New strategic vision for field stations and marine labs

Field stations and marine labs take on the future of science In this guest post, Ian Billick, PhD,  introduces the new strategic vision, released today, for the disparate network of field stations and marine labs. Recommendations include creating virtual access to historic data archives and streamlining physical access to field sites for extramural researchers. Billick  is Past President of the Organization of Biological Field Stations and current Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve. Credit, University of California Natural Reserve System. AS a field station director, I’m often dealing with the present, negotiating access to research sites or managing construction projects. Recently I participated in a planning effort organized by field stations and marine labs (FSMLs) to figure out what field scientists will need in the future, and how FSMLs can help. The Organization of Biological Field Stations and National Association of Marine Laboratories hosted a national workshop and conducted a survey of hundreds of place-based research sites. Perhaps the loudest call was for a stronger network among FSMLs. As research expands to more complex problems and greater spatial and temporal scales, integrating FSMLs into a coherent portfolio of national assets could help scientists take advantage of the available opportunities—from conducting research across multiple sites to integrating rich data streams. FSMLs are a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure for field science. They serve as hosts for a number of large-scale initiatives, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network. Furthermore, the FSML network, almost 90% of which is not involved in these national initiatives, represents a highly flexible, decentralized network that supports field research across a broad geographic scope. More than 400 FSMLs all across the country, with $1+ billion invested in them collectively, provide logistical support, access to field sites, critical contextual knowledge, and opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Not only did many of the ideas and technical expertise that support national initiatives largely emerge from individual FSMLs, but many of the insights generated by national initiatives will require complementary research at FSMLs outside the programs. Each of these field stations and marine labs has historic data that is priceless. If we’re serious about understanding a changing world, we need to make these data accessible to scientists—not just the data that can be harmonized across large geographic areas, but also the idiosyncratic location-specific information that FSMLs tend to specialize in. It is precisely this incredible richness and diversity of knowledge about each site that offers the greatest potential for discovery. One of the other issues that emerged was the increasing difficulty...

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Ecology branches into the tree of life

An August 2012 supplementary issue of Ecology explores the interface of ecology and phylogenetics. By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Lebensbaum (Tree of Life): Detail from Gustav Klimt’s 1910/11 drawing for the immense dining room frieze at Stoclet Palace, in Brussels. Watercolor and pencil. Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna. NATURALISTS of the late 19th century tended to holistic interpretations of the natural environment and its evolutionary history.  In the decades after Darwin, the new understanding of the relatedness of organisms to each other mixed indiscriminately with the study of relationships of organisms  to their living and physical environments. Theories of natural selection and inheritance sprang from observations of communities of animals, plants and microorganisms – and, in turn, informed ideas of how communities may have been shaped by the climate and landscapes of their earthly residence. “Ecology drives evolution, evolution drives ecology, that’s how Darwin saw the world,” said University of Minnesota ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares. But it is possible to zoom in on one viewpoint, to focus only on the interactions of living organisms and their environment, or only on the history of life, the derivation of species from common ancestors, and their adaptations to environmental pressures. That is what biological science did for much of the 20th century. “We partitioned the processes we were looking at into more tractable components. There are benefits to doing that, but at the expense of understanding how ecological and evolutionary processes reinforce each other.” Cavender-Bares is chief editor of a supplementary issue of ESA’s journal Ecology dedicated to bridging that gap in methodology and perspective. It showcases work at the interface of ecology and phylogenetics, a field of biology that works to infer the evolutionary history of relationships among organisms. “Integrating Ecology and Phylogenetics” went online in August, and is open access. “If you start with Darwin — always a good place to start! — natural selection is fundamentally an ecological process,” said David Ackerly, one of Cavender-Bares’ co-editors for the supplementary issue. “Chapter 3 of the On the Origin of Species [1859] is really a textbook in ecology.” “As ecology became a more quantitative science, it was just more tractable not to have to consider all of evolutionary history. But it’s become tractable again,” said Cavender-Bares. She and co-editors Ackerly and Kenneth Kozak pushed forward the supplementary issue not only to showcase available technology, but to make the case for incorporating phylogenetic research questions and concepts into ecological studies. “Ecologists are thinking about history more, thinking about contingency and context, and not seeing ecological systems so much as systems in equilibrium,” said Ackerly. He trained in ecology as a graduate...

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The American alligator and its importance to the Florida Everglades

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Critics of the Endangered Species Act have sought to brand it as unsuccessful saying that only one percent of species listed have fully recovered and been delisted since it was first enacted. In response, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) released a report entitled “On Time, On Target: How the Endangered Species Act Is Saving America’s Wildlife,” documenting the successful recovery of federally protected species. The study notes that, on average, it takes species several decades from their initial listing to fully recover. The CBD report concludes that 90 percent of species currently listed under the Endangered Species Act are on track to meet recovery goals set by federal scientists. A noteworthy success story among the “one percent” is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). The American alligator was first listed as endangered in 1967, due to poorly regulated hunting and habitat loss. It was among the landmark “Class of ’67,” the first class of 78 species to warrant federal protection under the precursor to the existing endangered species law. Delisting of the alligator species began in 1975 in certain parts of Louisiana and it was delisted throughout the remainder of the South by 1987. Among the last remnants from the age of the dinosaurs, this reptile is the central focus of study for Adam Rosenblatt, one of this year’s three Ecological Society of America (ESA) Graduate Student Policy Award winners. Adam Rosenblatt discusses his research on the American alligator and its importance to the Florida Everglades in a recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast. Rosenblatt, a Ph.D. student at Florida International University, has been researching this animal through the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program, which is part of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, established by the National Science Foundation in 1980. As the top predator of the Everglades, says Rosenblatt, alligators have a large impact on the ecosystem through their interactions with and consumption of other animals. He notes that in addition to its importance to recreation and tourism, the Everglades are the primary drinking source for South Floridians. Perhaps the greatest contribution the alligator makes to the ecosystem and its inhabitants are ‘gator holes’ that adults create and expand year by year. These submerged depressions tend to stay full of water throughout the dry season and even extended droughts, providing critical sustenance for fish, insects, snakes, turtles, birds and other wildlife that inhabits the ecosystem. Thus, sustaining the prevalence of the wild American Alligator population is critical for sustaining the Florida Everglades and all the life, humans included, that depend on...

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Managing non-native invasive plants

 This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Many invasive species can have a domino effect of throwing an entire ecosystem off balance by diminishing native plant or animal species that function as an important resource for both natural ecosystems and human communities. According to the Nature Conservancy, the estimated damage from invasive species worldwide totals over $1.4 trillion, five percent of the global economy. Invasive species that have gained notoriety in the United States include the Burmese python, Asian carp, Northern snakehead fish,Asian tiger mosquito, emerald ash borer and  brown marmorated stink bug. Non-native  invasives from the plant kingdom can be just as damaging, if not more so. Invasive plant species have the ability to reduce the amounts of light, water, nutrients and space available to native species in an ecosystem. Their ability to affecthydrological patterns, soil chemistry, soil erosion and fire frequency can also have disastrous economic consequences for human society, particularly the agricultural industry. Federal management of invasive species is primarily handled by the United States Department of Agriculture along with the National Park Service.  According to the U.S. Forest Service, invasive exotic plants constitute eight to 47 percent of the total flora of most states in the nation. Of the approximately 4,500 exotic species currently in the U.S., at least 15 percent cause severe harm. Examples of the detriments of invasive plants include alteration of food webs, degradation on wildlife habitat, changes of fire and hydrological regimes and increases in erosion rates. The Forest Service estimates that the United States spends approximately $145 million annually in its attempt to control non-native invasive plants. In a recent edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner Sara Kuebbing discusses her work on invasive plant species at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In addition, Kuebbing serves on the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council (TN-EPPC). Her work has included some of the most problematic invasive plant species in the state of Tennessee and the greater United States. During the podcast, Sara touches on her research and efforts by TN-EPPC and affiliated state entities to educate communities on invasive plant species and manage both existing and potential threat species. Perhaps among the most renowned invasive plant species is kudzu, which currently inhabits 30 states and the District of Columbia. According to scientific studies, kudzu’s nationwide invasion costs about $100-500 million per year in forest productivity loss. Kudzu can grow on top of structures and even other plants, including trees, basically suffocating them by obstructing their access to light and other necessary resources.  Power companies spend about $1.5 million annually to control...

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Asian longhorned beetle poses threat to New England maples

Signs of fall are beginning to appear in the northeastern United States.  Glimpses of colorful leaves are showing and a crisp autumn smell hangs in the air.  Maple trees make up much of New England’s landscape and are integral to both thriving tourist and maple syrup industries.  Now, a new study just out in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research suggests that if left uncontrolled, the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) can “readily disperse into natural forest landscapes and alter the makeup of North America’s hardwood forest region.” The study focuses on the ongoing ALB infestation in Worcester, Massachusetts, the only outbreak so far in which the beetles have invaded nearby closed-canopy forests.  ALB infestations have famously occurred in cities including New York, Boston and in Chicago. Native to eastern China, the ALB was first discovered in the U.S. in 1996, probably arriving in wood packaging material shipped from Asia.  As described on the Center for Invasive Species Research website, the wood-boring beetle often kills otherwise healthy trees by girdling them and creating holes in the bark, leaving the trees vulnerable to additional attacks by other insects or disease.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working to control or eradicate ALB populations and raise public awareness and cooperation as seen in the agency’s public service announcement in the video below. In urban environments, the ALB invades a wide variety of hardwood trees but in forests it favors maple trees.  At one of the study’s research sites in a suburb of Worcester, nearly two-thirds of all maple trees were infested.  According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) press release about the recent study, the Worcester ALB outbreak is the largest so far in North America with more than 19,600 trees infested.  Eradication efforts involve harvesting affected trees and have led to shifts in forest composition from maple to oak. Says co-author David Orwig, a forest ecologist at NSF’s Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in the NSF release: “If the ALB continues to spread outside Worcester, the abundance of red maples could provide a pathway for its dispersal throughout New England and other parts of eastern North America.”   Photo: NSF Harvard Forest LTER...

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Scientists detect aquatic ecosystem warning signal

Scientists have found what appears to be the stress signals of a lake ecosystem that is on its way to collapse. Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and colleagues carefully monitored the food web in a Wisconsin lake as they gradually introduced largemouth bass into the ecosystem. The researchers noticed a shift in the algae populations that were directly related to the altered feeding behavior of smaller lake fish after the addition of the larger predators. “Because the smaller fish shifted to shallow waters where bass threaten them less, [Carpenter] explains, the algae that inhabit the more open waters of the lake were free of their predators and their populations fluctuate more,” wrote Jennifer Carpenter in a Science Now article. “Carpenter and his colleagues report online today in Science that these fluctuations were a warning that the lake’s food web is changing.” As explained in a National Science Foundation press release, the researchers “detected what they say is an unmistakable warning—a death knell—of the impending collapse of the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.” “We start adding these big ferocious fish and almost immediately this instills fear in the other fish,” Carpenter said in the release. “The small fish begin to sense there is trouble and they stop going into the open water and instead hang around the shore and structures, things like sunken logs. They become risk-averse.” A big indicator, according to Carpenter, was a boom in water flea populations. Carpenter and colleagues explained in the release that these signals are universal and could be incorporated into work on “rangelands, forests and marine ecosystems.” Photo Credit: Eric Engbretson,...

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Inspiring an Environmental Stewardship Generation

It’s been said that, for better or worse, the experiences from your early childhood tend to stick with you for the rest of your life and influence the adult you become. Policymakers, environmentalists and ecological scientists are wise to take this sentiment into account in their efforts to get average citizens to care more about the environment and inform policy as it relates to environmental stewardship.

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Human-ecosystem interactions: Perspectives from the LTER symposium

Human-ecosystem interactions are complex and ever changing, influenced by factors ranging from region to religion, family history to homeowner’s associations. And in many cases, global change is having, and will continue to have, a pronounced impact on these already dynamic relationships—not only on which ecosystem services people value, but also how they obtain, use, and protect them.

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