February 16, 2012

CSI: Invasive Species

This is a marvelous development in protecting and conserving biodiversity from the Percolator blog of the Chronicle for Higher Education.

Some new research by British scientists suggests that an investigative tool used to help cops find criminals can also help locate the sources of invasive species. (Invasive species are generally considered the second largest cause of biodiversity loss, right after habitat destruction.  Think Asian carp, Nile perch, Real Housewives.  (Just kidding about the last one.)  Anyway:

The tool, known as geographic profiling, has also been used to find patterns in the foraging of animals and the spread of infectious disease.

In criminology, geographic profiling won’t magically point to a serial criminal’s hideout. But it can help determine the probability of where a criminal may live.  To see if it would work on invasive species, the team used a series of computer simulations to compare it with other mathematical methods.

The researchers applied geographic profiling to historical data on 53 species that have invaded Britain: daddy-long-legs spiders, Pacific oysters, Norway spruce trees, and giant hogweed — a noxious weed that can get up to a dozen feet tall and can cause blistering and blindness.

This plant is a giant hogweed, whose spread may be thwarted with geographical profiling. It causes blistering and blindness. It is pretty sinister, come to think of it. Get it off the streets!

In criminology, geographic profiling has two rules of thumb: 1) The probability of a crime decreases with distance from the criminal’s “anchor point,”, like a home or office.  2) There’s a “buffer zone” of lower activity around the criminal’s base. The zone is set partly by the rules of plane geometry and partly because criminals avoid activity near their homes, lest they be discovered.

Turns out invasive species’ spread patterns have similar mathematical properties to criminal-activity patterns: the farther the invasive species are from their source, the more opportunities they have to prosper.  And in some species, the “buffer zone” has even more makes a great deal of sense: for instance, trees from seeds that fall in the shade of the trees’ parents may not do as well as the seeds that make it out to sunnier places.

We can just see the scientists putting on their shades and uttering invasive species one-liners.

February 8, 2012

Team Earth

Conservation International’s stunningly beautiful online magazine Team Earth has launched a new issue (#4 of a series), and it’s full of both amazing photos and stories of good news for the planet.

A family from a floating village, Prek Toal, on Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia.

You can read about the projects they help fund and focus on:  slowing deforestation, preserving healthy, adaptive ecosystems, and bringing oft-ignored indigenous groups to the forefront of political and economic decisions that affect them and their traditional lands.  This issue focuses on a life-giving lake in Cambodia (replete with floating houses!) and how CI is helping the people of Papua New Guinea  preserve their forests, as well as a look forward to the next Copenhagen climate summit.

It always warms our heart to see the good work that so many conservation-oriented organizations are doing in partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government ministries all over the world.  CI is a terrific advocate for all of us who want to respect the Earth’s breathtaking diversity and the sustainability of its resources.

We laugh that these kinds of online treats are what naughty sites are for others.  If it’s wrong, we don’t want to be right. ; )


January 10, 2012

A seedbank for the future

Saludos, my friends, it’s been quite a while. But of course in the grand scheme of things, barely any time at all.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the things that scientists are trying to preserve for the future.  I’ve been thinking about how during Stalin’s reign, there were botanists who secretly stored seeds and different kinds of plants as the agricultural landscape of the huge country was being radically altered as the country was being unified.  It was in the name of crop diversity.  Crops are “genetic resources.” They can go extinct just like animals.

The varieties of wheat, corn and rice grown all over the world today may survive, but may not thrive, in a future threatened by climate change. A “biodiversity warrior” named Cary Fowler did an excellent TED Talk (yes, I know, they are so great, my friends!) in which he takes us inside a gigantic global seed bank, buried inside a frozen mountain in Norway, that stores a diverse group of food crops for whatever tomorrow may bring.  It is quite fascinating.  (There are quite a few all over the world.)

The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Muy dramatico, no?

Burying seeds inside an icy Norwegian mountain may seem like something from a James Bond movie, but this is very serious business.  We really don’t know what will happen one hundred years from now.  Let alone one thousand  Or ten thousand.

It heartens me to know someone is thinking about protecting the future of food.

The grim iciness of the seedbank’s entrance is making me crave papaya, so I will leave you to ponder Mr. Fowler’s talk while I appreciate the fleeting deliciousness of that exquisite fruit.



December 14, 2011

L.A. Urban Rangers

When many people (including Angelenos) think of L.A., they think of smog and unending stretches of traffic.  But one playful group of artist-environmentalists wants to open its neighbors’ eyes to the natural wonders of the City of Angels.

How do they do it?

The Los Angeles Urban Rangers develop guided hikes, campfire talks, field kits, and other interpretive tools to spark creative explorations of everyday habitats, in our home megalopolis and beyond.

Join their mailing list, check out their toolbox, or take a peek at their field site projects and find out about how easy it is to engage with some pretty amazing nature in Los Angeles.

December 14, 2011

Whale FM: Calling all Citizen Scientists

Pilot whales. You can hear their newest singles on Whale FM.

We’re professional scientists, ooh aah.  But do you know about “Citizen Science”?

Citizen Science falls into many categories, and usually involves harnessing the power of the Internet.  Laypeople can work on projects like SETI@Home, the groundbreaking project that had millions of participants (with time to kill) helping in the search for extraterrestrial life. Citizen scientists also  volunteer to classify heavenly objects, like in Galaxy Zoo,  observe the natural world, as in The Great Sunflower Project, and even solve puzzles to design proteins, as in the project called FoldIt.

Scientific American keeps tabs on such projects, and has co-sponsored this one with the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).

The Whale Song Project (also known as Whale FM), invites citizen scientists to help study whale communications and pass along their observations. The Whale Song Project, which is also available as part of the CSA’s suite of Zooniverse projects, was created to help with  killer (Orca) and pilot whale research being conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

This orca duo's about to go platinum.

(You can tell the Scottish whales because of their charming brogues.  Sorry, we couldn’t resist.  Ahem.  Moving on…

Here’s how it works. You’re presented with a whale call and shown where it was recorded on a map of the world’s oceans and seas. After listening to it —represented on screen as a spectrogram which shows how the pitch of the sound changes over time—you’re asked to listen to a number of potential matching calls from the project’s database. If there’s a match, the citizen scientist clicks on that sound’s spectrogram to store the results.

The data set generated by this project should help the researchers to answer a number of questions about how whales communicate. For example, the (professional) scientists want to know the size of the pilot whales’ call repertoire, and whether repertoire size is a sign of intelligence. They’re also trying to understand whether the two different types of pilot whales (long fin and short fin) have different call repertoires, and, if so, whether this “signifies a distinct dialect.”

We think it’s extraordinary and hope you’ll give it a look — or rather, a listen.

As Steely Dan says, “no static at all.”

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    "The Next Forever" is a song from The Great Immensity. The footage was taken on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal by videographer David Ford. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
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