Tracking Pacific walrus, impacts of early-life stress, and plant traits matter more than origin

Monitoring Pacific Walrus: With the end of summer fast approaching, US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers are once again gearing up to radio-tag walruses on Alaska’s northwestern coast as part of the agency’s ongoing study of how the marine mammals are coping with declining sea ice. “Sea ice is an important component in the life cycle of walruses.  These tracking studies will help us to better understand how top consumers in the arctic ecosystem may be affected by changes in sea ice habitats,” said USGS Alaska Science Center research ecologist Chad Jay in yesterday’s USGS press release. Walruses, which can dive hundreds of feet in search of food, rely on sea ice to rest between dives.  When sea ice is not available, the animals haul out on beaches, something they have been doing more frequently as the extent of sea ice has decreased in recent summers.  Read more at www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/ Far-reaching impact of stress: A new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. shows that when zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) are briefly exposed to stress early in life, the jolt of stress hormones reduced not only their own lifespan, but that of their breeding partner as well.  Pat Monaghan (University of Glasgow) and co-authors report that “only 5 percent of control birds with control partners had died after 3 years, compared with over 40 percent in early stress pairs. Interestingly, a pair’s reproductive success did not seem to be compromised by the early-life exposure to stress. Traits trump plant origins: Nonnative plants often get a bad rap as being a potential threat to wildlife habitat and many state agencies spend time and energy getting rid of them.  An In Press study with Ecological Applications suggests that might be a misplaced effort in some cases.  Jillian Cohen (Cornell University) and colleagues compared the impacts of native and nonnative wetland plants on three species of native larval amphibians.  They found no difference in metamorphosis rates and length of larval period between habitats dominated by native and nonnative plants.  Say the authors: “We suggest that to improve habitats for native fauna managers should focus on assembling a plant community with desirable traits rather than only focusing on plant origin.” Rising sources of nitrate to Gulf of Mexico:  The results of a new study by the US Geological Survey (USGS) published in Environmental Science and Technology found that in spite of decreases along some portions of the Mississippi River Basin, overall efforts to curb this nutrient have been unsuccessful.   Excessive nitrate contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zones—areas unable to support marine life because of minimal oxygen.  The USGS study...

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So What Do You Do? On answering the big conference question

This post contributed by Nichole Bennett, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin This year’s ESA meeting was my first big meeting as a graduate student. While absorbing late-breaking ecology research is my favorite part of big conferences, I know that the opportunity for networking is equally important. So, at my first social event, I adjusted my nametag and stretched out my hand to as many ecologist strangers as possible. “So What Do You Do?” The question was passed around the event as often as the cheese plate. The first times I was asked, I managed to mumble out some key words. The words “climate change,” “species interactions,” and “butterflies” seemed like perfectly good places to start. My cheerful, yet blunt, advisor turned to me and said, “That was awfully vague.” After that first disaster, I knew I had to develop a sales pitch. I went home that night and worked on a few sentences to ramble off on command in response to the crucial question. I was determined my next answer would sound farther from a beauty pageant contest answer than my first. My mirror, my roommate, and my neighbor’s cat were all pretty familiar with my sales pitch when the night was over. The task was harder than I thought. Because of my familiarity with my work, I’m easily excited by minutiae. To make it sound interesting to other researchers, I knew I needed to sell the package deal. People glazed over when I wandered into methodology. I quickly realized that the sales pitch was not the time to list techniques.  I quickly learned to focus my opening lines on the overall goals of my research. Once others were convinced the aims of my project were worthy, they were more willing to let me gush about methods. After I started delivering a more polished sales pitch, I got valuable feedback from other ecologists. When people were confused, I learned to explain the research better. If they remained confused, I learned about the weaknesses of my plan (and made a mental note). Excitingly, others would point out interesting avenues of future study, fueling my enthusiasm. On Friday, I will return from the conference even more excited about research. When I started delivering a quality sales pitch, the admiration and excitement in others inspired me.    ...

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Psychologist, green building manager, religious leader urge ecologists to move beyond their own scientific community

The Ecological Society of America’s 96th Annual Meeting is taking place in Austin, Texas and kicked off on Sunday, August 7 with an Opening Plenary Panel featuring Richard Morgan, Austin Energy’s Green Building and Sustainability Manager, social psychologist, Susan Clayton of the College of Wooster, and the Executive Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Matthew Anderson-Stembridge.  Joining the trio, was ecologist Laura Huenneke, ESA Vice President for Public Affairs, who moderated the discussion.  The group explored the management, psychological, and religious and moral aspects of ensuring that Earth’s life support systems remain resilient in the face of human demands. In her opening remarks, Huennke said that the ecological community understands it has much to learn from other communities and that advancing the goal of stewardship of the planet will require multiple efforts by many different communities.  She said that ecologists should “listen very deeply” and work collaboratively with others. Richard Morgan explained that because Austin Energy is a city-owned electric utility, it must be responsive to its citizens, who want to see the utility take environmentally responsible actions.  Increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste are a key part of Earth stewardship, said Morgan.  The old fashioned way in which building permits are still issued, he said, are holding back the degree of progress that would be possible if these were updated.  The same prescriptive codes used in the 1980s are still in effect; if the real impact of a building in a community were taken fully into account, said Morgan, it would dramatically reduce energy consumption using already-existing technology. Matthew Anderson-Stembridge expressed his gratitude to ESA in inviting him to the Plenary and said that the open letter members of the scientific community send to religious leaders in 1990, set a course for many communities of faith to embrace care for the environment as part of their charge.  He said the term ‘steward’ is particularly meaningful to communities of faith and helps define our relationship to each other and to the environment.  Anderson-Stembridge encouraged ecologists to use the “universal human venue” of storytelling and then provide the facts. Susan Clayton recommended that ecological scientists be mindful of language choices in speaking about environmental issues.  She reminded the audience that because many people react negatively to well-known but politically affiliated people such as Al Gore, one should avoid associating such people with an issue because doing so can prevent an audience hostile to someone such as Gore from hearing your message.  It’s important to learn something about your audience and find a way to connect with their values, said Clayton; find language that resonates with where they...

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Bats: an important resource

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst This week, the Ecological Society of America is holding its 96th Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas.  As over 3,000 ecologists participate in the meeting’s numerous scientific sessions, a highlight in Austin that most meeting attendees will make every effort to see are the city’s famous bats. As seen in the video below, between March and November, every evening around dusk, onlookers near the Ann W. Richards Congress Ave. bridge in Austin are treated to the mass emergence of the Mexican free-tailed bat. According to Bat Conservation International, “it is estimated that more than 100,000 people visit the bridge to witness the bat flight, generating ten million dollars in tourism revenue annually.”  People gather on the bridge and on boats to witness the emergence of the bats each evening. Austin’s Congress Ave. bridge contains the largest urban population of bats in the world, around 1.5 million bats. However, in the wild, there are even larger ‘bat communities.’ The densest populations of the Mexican free-tailed bats are found in the Braken Cave of San Antonio, Texas where the bat population can number upwards of 20 million. It’s estimated that colonies that contain multiple millions of bats can consume 250 tons of insects per day. The Mexican free-tailed bat (as known as the Brazilian free-tailed bat) has a wide range from the western United States, through Mexico, Central America and extending through the northern part of South America. They prefer warm climates and migrate to Central America in the winter. The bats have an average lifespan of approximately 18 years. The bats feed primarily on insects, including those which can become crop pests for farmers. The ability of insect-eating bats to consume such mass quantities of pests has made them an invaluable component for both ecosystem and economic health in the areas they inhabit.  For example, researchers in an Ecological Society of America journal article estimated that Brazilian free-tailed bats saved roughly $740,000 in pesticide costs. During a June congressional hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Subcommittee Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) quoted a Science magazine article placing the value of insect-eating bats to U.S. agriculture being between “$3.7 to 53 billion each year.” Chairman Fleming also noted that “as a doctor, I was interested in learning that some 80 different medicines come from plants that need bats to survive.” The focus of the Congressional hearing was on the impact white-nose syndrome on bat populations as well as the pivotal role insect-eating bats play for the agricultural industry through pollination and pest control. The fungus that causes the disease, Geomyces...

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A New ESA Section on Policy

This post contributed by Richard Pouyat, ESA Vice President for Public Affairs from 2005 – 2008 The purpose of an ESA Section as described on the ESA website is to “. . . promote the various special interests of the Membership.  Activities are intended to encourage research, exchange ideas, and facilitate communication between ecologists with similar disciplinary interests.”  In recent years the Society’s sections have expanded in scope and now reach beyond a scientific discipline.  Newer sections include Education, Environmental Justice, International Affairs, and Student.  These broader topical sections have become very popular with the membership (Education: 362, Environmental Justice: 76, International Affairs: 70, and Student: 574).  Moreover, this new expanded view of sections has helped the Society meet an important goal—namely to encourage its diverse community of members to become more involved in their Society.  Without a doubt, the newest sections have become a way for individuals to become involved in issues or with other ecologists that go beyond the disciplines that make up ecological science.  They bring together like-minded members who wish to expand the relevance of ecology beyond ecologists. The Society’s newest addition is the Policy Section, spurred by the leadership of former ESA Vice Presidents of Public Affairs Richard Pouyat, Laura Huenneke, Alison Power, Timothy Schowalter, Ann Bartuska and Anthony Janetos.  Their goal—and that of the over 50 ESA members who added their names to the petition to propose the new section—is to strengthen the intersection of ecological science and public policy. Specifically, the Section proposes to: (1)  foster interaction among ecologists who have worked or currently work in policy positions, or have the desire to communicate with members who have public policy experience (2)  form a database of members who have policy experience that can be utilized by the Governing Board, ESA sections and chapters, Public Affairs, Science, and Education Offices, and standing ESA committees (3)  facilitate collaborative links among members through symposia, organized oral sessions, special sessions, and social events in Washington DC and regionally; and (4)  work with the Society’s Public Affairs Office to facilitate the participation of students in training exercises and one-on-one interactions with policy makers. The Policy Section was initiated based on the realization that a significant number of ESA members have or continue to work in some capacity on public policy at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), on Capitol Hill, and with federal agencies.  As a group these members represent an invaluable resource to ESA.  In addition, there has been a growing desire by many ecologists to engage in relevant policy issues in their local communities and the Policy Section provides a home for these members.  This newest ESA Section...

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