Talking Urban Ecology at the USA Science Festival

By Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Families with young children, teenagers, older adults, teachers, and even a pair of young Army soldiers visited ESA’s booth over the weekend of April 28 and 29 at the USA Science & Engineering Festival and learned about the ecology of Washington, DC and its nearby suburbs. Some were drawn immediately to the terrarium which housed mysterious creatures.  Never mind that they weren’t colorful or furry—children and adults alike wanted to know what was inside and some even accepted our invitation to move around the stones and moss to discover what might be hiding underneath.  Others strode up to ESA’s urban ecology game poster and wanted to know what the creature with the enormous eyes was (a jumping spider) or announced that they knew that image number four was a “roly-poly.”  Some immediately knew that the old painting depicted on our game poster was the White House but were perplexed by the creek and marsh birds they also saw in the painting. ESA President Steward Pickett of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, George Middendorf of Howard University and two of his students and several ESA staff worked the ESA booth this past Saturday and Sunday, highlighting various aspects of the ecology taking place in urban environments.  For example, they explained that the stream flowing by the White House in the 1820s was Tiber Creek and that it is one of three streams that were buried to develop the land above and provide sewer channels below. Many visitors to ESA’s booth had heard that Washington, DC had been built on a swamp.  But the real story and reason that the nation’s capital contends with flooding issues is that it lies in a floodplain, at the confluence of two rivers (Potomac and Anacostia) and atop three buried streams (Tiber Creek, James Creek, and Slash Run).  In fact, collectively, multiple federal buildings pump over a million gallons of water a day from their basements. ESA’s terrarium inhabitants—centipedes, a spider dashing around with her eggcase, earthworms, pill-bugs and beetle were also popular with visitors.  In addition to learning about some of the small animals living in urban and suburban settings, visitors also learned that coyotes and red-tailed hawks have learned how to live in big cities, including Washington, DC.  Some mistook the coyote image for a fox or a wolf and some thought the red-tailed hawk was an owl, but they knew they were predators and were often surprised to learn that they have adapted to life in close proximity to humans.  The coyotes in Rock Creek Park, in the heart of Washington, DC, drag...

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Spreading Green fire one community at a time

By Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Directly following a recent showing of the new film Green fire about Aldo Leopold, a woman in the audience confessed that she had “never heard of the man,” in spite of being an active member of several environmental organizations that Leopold had either helped establish or heavily influenced. That’s just one of the reasons Stanley Temple is spending much of his time traveling around the United States to show and discuss the film.   Temple is Professor Emeritus of conservation, forest and wildlife ecology, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and senior fellow and science advisor with the Aldo Leopold Foundation.  He’s visiting communities around the country to introduce Leopold and his ideas to audiences who may never have heard of the man who was a key figure in shaping American approaches to managing natural resources; the pioneer of the field that would become known as wildlife ecology and management. Leopold is best known as the author of A Sand County Almanac, which wasn’t published until after his death in the late 1940s.  Sales were initially feeble—Americans were not ready for Leopold’s essays on “one man’s striving to live by and with, rather than on, the American land.”  But when it was reissued as a paperback in the late 1960s, Americans and others around the globe had caught up with Leopold; the book has sold over two million copies in ten languages. Leopold was a Yale-trained forester who, as noted by Temple, never stagnated in his thinking.  In fact, over the course of his 61 years, Leopold changed his view in several areas, perhaps most notably, his ideas about predators.  At the beginning of his career, he had promoted killing of wolves in the American Southwest.   Later in his career, Leopold shifted 180 degrees in his thinking, recognizing the key role predators play in a healthy ecosystem.  This shift is captured in A Sand County Almanac: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Last Friday, Temple showed Green fire in Reston, Virginia, one of the country’s few planned communities, and one which is facing big changes.  Reston lies...

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Hot and cold come together in the deep sea

By Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs The old expression “there’s nothing new under the sun” certainly does not apply to the still largely unknown territory of the deep sea.  Although our capacity to explore life in these dark, deep (2,100 meters /7,000 ft) underwater locations has improved with such technological wonders as remotely operated underwater vehicles and submersible, deep-diving research craft, we still know relatively little about life in these hard-to-reach places. As Lisa Levin, lead researcher of a new study highlighted in a press release by the National Science Foundation which helped fund the work, noted: “Plenty of surprises are left in the deep sea.  There are new species, and almost certainly new ecosystems, hidden in the oceans.” During a submersible expedition off Costa Rica, Levin and her colleagues discovered an area deep in the sunless sea where a hot water hydrothermal vent and cold methane seep co-exist.  Researchers had previously discovered hydrothermal vents as well as habitats where methane emerges from seeps on the ocean bottom, but never both in the same location.  According the NSF press release, the site lies at a tectonic plate margin and the animals living there include tube worms, deep-sea fish, mussels, clams and legions of crabs.  The group published their findings last week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.  As Levin and her colleagues explain in the abstract of their paper, scientists initially thought that hydrothermal vents and methane seeps were related but distinctly different ecosystems that harbor mostly different species.   But the subsequent discovery of additional vents and seep systems blurred this distinction. Levin and her group describe the site they found as a “composite, hydrothermal seep ecosystem” that represents an intermediate between vents and seeps.  They think it likely that other such “mosaic” ecosystems exist, along with life forms adapted to live there. Levin, L., Orphan, V., Rouse, G., Rathburn, A., Ussler, W., Cook, G., Goffredi, S., Perez, E., Waren, A., Grupe, B., Chadwick, G., & Strickrott, B. (2012). A hydrothermal seep on the Costa Rica margin: middle ground in a continuum of reducing ecosystems Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0205 Photo credits: Fish and tubeworms, Lisa Levin/NSF; Anemone-hermit crab symbiosis, Greg...

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Emerging Issues Symposium II: Amid Search for Answers, a Search for Hope

This post contributed by Celia Smith, ESA Education Programs Coordinator Attendees of the Ecological Society of America (ESA)’s 2012 Emerging Issues Conference are spending the week of February 27 immersed in symposia and intensive working groups to turn cutting-edge ecology research into concrete environmental management and policy products. In addressing the conference theme of Conservation Targets under Global Change, each presentation and discussion session involves wrestling with tough questions for which simple answers do not exist. Despite these challenges, another informal conference theme is hope. Global change can evoke fear, panic and even despair over the unsustainable use of natural resources. While it can’t be denied that problems including  overpopulation, pollution, habitat fragmentation and climate change threaten many species, including our own,  Ronald Swaisgood of the San Diego Zoo argues that hope is not only possible—it is essential to our success in overcoming these challenges. “As conservation biologists we feel like we are tinkering around the edges and fiddling while Rome burns,” Swaisgood said during his Monday afternoon talk entitled, “Finding hope for conservation and endangered species because we must.”  Swaisgood argued that confident expectations for conservation outcomes lead to increased effort, while low expectations “robustly predict giving up.” Moreover, Swaisgood emphasized that hope is an essential tool for garnering public support for conservation efforts, and challenged scientists to assume responsibility for engaging citizens—particularly the next generation—in science and nature in a hopeful and productive way. “Time spent in nature predicts environmental attitudes… [but] Americans are becoming increasingly indifferent to the environment” Swaisgood said. He encouraged scientists to get involved in community leadership, outreach, K-12 education reform, and citizen science to help communicate conservation messages that are framed positively, constructively and optimistically. As Swaisgood and his co-author James Sheppard have put it, “Our point is not that hope is the logical alternative but that it is the necessary alternative” (BioScience 2011). Whether or not hope is a logical alternative is likely to be a personal decision; however Bernd Blossey of Cornell University also offered positive evidence, supported by science, that our idea of ‘nature’ as a pristine entity separate from humans is a fallacy. In his introduction to the conference, he stressed that historically, nature has repeatedly demonstrated extraordinary resilience by returning from disaster and disruption to support life in one form or another. Blossey left the audience with a quote from Aldo Leopold—“I have no hope for conservation born of fear”—that helped to set the tone of optimism for the discussions to come. Photo: National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, WV, Ryan Hagerty/USFWS...

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Symposium I of ESA’s Emerging Issues Conference

This post contributed by Celia Smith, ESA Education Programs Coordinator A high standard was set by the first symposium of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) weeklong 2012 Emerging Issues Conference, which kicked off Monday at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, WV. The first of four sessions, Symposium I:  “Protected Areas: Fostering museums, way stations and endpoints” was held in NCTC’s main auditorium, which brimmed with top representatives from a diversity of fields in ecological research, land management and government. On Monday morning, four invited experts spoke passionately about a variety of approaches to conservation targets under global change, the overarching theme of the conference and the topic that each of the nearly 100 attendees will tackle during intensive working groups on Wednesday and Thursday. Despite the highly varied professional backgrounds and presentation topics of the speakers, it was illuminating to observe the common threads that wove through each talk and evoked connections among different ways of looking at specific conservation problems related to anthropogenic climate change. Concepts that frequently found their way into the dialogue between speaker and audience included uncertainty and connectivity, both in a spatial and temporal sense. The first two speakers dealt with the connectivity of past and present, and how rapid change inevitably forces us to compare historical ecological events and circumstances with current challenges and management options. Richard Hobbs of the University of Western Australia began the conversation with his talk, “Intervention, protection and restoration: Are we guardians or gardeners?”  He suggested that we have entered a new “Anthropocene” era in which humans are largely responsible for decisions affecting the environment. “There are many different futures out there,” Hobbs said. “We don’t have much of a clue as to what the future holds… we have an uncertain past and an increasingly uncertain future.” Hobbs argued that this is not a reason to lose hope; we must simply shift our search for solutions toward a style of management that draws both from standard conservation strategies, such as restoration and invasive species control, and new approaches reflecting the Anthropocene “new world order” that are locally focused, contingent, and anthropocentric. This “gardenification” approach would not altogether abandon the conservation strategies of the past, but adapt them to current and future changes. Hobbs stressed that this will require embracing novel ecosystems and seeing ourselves as part of the natural world rather than separate from it. The theme of historical connectivity to present and future decision-making was also addressed by Stephen Jackson in “Is history ‘just history?’ Uses of the ecological past for global-change risk assessment.” “History suggests some hope,”...

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