Reviving extinct genetic diversity #Resurrection Ecology

Is it time to define a new field? By Nadine Lymn, ESA public affairs director This is the first in a series of EcoTone posts on a recent TEDxDeExtinction event. You can watch the presentations, hosted by the National Geographic Society, here.  The talks will be edited and posted to YouTube in a few weeks.  NGS showcases de-extinction in the lead story of its April issue here.  “Maybe it’s time to coin a new term,” said Stanley Temple, a long-time conservation biologist who played key roles in preventing species such as the Peregrine Falcon and Whooping Crane from going extinct.  We were already well into the ‘Why & Why Not’ portion of TEDxDeExtinction on Friday, March 15, and it was clear that Temple, the man who occupied Aldo Leopold’s chair at the University of Wisconsin for 32 years, has deep reservations about reversing extinction through genetic engineering.  But he also clearly believes that conservation biologists need to be part of developments as the quest to revive extinct species inevitably moves forward.  Thus: “Resurrection Ecology.” Update [3/21/13, 4 PM] Temple told me he misspoke and meant to say “Resurrection BIOLOGY” since resurrection ecology has been applied to a different topic–limnologists who dredge up eggs from lake sediment to reconstruct past community structure. After listening to 6 hours of TEDxDeExtinction presentations last Friday, my head was spinning with gripping stories of charismatic and extinct species such as the Thylacine (a meat-eating marsupial—its name means dog-headed, pouched one), the biological, ethical and political dilemmas of “bringing back” species, and descriptions of the genetic techniques underway to make this is a reality. Several themes threaded throughout the event.  Here are two of them that are closely intertwined: 1. A strong concern that revival of extinct species could make current efforts to save endangered species even harder, and 2. The potential for gene technology to help save today’s endangered species. To the first theme: “We’ve got our hands full” trying to save what’s still here now, said Stanley Temple. Temple, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, is worried that de-extinction efforts could destabilize already difficult conservation efforts. We already have a tendency to rely on technological “fixes”, he said. If extinction isn’t forever, then the attitude could become, ‘let it go extinct, we can always bring it back later.’ But are too many of us already either unconcerned or feeling helpless about the many species slipping into extinction?  Would revival of extinct species give a green light to a more cavalier attitude towards loss of species? Rutgers University biology professor David Ehrenfeld wants people to consider this: While some are talking about...

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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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What’s your number?

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Many of us still operate under the notion that, as responsible car owners, we should get our vehicle’s oil changed every 3,000 miles to keep our engines running smoothly.  But it turns out that this engrained wisdom is not true if you own a vehicle that is about ten years old or younger.  Newer car models have cleaner-running engines and usually only need oil changes every 5,000 to 10,000 miles. In addition to saving money and time, the main reason this is important is because of how much oil is unnecessarily wasted and also contributes to water pollution by people who incorrectly dispose of oil  filters. An article in February’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment by Robin Meadows reports on this topic and on a recent survey administered by California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).  The survey revealed that about half of all non-commercial drivers in the Golden State change their motor oil much too frequently. And while most of us are responsible—according to the article, 80 percent of used motor oil is recycled in the U.S.—the remaining 20 percent is not disposed of properly, ending up contaminating water.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 40 percent of the pollution in U.S. streams, rivers, and lakes is from motor oil. The CalRecycle survey also showed that many of us don’t bother looking up the recommended oil change frequency in our car manuals.  To raise awareness and encourage better practices, CalRecycle has started a campaign called Check Your Number.  As described in the Frontiers article: “Related kick-off events entailed giving free parking spots in crowded venues to drivers who check their owner’s manuals and display the recommended oil-change intervals on their windshields.” CalRecycle hopes to next focus on do-it-yourselfers who don’t properly dispose of oil filters. Photo credit:...

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The black-footed ferret’s storied recovery

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst This week, the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) sent 26 black-footed ferrets into “boot camp” in Colorado to prepare the animals for life outside captivity. A recent Associated Press article indicates that the ferrets will spend at least 30 days in the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado for “preconditioning” for the wild. The training involves exposing the ferrets to underground burrows and prairie dog tunnels (prairie dogs make up 91 percent of the ferrets’ food source).  Scientists say that training gives the ferrets a 10 times better chance of survival in the wild. Black-footed ferrets are among the success stories of the Endangered Species Act. The animals were nearly driven to extinction due to fur trade harvest, habitat loss, prairie dog extermination and Sylvatic plague, a disease humans arriving in North America in the late 1800s brought with them. For the ferrets, the disease is the equivalent of the Black plague. These combined factors led to as few as 18 ferrets that remained in the wild in by 1985. Several state zoos joined forces with the SCBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to breed the endangered animals in captivity. FWS developed its Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan, which focused on both natural and assisted breeding programs and the establishment of multiple reintroduction sites. Since 1991, over 7,000 captive-bred ferrets have been released into prairie dog colonies. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild, with 19 reintroduction sites across North America and four self-sustaining populations in the states of Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming. Additional information on the black-footed ferret’s recovery can be found here or by visiting the FWS website. Photo credit:...

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Deregulation of protections against invasive species can have dire long-term economic consequences

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst The debate over the economic consequences of federal regulations intended to curb the prevalence of invasive species continues on Capitol Hill. During a Sept. 14 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican committee leaders released a report entitled “Broken Government: How the Administrative State has Broken President Obama’s Promise of Regulatory Reform.” In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asserted that currently, “the regulatory process is broken, being manipulated and exploited in an effort to reward allies of the Obama administration such as environmental groups, trial lawyers, and unions.” The committee report outlines several regulations that Republicans believe have not undergone a sufficient cost-benefit analysis, including a proposed rule from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that would designate the Burmese python and eight other snake species as “injurious” and consequently, illegal to transport across state lines. The committee heard testimony from David Barker, a herpetologist and owner of Vida Preciosa International, Inc., a snake-breeding business specializing in pythons and boas. He is also a member of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. Barker said that FWS’s regulation “lacks a scientific basis, being based on a single flawed study that has not withstood scientific review.” Of the establishment of Burmese Pythons in the Florida everglades, he contends “there has been no empirical evidence that their presence has threatened the ecosystem or caused any serious disruption.” Barker asserted that the regulation “threatens as many as a million law-abiding American citizens and their families with the penalty of a felony conviction for pursuing their livelihoods, for pursuing their hobby, or for simply moving with their pet to a new state.” In his opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) noted, “with all due respect to our witnesses from the Association of Reptile Keepers, repealing a so-called ‘job-killing’ regulation to allow more pythons, boa constrictors and anacondas into the United States is not the kind of bold, bipartisan solution Americans are looking for to help the economy.” Committee Democrats also put forward several letters that countered many of the arguments of Barker and Chairman Issa regarding invasive pythons. Among these was a joint letter spearheaded by several national and Florida conservation groups including The Nature Conservancy, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Everglades Foundation that focused specifically on the threat posed by Burmese pythons. The letter states that “monitoring has shown that state and federally threatened and endangered species, including the Wood Stork and Key Largo woodrat, are already being predated by these large constrictors. Because these predatory snakes are cryptic, highly productive and can take advantage...

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Persevering pikas, herbicide inhalation in farm states and prehistoric pathogens

Southern Rockies picas unaffected by climate change: A new study from the University of Colorado at Boulder has found that American pikas, despite being temperature-sensitive animals, have not been adversely impacted by climate change. The researchers who conducted the study assessed 69 historical sites known to host pikas within the southern Rockies ranging from southern Wyoming through Colorado and into northern New Mexico. The results showed that 65 of the 69 sites have retained their pika populations. The study was funded primarily by the National Geographic Society. The new study stands in contrast to a study from another research group earlier this year in Nevada’s Great Basin that showed a nearly five-fold increase in local extinction rates of pika populations in the past decade. The different results may be because the more recent study area of the southern Rocky Mountains offers habitats in higher elevations that are also more contiguous than are habitats in Nevada’s Great Basin, according to the study’s researchers. The American pika, which shares its mammal family order with rabbits and hares (lagomorpha), lives in mountainous regions including British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California and New Mexico. In 2010, the U.S. federal government denied an endangered species listing for the American pika partially because there were insufficient data on its distribution and abundance across western North America. Federal scientists find herbicide in air, water samples: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists report that air and water samples taken from the states of Mississippi and Iowa show that there are considerable levels of a harmful herbicide in the air and water within the states. The federal agency scientists reported that there were significant levels of the chemical glyphosate (used in “Roundup” herbicide) found in every stream sample examined in Mississippi in a two-year period as well as in the majority of air samples. This means people have been inhaling the herbicide, though no known detrimental effects have been yet documented. According to USGS, it is difficult and costly to test for the presence of glyphosate, which is why there has been so little research on its impacts on air and water to date. The herbicide is the most-used worldwide where it is applied to  residential yards, golf courses and farm fields.  Scientific studies have revealed that its wide use has led to glyphosate-resistant ‘super weeds.” USGS scientists affirm that more research is necessary to document effects on soil organisms, plants, animals and people. The USGS data has been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for further review. Read more at “U.S. researchers find roundup chemical in water, air” Prehistoric pathogens: DNA contained in recently acquired...

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Taking a shot at photographing science and nature

Go to Google Images and search for “science.” What are the results? More than likely, the search will come up with beakers, protons, lab coats, double helixes, pulsars, microscopes and perhaps a smattering of trees and images of the globe. Photographs of researchers boot-high in streams collecting samples, for instance, or of a Cayman Island blue iguana in its natural habitat, would probably be few and far between. But images such as these—which show an aspect of the biological sciences, environmental processes or a subject of ecological research—rarely show up, even though they are of course also science.

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