Easter Island’s quiet message

Ahu Tongariki, the largest platform on the island, features fifteen restored Moais. The Moai in the foreground was likely damaged in transit and never erected. Credit: Brian Wee. This post contributed by Brian Wee, chief of external affairs for NEON, Inc. The July 2012 edition of National Geographic features Easter Island – known also as Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui by the local population.  Rapa Nui is famous for the silent stone statues called Moais that are scattered around the island.  In late May of 2012, my partner and I spent four days exploring Rapa Nui.  A remote speck of land no larger than Washington, DC in the Pacific and accessible by a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, Rapa Nui is often referred to as one of the most isolated, inhabited areas.  One skillful (and probably lucky) Polynesian expedition discovered it sometime in the 8th century.  Given the Pacific’s expanse, you have to wonder about the probability of finding such a small island in the vast ocean, and accordingly, how many other expeditions did not quite make it. Most of the Moais are located along the island’s coast, although some are also found inland.  Moais are stood on ceremonial stone platforms called Ahus, and visitors are reminded not to clamber on top of the Ahus at the risk of heavy fines.  A guidebook advocated gently shooing horses off these platforms if you come across an animal browsing on an Ahu.  Yes, horses.  They roam freely on the island.  Like the two that were wandering around the parking lot of the Rapa Nui airport after our flight landed on Monday evening.  Our Bed &Breakfast host had picked us up at the airport, but I resisted the temptation to tap his shoulder and ask “Say…. did you see those HORSES walking around in the airport PARKING LOT?”  Given that he deftly maneuvered the vehicle around the animals and didn’t say anything about them, I figured that he must have seen them.  Oh well. One of Rapa Nui’s many horses and her foal at the Ahu Tepeu site. Credit: Brian Wee By some reports, the number of horses on the island is greater than that of the roughly 5000 full-time residents.  It wasn’t long before I thought of the effects of unchecked herbivory on the structure and function of the island’s plant community.  Trees are sparse on the island, and there is some evidence that Rapa Nui once supported more trees before the human population expanded to what is thought to be unsustainable levels.  The island’s last indigenous tree – the Sophora toromiro – died in the 1950s, but...

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Hidden Treasures

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Imagine you get up one morning and go outside to fetch your paper.  As you reach to pick it up, a strange spider bites you. Your neighbor is bitten too.  Now you’re both dying because no one can identify these spiders and therefore can’t administer anti-venom that might save you.  This was the dramatic scenario Michael Mares conjured up for the audience during a June 5 congressional briefing, “Digitizing Science Collections: Unlocking Data for Research and Innovation” sponsored by the Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSCA). Mares, director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, was drawing his gripping story from a real-life mystery that is unfolding in Assam, India, where several people were bitten by tarantula-like spiders.  According to The Washington Post, two people died, although possibly from the wound-cutting treatment they received for the spider bites.  Local researchers have been unable to identify the thumb-sized spiders, saying they look like a new species.  Mares’ point was to demonstrate the value of preserving natural science collections.  New species, some of them potentially hazardous, will arise and natural history collections can help shed light on what they are and how to effectively respond. The United States has the largest natural science collection in the world, with collections found in every state.  These include samples of life on Earth collected over centuries—everything from bacteria to animal and plant specimens to fossil skulls of long extinct creatures such as the saber-toothed tiger.  National and state museums, universities, botanical gardens and zoos are among those institutions that house these science collections. Natural science collections can hold the key to solving numerous mysteries including identifying the species of birds that have collided with planes such as US Airways Flight 1549, allowing for better understanding of how to avoid such encounters (see Smithsonian video below). Collections also played a significant role in understanding the negative impact of the insecticide DDT on birds of prey, such as the peregrine falcon and bald eagle.  By comparing the birds’ eggs with that of the same species’ eggs held in collections, researchers found the evidence that DDT was causing eggshells to thin, making them highly breakable and nearly driving both these species to extinction before DDT was banned.  Science collections have also helped identify the origins of diseases including Ebola and Hantavirus.  They can play a significant role in biosecurity, emerging diseases, and identifying exotic non-native species. But for all the benefits they can bestow and the billions of dollars that the country has invested in gathering these collections, they suffer from a myriad of problems.   Usually locked out...

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How to encourage us to conserve energy

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Many of us recognize that a large part of the solution to environmental problems lies in getting people to change their behavior.  Unfortunately, altering the habits of the human animal can be especially challenging—we are intelligent but we can also be irrational and our age-old tendency to focus on immediate needs frequently overrides our ability to think, plan and act longer-term. That topic was addressed during a briefing co-sponsored last week by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation.  The ninth part of a briefing series on the science and engineering needed to meet the energy goals of the United States, the May 23 briefing focused on the psychology of the energy choices we make. Since human behavior causes environmental and economic problems, it stands to reason that changes in human behavior are needed to address them, said Elke Weber, one of the speakers at the briefing.  Weber is director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, one of NSF’s Decision Research Centers that focus on better understanding how we make decisions, particularly about long-term environmental risks.  Weber’s work includes looking at obstacles that prevent people from doing things that would lead to energy conservation.  In spite of the demonstrated personal cost savings of adopting energy-efficient technology, we don’t fully take advantage of them.  Why?  According to Weber, we may be fearful of new technology or perceive that our energy savings will be too small.  And, we tend to heavily discount future savings, especially when they require an initial large, upfront cost. Weber explained that while our short-term goals are automatically activated, getting our long-term goals activated is challenging and requires paying attention to social, cultural and other contexts.  For example, she said, labels matter.  Calling something a carbon “tax” has a negative connotation for many people.  Calling that same thing a carbon “offset” is a more positive label to which most people respond to more favorably.  The setting in which people make their choices are also influential.  Whether people are making energy-provider choices alone at home or in a community meeting can make a big difference. A member of the audience picked up on Weber’s cultural reference, noting that social norms among different groups may be wasting energy, yet be difficult to change.  For example, law offices may intentionally leave the lights burning at night to give the appearance that someone is there working—even if no one is.  Weber’s response:  devise substitutions that will work for a particular group that are less wasteful but still achieve the community’s goal. Weber offered an interesting possibility for the future.  She...

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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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Using Facebook to share ecology

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs “What do the small ground finch, medium ground finch, and Charlie Sheen have in common?  You may know the answer after today’s lecture…;)” James McGraw (pictured above), a professor of ecology at West Virginia University, posted the above question on his Facebook Group page for undergraduate biology.  After several others had ventured guesses, one astute student provided the correct answer:  “character displacement.”  Yes, groan-inducing puns (are there any others?) became one characteristic of the professor’s social media experiment which he relates in a recent article in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. He’d noticed that in this large (100-plus) introductory biology course, attracting and holding the attention of students was growing ever more challenging.  Not only is the sheer size not conducive to effectively engaging students, many undergraduates enrolled in such classes are simply getting a requirement out of the way, and may not be terribly enthusiastic or see the relevance of the material to their lives or career goals.  And the constant distraction of online alternatives to one’s actual surroundings added new and powerful competition to the professor’s attempt to capture the attention of his pupils. As McGraw noted with dismay: “….many of them can be found staring intently at their smart phones, tapping away at the face of their ever present electronic companions….some of these students remain transfixed by their i-devices 20 minutes into the lecture.” So McGraw decided to become part of their online conversation and started a Facebook Group page for his biology class.  Recognizing that some have significant privacy concerns with social media, he did not make this a course requirement and did not share vital course material via Facebook to which nonjoiners did not also have access.    His primary objective was to provide students opportunities to think more deeply about ecological topics. By the end of the semester, 119 out of 189 students (63 percent) had joined the Biology Facebook Group.  Forty percent were “lurkers” who never posted a “like” or a “comment” while 71 students contributed comments, links, or “liked” a particular post. McGraw’s used the Biology Facebook Group page to link news articles that were relevant to material covered in class, to encourage students to take advantage of relevant lectures on campus, to introduce them to other ecologists, and to generate discussion about a particular concept.  He also started a miniseries of “Creature Feature” posts whereby students who participated in extra-credit bird walks got to vote on their favorite bird of the day, usually by selecting the “splashiest” bird species, such as Indigo Bunting or Scarlet Tanager. At...

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Researchers Find Flaws in Popular Theory on Women’s Math Performance

This post contributed by Celia Smith, ESA Education Programs Coordinator Credit: xkcd.com In science, neat and tidy explanations rarely tell the whole story, and that is exactly what researchers at the University of Missouri have found about stereotype threat theory in their paper on the subject, currently in press at the Review of General Psychology. Though it may sound like psychological jargon, stereotype threat is a popular theory with policymakers and the media and is also expressed more idiomatically as the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’ Since the theory was first described in a 1999 a Journal of Experimental Social Psychology paper, one of its most popular applications has been to explain why women have lower rates of achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than men. Supposedly, girls grow up believing that boys are better at math, and belief in this stereotype hampers their performance in math and related fields of science. Stereotype threat has been widely accepted as a simple and intuitive explanation for the relative lack of high-achieving women in STEM that places blame on social biases rather than flaws in the education system or academia. However, University of Missouri psychology professor David Geary and Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Leeds found that many replications of the original stereotype threat study contained serious flaws in statistical analyses and scientific methodology. Some studies even lacked a control group, meaning they did not compare the experimental effects of stereotyping on women with those on men. In addition to exposing serious holes in a popular theory, Geary and Stoet’s research highlights a common challenge in problem solving: asking the right questions. U.S. Department of Labor Statistics data show that in 2009, women comprised 29 percent of all environmental scientists and geoscientists, 25 percent of all computer scientists and mathematicians, and just 7 percent of mechanical engineers, indicating a ‘gender gap’ in STEM fields. However, data from the National Center for Education Statistics also show that girls and boys generally leave high school equally well-prepared to study STEM at higher levels. In fact, from 1990-2005, girls earned consistently higher grade point averages than boys in all math and science subjects combined. These statistics suggest that it is important to distinguish between grades and career success when measuring ‘achievement’ in math and science. The authors of the original stereotype threat study tried to explain the gender gap by suggesting that women performed more poorly on difficult math tests when introduced to a negative stereotype; Geary and Stoet’s research disputes this theory, yet the fact remains that there are still proportionately fewer women with established careers in many STEM fields today. In other...

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Learning the lingo of science communication that resonates

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Many political observers would liken the current climate on Capitol Hill to a virtual total breakdown of civil communication where differing sides have become increasingly entrenched in their own ideological philosophies, either unwilling or incapable of meeting in the middle. The latest calamity concerning the failure of the so-called “supercommittee” to “go big” and come up with comprehensive deficit reduction legislation further reinforces this perception. Past major budget agreements in modern history, specifically the 1990, 1993 and 1997 balanced budget agreements collectively included a mix of spending, entitlement cuts and revenue increases. Two of the three agreements were passed during a time when the White House and Congress were controlled by separate parties. The failure of current political leaders to come to agreement on significant revenue and entitlement reforms, which could reduce the nation’s debt by trillions of dollars, makes it all the more likely discretionary spending, including federal investments in science, will be significantly diminished in coming years. The current gridlock can partially be attributed to an unwillingness by opposing sides to understand the perspective of their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, a failure to adhere to the concept of “meet me halfway.” This lack of comprehending or acknowledging the virtues or commonalities within the arguments made by the opposing side becomes the main reason each of the two parties are increasingly not talking to one another, but talking past one another in negotiations and legislative debates. The talking-past-one-another-syndrome is also a failing that scientists unaware of or inexperienced in effective communication practices can easily fall prey to. Consequently, the art of effective communication is one that scientists need to master if they hope to garner any success in advancing (or preserving) policies that are important to them. Hence, if scientists are to affect change in policy, they need to learn to speak the language of the entity they are talking to, inform through the use of concepts or ideas of mutual importance or interest. The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program (ALLP) intends to improve environmental scientists’ ability to communicate effectively and persuasively beyond the world of academia, with a specific focus on the public policy realm. The program was created in 1998 by Jane Lubchenco, who now heads the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Hal Mooney and Paul Risser, all former presidents of the Ecological Society of America. In the most recent edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, Elena Bennett, Assistant Professor for the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and McGill School of Environment at McGill University in Montreal, Canada discusses her experiences with the...

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