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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Floods and foods, dogs protecting cats and microbial munchers

This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern. Tiny critters: Though all smaller than a millimeter in size, four critters highlighted by Neatorama are much larger in effectiveness. When there is no oxygen around to speak of (or to breathe in), shewanella inhales the likes of uranium and chromium. The bacterium exhales the toxic metals with a few extra electrons, which prevents the toxins from moving through ground water. By surrounding toxic waste sites with the bacteria, scientists are hoping to protect lakes and streams from pollutants. And despite the harsh reputation, E. coli is not all bad either. Not only is it one of the most important bacteria inside the human intestinal tract, its rapid reproduction time has contributed to research exploring the role of chance in evolution. And there is a wormier side to the fountain of youth. A transparent, low-maintenance roundworm that shares 35 percent of human genes may reveal the key to diminishing the effects of aging. Read more at “4 Little Creatures That Pack a Big Scientific Punch.” Floods and foods: Floods, such as those in the Mississippi River valley, raise concerns about food safety. According to a recent Scientific American article, “the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] doesn’t allow any flooded out crops—organic or otherwise—to be sold or consumed by people,” and the FDA policy governing farmers’ response to floods is designed to make sure that consumers have access to safe food. According to a group of Italian researchers working in the Swiss Alps, however, we can expect more floods as long as the global temperature continues to rise. The study showed that global warming does increase flood risk significantly, with so-called “100 year floods” increasing in frequency by as often as every 20 years. Read more at “Sop Soil: Have the Recent Record Floods Compromised the Safety of Organic Farm Produce?” Active learning: Graduate student David Haak wanted to boost the performance of educationally and economically disadvantaged students in introductory science classes. Disadvantaged students were previously more than twice as likely as their classmates to fail the huge intro lecture courses that serve as key portals to higher-level sciences. To address this challenge, Haak turned to the latest K-12 teacher books to design a more structured course, including small group discussions, short weekly exams and class-wide quizzes that enable instructors to get instant feedback on the class’s comprehension. The new design, which was based on an active learning model, saw improved learning for all students, especially the disadvantaged students. “Even as class size more than doubled, lab time was cut by 30 percent and the ratio of teaching assistants-to-students fell...

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From the Community: Giant monitor lizard, seafloor scavengers and fruit fly aerodynamics

Climate change prompts migratory birds to stay home, Simpsons’ writer talks conservation and the U.K. announces newest and largest MPA. Here’s what is happening in ecology from the second week in April.

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Research demonstrates that marine protected areas aid coral reefs

Research has shown that marine protected areas (MPAs)—areas where fishing and other potentially destructive activities are regulated—are benefitting, not just the fish habitats they are known to aid, but nearby coral reefs as well. MPAs may benefit corals by restoring reef-based food webs and protecting damage from anchors and nutrient runoff…

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Study shows bias against protecting coral reefs in fishing areas

A new study out in the December issue of the ESA journal Ecological Applications has shown that human interests are having a disproportionate impact on the selection of marine protected areas, or MPAs, which are meant to protect biodiversity in marine ecosystems. Their paper shows a consistent bias in Australian and Tasmanian MPAs toward areas with little commercial resource value. Volunteer diver undertaking fish transect in the Abrolhos Islands, Australia. Credit:  G. J. Edgar. The study, led by Graham Edgar of the University of Tasmania, compared long-term trends for so-called “no-take” marine protected areas, where fishing is off-limits, to nearby marine areas that were unprotected and subject to fishing.  The 14 reef communities spanned the southern coasts of Australia and its neighboring southern island, Tasmania. He and his team surveyed the areas – by diving to the reef and visually inspecting along transects — from 1992 to 2008, collecting data on the presence and abundance of predatory fish, medium-sized fish and invertebrates. As Edgar says, the declaration of the MPAs in 1992 provided a unique large-scale natural experiment. “Experiments of this kind are rarely undertaken at scales greater than a few square meters because of the difficulties in manipulating larger areas of seabed using scientific dive teams,” says Edgar. “The best opportunity to expand such experiments to regional scales is through monitoring changes that follow declaration of MPAs, because in each MPA we are effectively removing human predators from a patch of seabed.” At the outset of the experiment, Edgar and his colleagues found that the MPAs had lower fish biomass (total estimated mass of fish in the area) and density than other reef areas nearby. Although these MPA became more diverse than their unprotected counterparts over time, Edgar wonders why they had lower biodiversity in the first place. “When the boundaries of MPAs are drawn up, fishers and other stakeholders try to ensure that areas used by them are excluded from protected zones. This is often publicized as a ‘win-win’ situation because the MPA is declared with little impact on the activities of fishers, who continue fishing in their preferred areas,” Edgar says. “However, MPAs located in areas with little resource value also have relatively low value for biodiversity conservation because human activities continue largely unchanged and the community types most threatened by fishing remain unprotected. This bias seems to be widespread worldwide.” Edgar says that to safeguard the full range of marine community types, some sanctuary zones need to be located in areas that are heavily fished. “We cannot safeguard marine biodiversity by declaring sanctuary zones only at sites with little resource value,” he says. “Heavily-fished areas...

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