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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What’s in a name? Proposed reinterpretation of key words in the Endangered Species Act

This post contributed by Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation biology at the University of Ferrara, Italy   How important can five words be?  Very! The 1973 Endangered Species Act states that a species may be regarded as endangered if “threatened with extinction […] throughout all or a significant portion of its range” (my underline, hereafter, SPR).  Remarkably, neither the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) nor National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has had an official policy on the meaning of this phrase for the thirty-nine year history of the Act.  Enter proposal FWS–R9–ES–2011–003 (summarized here), which spells out the Services’ soon-to-be official interpretation of the seemingly innocuous phrase, specifically defining the words “significant” and “range.” As a conservation biologist working for effective species survival, I would like to share my impressions of the proposal, and encourage all to participate in the public comment, extended until March 7.  How these five words are interpreted will have lasting consequences for species’ listing and subsequent recovery plans and management actions. After an insightful review of past legislative battles over SPR, the proposal gets down to business on page 5, stating that a definition of “significant” should include (a) the variable to measure and (b) a threshold for that variable.  Further, a) and b) should be based on biological and conservation criteria. We would probably all agree here!  But read on, controversy awaits. As explained on page 8, in the preamble to the proposal, a portion of a species’ range may be “significant” with respect to a species’ resiliency (ability to recover), redundancy (multiple, distributed “backups”), and/or representation (range of variation).  Also important are “abundance, spatial distribution, productivity, and diversity of the species.” However, these key variables are lacking in the actual proposed interpretation (page 16/17); the actual definition of a SPR is very succinct: “without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction. If so, the portion is significant.” It is therefore arguable whether the new phrasing improves specificity; this wording seems as open to interpretation and debate as ever.  Further, as noted in several ongoing dialogues on Ecolog-l, and summarized in an open letter by the Center for Biological Diversity, this could “result in species that are severely endangered in portions of their range being denied protection because they are secure in some portion of their range even if that portion is just a fraction.”  Specific examples are argued in recent news articles and blogs.  These commentaries question whether (in the proposal’s words) “the draft policy would result in the Services listing and protecting throughout their ranges species that previously we either would not have listed, or would...

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Spaceship Earth?

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Astronaut Bruce McCandless II drifts free, 350 kilometers above Earth’s surface and 100 meters from the safe haven of the Space Shuttle Challenger, during one of NASA’s first un-tethered spacewalks (credit, STS-41B, NASA 1984, via the Astronomy Picture of the Day). Invisible bonds of absolute necessity hold the free-flying astronaut to his shuttle, and to Earth below. He can take a short walk in space, but he is sightseeing on borrowed time. Earth has a monopoly on all the necessities of life. When the space programs of the ‘60s began sending back images of a small, blue jewel suspended in the vast darkness of space, the metaphor of the Earth itself as a spaceship came easily into public discourse. Modern economics also leant power to the notion of the Earth as a single, global system. Humans had begun to appreciate the scale of change that our technology had wrought. Abruptly, we found ourselves fellow passengers on a lonely vessel, our fortunes tied together. Barring radical reformation of our conception of physics, colonization of other planets is not practical or practicable even as a small-scale curiosity, much less an escape plan. The good ship Earth is our only ship, so we had best not sink it. In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Joel Achenbach reports on a movement toward a new paradigm of management and intervention in environmentalism, a Spaceship Earth on which we are not just passengers, but engineers. Just what sinking Earth would entail is a matter of debate. The idea that it would even be possible to sink it is rather new. For a substantial US voting bloc, the world is still a garden for us to harvest, and its upkeep and management is not our business. At passionate odds with the champions of this resource Manifest Destiny, environmentalists object morally to the loss of wilderness, the present wave of extinctions, and the invasion of the successful, surviving species into exotic new locations with the help of human transport. To the less ideologically committed folks in the middle, keeping Earth afloat is synonymous with keeping their own lives and lifestyles afloat, leavened with some empathy for distant communities and future generations. So conservation traditionally operates under a paradigm of custodianship, protection, and restoration. To what perfect historical time do wish to restore our pockets of wildlands? ask the proponents of the new school. Though our current numbers and technological reach are tremendous, humans have been manipulating our environs for thousands of years. There is no pristine Before which can be restored, say the interventionists. The great grasslands of North America...

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