild turkey is released in Wisconsin. Photo: Paul M. Walsh under a Creative Commons license.

By Joe Smith, ornithologist and restoration ecologist

Wild turkey reintroductions have been spectacularly successful in restoring the species. But these programs have also been successful in mixing up turkey genetics.

Today, determining turkey subspecies requires the skills of a wildlife CSI team.

To understand why, let’s take a look at the history of turkey restoration and how it has shuffled the deck for turkey taxonomy.

Recovery and Expansion

Wildlife managers have released more than 200,000 wild turkeys in North America since the 1950’s to help recover populations that were decimated by overhunting.

In addition to increasing populations, these efforts also expanded the range of wild turkeys. The turkey’s native range covers 39 states, including all of the eastern United States and extending southwest through Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

Ten additional states where wild turkeys weren’t historically native now have introduced turkey populations (The only state that remains turkey-free is Alaska.)

From Asian carp to kudzu, introduced species can have harmful unintended consequences. With that in mind, today we might take a harder look at turning gobblers loose in Hawaii and nine other western states (along with New Zealand and parts of Europe).

The truth is, we’ve been lucky, and it appears there aren’t any dramatic unintended consequences resulting from having turkeys in new places.

But one subtle consequence of moving all these turkeys around the country is that we’ve reshuffled the genetic makeup of populations.

Five (Taxonomic) Flavors of Wild Turkey

A Gould's turkey, one of five subspecies of the American wild turkey. Photo: Andy Jones under a Creative Commons license.

A Gould’s turkey, one of five subspecies of the wild turkey. Photo: Andy Jones under a Creative Commons license.

Across the historic range of wild turkeys, there are five geographically and genetically distinct subspecies: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Gould’s.

They aren’t always easy to tell apart, but there are differences in size, feather markings and behavior that help distinguish them.

The Eastern wild turkey takes greatest amount of the range, occupying most of the northeast, southeast and Midwestern states. This is the one the pilgrims had for Thanksgiving dinner.

The Florida peninsula has its own subspecies, known as the Osceola, a smaller and darker version of the eastern living in Florida’s piney flatwoods.

Osceola turkeys. Photo: Flickr user Mary Keim under a Creative Commons license.

Osceola turkeys. Photo: Flickr user Mary Keim under a Creative Commons license.

The three additional subspecies are all huddled into the southwestern part of the turkey’s range. These southwestern subspecies are distinguished from their eastern relatives by buff or whitish upper tail feathers.

The Rio Grande turkey is in parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and west Texas, extending south into Mexico while the Merriam’s turkey is a bird of sky island forests of New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.

The Gould’s barely makes it across the U.S. border in southeast Arizona, ranging south along the spine of the western Sierra Madre in Mexico.

This neat geographic arrangement of subspecies became less so during the wildlife management revolution that brought turkey populations to their current thriving levels.

A Curious Mix of Subspecies and Hybrids

A turkey is prepared for release in Georgia. Photo: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division

A turkey is prepared for release in Georgia. Photo: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division

In the early days of restoration, wild turkeys were captured from any place they were still plentiful and released elsewhere to restore populations. Out of necessity, there wasn’t much regard for the subspecies of turkeys coming and going from place to place.

As a result, recent genetic research has shown that certain regions now have a curious mix of subspecies and hybrids.

Because many reintroductions were often not well documented, geneticists have sometimes needed to conduct wildlife management CSI to discover where releases happened and which subspecies were involved.

They’ve been able to document release events that happened decades ago by examining the genetic legacy that today’s wild turkeys carry with them.

In study of Kansas turkeys, geneticists discovered a complex picture. Three different subspecies exist in pure and hybrid forms, with, for example, a lonely island of stocked eastern subspecies turkeys surrounded by a sea of previously stocked Rio Grande birds.

This was an an introduction no one knew about until the genetic results were revealed.

Furthermore they discovered that Merriam’s turkeys were immigrating into the southwest corner of the state all on their own.

These introduced Kansas populations, once established, were then drawn upon to sustain later turkey releases in western states. This is known as “serial translocation” and can propagate genetic messiness down the line.

The next release site, say in California, got turkeys representing a smaller gene pool with an unknown mix of subspecies.

The most useful aspect of “turkey reintroduction CSI” is informing current reintroduction and management efforts.

Sorting the Genetic Legacy of Past Reintroductions

Reintroducing Gould's turkeys to Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon in 2012. Photo: © Mark Haberstich/TNC

Reintroducing Gould’s turkeys to Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon in 2012. Photo: © Mark Haberstich/TNC

Both wildlife managers and their prime constituent, turkey hunters, want to make sure these distinct subspecies persist and aren’t blended beyond recognition.

Managers want to preserve the genetic diversity that has allowed wild turkeys to thrive in a broad range of environments. Hunters want a diversity of turkeys because it makes hunting more interesting.

One of the bucket list items of many a turkey hunter is getting a “grand slam” – a successful hunt for each of the five wild turkey subspecies.

An official “grand slam” program is run by the National Wild Turkey Federation, an organization also heavily involved in turkey conservation and reintroductions. The organization’s updated range map shows just how confusing sorting turkey subspecies can be.

For conservationists, a more important reason to sort out the genetic legacy of past reintroductions is to understand how to improve restoration outcomes. Although most turkey releases have been successful, east Texas is one region where wild turkey populations are not quite thriving.

Over 27 years, 7,000 turkeys from 16 different states were released in east Texas.

Despite these efforts, large areas of suitable habitat remain unoccupied by turkeys. Genetic research demonstrated that eastern wild turkeys retaining the midwestern and southeastern genetic signatures of their origin exist in three distinct populations that weren’t intermixing and weren’t dispersing to fill in unoccupied habitat.

These findings led to a series of recommendations for improving turkey management in the region, including managing these three populations as discrete units and ramping up the number of turkeys released during future introductions.

All this turkey lore tells us we have two things to be thankful for.

First, restoration has provided us thriving turkey populations from coast to coast. And second, despite some fast and loose turkey swapping during earlier days of reintroduction, we’ve still got five fascinating subspecies of turkeys roaming the land.

References:

Latch E.K., Applegate R.D., & Rhodes Jr O.E. (2006) Genetic composition of wild turkeys in Kansas following decades of translocations. Journal of Wildlife Management, 70, 1698–1703.

Mock K.E., Latch E.K., & Rhodes O.E. (2004) Assessing losses of genetic diversity due to translocation: long-term case histories in Merriam’s turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami). Conservation Genetics, 5, 631–645.

Mock K.E., Theimer T.C., Rhodes O.E., Greenberg D.L., & Keim P. (2002) Genetic variation across the historical range of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Molecular Ecology, 11, 643–657.

Seidel S.A., Comer C.E., Conway W.C., Deyoung R.W., Hardin J.B., & Calkins G.E. (2013) Influence of translocations on eastern wild turkey population genetics in Texas. Journal of Wildlife Management, 77, 1221–1231.

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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Mushroom Man, Crime-Fighting Reindeer & Saving Silverbacks http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/21/best-science-nature-web-news-gorillas-reindeer-mushroom-man/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/21/best-science-nature-web-news-gorillas-reindeer-mushroom-man/#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 11:00:52 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45096 Sabyinyo group of mountain gorillas. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo ©  Carine06/Flickr.

Sabyinyo group of mountain gorillas. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo © Carine06/Flickr.

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

Can ecotourism save mountain gorillas? (The Breakthrough Institute)

Migrating wildlife depend on more than just wilderness. (New York Times)

Afield with Captain Aquatic Mushroom Man, and other fall mycological adventures. (Fat of the Land)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ranger: Why Russians might use reindeer to battle crime. (Outside)

New Research

Carbon sequestration in soil — what really drives reductions? (Would you have guessed…temperature changes?) (Nature)

More biodiversity = more seafood: Ocean biodiversity is good for ocean health and productivity. (Oikos Journal)

Citizen science takes on crisis mapping. (Nature News)

Global diets: Bad for you and the environment. (Nature)

Climate Change

Acid maps: Where climate change is hitting oceans the worst. (Scientific American)

Climate change and violence: How significant is the link? (SciDev Net)

As Peru gets ready to host climate talks, the defenders of its indigenous forests are being murdered. (DotEarth)

Nature News

Will your next car run on hydrogen? (Scientific American)

The culprit behind the sea star die-off is likely a virus. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

The Gunnison sage grouse is officially listed as a threatened species. (Durango Herald)

Flying under the influence? Drunken Bohemian waxwings storm the Yukon. (PRI)

Thousands of acres protected in South Texas will benefit ocelots and other endangered species. (The Conservation Fund)

Frack away: US Forest Service backs off ban in Virginia’s George Washington Forest. (Washington Post)

Conservation Tactics

Loving monarchs to death? Planting tropical milkweed to help them might actually be hurting. (New York Times)

The best conservation areas? It’s IUCN’s new Green List. (Nature)

Hunters paying for US conservation: Is that era over? (High Country News)

Installing better glass could save hundreds of millions of birds each year. (National Geographic)

Roof gardens can help control urban flooding. (Mashable)

Can one woman stop the concert business’s reliance on plastic? (Rolling Stone)

This and That

Concrete progress: They’re making wooden batteries. (Orion)

Yikes! Daily photos of a single skyscraper show the reality of Beijing’s toxic smog. (Atlantic Cities)

Zootopia: The dark side of the future of nature. (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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Sea Turtles of St. Croix: Research Benefits Nesting Beaches http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/20/sea-turtles-st-croix-research-benefits-nesting-beaches/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/20/sea-turtles-st-croix-research-benefits-nesting-beaches/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 10:00:25 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45077 A green sea turtle nests on St. Croix. Photo: © Marjo Aho

A green sea turtle nests on St. Croix. Photo: © Marjo Aho

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Everyone enjoys a day at the beach, but for sea turtles safe beach access is a matter of life and death.

Sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach. Nesting is often the only time female sea turtles touch land.

It’s a time of peril: both females and baby hatchlings are vulnerable to poachers and predators.

On St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, green and hawksbill sea turtles dramatically increased nesting activity in recent years, the result of a comprehensive effort that not only protects turtles from threats, but also provides substantial data on the population.

I’m here to learn more about this research program that could provide a blueprint for protecting sea turtle nesting beaches.

My guide is Kemit-Amon Lewis, a coral conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy. Lewis proudly displays his passion for the creatures, and I mean that quite literally: four turtle tattoos climb up his right leg.

Our first night, we load Lewis’ car with gear and head out into the night to join volunteer turtle researchers. As we leave the lights of St. Croix’s largest town, Christiansted, behind, Lewis fills me in on the ongoing story of sea turtle recovery on St. Croix.

A Brief but Perilous Journey

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

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

First, a bit about sea turtles and their nesting habits. There are seven species of sea turtles worldwide, but the Conservancy’s project on St. Croix focuses on green and hawksbill turtles.

Like other sea turtles, these two species spend their life almost entirely at sea, even though many of their movements remain a mystery.

Their nesting habits, though, are well known. Sea turtles return to the beach where they were born to nest. They labor onto the sand, dig a nest, lay their ping pong ball-sized eggs, bury them and return to the sea.

Sixty days later, the young sea turtles hatch, dig through the sand and begin their sea odyssey. They likely won’t return to the beach until they can lay their own eggs, 15 to 30 years later.

Under the best of conditions, life is tough for a young sea turtle. The trip across the beach is filled with dangers, from ants to crabs to sea birds.

They reach the oceans, and then things get really dicey: fish feed voraciously on them.

“Any predatory animal bigger than a turtle eats turtles,” says Lewis. “They run the gauntlet as soon as they hatch.”

Life is perilous for baby sea turtles under the best of circumstances. Photo: © Marjo Aho

Life is perilous for baby sea turtles under the best of circumstances. Photo: © Marjo Aho

To add to the difficulty, sea turtles no longer only face these usual threats: They have been poached for their meat, eggs and shells. They get tangled in nets. They face pollution and climate change.

And they face new threats on the beach. Could protecting nesting beaches and addressing threats there improve overall sea turtle populations?

One nesting beach on St. Croix, Jack and Isaacs Bay, provides hopeful answers. The Conservancy has made a long-term investment in protection and research, and it’s paying off.

That’s where we’re headed now.

Bringing Back the Turtles

Jack and Isaacs Bay. Photo: © Marjo Aho

Jack and Isaacs Bay. Photo: © Marjo Aho

In the early 1990s, it was clear that sea turtles were disappearing on St. Croix. But why?

In 1994, the Conservancy conducted a survey of beaches that looked promising for habitat. The best of the lot, Jack and Isaacs Bay, had only 14 nesting green and hawksbill sea turtles.

The habitat looked right. It could clearly support more turtles. Clearly.

“The Conservancy immediately set about identifying the threats,” says Lewis. “In this case, it became pretty apparent. It was non-native mongoose, and human poachers.”

A mongoose will follow an adult turtle and then dig up the eggs, devouring an entire hatch at once. By setting traps around the beach prior to the nesting season, Conservancy staff found they could remove the mongoose threat. (Read more about the devastating impacts non-native mongoose have on island fauna, and conservationists are addressing this invasive threat, in an upcoming Cool Green Science blog).

For human poachers, it became apparent that there just needed to be enforcement – someone on the beaches to deter illegal harvesting.

Conservancy staff also recognized that they needed more data – a lot more data – to effectively conserve the turtles.

Having researchers on the beach could deter poachers while providing valuable research and monitoring.

Volunteer researchers are in the field until 3 a.m. most nights. Photo: © Marjo Aho

Volunteer researchers are in the field until 3 a.m. most nights. Photo: © Marjo Aho

The Conservancy purchased Jack and Isaacs Bay in 1999 and established a turtle research program, with three volunteer researchers living at the Little Princess Preserve and conducting turtle research five nights a week.

The poaching is non-existent. We’ve addressed the mongoose problem,” says Lewis. “And the turtles have responded.”

This year, 250 green and hawksbill turtles have nested on Jack and Isaacs Bay. But there is still much to learn about these animals.

A Night on the Beach

Kemit-Amon Lewis follows a turtle into the brush.  Photo: © Marjo Aho

Kemit-Amon Lewis follows a turtle into the brush. Photo: © Marjo Aho

We switch on our red head lamps (turtles are highly sensitive to white lights; it can even throw off their entire nesting process) and head to the beach, where we immediately meet up with one of the volunteers.

They’re out here on the beach from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., amongst the turtles.

Almost as soon as we set foot on the beach, Lewis points. As my eyes adjust, I make out a dark form digging in the sand.

A turtle digging a nest.

Farther up the beach, another lumbers out of the water.

In water, sea turtles are the very definition of grace; on land, they struggle and lumber. Their flippers appear ill suited for digging, but they shovel out a couple of meters of sand for their nest.

A green sea turtle prepares to nest. Photo: © Marjo Aho

A green sea turtle prepares to nest. Photo: © Marjo Aho

We watch from a short distance away, and the turtle doesn’t notice us. But something about this spot of beach isn’t right, and so the turtle heads back into the water.

For volunteers, each turtle spotted is a bit of a victory – more evidence of conservation success – but also a bit of work. Each turtle must be fitted with a tag, punched harmlessly into its shell. Some will be fitted with satellite telemetry.

Many turtles are already tagged, so they need to be documented. All are measured across the shell. Their general health is recorded. Their nest location is marked and watched. After the babies hatch, they nest will be excavated to determine the rate of hatching success.

Each volunteer also has her own individual research project, including how turtles are utilizing different bays and nesting patterns of the turtles.

“It provides us with an incredible amount of data on these animals,” says Lewis. “It will help us continue to improve our conservation program.”

In a Turtle Trance

The author awaits the arrival of sea turtles. Photo: © Marjo Aho

The author awaits the arrival of sea turtles. Photo: © Marjo Aho

As the evening wears on, the dark beach seems to sparkle with turtle activity. We sit by another digging a nest, enjoying the sounds of waves breaking and the sight of bioluminescence on the bay.

The shadowy forms of other turtles appear as they make their way out of the water. The volunteer radios crackle as they report back and forth what’s happening. A nest of hatchlings has left for the sea. A hawksbill turtle has nested in the forest. More turtles are coming ashore.

Sitting there, it’s easy to revel in the spectacular conservation success. And Lewis beaming, but he also reminds me of the reality of sea turtle conservation – and perhaps of successful conservation everywhere.

We are not done here,” says Lewis. “Far from it. If we stopped this program now, we could lose everything we accomplished here on Jack and Isaacs Bay. Mongoose would swarm back if we stopped trapping them. Poaching could resume.”

“Conservation is often not a short-term project,” he says. “We still have a lot to learn. We still think we can accomplish more. As we get more data, and conduct more research, we’ll undoubtedly better be able to protect sea turtles as Jack and Isaacs – and across St. Croix.”

The Conservancy is already partnering extensively with local organizations, businesses and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages another beach important to leatherback turtles.

Lewis is investigating the possibility of paid volunteer trips – where conservationists pay a fee to join turtle research for a week, an incredible nature experience. That would help gather more data, and also provide a funding stream for this program to continue.

A sea turtle's flipper pushes sand over its eggs. Photo: © Marjo Aho

A sea turtle’s flipper pushes sand over its eggs. Photo: © Marjo Aho

In the meantime, there’s this turtle in front of us. Her digging slows. Lewis taps me on the back, a smile across his face.

“She’s getting ready to lay eggs,” he whispers.

When the turtle lays eggs, it enters into a kind of a trance – it’s oblivious to what is going on around it. And so we gather close, as she strains and pushes. The round, leathery eggs fall into the sand.

My face is now down there with her, as the eggs drop. Minutes later, I realize I’m in my own turtle trance, grateful for the opportunity to be so close to this beautiful creature.

The nesting sea turtle. Photo: © Marjo Aho

The nesting sea turtle. Photo: © Marjo Aho

Lewis again taps my shoulder. “Shall we go look at some other turtles, maybe look for some hatchlings?” he asks.

I nod my head as I pull myself up off the sand. I know that sea turtles face many challenges, and the work here is not done. But as this turtle kicks sand on me – covering her nest – it’s hard not to feel hope for the sea turtles of St. Croix.

Every year we learn more about turtles, and every year we see more signs of their continuing recovery,” says Lewis. “The combination of land protection, addressing threats and research has combined to create what you see here. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have seen this many turtles in an entire season. There are still threats, but we have had some very promising results.”

And with that, he is bounding down the beach, towards the next nesting turtle.

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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Video: Infrared Technology for Wildlife Conservation http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/19/infrared-technology-conservation-wildlife-innovative-video/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/19/infrared-technology-conservation-wildlife-innovative-video/#comments Wed, 19 Nov 2014 10:00:12 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45061 Hummingbird as seen in infrared. Image courtesy of This video wasn’t taken for research, but illustrates the hummingbird’s variation in body temperature – from its super-heated body to its fluttering wings. Video courtesy of Nature Conservancy partner John Romero of Owyhee Air Research.

Hummingbird in infrared. Image by John Romero/Owyhee Air Research.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Infrared technology has many applications for wildlife research, including enabling biologists to more accurately count greater sage grouse in the rugged country of the arid West (covered in Monday’s blog).

There are many other applications. Here, we showcase video that demonstrates the many ways infrared is aiding conservation research and monitoring.

Infrared allows researchers to detect minor variations in temperature. In these videos, different temperatures show up as different colors – enabling researchers to see creatures in thick forests and at night.

Enjoy these videos, all courtesy of Nature Conservancy partner John Romero of Owyhee Air Research. Romero is pioneering the use of infrared for many field research applications.

In this video, researchers are tracking wolves in a remote Idaho forest.

In the timbered terrain, even a large animal like a wolf is hard to locate. But with an infrared camera, they show up quite clearly. Look closely, and you can even see the radio collars on some of the wolves.

Monitoring wildlife populations for state game agencies is an important application for the technology. These elk are hard to miss, but they can be difficult to count in the rugged, roadless wilderness that comprises much of their range in the American West.

This video wasn’t taken for research, but illustrates the hummingbird’s variation in body temperature – from its super-heated body to its fluttering wings.

Counting bats emerging from a cave would be difficult at best. Note how clearly the bat shows up in this video. You can also see how infrared can even pick up differences in vegetation.

Another application for infrared is tracking fire on the landscape. It can show how hot the fire is burning. You can see here the different intensities of a fire in the Hells Canyon region of Idaho.

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 Report: Blueprint for Urban Water Security http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/18/urban-water-blueprint-security-freshwater-cities-supply-watershed/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/18/urban-water-blueprint-security-freshwater-cities-supply-watershed/#comments Tue, 18 Nov 2014 15:00:42 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45052 View of New York City from Central Park. Photo © Paul-W/Flickr through a Creative Commons License.

View of New York City from Central Park. Photo © Paul-W/Flickr through a Creative Commons License.

Rob McDonald is senior scientist for sustainable land-use for The Nature Conservancy.

Cities: Investing in conserving your watershed just might help secure water for your city.

That’s one of the key findings from a just-released report from The Nature Conservancy on the potential for nature to help protect the water supplies of hundreds of the world’s largest cities — supplies that will face mounting demands and threats from growing urban populations, agriculture and climate change.

Our report — the Urban Water Blueprint— quantifies the potential for conservation activities to help protect these cities’ water supply by mapping where nature could most help protect urban water supplies, and how much conservation investment would be needed to achieve impact.

It finds that, for about one in four cities around the world, investment in source watershed conservation could pay for itself in terms of avoided water treatment cost.

Why Conservation Can Be Critical to Securing Water for Cities

The report combines hydrological models and data from the City Water Map, which scientists at the Conservancy and others created to capture where 534 large cities get their water from.

The information the report provides is critical for urban planners across the globe. That’s because the condition of a city’s watershed (the areas upstream of a city’s water source, like a lake or reservoir) affects the quantity and quality of the water that eventually reaches the city’s water source.

For instance, forest and other natural habitats help prevent soil erosion and maintain water quality. On the other hand, if a city’s source watershed contains a lot of cropland or developed areas, it can be difficult to prevent pollutants from reaching a city’s water source.

For each of the 534 cities in the City Water Map, we estimate the water quantity and quality risks that the cities’ water supplies faced. More importantly, we assessed the opportunity for five common conservation strategies to reduce sediment and nutrient pollution for urban water supplies:

* Forest protection, which reduces the risk of future deforestation increasing pollution
* Reforestation of pastureland to reduce pollution
* Agricultural best management practices, to prevent erosion and nutrient runoff
* Riparian restoration to prevent pollution from reaching streams
* Forest fuel reduction, which reduces the future risk of catastrophic wildfire and massive erosion

Why Small is Beautiful and Other Factors When It Comes to Watershed Conservation

Our approach moves past platitudes about source watershed conservation to specific predictions about how it might work for specific cities. And it reveals that, for effective conservation interventions, hydrology, geography and size matter.

Source watershed conservation, the report finds, makes the most sense where there’s a small source watershed that serves a big population, such as New York City.

Indeed, New York City is the poster child for source watershed conservation, which has clearly helped the city save hundreds of millions per year. But the strategy may not be as helpful in those other three out of four cities.

For instance, the five conservation strategies we considered are helpful primarily for maintaining the water quality of surface water sources, such as reservoirs, lakes, and streams.

Thus, cities that depend primarily on groundwater — like Berlin and Mexico City — have relatively low potential to be helped by these specific strategies. (Other strategies, like protecting aquifer recharge areas, are possible for these cities).

Even for surface sources, there is enormous complexity in how cities obtain water. Sao Paulo, for instance, draws from twelve different surface water sources, some of them interlinked with others. Some cities draw water from a river immediately adjacent to them, while some cities go hundreds of miles away for water.

This geography ends up mattering a lot when you evaluate the potential for nature to help urban water supplies.

And as for New York, we discovered that for source watershed conservation efforts, small is beautiful.

The size of the source watershed from which a city draws varies enormously, from a few thousand hectares up to millions of hectares. New York City draws most of its water from a watershed around 84,000 ha in size, while Bangkok draws its water from a watershed around 14 million ha in size.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conservation action required to meaningfully change the water quality in these two reservoirs varies accordingly.

In general, in small watersheds conservation action is needed on fewer hectares to change the concentration of pollutants an equivalent amount. This makes running conservation projects much more feasible in New York’s watershed than in Bangkok’s.

Small watersheds also seem to offer a greater return on investment, all else being equal. It costs less to work on fewer hectares. This in turn means it will be more likely to be cost effective for the water utility.

For instance, if a conservation action reduces the costs of treating water at a facility, then the utility will be more likely to embrace conservation. On the other hand, the size of the city’s population also matters. All else being equal, a big city is able to spend more money to protect its water supply than a small one.

The bottom line: While there is no universal strategy for solving conservation challenges, our report shows that source watershed conservation is an important tool in the toolbox for urban water utilities, to be used where the conditions are right.

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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Grouse Count: Aerial Infrared Technology Ensures Accurate Wildlife Census http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/17/sage-grouse-aerial-infrared-technology-wildlife-census-conservation/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/17/sage-grouse-aerial-infrared-technology-wildlife-census-conservation/#comments Mon, 17 Nov 2014 10:00:08 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45041

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

The challenge: find a chicken-sized bird in a million-acre expanse characterized by rugged canyons and bad or non-existent roads.

That’s the reality of monitoring greater sage grouse populations throughout much of their range.

The solution: infrared sensing that revolutionizes aerial grouse censuses — providing a safe, reliable method for counting the birds.

This technology’s application goes well beyond sage grouse counts – it can help researchers find wolves in forested terrain, detect bat caves in remote deserts and even measure the impacts of fire.

Needle in a Haystack

Greater sage grouse have become one of the most-studied wildlife species in the American West. This stems from their well-publicized decline due to habitat conversion, too-frequent fires, non-native weeds, West Nile virus and other factors.

The foundation of sage grouse research – and conservation – is ensuring accurate counts of the birds.

As birds go, they’re fairly big. Each spring, the males gather at display grounds, called leks, where they display for females.

It’s not especially challenging to see grouse when they’re on the lek. But counting them – and counting an entire population – is a whole different ballgame.

That’s what Art Talsma, director of stewardship for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, tells me.

When Talsma tells me something’s difficult, I pay attention: I’ve been afield with him, as he lopes up steep mountain slopes and dodges striking rattlesnakes. The consummate wildlife biologist, there’s not much Talsma finds difficult.

But to count grouse at a lek, a researcher has to be there before the birds show up – often 3 a.m. From ground level, it can be difficult to assess the exact number of birds without disturbing them.

Once that is accomplished, the researcher must move quickly to another site – traversing rutted roads, deep canyons and thick brush to do so. The grouse quit displaying by mid-morning, so the window is small.

“You would be lucky to count two to three leks in a day,” says Talsma. “And that’s being very, very ambitious.”

Greater sage grouse display in a lek. Photo © Tony Morris/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Greater sage grouse display in a lek. Photo © Tony Morris/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

A 20 Lek Day

That’s why he wants me to meet John Romero, chief pilot and chief of operations for Owyhee Air Research, a firm in Nampa, Idaho that conducts aerial biological surveys. Romero is pioneering a technique that is resulting in much more accurate, reliable grouse counts.

Romero has conducted aerial sage grouse counts for years, with observers counting and video documenting leks. But even that approach had limitations.

“You were flying over the sagebrush, looking for a white dot of a male’s chest,” says Romero. “Standard protocol is to count a half mile away to avoid disturbing the birds. It’s very difficult to get an accurate count from that distance.”

He’d have two to three observers working, flying just 300 to 500 feet above the ground. And still, Romero realized they were undoubtedly missing birds. Missing leks.

Romero used to fly for the military, so he was already familiar with infrared technology. Infrared detects minor changes in temperature, and shows up as different colors on the screen. Even one degree shows as a different color – making it easy to locate grouse (and other wildlife) remotely.

They show up as recognizable (to trained scientists) blobs on leks. Using proper technique, all birds can be counted.

“The first time we flew over a lek, I could see the birds just light up,” says Romero. “I knew right then, this really would work.”

The technology is not cheap; Romero mentions that nerve-wracking first flight when a researcher held a $125,000 camera out the window. But in the long run, it will prove a much more efficient and cost-effective method.

When a lek is located, the crew flies around it, ensuring it is documented from 360 degrees – a bush or rock covers a birds’ heat signature, so they want to make sure every angle is covered.

The resolution is quite high, researchers familiar with grouse can tell right away from bird habits and size.

Lek locations are recorded via GPS and are recounted later in the season, or ground truthed, to ensure accuracy.

It’s fast – a crew will count at least ten leks per day, and often 15 to 20 per day. During March and April last year, the height of the lekking season, the crew counted 250 leks.

“You would have to have a huge number of people on the ground counting to achieve that count,” says Romero. “It would be a staggering amount of work, and probably would disturb the birds, too.”

Using the infrared, the air crew can easily count from a distance, and also high in the air to ensure crew safety.

The sensing camera is mounted on the airplane in way so that it provides stable images, easy for researchers to analyze.

“No matter what the airplane is doing, the video is rock solid,” says Romero. “That’s critical when we’re running transects.”

The technique is being published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and has been enthusiastically embraced by state and federal agencies and conservation organizations as a method to count grouse and other wildlife.

“The infrared sensing provides the data to The Nature Conservancy to inform our decisions on where and how we work in sagebrush country,” says Talsma. “This is big, remote, wild country. We can’t just work everywhere. This allows us to pinpoint areas where we can make the most difference for grouse.”

Later this week: Join us for fun videos of other applications for infrared in wildlife research.

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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Shouting Fish, Farming Fail and Snow Leopards Everywhere http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/14/best-science-nature-web-news/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/14/best-science-nature-web-news/#comments Fri, 14 Nov 2014 10:00:31 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45010 Snow leopard (Uncia uncia) at the San Diego Zoo. Photo by Aaron Logan/Wikimedia through a Creative Commons license.

Snow leopard (Uncia uncia) at the San Diego Zoo. Photo by Aaron Logan/Wikimedia 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

Snow leopards everywhere: ecotourism industry in Ladakh offers trips to see this almost mythically elusive beast. (Mammal Watching)

Why are fish shouting? Noisy seas are changing fish vocalizations. (The New Yorker)

Pregnancy cravings: Why expectant snakes crave toxic toads. (Strange Behaviors)

The bears of Hall Mountain: camera traps document bear use of forest easements. (Idaho Nature Notes)

Backyard bait: why raising chickens will draw plenty of wildlife to your neighborhood. (Orion Magazine)

New Research

Tropical storms: Have not intensified over the past 3 decades, despite popular belief. (AMS Journal)

Ag intensification might promote more invasive invasive species. (PNAS)

PADDD: A new threat to REDD+? (Conservation Letters)

Climate Change

China and the U.S. agree to cut carbon emissions. (NPR)

Why conservatives have a hard time accepting free-market solutions to climate change. (Vox)

Peru’s forests store more CO2 than the US emits in a year. (The Guardian)

Company wants to build the world’s largest solar installation — in the Sahara. (Fast Company)

New Amazon climate maps could slow deforestation. (Scientific American)

Nature News

Reducing deforestation is good for business. (Mongabay)

But palm oil is bad for everything. (Quartz)

Alaskans vote to support Bristol Bay conservation. (Wildlife Society News)

Conservation Tactics

Jane Lubchenco talks more about the movement to diversify conservation. (YaleE360)

Hackathon on Climate-Smart Agriculture. (CCAFS)

Leave your leaves where they fall. (National Wildlife Federation)

Factory and irrigation technologies have significantly cut U.S. water use. (Popular Science)

Local people are not the enemy: Working with the campesinos. (Mongabay)

One man planted a forest larger than Central Park. (The Atlantic)

Science Communications

Dan Kahan: The definitive profile. (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Motivated disbelief: The reason climate communications don’t work? (DotEarth)

DotEarth turns 7, and Andy Revkin crowdsources its future. (DotEarth)

Anthropocene risks: Social scientists need to step up to the challenge, says Victor Galaz. (The Guardian)

This and That

Scientists are more creative than many people think. (The Atlantic)

The Netherlands gets the first solar-powered bike lane. (Atlantic Cities)

When urban farming goes bad: And in Portland, no less. (Narratively)


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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A Tale of Two Turkeys http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/13/turkey-natural-history-conservation-science-thanksgiving/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/11/13/turkey-natural-history-conservation-science-thanksgiving/#comments Thu, 13 Nov 2014 10:00:09 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45017 The return of the American wild turkey is either an incredible conservation success or too much of a good thing, depending on who you ask. Photo: © Mark Godfrey

The return of the American wild turkey is either an incredible conservation success or too much of a good thing, depending on who you ask. Photo: © Mark Godfrey

With Thanksgiving only two weeks away, it’s time to talk turkey.

Actually, two turkeys. And very different ones at that.

The American wild turkey is arguably one of the greatest conservation success stories ever; some argue it’s been far too successful.

The little-known ocellated turkey – with its fantastic technicolor head – faces poaching and habitat loss in the Central American forest.

You don’t have to eat turkey this Thanksgiving to enjoy the bird. Here’s a (virtual) taste of turkey lore and natural history – from two popular posts that ran previously on Cool Green Science — to put you in the holiday spirit.

The American Wild Turkey: Can Conservation Be Too Successful?

The American wild turkey. Photo:   © Chris Anderson/TNC

The American wild turkey. Photo:
© Chris Anderson/TNC

The restoration of the American wild turkey may be the greatest wildlife conservation success story. Ever.

Consider this: many conservationists once thought turkeys would go extinct. And who could blame them?

By the early 1900s, the continent’s wild turkey population had been reduced to an estimated 30,000 birds—a smaller number than today exists for orangutans, polar bears and African elephants, all species with futures causing considerable angst among conservationists.

Rampant poaching and habitat destruction offered little hope for the wild turkey’s future.

Fast forward to today: 7 million turkeys trot, cluck and scratch around North America, occupying almost all suitable habitat and even expanding beyond their original range.

How did conservationists achieve this dramatic turnaround? Can we repeat it?

Or is it too much of a good thing?

Read the rest of the story.

The Ocellated Turkey: Secretive Bird of the Central American Forest

An ocellated turkey male. Photo:  (C) Yeray Seminario, lightasfeathers.net

An ocellated turkey male. Photo: © Yeray Seminario, lightasfeathers.net

And here’s the turkey as conceived by Dr. Seuss. Or so it may appear.

The ocellated turkey is found only on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) bears a certain resemblance to the American wild turkey.

But it’s a different species. It is smaller and lacks the “beard” typical of the more familiar wild turkey. Its mating call is higher pitched than the usual “gobble.” The most striking difference, though, is the color.

The vibrant, almost unreal color: iridescent feathers, large spots on the tail, a bright red ring around the eye and a blue head covered with red and yellow nodules (nodules that swell and become brighter in males during the breeding season).

But despite its charismatic appearance, it’s striking how little we know about this beautiful bird, especially information critical for its conservation.

Read more about the ocellated turkey.

And coming Thanksgiving week: Join ornithologist and blogger Joe Smith as he takes an in-depth look at turkey reintroduction and its unintended impacts on the 5 turkey subspecies.

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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