Video of Sen. Tom Udall’s address to ESA

Well, it’s just been a week full of videos, hasn’t it. For those interested in Sen. Tom Udall’s address to ESA at the recent annual meeting, below is a video of his Regional Policy Award acceptance speech. You can also read the full transcript of the address...

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The EEB and Flow blog

If you haven’t yet taken the time to check out The EEB and Flow blog, make today the day. Marc Cadotte, who has quite recently moved from a postdoc in sunny California to a professorship in chilly Toronto (a metaphor here, maybe?), and his colleagues maintain an excellent blog on all things ecology and evolutionary biology. Their blog posts center around recent research in ecology and evolutionary biology and the lives of the people who do it, including personal stories and musings about the state of the field as a career choice. I bring up the EEB and Flow now because Marc blogged from the ESA meeting last week, posting about talks he saw on invasive species, the reality (or not) of macroecology as its own discipline, and species interactions/community assembly.  Check out Marc’s assessments of the meeting, post your feedback, and bookmark The EEB and...

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Farewell, ESA Meeting 2009

As ESA’s Annual Meeting drew to a close today and the city of Albuquerque breathed a sigh of relief — now there might be places for locals to sit in a restaurant! — the echoes of the meeting were just beginning.  Scientific meetings are a place to bring together scientists from myriad subfields: in the case of ecology, from biogeochemistry to microbial ecology to agroforestry to physiological ecology…and the list goes on. When they all get together, magic often happens. This meeting was no exception, with large-scale issues such as invasive species, climate change and even — here’s a new one — warfare ecology on the bill. Ecologists aren’t the only ones who think their work is important, either.  Reports have emerged from Nature magazine, the Albuquerque Journal, Scientific American and others.  (The Nature folks also blogged like crazy about the meeting.)  Watch for other stories that will come out within the next week in places like Land Letter and National Geographic News. Either way you slice it, communication is key.  Ecologists communicating with each other = good. Ecologists communicating with the public = also good.  Ecologists doing both = slowly and steadily changing the world. From the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel, goodbye, ESA meeting...

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Green up that roof

A greenroof atop Chicago’s city hall. Having a garden on your roof isn’t just nice for a garden party; it can make your city more environmentally friendly. Planting a rooftop garden can offset heat, increase city biodiversity and decrease stormwater runoff, which is why many cities around the world are creating laws to encourage the use of greenroofs. In Berlin, Germany, for example, any new building that can have a greenroof must have one, or the building doesn’t get approved. Water runoff can be problematic in cities where rainwater is funneled by streets and parking lots directly into streams, carrying with it chemicals and debris and increasing the risk of flash floods. But the plants on greenroofs can absorb some of this water – “like a sponge being saturated,” says Olyssa Starry, a graduate student at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. Starry’s poster today at the ESA Annual Meeting, in a poster session on urban ecosystems, compared  a greenroof atop a Baltimore building in comparison to a similar building without a greenroof. These comparisons helped Starry determine how well the roof would absorb water from frequent storms.  By measuring water flowing out of building downspouts, she found that the greenroof retained from 30 to 75 percent of water from storms, compared to a negligible amount retained by the building with no greenroof. Although her results are preliminary, Starry thinks that cities can reap benefits from making greenroofs a part of their building requirements, as cities like Toronto and Berlin have recently done. Using GIS satellite imagery, she estimated the number and area of buildings that could hold greenroofs within one watershed in the Baltimore area. If all these roofs were greened, she says, the city could save the watershed 8 million gallons of water per year, or about 10 percent of its yearly water loss. “We need to understand what implementing these greenroofs at the whole watershed scale can do,” she says. “Getting people to learn about this technology and providing incentives is the first step.” For more about greenroofs and what kinds of plants work best on them, check out this Nature blog post on another ESA greenroofs...

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TNT and plants: shrubs as toxin detectors

Photo courtesy of Julie Naumann. If you’ve been to many national forests, chances are you’ve seen signs like the one to the left: walk on this field and a land mine might explode. In her talk this morning at the ESA Annual Meting, Julie Naumann of the U.S. Army Corps of engineers explained that even if they don’t explode, these buried capsules of TNT and other explosives are bad news for plants. Land mine capsules aren’t made to withstand weathering, and as a result, TNT powder can leach out of buried mines and into the soil. Naumann wanted to know what effects this leaching had on plant physiology. She raised individuals of common wax myrtle, a shrub that grows freely on land mine fields in coastal Virginia, and exposed their soil to a range of TNT concentrations. Not surprisingly, the plants showed significant signs of stress, including closing of stomates – tiny holes that act like plant nostrils — and reduced photosynthesis. The stressed-out plants didn’t just keel over and die, though.  All of the plants except for the ones exposed to the highest TNT concentration recovered their stomatal conductance, or the passage of gases and water through the plants’ stomates. “A lot of the TNT is stored in the plants’ leaves,” said Naumann. “There, it’s metabolized into less toxic compounds.” So, if the plants can suck up toxins in the soil, get sick for awhile, but then recover, could we use them as toxin filters in areas where soils are contaminated – in scientific terms, phytoremediation?  In this case, Naumann doesn’t think so. She points out that you can’t just walk out onto a mine field to plant and water vegetation, and that doing so repeatedly by helicopter would be prohibitively expensive. But she does think that the plants could be good indicators of other toxins. “Plants could be a useful tool for detecting anthropogenic stresses in soil,” she...

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Communicating uncertainty – a scientific or a political question?

This post was contributed by ESA’s Director of Public Affairs, Nadine Lymn. While other voices boldly make authoritative assertions over issues that may be deeply nuanced, scientists tend to communicate their considerable knowledge in ways which make them sound wishy-washy at best and completely uncertain at worst.  This was the theme of a symposium session, “Global Sustainability in the Face of Uncertainty: How to More Effectively Translate Ecological Knowledge to Policy Makers, Managers, and the Public” that took place at ESA’s Annual Meeting earlier this week. Why this tends to be true is partly the dynamic nature of science in its quest to prove new hypothesis, and partly because scientists often fail to clearly convey the state of scientific consensus on a particular issue.  A rare exception is the IPCC, which carefully chose words that convey levels of certainty about climate change: Virtually certain > 99% probability of occurrence Very likely > 90% probability Likely > 66% probability About as likely as not 33 to 66% probability Unlikely < 33% probability Very unlikely < 10% probability Exceptionally unlikely < 1% probability The session also pointed out the unfortunate reality that many questions may in fact not be science questions at all but rather policy questions.  Both the policy and scientific communities are to blame for this phenomenon.  Policymakers like to hang the cloak of science on an issue because they believe this will make them look cleaner and above the political fray.  Meanwhile, too often scientists delude themselves into thinking science should always dominate in addressing a policy question, when, in fact, other considerations, such as value judgments or economics, are required. The session concluded that ultimately, what to do in the face of scientific uncertainty is in fact a political decision, not a scientific...

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Flu evolving in the human body ecosystem

The field of disease ecology is a fast-evolving one as ecologists realize more and more that the insides of animals and plants are really like small-scale ecosystems, encompassing the same rules as large-scale ecosystems, like species interactions, environmental variability and evolutionary change. Katia Koelle of Duke University gave a talk yesterday about evolution in the H3N2 virus — not to be confused with the H1N1 swine flu, even though it infects both pigs and humans. Since its emergence in 1968, this H3N2 virus has evolved at lightning speed: about one-third of the amino acids that make up its hemagglutinin protein (where the “H” comes from) have changed. “That’s a huge amount of evolution,” Koelle said in a Duke statement. “If there’s a new escape mutant that can actually so change the protein’s configuration that our antibodies can’t recognize the virus anymore, that means it’s going to have a huge advantage and infect more of us. “ Koelle and her colleagues developed a model to simulate the evolution of the virus in different hosts.  Just like animals evolve differently in different environments where there are different selective pressures, the virus evolves differently in different hosts. Farmed pigs live only about two years, whereas the average lifespan for humans is about 80 years.  The virus thus evolves quickly in humans, where there’s ample time for the virus to be wiped out by the hosts’ immunity. In pigs, though, new susceptible hosts appear much more often, so the virus has less pressure to evolve. “How much of an advantage a new virus strain has will depend on how many people have gotten infected in the past,” Koelle said in the...

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Reduced tilling improves soil microbe biodiversity

The theme of this year’s ESA meeting is “Ecological Knowledge and a Global Sustainable Society, and the program shows it: there are at least six sessions devoted completely to sustainable agriculture and agroforestry.  Most studies approach the problem of increasing cropland productivity while causing little harm to the environment by assessing above-ground processes, like cropland biodiversity or the use of pesticides. But in a poster today, Shashi Kumar of Texas Tech reminds us that we also need to think about what’s going on underground. Soil bacteria affect the growth and success of crop plants by fixing nitrogen, aiding in the uptake of nutrients and decomposing dead organic matter. Kumar’s poster shows, however, that some current farming practices may disrupt the soil ecosystem and decrease the effectiveness of the microbe community. Kumar explored the relationship between conventional tilling and low-tilling practices on farms in semi-arid areas of west Texas. In areas where soil tilling was kept at a minimum, Kumar and his colleagues found a higher diversity of soil bacteria; conventional tilling produced lower bacterial diversity. Kumar says that conventional tillage systems disrupt soil particles and decrease soil pore size, which can lead to decreased water and soil access for microbes. Although he recognizes that tillage is necessary, he thinks that farmers can reduce their tillage, even in semi-arid regions, to promote soil bacterial biodiversity. “We are currently using so many different crop management systems, like pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, which are damaging to our soil,” Kumar says. “Why shouldn’t we focus on biological methods, since the bacteria are already...

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