I am spending about half my week this week with about 1500 students, academics, and practitioners at the International Congress for Conservation Biology being held in Baltimore, MD. (One thing you should know right away is that the conference has a mascot, Clawdia the blue crab.) I’m attending as an exhibitor, which means I’m spending most of my time at the booth, but I still wanted to give you a sense of some of the cool ideas being discussed, so I’ve put together a Storify of tweets from Tuesday’s events.
One of the challenges of ecology is that its data take time to exist. If you want to study the offspring of some yeast cells you poked somehow, just take a long lunch break and they’ll be waiting for you in about 80 minutes. Go away for a full day and you’ll come back to the 18th generation of baby yeast cells. (That’s not to say yeast studies are easy, their time investments just come in different forms.) If you want to look over the same number of generations of a larger, longer-lived mammal, you need a longer data history.
So imagine if you had 55 years of data about wolves and moose on a small island. And now imagine if the wolf population was in trouble–small and inbred. Would you sit by and let the wolves die out, or would you try to throw them a life vest? And in either case, how does the value of your data change?
Those are some of the questions being asked on Isle Royale, a small island 15 miles into Lake Superior. But they’re also being asked of you.
A year ago this weekend, with quite a bit of trepidation, I bought myself a Kindle. I grew up in a house full of books and have always been a devout dead-tree type of reader, and working in publishing has given me a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to a certain company that starts with A. Buying a Kindle felt a bit like pinning said A (lowercase, upright, sans serif) in scarlet to myself. On the other hand, working in publishing also means a not-insignificant amount of time spent reading books before they’re actually physical books, which was getting impractical since I don’t read long things well or cheerfully on a computer screen.
So I made a compromise with myself that I could try a Kindle and just not put any paid content on it, and a year later I am very glad I did.
In the 1960s, a guy named Bob Paine picked a small stretch of rocky beach in Washington state and evicted its sea stars, crowbarring them off the rocks and throwing them back into the ocean. Within a year, the beach’s demographics had changed dramatically: barnacles and then mussels replaced algae and limpets. Species richness, or the number of different species present, hadn’t gone down by the number of sea stars–it had halved.
Paine realized the reason behind the shift was that without the sea stars around to eat barnacles and mussels, their populations skyrocketed, and their demand for algae and limpets increased, causing those populations to crash. He called the three-step chain a “trophic cascade”; the sea stars at the top that shaped the chain he called an “apex predator.”
This handsome beaver will become relevant later in this post, I promise. Just take a leap of faith and hit “Continue reading.” Photo by dw_ross via Wikimedia Commons.
If you pay any attention to environmental stories, you’ve likely heard the term “Anthropocene” bandied about, proposed as a name for a new geological epoch. Epochs are those long, long ago time chunks with the clunky names, the only one of which to ever be reliably remembered is the Jurassic, because I’m told there was a movie or something. The boundaries between epochs are written in stone, literally, and there is a committee in charge of them.
But genetics also happen at the level of a population, of course. If you’ve ever taken a biology class, “population genetics” may give you hazy flashbacks to some guys named Hardy and Weinberg and their equilibrium, which is nice and all except for the bit where you have to assume several things that don’t really happen in real life ever (large populations with only two “flavors” of a gene that has no effect on reproductive success and can’t mutate). Where’s the fun in that?
But there are real reasons to care about a population’s genetics, and if you can get enough data from, say, a scat survey, you can look at some interesting questions, particularly if you’re thinking with species conservation in mind.
Say you want to learn about big cats. Good choice, they’re awesome. You could spend a lifetime tramping around jungles and mountains. But, thanks to technology, you have some other options to consider.
Techniques like camera traps, which are non-invasive, meaning you don’t bother the animals you’re studying, can be particularly helpful. To go back to big cats, consider the fact that many are rare, nocturnal, camouflaged, and/or not necessarily friendly. You can make satellite tags and the like work, but it’s tricky.