Born at the right time

It’s nice to have some good conservation news every once in awhile, even with caveats. North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered species on Earth. These mammals were dubbed by 18th-century whalers to be the “right” whales to catch because they’re huge (up to 70 tons and 55 feet long), stay close to shore, move slowly and have large amounts of baleen and blubber, the latter of which yielded much oil and caused the whales to float when killed. The gentle giants were hunted to extinction around Europe and by 1900 only about 100 known whales remained around North America. Now the whales’ numbers have tripled, and currently 325 whales are known to NOAA scientists, each complete with its own nickname. A concerted effort of international laws and changes in seafaring practices has led to this comeback.  It’s been illegal to kill the whales since 1935, changes in shipping lanes and regulations on ship speeds have reduced collisions and U.S. gear restrictions have limited the number of whales getting caught in fishing lines. Researchers warn, however, that the whale is far from saved. Six whales have turned up entangled in fishing line this year, and estimated 80 to 85 percent of right whales bear a scar from a previous entanglement.  Efforts to preserve the whales can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. But so far, no whales have died from entanglements this year, and the researchers remain optimistic. Read the excellent feature article in this week’s New York Times that chronicles, as they call it, The Fall and Rise of the Right Whale. The article is complete with breathtaking video footage. Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/National Oceanic and Atmospheric...

Read More

For now, forget biofuels in reserves

Ethanol as the next generation of alternative fuels has stirred significant controversy. While some tout its lower-than-gasoline greenhouse-gas emissions and its usefulness in creating carbon sinks in its agricultural fields, many other ecologists call ethanol production the most inefficient of alternative fuel options. Even the most optimistic scenarios still show that using current technologies, it can take years – in some studies, up to 1,000 – to overcome ethanol’s accumulated carbon debt. If converting land to ethanol-producing agriculture is so harmful to the environment, should we simply leave that land alone instead? Writing in the March issue of Ecological Applications, a group of ecologists based at Duke University say that until technologies for producing ethanol from cellulosic materials improve drastically, leaving land in a conservation reserve program will produce fewer greenhouse gases on the whole than using the land for ethanol production. Current federal programs to increase ethanol production are investing in transforming conservation lands  to corn-for-ethanol agricultural production, a practice that the researchers found was the worst strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. “Until cellulosic ethanol production is feasible, or corn-ethanol technology improves, corn-ethanol subsidies are a poor investment economically and environmentally,” said author Rob Jackson of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The researchers found that cellulosic ethanol practices, including farming switchgrass, are a more eco-friendly biofuel production method than using corn, since cellulosic species often require little or no tilling. Tilling corn can release 30 to 50 percent of the carbon stored in the soil; mowing switchgrass, by contrast, can increase soil carbon content by 30 to 50 percent. Still, the researchers say that until cellulosic ethanol practices are commercially available, setting aside land for natural vegetation creates the best greenhouse gas benefits.  But once these practices are available, they write, “cellulosic ethanol in set-aside grasslands should provide the most efficient tool for greenhouse gas reduction of any scenario” they examined. Read the open-access paper here. Gervasio Piñeiro, Esteban G. Jobbágy, Justin Baker, Brian C. Murray, Robert B. Jackson (2009). Set-asides can be better climate investment than corn ethanol Ecological Applications, 19 (2), 277-282 DOI:...

Read More

The 109th annual Christmas bird count

One of last week’s Nature editorials extols the 109th annual Christmas bird count, a tradition started by the National Audubon Society as an alternative to the former competitive sport of shooting birds to mark the holidays.  The survey, which takes place during a three-week interval that overlaps Christmas and New Year’s Day each year, involves birders of all ages and backgrounds from around the globe traipsing through the elements for a day to count the kinds and numbers of birds around their homes. The official numbers are staggering:  this year’s 437 individual count groups spied a total of 18.5 million birds across the Western hemisphere. You can track individual species by area or check out what birds were seen close to where you live by using this nifty widget at the Audubon site. Citizen science is something that few scientists take very seriously, but here is a perfect example. The Christmas bird count is the longest-running field survey of any living thing, and it’s mostly done by non-scientists. As the editorial notes, volunteer science is a win-win situation because citizens get to learn about science and have fun doing it, and scientists get much-needed data. Nature even suggests that there are great benefits to scientists tossing off their regalia and considering themselves – gasp – citizen scientists: ‘So researchers should think creatively about whether the data they need, or the crunching or sorting they must do, can be outsourced to members of the public. And while they are at it, perhaps they should also consider joining one or more citizen science projects themselves. Participation in such efforts can reconnect scientists consumed with grant-writing and project management with the ‘doing’ of science. In the Christmas bird count, the most skilled bird spotters and identifiers are inevitably the non-scientists; professional ornithologists spend too much time doing paperwork. And, of course, volunteering for science feels good, especially when you see a black oystercatcher, say, or two merging galaxies — something fun, beautiful and...

Read More