Douglas McCauley on Marine Mammoths, Rhino Steaks & Garage-Band Science Communications

Douglas McCauley. Photo: © Jon Little

Imagine a world where the full range of Pleistocene beasts still exists in all their magnificent diversity. A world where mammoths still embark on ancient migrations, where giant ground sloths browse placidly, where saber-toothed cats stalk their prey.

This world still exists. You just need to look underwater.

That is how Douglas McCauley and his coauthors framed a Science paper earlier this year while undertaking an ecological assessment on the ocean. In it, they argued that the ocean still has most of its giant, Pleistocene beasts  — a remarkable fact given what has transpired on land.

The extinction rate in the oceans is a fraction of what it has been on lands over the past 10,000 years.

The pressures that humans have brought to bear on terrestrial ecosystems have only relatively recently been a factor for oceans. The paper suggests this could be at a tipping point, and if we don’t want blue whales and great white sharks to go the way of mammoths, we had better act now.

The paper has been a media sensation, appearing on the front page of the New York Times, on cable news representing the whole political spectrum and a variety of other media outlets.

I immediately was struck by what I considered ingenious framing of the issues. I love thinking of whales as marine mammoths.

And I love that the researchers put some into thinking how their research could resonate with lots of people, far beyond the journal in which it appeared.

Douglas McCauley, the lead author, calls himself a “garage-band science communicator,” but he clearly understands how to frame issues in ways that resonate beyond scientific circles.

He is assistant professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology at the University of California – Santa Barbara. I recently spoke with him about his paper, its implications and his approach to science communications.

These are excerpts from our conversation.

McCauley in the field. Photo: © Kydd Pollock
McCauley in the field. Photo: © Kydd Pollock

From “Nerds Like Us” to Mom: On Expanding the Reach of the Research

The question we were given was: How has animal life in the oceans been affected inshore and in the deep ocean in ecological time?

This is a pretty big question but the process is a familiar one for a researcher. We go out there, grab all the available data we can, and see what the patterns are. That is what we are trained to do.

We got really excited by the answers we were turning up doing this research. We hoped the readers of Science, which is a pretty limited readership – basically a bunch of other nerds like us — were going to find them as intellectually interesting as we do.

But these patterns actually have really important implications for management. And that’s when I got to thinking and talking with my colleagues about transferring this dry science paper into something that people will pay attention to, read about and then hopefully change behavior.

When you’re a professor, you call your mom and you tell her, “Hey, I have this paper coming out in Science magazine.” She calls you back and says, “I ran down to the local book store, and I can’t find Science magazine anywhere.”

That’s a good reality check. It makes it clear that if you want this research to take legs and walk into peoples’ own homes, you have to figure out a way to tell these stories.

Sei whales. Photo: © Tom Crowley
Sei whales. Photo: © Tom Crowley

The Giants Still Among Us

Humans have played a major role in basically reshaping the faunal presence in North America. If you look around UC-Santa Barbara, where I work, there are no grizzlies or mammoths.

The grizzly is on our state flag only. But it doesn’t exist in the state anymore. We killed the last one in 1908.

If you were snorkeling in the area around Santa Barbara 15,000 years ago, you would see 500-pound sea bass, 1,000 pound great white sharks and multi-ton whales swimming by. And the really amazing thing is, if you fast forward to 2015 and put on your snorkel, you still have a chance of bumping into those things.

Whales are some of the largest animals to ever have roamed the planet. And they are still out there. It is a pretty wonderful beast to be able to see roaming around outside of my office window.

I have to be careful when I talk about these baselines, because abundances are definitely different, and we harp on that in the paper. You’d have to work awfully hard to see giant sea bass off the coast of California today. But unlike the grizzly bear or mammoth, it is still out there.

Photo: © Peter Carlson
Photo: © Peter Carlson

Seeing the World as a Fish

The ocean environment feels so different and so vast and so connected, but that’s only because we’re not fish, right? If you were a fish, then, suddenly, the environment feels as compartmentalized as the U.S. does – with pine forests, prairies and deserts each totally different from each other.

Life in the intertidal feels like it’s a world away from life in a kelp forest which feels like it’s a world away from life in the blue pelagic zone.

The marine fauna are fully aware of this complexity. We just are not used to it because it’s not our world. It is why it is important to use land analogies when talking about the ocean.

Photo: © Katie Davis
Photo: © Katie Davis

Yellowstone of the Sea?

In my field, we talk a lot about putting parks in the ocean. But I was really surprised to learn that most people think this is a very new and novel concept. I get questions like “Do we have any parks in the ocean?”

Often scientists get caught up in talking about setting up networks of marine protected areas and how important that is to foster connectivity. We talk about the movement of juveniles compared to the movement of adults.

But what I will tell a group of non-scientists is simply that we need marine parks. We need them just as we need them on the land. If you want to see grizzly bears and elk, you go to Yellowstone. People know these are hotspots for animal abundance and often diversity. It is the same for oceans. People get that.

Sometimes, though, drawing parallels between the more familiar environment and the ocean doesn’t work. There are some policy idiosyncrasies that, at least for now, limit the power that we have to manage the ocean. The high seas, for example, present a kind of lawless no man’s land that has no precedent anywhere else on the planet.

Tuna for sale at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Photo: Flickr user Stewart Butterfield under Creative Commons
Tuna for sale at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Photo: Flickr user Stewart Butterfield under Creative Commons

Rhino Steaks, Anyone?

One of the important things that came out from our paper is that people can help in ways both large and small. There are small decisions, that, in the aggregate, will help chart the ocean’s future.

For instance, I can walk down to the Santa Barbara fish market and find a critically endangered animal for sale about once out of every three visits.

We don’t have to negotiate between buying a rhino steak or a chuck steak, right? But that’s kind of what we are up against now in our supermarkets and seafood restaurants.

The nice thing is there are some really nice sustainable seafood apps that can make any of us Jacque Costeaus of the seafood section. That is something all consumers can pay attention to.

Tiger shark. Photo: Greg Amptman -
Tiger shark. Photo: Greg Amptman –

Marine Megafauna as Television Stars

If you ask anyone on almost any continent what a great white shark is, they describe it for you with often-surprising accuracy. We’re captivated by these animals.

I think it is really important to latch onto the charisma of these amazing marine animals, tell their stories and talk about their science.

There is a lot of TV programming now that is about showcasing the size or the beauty or the power of these ocean animals. But I think that we could use this as a hook to sneak in a little more biology and ecology.

As you watch a great white shark hit a shark cage, you should come away knowing a little more about how long this creature has been on the planet, how many are left, how we can conserve them.

Sea otter. Photo: © Joe Tomoleoni
Sea otter. Photo: © Joe Tomoleoni

Hope on the Edge of a Cliff

We’re in a transition for the oceans, switching from hunting and directly impacting animals to harming their habitats and degrading marine space. When that happened on land, that was a major stimulus for the acceleration of terrestrial extinction rates.

We may be in a good spot, but our position is frighteningly precarious; we’re sort of teetering on a cliff of extinction. We could fall in a direction that would bring nothing but bad news.

But there is a very big difference between standing on the edge of this cliff and falling off.

One thing that was really striking to me is just how common our fascination and our love for the oceans is. I had appearances on this paper on both do a hyper-liberal and a hyper-conservative television show about this. Both of them were sincerely interested in understanding what was going on with the future of the oceans.

They had very divergent perspectives and had different questions, but we have this common ground that we appreciate the oceans, that we care about them and that we want to keep them healthy.

What a wonderful time to have caught this and to have caught people’s attention, because there really is a chance for groups like The Nature Conservancy and the people that empower those groups to make a positive difference, to hang onto this wildness that is still very much alive in our ocean.

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