Tag: Matt Miller

Fish and Chimps

Chimpanzees don’t eat fish. They don’t even swim. But at Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, scientists have found that to save chimps, they must look underwater.

That’s because here, everything—people, fish, water, forest, and chimps—is interconnected. Attempting to conserve the apes without accounting for the health of the fishery that provides food and income for local people would doom these efforts.

Today, fish supplies are dwindling, villages are growing fast and chimps are getting squeezed into smaller and smaller forests.

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Sage Grouse, Sagebrush and Science

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

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

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

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

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

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Results: Great News for Shad

Standing on the bow of the boat, Steve Herrington exuded the excited energy of a kid reeling in his first fish. Or perhaps a more scientific version of the Crocodile Hunter, bubbling with intensity. Net in hand, he scooped up shad — a migratory fish species — quickly examining them before passing them off to fellow researchers.

As covered in yesterday’s blog, last year I spent a day with Steve on Florida’s Apalachicola River looking at Alabama shad, a fish that researchers hoped would benefit by a practice known as conservation locking—basically allowing fish to pass through dams by using the same lock system that enables ships to pass.

Herrington was then director of freshwater programs for The Nature Conservancy’s Florida program (he now holds the same position with Missouri). At the time, conservation locking on the Apalachicola seemed to hold great promise for shad, a migratory species. He estimated that conservation locking could result in a returning population of 60,000 to 75,000 shad, indicating a steady increase.

Fast forward a year later. Herrington is on the phone, and that same infectious enthusiasm is literally bubbling over. “Great news!” he exclaims.

And indeed, his research has yielded surprising results. Those initial estimates of 60,000 shad? Way low. Estimates now showed a 122,000 fish increase, with as many as 280,000 total shad now in the system.

“We can now confidently say that conservation locking works, and we’re seeing a substantial bump in the population,” Herrington says. “I don’t know that there are any other data out there that so convincingly demonstrates such effectiveness.”

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A Lock Holds the Key to Restoring Migratory Fish

Author’s Note: This blog originally ran a year ago, following time afield with shad researchers on Florida’s Apalachicola River. Recently, the researchers released new information with some exciting new results on Alabama shad restoration. This blog provides the background information on the project. Check back tomorrow for a look at the results of this project, which is making a big difference in migratory fish conservation.

Take PVC pipe. Attach to a home water pump. Add water.

It’s a simple recipe, but one that might be enough to help move millions of the migratory fish species known as Alabama shad over dams, so they can spawn in rivers throughout the southeastern United States. For millions of dollars less than conventional methods. With potentially big gains for sport fisheries in those rivers.

“It’s low cost, low risk and low tech,” says Steve Herrington, director of freshwater conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “You can buy any of the basic equipment at Home Depot. And we have the science to back it up.”

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Review: Two from Tibet

Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World. By George B. Schaller. Island Press, 2012. 372 pages. 

“I am less a modern field biologist devoted to technology and statistics than a nineteenth century naturalist who with paper and pencil describes nature in detail,” writes George Schaller in his latest book, Tibet Wild.

And, indeed, no one can accuse Schaller of being a lab- or desk-bound scientist: Few have spent more time among the large, wild beasts. He’s studied Serengeti’s lions, India’s tigers and Brazil’s jaguars. He’s lived with gorillas and tracked snow leopards in the Himalayas. He led one of the first comprehensive studies of giant panda habitat and conservation.

But perhaps his most important work has been his three decades of research in the Tibetan Plateau, a remote region little known to most outsiders (including many wildlife enthusiasts). He first began exploring the region seeking the migration route of the chiru, a little-known antelope species that embarks on one of the great seasonal mammal movements in the world.

Schaller’s search for chiru reads like adventure from an earlier time—with horrible weather, impassable routes and dead ends galore. He and his teammates persevere and map the migration through one of Asia’s wildest regions.

However, he has never been content to merely record biological detail; he has been a fierce advocate for conservation throughout his career. As a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, he uses the information gathered to inform plans for protected areas and community-based conservation projects.

Over the decades, Schaller has witnessed alarming changes in Tibet. For millennia, nomadic herders and huge herds of grazing wildlife thrived together on the grasslands. But that deep relationship has been changing, fast. In part, that can be traced to the end of nomadic traditions. Herders have been encouraged (or forced) to settle, which means their livestock is fenced to one patch of land, leading to overgrazing, wildlife conflicts and economic hardship.

Schaller details a distressing list of problems facing plateau wildlife: fences, poaching, the slaugher of antelopes for fashion, corrupt trophy hunting programs, the poisoning of pikas, mining, roads and more.

He remains optimistic, though, that by involving local people in conservation programs that benefit them, the great herds, large predators and productive grasslands can once again thrive.

Tibet Wild is one of Schaller’s best works, combining wild adventure with insightful recommendations for people and nature. And it demonstrates why “old-fashioned” field biology is still an essential part of conservation, and of science.

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Everyday Nature: Cartoonish Coot Chicks

Most baby birds, cute though they may be, are not exactly colorful. This makes good evolutionary sense: Baby birds, unable to fly, make easy meals for predators.

They thus must blend into their surroundings. A drake mallard or canvasback is a colorful, striking water bird, but baby ducks are nondescript. They disappear into the marshy reeds, making it harder for a hungry raccoon or mink to find them.

Not so the American coot.

Adult coots are fairly drab birds. But their babies? They look like they were designed by a deranged tattoo artist.

The front half of the coot’s body is covered in orange-tipped plumes, giving them a jarring appearance. We’re not used to seeing baby birds covered bright feathers. While this orange fades rather quickly—in about six days—it still leaves them conspicuous when they are at the most vulnerable stage of their lives.

This coloration makes them more susceptible to predation. What advantage would such feathers possibly confer?

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Science at Emiquon: Restoring a “Wetland of Dreams”

The airboat whirs over the shallow wetland, as huge flocks of coots, ducks, herons and other birds flush before me.

It’s the kind of scene that could entice one to wax rhapsodic on the beauties of untrammeled nature.

Except this isn’t. Not quite.

Just six years ago, this expansive wetland was cornfields and a cattle feedlot.

It’s now Emiquon Preserve, a 6,600-acre project on the Illinois River that is one of the largest floodplain restoration projects in the Midwest.

How do you go from cornfield to wildlife paradise?

The easy answer is to invoke Field of Dreams: Build it, and they will come.

The hard answer: Research, and lots of it. Behind Emiquon’s incredible conservation success is an extensive science program.

Each March, the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Therkilsden Field Station at Emiquon—the preserve’s flagship research center—convenes a gathering of researchers to share results from their studies.

While it may look like the wetland is nature primeval, it is this research that is restoring what once was known as the “inland fishing capital of North America.”

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Big Fish: Roadside Pike

Northern pike have always conjured images of wilderness: big, wild lakes, the scent of pine trees, a loon calling in the background.

Large, predatory fish, pike do indeed hunt lake shallows. They’re found in big places—from remote Alaskan and Canadian waters to the Great Lakes.

Come spring, they actually are on the move—traveling up rather small streams in order to spawn.

Researchers in Green Bay, Wisconsin have been tracking pike movements by doing chemical analyses of pike otoliths, also known as ear stones. Otoliths have annual growth rings, like trees, and accumulate trace chemicals from the surrounding water column as they form.

Many streams have a specific—and unique—combination of chemicals, and this chemical profile shows up in the otolith when fish move from one chemically distinct water body to another.

As such, researchers can determine where pike spent different years of their lives – and if they return to the streams where they were born, or if they use different streams.

This knowledge, in turn, helps conservationists focus on restoring streams that will actually be used by pike.

When I headed out with researchers, I imagined we’d search for pike in wild, lonely places. Instead, we immediately drove to an area across from a small, rural housing development, cars whizzing by as we checked pike traps.

Where could the pike possibly be?

It turns out: In a roadside ditch.

These little ditches— the kinds designed to keep water off the road—have been used for a very long time by pike as spawning sites.

With hundreds of lakes, streams and wetlands within miles of Green Bay, it may seem odd to focus on ditches. But those little channels may be vital in restoring pike populations.

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Review: The Wild Duck Chase

One of the most successful conservation efforts in world history was created by a political cartoonist and is funded by a stamp purchased at your local post office.

That may seem improbable. If you don’t hunt ducks, you likely haven’t even heard of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, a federal program that has conserved millions of acres and saved species once considered doomed for extinction.

This often-overlooked conservation success is the subject of Martin J. Smith’s well-reported and entertaining The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

Smith expertly traces the beginnings of the Federal Duck Stamp, an episode in conservation history that may read like a far-fetched fantasy given recent headlines of gridlock and sequestration.

In the early 1900’s, due to professional market hunting and the destruction of wetland habitats, populations of ducks, geese and other water birds had crashed. Conservationists raised alarms and succeeded in passing some significant conservation legislation, but many recognized that there needed to be funding for wetland protection and restoration.

The problem? By the 1930s, Americans found themselves in the midst of the Great Depression. Certainly no one would care about ducks and wetlands when many Americans were out of work and struggling to support their families, right?

Not quite. In the forefront of the waterfowl conservation movement was Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. Conservation, especially wetland conservation, was a frequent subject for Darling’s cartoons in the Des Moines Register.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened a committee to address waterfowl conservation, he appointed Darling, considered by many to be an odd choice. After all, he was not a scientist or land manager.

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Big Fish: Return of the Alligator Gar

Once they were the river’s top predator: a fish that could reach ten feet or more, with thick armored plates as scales and imposing jagged teeth.

You would see their long, tooth snouts poking out from the river’s surface, gulping air—their adaptation for thriving in warm, deoxygenated water.

Alligator gar.

They thrived in a large swath of mid-western and southern waters, but by the early 1900s, they were already starting to disappear, a trend that continues to this day.

They were declared extinct in Illinois in 1994. But a new restoration and research effort aims to bring back these incredible fish, and help conservationists at other rivers and waters better protect them.

When fisheries biologists Rod Hilsabeck and Trent Thomas of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources decided to return the alligator gar to their state, they knew they needed a perfect location. The Nature Conservancy’s Spunky Bottoms Preserve fit everything they sought.

Formerly farmland, Spunky Bottoms is now 2000 acres of restored wetlands and uplands. It consisted of perfect gar habitat: backwaters and sluggish pools with lots of vegetation. It also was not connected to the adjacent Illinois River, making it easier for researchers to capture and study the fish.

Research is a key component to the reintroduction. Nathan Grider, a master’s student in biology at the University of Illinois-Springfield, is working with Dr. Michael Lemke and partners to study two key aspects of gar restoration.

They are studying how fast gar will grow when restocked into an area. They are also analyzing their diet, and in particular, if the gar will eat (and control) the non-native carp that swim Spunky Bottoms and so many other waters.

This information will help inform gar reintroduction and protection efforts throughout their range.

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Connect: Helping Animals Move in a Changing Climate

Imagine you’re on a long hike, and you are trying to get to a valley on the other side of a mountain. Do you take a gentle trail that leads you easily around it? Or do you hike straight up the mountain, braving waist-deep snow, frigid wind, slick rocks and risk of death?

It really isn’t much of a decision, is it?

Animals take similar routes when they migrate and roam. A mule deer or a lynx won’t waste calories or risk its life by taking a precarious route. To survive and thrive, they need relatively easy paths to move to feeding, breeding and resting areas.

Now animals face a new reason to move: climate change. As vegetation and climactic conditions change, many species will need to move to new ranges.

But how do they get to these new habitats? Will they find an easy route, or will they have to risk roads, inhospitable terrain, housing developments and other dangerous paths?

Questions like these are at the heart of what ecologists call connectivity: the degree to which a landscape allows wildlife to move from one place to the next. A well-connected landscape is one where animals can move easily. In a disconnected landscape, populations and habitats become isolated from each other.

A new paper published in Conservation Biology by Tristan Nuñez and colleagues from the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group provides a simple and straightforward method for land managers to account for species shifting their ranges in response to climate change, and to protect and restore land accordingly.

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Big Fish: Rodent-Eating Trout

As an avid fly fisher, I had heard the stories.

By day, the trout of Silver Creek—a clear, spring-fed stream in southern Idaho—fed on tiny mayflies and caddis flies. The water dimpled as trout sipped the profuse insect life from the surface. People like me used equally tiny artificial flies to try to  mimic said insects, often an exercise in extreme frustration.

By night, though, river monsters ruled: giant brown trout cruised the depths, occasionally surfacing to gulp down any hapless rodents that fell into the stream.

There’s something appealing, at least to an angler, about a trout that attacks mammals. Maybe it’s the thought of our favorite water transforming into a scene from Jaws.

Maybe it’s an antidote to the frustrations of tying delicate flies that practically require a microscope:  If I came back at night, I could just chuck a giant hairball!

But these mice-gulping trout always carried a strong whiff of, well, the classic fishing story. High on drama. Short on fact.

Silver Creek, after all, is one of the most-studied trout streams in the world. And there were no confirmed reports of trout dining on rodents.

Silver Creek also has one of the highest densities of aquatic invertebrates anywhere. The trout surely had easier prey than the occasional mouse.

Then biologists examined some brown trout stomachs.

What they found wasn’t pretty.

But it sure did validate some heretofore questionable fishing stories.

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Is Your Kitty Cat a Destructive Killer?

Does the loss of bird populations begin with a meow?

When most conservationists think about the biggest human-caused threats to native birds, they list things like oil spills, habitat destruction, invasive species, climate change, collisions with windows, pesticides and wind turbines.

But those threats, serious as they are, pale in comparison to what may be the number one killer of wild birds: Cats.

That’s right. Your beloved Tabby could be a wildlife destroying machine, a genuine conservation threat.

That’s what researchers suggest in a recent paper published in the journal Nature Communications. They found that free-ranging cats killed between 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually.

That research has been widely publicized by birders, and widely ignored by everyone else. Especially cat lovers.

Researchers Scott R. Loss and Peter Marra of the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and Tom Will of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Birds suggest that feral cats (those not owned by someone) kill the majority of birds. But still, a simple way to save the local fauna is to keep your Siamese or Manx indoors, or on a leash.

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Tech: Remote-Controlled Conservation

Illinois researchers searching for the best ways to reduce nitrates in drinking water are looking to an unlikely tool: a remote-controlled airplane.

In the Mackinaw River watershed in Central Illinois, The Nature Conservancy and partners are working to reduce high nitrate levels in water by filtering agricultural run-off through wetlands, a tactic that research shows can reduce nitrates by 50%.

These particular types of wetlands are specifically constructed to collect and retain water from tile drainage. Tiling is an underground system of tubing that drains wet fields. These tiles then drain water—and untreated nitrates and phosphates from the field—directly into the river.

The challenge: Tiling is underground. You can’t detect it with your eyes. Literally millions of miles of tile run under Illinois farm fields, so locating tile patterns in farm fields is imprecise at best.

Enter the remote-controlled airplane.

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A Bull Fight for Conservation

The bison bull sticks out his tongue, tests the air, and bellows: a sound part that’s lion’s roar, part rolling thunder.

Clearly agitated, the bull bellows again, then begins urinating, spraying himself frenetically. He rolls in a patch of bare earth, finally rising—covered in an aromatic blend of excrement and prairie dust.

He looks around for challengers. None seem ready to take him on—this time. For the past several weeks, though, the prairie has been alive with bison bulls bluffing, sparring and head-butting their way to be the dominant male.

All that battling is tough, exhausting work for a bison bull. But new research being conducted at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve suggests this fighting – and lots of it – is key to maintaining the genetic health of bison.

Studying bison interactions may help managers make better decisions on fenced preserves and ranches — where most bison roam today.

Jon Grinell, professor of biology at Gustavus Adolphus College, has been leading student research on bison at the Ordway Prairie for six years. The effort started as animal behavior research on rutting bulls, but the scientists found that bull competition could even help ensure the long-term survival of the species.

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Forest Dilemmas

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

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

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