ESA will highlight urban ecology during USA Science & Engineering Festival

President Steward Pickett and other ESA members to talk to kids and families about ecology in nation’s capitol

WASHINGTON, DC – The Ecological Society of America (ESA), a professional organization of 10,000 ecological scientists, will join 500 other scientific societies for the second annual USA Science & Engineering Festival on April 28 and 29 in Washington, DC. Hosted by Lockheed Martin, the free public event is expected to draw thousands of school children and their families. Its primary goal is to raise awareness and appreciation of science and engineering and encourage students to explore careers in those fields.

ESA’s booth (#245) will feature some of the plants and animals that inhabit the DC region as well as a game to learn about buried streams, the heat island effect and animal and plant interactions. In addition, kids and their parents can chat with ecologists such as Steward Pickett, an urban ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and ESA’s current president. Pickett also directs the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term ecological research site supported by the National Science Foundation and one of only two such sites that are in urban areas (the other is in Phoenix, Arizona).

“Many people don’t think about ecology in the context of cities,” says Pickett. “There’s still this notion that you have to go to a national park or other far-away places but, in fact, ecology happens everywhere–in rivers, agricultural fields and heavily developed urban areas. I’m looking forward to talking with kids who live in DC and its suburbs about ecology and how it’s relevant to them.”

In addition to 3,000 exhibits and a book fair, the USA Science & Engineering Festival will also feature science entrepreneurs such as the co-founder of PayPal and celebrities such as the hosts of the Discovery Channel’s TV series the MythBusters, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and actors from the Big Bang Theory.

More about the festival:

Scientific and engineering organizations participating in the 2012 USA Science Festival:

Registration opens for the Ecological Society of America’s 2012 Annual Meeting in Portland, Ore.

Exploring Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing and Sustaining our Ecosystems


Registration is now open for the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) 97th Annual Meeting on August 5-10, 2012, in Portland, Oregon. The meeting is expected to draw more than 4,300 scientists, policy makers, educators and concerned citizens to share emerging research.

Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State marine ecologist and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will open the six day meeting with a keynote address on Sunday, August 5th, at 5:00 p.m. A co-founder of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), and Climate Central, Lubchenco has long been a champion of public participation in science, and of scientists’ participation in public discourse.

“Guru of old growth” Jerry F. Franklin, professor of Forest Resources at the University of Washington, and ethno-botanist Nancy Turner of the University of Victoria will also present plenary lectures.

Preliminary meeting information is available at Look for symposia and oral presentation titles to be posted in May.

Please note that all abstracts are embargoed until 12:00 a.m. EDT on the day of their presentation. Interested press should contact Liza Lester at or 202-833-8773 #211 to register.

Field Trip Highlights (open to all meeting registrants, with added fee):

  • After a Fire, After the Breach: Changes in the White Salmon Watershed (Mt. Adams and the Columbia River Gorge) (Sat, Aug. 4th) $80
  • Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Eco-Cultural Histories, and American Indian Integrated Resource Management: A Tour of the Mt. Hood Region (Sat, Aug. 4th) $95
  • Mount St. Helens: Lessons from 31 Years of Post-Eruption Ecological Research (Sun, Aug. 5th) $85
  • Hungry for More Field Trip: An Ecological Lens for Understanding Diversity, Urban Agriculture and Local Sustainability (Sun, Aug. 5th) $60
  • Bicycle Tour of Portland’s Natural Area Restoration Sites (Sun, Aug. 5th) $50


Newsroom Operation
Members of the press (see policy below) are exempt from registration fees and may attend all meeting sessions. A staffed press room, including computers, a printer, telephones and an interview area, will be available. The newsroom will be open:

  • Sunday, August 5: 1:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m.
  • Monday, August 6 – Thursday, August 9: 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
  • Friday, August 10: 7:30 a.m.-Noon

ESA Policy on Press Credentials
We will waive registration for reporters with a recognized press card and for press officers. Registration is also waived for current members of the National Association of Science Writers, the Canadian Science Writers Association, the International Science Writers Association and the Society of Environmental Journalists.

We do not waive registration for editors of peer-reviewed journals, ad sales representatives, publishers, program officers or marketing professionals.

Institutional Press Officers
Press officers may request copies of all abstracts related to their institution. ESA will distribute any relevant press releases in the Annual Meeting press room. Please contact Liza Lester at or 202-833-8773 x211 for more information.

Mud manifests history of clear water in murky Minnesota duck depot Lake Christina

Implications for ducks, fish, and landscape management

During peak migration days in the early 1900s, tens of thousands of canvasback ducks could be seen floating and diving on Minnesota’s Lake Christina. Since midcentury, changes to the lake have diminished this grand, iconic spectacle. Restoring it will require both top-down control of life in the lake, and bottom-up management of the surrounding landscape. So says a team of Minnesota scientists calling on extensive modern records and 200 years of history trapped in sediment, in a report released online last week in the journal Ecological Applications.

“Lake Christina is very important for the region culturally, and ecologically,” said Will Hobbs, a scientist at the Science Museum of Minnesota and lead author of the report. “The lake is a significant stop-over for waterfowl migrating along the Mississippi Flyway, but it has been compromised since the 1950s.” 
Lake Christina has an unusually long history of management, offering a unique opportunity to study the effects of biological manipulations and management.

In the 1950s, the lake’s clear water darkened to a green algal soup.  By calibrating sediment cores to 25 years of modern records, the research team learned that Lake Christina had had clear waters for 100 years prior to European settlement in the late nineteenth century – the clear water was a stable state, and not an historical aberration. But now the lake is in a stable, murky state.

Managers have been struggling to regain clear waters in the lake for migrating waterfowl, particularly the big, rusty-headed canvasbacks. The ducks need a healthy meal of submerged aquatic plants to fuel their journey, but the dense algae blocks out so much sunlight that underwater plants like sago pondweed and wild celery can’t grow.

A similar loss of submerged aquatic plants has developed at the canvasbacks’ major historic wintering grounds on Chesapeake Bay.

“Life is not easy for a duck. You need those areas where you can stop and rest – large open expanses of shallow water with readily available food,” said author Mark Hanson, a research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Two factors led to the clouding of the waters: an influx of nutrients from agriculture fed the algae, and a dam built in 1936 led to a fall in the population of tiny, algae-eating zooplankton. The dam doubled the depth of the lake, from two feet to four, allowing fish that eat zooplankton to survive the winter, and thrive. 

To make the lake attractive for ducks, managers killed most of the fish in 1965, 1987, and 2003, each time achieving only temporary success. Within a decade, the fish recovered, and the algae followed.
Restoration of wetlands surrounding the lake has not, as yet, met hopes for lowered nutrient levels.

“It’s very difficult to get the nutrients out of the lake,” said author Kyle Zimmer, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas who has studied the fish at Lake Christina for several years. “We know from the literature that these things can take time, and maybe top-down, active management allows that time, or at least simulates the outcome we want, even if a self-maintained stable state is not achieved.”

Managers walk a fine line, balancing short and long term needs, and balancing the interests of ducks and duck hunters at Lake Christina with those of recreational anglers. This fall, top-down management will include a series of pumps and pipes installed to draw-down the water level, mimicking the natural winter fish kill.

“The study presents compelling evidence that, in the long run, managers need to focus on strategies that target landscapes, not just  the food webs in the lakes themselves – bearing in mind that the short term is also important,” said Hanson. “The people that live here today are very much in this culture of ducks and migratory water birds, and the incredible history around them. When we get all sectors working on lake ecology together, that’s a very productive basis for the future.”


“A 200-year perspective on alternative stable state theory and lake management from a biomanipulated shallow lake” was published online, ahead of print, on 19 March 2012. It is slated for the July edition of Ecological Applications. doi: 10.1890/11-1485.1. To obtain a pdf, or associated images, contact Liza Lester.

Students at North Dakota State University, in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, contributed significant contemporary data to this project from long term monitoring efforts at Lake Christina.

PHOTO: Turbid Lake Christina in the early 1980s, flanked on the left by two smaller, clear lakes. Courtesy of Thomas Carlson, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Conference to develop ecologically-based conservation strategies for a future of global change, Feb 27th – Mar 1st, 2012

eiconfEcosystems are shifting under pressure from human activities, invasive species, and a changing climate, presenting us with hard philosophical and practical choices on conservation strategy. Should we preserve parkland as time capsules of past and current wilderness, or embrace changing species ranges and demographics to encourage new diversity as new ecosystems form? Eighty scientists, policy makers and resource managers will meet this month to challenge assumptions and explore potential solutions at the Ecological Society of America’s second conference on Emerging Issues, Developing Ecologically-Based Conservation Targets under Global Change.

How do we protect species when their ranges are changing? Ecological research predicts that climatic change will reshape the competitive landscape for wildlife and drive species to seek out new territory, shaking up existing community structures and relationships.

“Climate change throws a wrench into traditional conservation planning efforts. We really need to step back and ask what we should be trying to conserve. What should our goals be? How do we achieve them?” asked conference organizer Dov Sax, professor of biology at Brown University. It’s a question he wants to put before the conservation community, and society at large.

Conservation has operated under a fortress mentality, says Sax. We wall off wilderness areas from human habitation. Buffer them from construction, agriculture and urbanization. Eject invading species if we can, creating havens for native species in their natural groupings, often based on historical descriptions of the landscape. But “natural,” “pristine,” and “historical,” are all, to some extent, value judgments.

“In the Americas, 1492 is the benchmark that a lot of people are using, as if transformative changes weren’t happening before Columbus sailed,” said co-organizer Bernd Blossey, professor of natural resources at Cornell University. The people who lived here prior to the flood of Old World immigrants and the explosion of modern technology also wrought powerful systematic change on their surroundings.

Geological, climatic, and ecological change has marched visibly onward within the last thousand years. Species have moved, forests have become savannas, and savannas have become prairies in a history of dynamic change that the fortress mentality does not encompass. Current conservation ideals are unprepared for the changes ahead, according to Sax and Blossey.

“What do you replace the fortress mentality with? Is it a way-station mentality? Part of this is a science question and part is a values question,” said Sax.

Blossey and Sax want to build a new conservation paradigm, shucking stasis for an assumption of dynamism. They are bringing together players from different corners of the conservation community to imagine what a new paradigm might look like, with the hope that a dynamic conference will catalyze new ways of thinking about conservation and future management. They are aware that the community has real fears about unforeseen consequences of radical change and unmoored stewardship standards. But they aren’t counseling a hands-off approach.

“I’m not advocating letting species blink in and out without our intercession,” said Blossey. But he thinks species should be free, or assisted, to move to and multiply where they can thrive-even some species that might now be labeled invasive. “The question we want to answer is how can we achieve keeping all the parts, as Aldo Leopold said, while not keeping all the parts in the places where they are now?”

Developing Ecologically-Based Conservation Targets under Global Change

  • Seminars:      Monday/ Tuesday, 27 – 28 Feb 2012
  • Breakouts:    Wednesday/ Thursday, 29 Feb – 1 Mar 2012
  • Location:       National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV
  • Keynote:       Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 27 Feb, 7:30 pm
  • Organizers:    Bernd Blossey, Cornell University and Dov Sax, Brown University

ESA Announces 2012 Graduate Student Policy Award Winners

msaGraduate students from Washington University, University of Tennessee and Florida International University will travel to nation’s capital to speak to lawmakers about investment in science

WASHINGTON, DC – The Ecological Society of America (ESA), a professional organization of 10,000 ecological scientists, is pleased to announce the recipients of its 2012 Graduate Student Policy Award.   The award affords ESA graduate student members the opportunity to participate in two days of science policy activities, including meetings with congressional offices. This year’s winners are: Matthew Schuler (Washington University in St. Louis), Sara Kuebbing  (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), and Adam Rosenblatt (Florida International University).

All three students have demonstrated their commitment to engage in public policy and the ESA Award will allow them to build on their experiences.  Schuler, Kuebbing, and Rosenblatt will travel to Washington, DC in March to participate in a congressional visits event sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) and co-chaired by ESA.  The event will focus on the need for sustained federal investment in biological research and education.  The three students will meet with congressional offices, be briefed by policy leaders on federal funding issues, and meet other scientists from across the country including ESA President Steward Pickett (Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies). 

Matthew Schuler’s Ph.D. research at Washington University focuses on how land management practices can enhance species diversity in heavily managed ecosystems.  “The continued support of government funding for science research relies on our ability as scientists to publicly demonstrate why our research positively affects the lives of the general public,” said Schuler.  He has volunteered for 10 years at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Sandhill Wildlife Outdoor Education Center where he helped run educational programs and workshops.  He also served on the Board of the Timber Wolf Information Network, meeting with groups that included “Rod and Gun” clubs to talk about the importance of government support of wolf research in Wisconsin.  Schuler’s graduate research is supported by an Environmental Protection Agency STAR Fellowship. 

 Sara Kuebbing’s doctoral research at the University of Tennessee looks at solutions and management of invasive species.  She previously worked with The Nature Conservancy in Vermont where she developed and coordinated an invasive plant educational program.  She serves on the Board of the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council, providing information on invasive plants. Her experiences have taught her that “respectful dialogue, strong scientific support, and reasonable alternatives can change even the most recalcitrant of individuals.”  Kuebbing’s graduate training is supported by a PEER Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health.

 Adam Rosenblatt’s Ph.D. research at Florida International University focuses on American alligator behavior as part of the National Science Foundation’s Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research program.  “Federal support of science and ecology in particular is crucial for progressing our understanding and conservation of animals, plants, and varied ecosystem services,” says Rosenblatt.  He’s been asked to advise a Florida state legislator on issues related to the Everglades and worked on watershed management projects as an intern for the Environmental Protection Agency.  Rosenblatt works alongside faculty at his university’s Quantifying Biology in the Classroom program to engage students in multiple related fields simultaneously, demonstrating the interdependence of the sciences and their application to complex problems.  

The ESA Graduate Student Policy Award is one of several ways the Society works to offer its graduate student members opportunities to gain public policy experience.  The Society also provides policy training during its annual meeting and by request throughout the year.  ESA graduate student members also may run-through ESA’s Student Section-to serve on several ESA standing committees, including the Public Affairs Committee, which works closely with ESA’s Washington, DC-based Public Affairs Office ( and focuses on activities to engage ecological scientists with policymakers and the media.

Solutions for a nitrogen-soaked world

Interdisciplinary panel reviews US nitrogen pollution trends, risks, and mitigation strategies

Nitrogen is both an essential nutrient and a pollutant, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion and a fertilizer that feeds billions, a benefit and a hazard, depending on form, location, and quantity. Agriculture, industry and transportation have spread nitrogen liberally around the planet, say sixteen scientists in the latest edition of ESA’s Issues in Ecology series, “Excess Nitrogen in the U.S. Environment: Trends, Risks, and Solutions,” with complex and interrelated consequences for ecological communities and our dependence upon the resources they provide, as well as human health.

Pulling from a broad pool of expertise in air quality, agronomy, ecology, epidemiology and groundwater geochemistry, the sixteen authors track nitrogen through its different chemical forms and biological incarnations as it progresses across economic, environmental and regulatory bounds. They argue for a systematic, rather than piecemeal, approach to managing the resource and its consequences. “We’re really trying to identify solutions,” said lead author Eric Davidson, a soil ecologist and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center. “This is a paper about how much we do know, not about what we don’t know. We know about nitrogen cycles, and sources, and we know problems can be addressed in economically viable ways.”

Once a critical limiting element of agricultural production, excess nitrogen now overflows from fields and stockyards, typically in the forms of ammonia and nitrate, contaminating drinking water and air, and altering the chemistry and constituency of ecological communities. “Nitrogen is readily mobile, and very efficiently distributed through wind and water,” said author James Galloway, a biogeochemist at the University of Virginia. Airborne nitrogen from agricultural fields, manure piles, automobile tailpipes, and smokestacks travels with the wind to settle over distant forests and coastal areas.

Though extra fertilizer sounds like a good thing, it does not benefit all species equally, leading, in more extreme cases, to sudden changes like algal blooms, which smother competing species and can create health hazards. Nitrogen also acidifies soil, leaching away other important nutrients. Interventions to control nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants and gasoline-fueled engines have made encouraging progress. Mitigating agricultural sources of excess nitrogen is more complicated.

“We know how to reduce nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion to a very small amount. We know the science, we have the engineering, and we have the regulatory tools,” said Galloway, setting emissions aside as a political, rather than a scientific, hurdle. “On the food side, that’s where it gets interesting,” he said. “How can you still produce the food the society demands, needs, yet use less nitrogen to produce it?”

The report tabulates strategies to help farmers maximize efficient use of fertilizer, rather than just maximize crop yield, including buffer strips and wetlands, manure management, and ideal patterns of fertilizer application. It also considers the cost of implementing them, and programs for buffering farmers against losses in bad years.

“There are a variety of impacts due to the human use of nitrogen,” said Galloway. “The biggest is a positive one, in that it allows us to grow food for Americans and people in other countries, and we don’t want to lose sight of that.” Balancing inexpensive abundant food against the damage done by nitrogen escaping into the environment is a conversation the authors would like to hear more prominently in policy arenas.

“Yes, we have to feed people, but we also need clean drinking water, clean air, and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Davidson. “The science helps to show those tradeoffs, and where we most stand to gain from improved nutrient management in agriculture.”

Issues in Ecology #15, “Excess Nitrogen in the U.S. Environment: Trends, Risks, and Solutions,” is available as a pdf download. All reports in the Issues in Ecology series may be found at

Using air pollution thresholds to protect and restore ecosystem health

New report reviews strategies to monitor and set standards for mercury, sulfur and nitrogen emissions


Credit: Flickr user SteveB in Denver, September 2011Air pollution is changing our environment and undermining many benefits we rely on from wild lands, threatening water purity, food production, and climate stability, according to a team of scientists writing in the 14th edition of the Ecological Society of America’s Issues in Ecology. In “Setting Limits: Using Air Pollution Thresholds to Protect and Restore U.S. Ecosystems,” lead author Mark Fenn (USDA Forest Service) and nine colleagues review current pollution evaluation criteria. The authors propose science-based strategies to set new limits and put the brakes on acid rain, algal blooms, and accumulation of toxic mercury in plants and animals.

Power plants, industrial processes, vehicles, farms and stockyards release mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen compounds into the air. Though several decades of emissions limits and improving technology have resulted in a downward trend in acid rain and mercury contamination in the U.S., up to 65 percent of lakes in sensitive areas exceed critical acid levels, and mercury advisories against fish consumption exist in all fifty states. The authors discuss standard measurements that can be used to monitor ecosystem effects across the country. They review the use of defined “critical loads”of pollutants to design policy and manage ecosystems in the U.S. and Canada.

Organisms and ecosystems tend to tolerate pollutants up to a critical amount of pollutant accumulation, responding slowly up to the critical threshold. Beyond the threshold, scientists observe undesirable, and sometimes rapid, changes. The best limits are set at these thresholds, the authors say. Scientists use standard indicators, such as the calcium to aluminum ratio as a measure of acidity of soil, to identify “critical loads” at which ecosystems start to tip into cascades of bad consequences.

“Not all landscapes and watersheds have the same sensitivity to pollutants,” said author Charles Driscoll, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University, speaking at an ESA-co-organized Congressional briefing on October 25th. “The most pristine and remote are sometimes, counter-intuitively, the ones that have the highest levels of mercury in fish, for example, because of their characteristics.”

Forests soak up mercury more readily than do open lands. Nutrient-poor waters typically convert mercury more quickly to the toxic methyl-mercury form. Many lakes in the sparsely populated Canadian boreal forest are acidic enough to limit the growth of water fleas, crayfish and other crustaceans low on the food chain that are essential foods for many types of fish.

Human health risks define current air quality standards. Ecosystem health has not been taken into account, and current standards do not provide good protections, according to the authors. The report calls for updating air quality standards and regulatory cost benefit analyses to account for impacts on ecosystems.

“In recent years, we’ve come to appreciate that pollution from mercury and acid rain affects not only the health of fish-eating birds and mammals, but also wildlife feeding on insects and other invertebrates,” said author David Evers, executive director and chief scientist of the Biodiversity Research Institute, also speaking at the briefing. Methylmercury, for example, which damages developing nervous systems and impairs adult cognition, also affects birds. Changes in adult nesting behavior, presumably due to the neurological effects of mercury poisoning, can cause young birds to die from parental neglect as well as developmental defects. The Environmental Protection Agency advises against consuming fish and shellfish contaminated with mercury above 0.3 parts per million (ppm), particularly for children and women of child-bearing age. Scientists see reproductive effects in fish-eating birds when mercury reaches 0.16 ppm in their prey.

Excessive nutrients can also alter the balance of ecosystems. In addition to contributing to air pollution and acid rain in the form of nitrogen oxides and ammonia, nitrogen compounds fertilize soils and waterways.

“Fertility sounds like a good thing,” Driscoll said, “But over-fertilization can cause the sudden overgrowth of some plants, algae or bacteria at the expense of other species.” The characteristic algal blooms that follow sewage releases or agricultural runoff are caused by the influx of nutrients. Overgrowth of plant life in estuaries can push oxygen levels so low that fish die.

Tree-inhabiting lichens and tiny, distinctive, single-celled algae species called diatoms are very sensitive to nitrogen compounds, and so changes in their relative abundance make good early warning signs for larger ecosystem changes, say the authors. Atmospheric ammonia is a particular problem because it is not regulated.

The U.S. needs to enact policy thresholds based on scientific thresholds, the authors say, to define critical loads of sulfur, mercury and nitrogen pollutants at levels at which humans and ecosystems can thrive.

Location vs. ‘catchability’ in recreational fishing, salmon and the evolution of a newborn stream ecosystem, and the expanding threat to freshwater resources from natural gas exploration

rigThis month in ecological science: the evolution of a stream, from barren moonscape to salmon run, modeling the contribution of sport fishermen’s skills and preferences to patterns of overfishing, and the unknown risks of fracking for nearby streams and rivers. These articles are published in the October issues of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) journals.

Evolution of a Stream: Plants and sea-life claim new territory as glaciers retreat in Glacier Bay, Alaska

As tidewater glaciers beat a hasty retreat up Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska, they uncover rocky, barren landscapes and feed cold lakes and streams – new habitat for life’s hardy explorers. In the October issue ofEcology, researchers from the Universities of Birmingham, Roehampton and Leeds describe the evolution and assembly of a stream ecosystem in newly de-glaciated terrain, from early insect and crustacean invaders to the arrival of migrating salmon. 
Sampling began at Stonefly Creek in the early 1990s, after retreating ice, a remnant of the lost Plateau Glacier, began revealing the creek’s lower reaches in the late 1970s. Together with work at nearby Wolf Point Creek the study is the most complete and long-running catalog of stream development. 
Now originating in a clearwater lake, Stonefly Creek tumbles over falls, fills a second, murkier lake, and merges with a stream from a third pond and wetlands before emptying into Wachusett Inlet. This complex geography, the researchers found, buffers the young stream from abrupt changes in water level and provides a diversity of habitats that welcome species with different specialties. Twenty-seven species of tiny crustaceans, armored aquatic animals from the same big family as barnacles, crabs and krill, arrived without obvious means of transport. Within ten years, pink salmon and Dolly Varden char had established spawning grounds in the stream. Coho (silver) salmon, Sockeye (red) salmon, and other fish species followed.
Shrinking glaciers are changing large expanses of northern coastline. The speed and pattern of colonization across Stonefly Creek’s watershed will aid our understanding of watershed restoration and conservation of biodiversity in a changing climate.
“Salmon stocks are under threat and decline in many regions of the world due to human activities,” said lead author Alexander Milner. “The creation of these new runs has important potential to help balance the losses.” Read more

Skill triumphs over fish scarcity and draws experienced anglers back to overfished lakes

Fishermen care about more than the quantity of fish in a pond. Access, beauty, distance from home and fishing regulations play into the choice of which lake to fish on a given Saturday.  How deep into the woods will fishermen hike to find a lake brimming with fish? Do recreational fishermen avoid overfished lakes?
In the October Ecological Applications, Len Hunt (Centre for Northern Forest Ecosystem Research, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) and colleagues report that when catching fish is at the top of the priority list, overfishing goes down in regions with few fishermen, but up in regions with many. Because motivations are mixed and feedback on choices isn’t obvious, a self-regulating system in which fishermen naturally pick the most productive lakes and spread their impact evenly over a region can’t be expected, according to the authors. 
Some fish species are actually as easy, or easier, to catch when their numbers are few because they school together and stick to predictable habitat corners. Experienced anglers use knowledge, and tools like bathymetric maps and depth-sounders, to locate fish, and may catch almost as many in an overfished lake as in a thriving one. 
Drawing on data from 157 lakes and diaries tracking fisherman’s preferences, the authors model the effects of weighting different priorities on the health of walleye stocks in the Thunder Bay region of Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Superior. The authors recommend adapting management strategies to usage patterns, the arrangement of lakes throughout the landscape lake biology, and the dynamic relationships between them.. Simple, region-wide solutions like limiting fishing licenses can exacerbate population crashes at popular lakes. But they note that the ongoing monitoring required to tailor management is expensive and that modeling could help target landscape-scale efforts.
“Because timely monitoring of literally hundreds of lakes in a landscape will be virtually impossible, “adaptive,” integrative social-ecological models such as ours, extended to include regulatory tools, might provide informed solutions that are open to experimental reassessments and modification.”  Read more

How close is too close? Hydrofracking to access natural gas reservoirs poses risks to surface water

Natural gas mining has drawn fire recently after claims that hydraulic fracturing, an increasingly popular technique for tapping hard-to-reach reservoirs, contaminates groundwater. Surface lakes, rivers and streams may also be at risk.
In an eView paper of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, researchers from the University of Central Arkansas, University of Arkansas and the Environmental Protection Agency estimate the average proximity of drill platforms to surface lakes and streams for two large shale basins underlying much of the eastern US. They review available information on potential threats to surface waters, and conclude that policy makers have woefully little data to guide accelerating natural gas development.
Hydrofracking wells expose nearby streams to loose sediments and hazardous fracturing fluids, and draw away large amounts of water. The technique forces high pressure fluid into dense rock, creating cracks through which trapped natural gas escapes and can be collected from the drill shaft. Developed in the 1940s, the technique gained wide application in the 1990s as gas prices rose and technology to drill horizontally away from a vertical well shaft made “unconventional” drilling profitable. Demand is up for natural gas because it burns cleaner than coal or petroleum, producing less greenhouse gas and smog. 
But concerns about toxic components of fracking fluids, such as diesel, lead, formaldehyde, and other organic solvents, are undermining the green reputation of natural gas. “What will happen as fracking doubles, triples, over the next 25 years? How should we set policy to protect resources and ecosystems?” the authors ask. “We don’t have the data to decide. We need to generate it.” Read more

Evolutionary traps, invasive yellow starthistle’s favorable response to carbon dioxide and plant breeding for harmony between agriculture and the environment

mcardThis month in ecological science, researchers report on evolutionary traps, the strong response of an undesirable non-native plant to elevated CO2 and the potential of new crop cultivars to meet human needs and ease environmental costs of agriculture. These articles are published in the September issues of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) journals.

Evolutionary traps in human-dominated landscapes

A study published in the September issue of Ecology looks at how human activities can diminish the usefulness of an ornamental trait, such as colorful feathers, as a signal of fitness. Cardinals, for example, need carotenoids in their diet to produce their red plumage; brilliant red plumage can signal an individual’s health and fitness. Researcher Amanda Rodewald (Ohio State University) and colleagues looked at the socially monogamous Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in 14 forests in Ohio between 2006-2008, measuring plumage color, reproduction, and quantifying habitat. They found that the non-native Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) altered the selective environments for coloration by creating an evolutionary trap for the cardinals in rural landscapes and possibly relaxing selection in cities. Evolutionary traps occur when behavior that was once beneficial is a drawback in an altered environment.

The non-native honeysuckle is appealing to cardinals because it provides dense vegetation for nesting. Honeysuckle fruits are also a source of carotenoid pigments the birds need for their red plumage. Previous studies suggest that plumage brightness or hue signal a bird that is in good condition, has a good territory, and will put energy into raising its offspring. But the non-native honeysuckle’s appeal to cardinals comes with a price: a nest in this shrub is more vulnerable to predators. Rodewald and colleagues found that in rural areas the mostly brightly colored male cardinals were in best condition, bred earliest in the season, and secured the more preferred territories that included the non-native shrub. But their annual reproductive success was lower than that of duller males. The authors did not see these results in urban forests, where color was not related to any reproductive indicators, likely because the abundant honeysuckle and birdseed reduce the usefulness of color as a signal of quality. This scenario might lead to relaxed selection for bright color in urban forests and selection against bright color in rural forests.

“Our study provides evidence that human -induced changes to ecosystems can both create evolutionary traps that alter relationships between sexual and natural selection (i.e., via exotic shrubs in rural landscapes) and facilitate escape from evolutionary traps (i.e., via anthropogenic resources in urban landscapes),” write the authors. Read more

Noxious and invasive yellow starthistle responds favorably to increased carbon dioxide

Yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitaialis) is a highly invasive plant species in the grasslands of western North America. Native to the lands northeast of the Mediterranean Sea and highly poisonous to horses, yellow starthistle is considered one of California’s most problematic non-native plants. Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue University) and colleagues conducted field experiments in California and found that Centaurea grew more than six times larger in response to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration and also responded favorably to nitrogen (N) deposition. In contrast, the surrounding grasses and wildflowers responded less strongly or not at all to increased CO2 and nitrogen levels. The researchers report their findings in the September issue of Ecological Applications.

“Given these results, we add Centaurea to a short but growing list of noxious and invasive plants demonstrated to dramatically benefit from CO2 in community settings, and to the longer list of invasives that benefit from increased N availability,” write the authors. “Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are increasing by 2 ppm/yr around the globe. Nitrogen deposition rates vary spatially, but are already higher than our treatment levels at one sampling station in California, and are expected to increase globally. Unless biocontrol agents become more effective at controlling Centaurea, the weed’s response to environmental changes is likely to heighten the challenge facing many North American land managers over the course of this century.” Read more

Plant breeding for harmony between agriculture and the environment

Meeting basic human needs while also preserving the natural resources to do so is a major challenge of the coming century. Earth’s human inhabitants need more food, animal feed, fiber, fuel and forest products, all while facing shrinking vital resources such as land, water and nutrients. A new eView review paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment asserts that plant breeding is a critical tool to bring about a more positive relationship between agriculture and the environment on which it depends.

In their review, E. Charles Brummer (Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation) and colleagues note that plant breeders are working to improve crop hardiness to withstand various environmental conditions, such as those associated with climate change. Many breeders are also interested in reducing agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment, such as contributing to oxygen-deprived dead zones in water bodies or soil erosion. Since the 1950s, crop improvements – together with inputs including fertilizers, pesticides and water – have enabled agricultural production to keep up with human demands. Now, say the authors, “partnerships between ecologists, urban planners, and policy makers with public and private plant breeders will be essential for addressing future challenges.” Co-author Seth Murray (Texas A&M University) adds that: “We tend to think that solutions are technological and can be put in place quickly. But new crop cultivars and species take decades or more to develop and there is no shortcut so we really need to start thinking now about what we will need in 10-20 years.” Read more

Steward T.A. Pickett named President of the Ecological Society of America (2011-2012)

Steward T.A. Pickett, a plant ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been named President of the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

Elected by the members of ESA for a one-year term, Pickett presides over the world’s largest professional society of ecologists. Its membership comprises of 10,000 researchers, educators, natural resource managers, and students representing over 20 topical sections and seven regional chapters, reflecting the diverse interests and activities of the Society.

“I’m immensely pleased to have been chosen by the membership to help lead this important organization,” said Pickett.  “ESA has three linked roles. First it provides a crucial forum and publications to help ecologists communicate about research. Second, ESA nurtures the community of researchers itself, ensuring a critical mass, intellectual and demographic diversity, and encouraging the next generation.  Finally, the Society is an indispensible tool that promotes the effective use of ecological knowledge in society’s decision making processes, whether by individual land holders, private organizations, or governments.  These three roles are equally important and good science requires all three.”

ESA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of scientists founded in 1915 to convey ecological science through public engagement, promote scientific research and improve communication among ecologists. Members’ expertise ranges across the fields of biology, zoology, aquatic science, forestry, wildlife conservation, agricultural science, earth and environmental sciences, toxicology and biotechnology. The Society’s Annual Meeting attracts over 3,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science.

Pickett’s work at the Cary Institute focuses on the role of spatial heterogeneity in community and landscape structure and dynamics. These projects include research on urban ecosystems, function of landscape boundaries, and plant community succession. In addition to his work at the Cary Institute, Pickett currently serves as project director of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, which works to improve understanding of how a large urban region functions as an ecosystem.

The ESA President serves consecutive one-year terms as President-elect, President, and Past President. As President, Pickett will chair the ESA Governing Board, the elected governing body of the Society, which provides vision and guidance on ESA initiatives and future direction.