Can Applying Psychology Encourage Private Land Conservation?

Anyone keeping up with policies in the United States since about 2016 knows that national protected areas are decreasing in size. At the extreme, Bears Ears monument in Utah lost all but 15% of its area in December 2017. What if conservationists could shift their focus to rely less on the ups and downs of the national government and other large, changeable institutions?

Individuals have been using their power as landowners to make conservation decisions on their land as private conservation areas, or PCAs. In their paper, “The Psychological Appeal of Owning Private Land for Conservation,” which was recently published in Conservation Biology, Jennifer Gooden and Richard Grenyer determine from interviews with landowners that allowing them some independence, providing a way to measure success and creating social connections may encourage them to create and maintain PCAs. These traits of a project align with a psychological model and increase the landowner’s wellbeing.


“Enchanted forest in autumn” by Larisa Koshkina, licensed under CC0 Public Domain


The Psychology

The authors interviewed landowners, developing and refining definitions for landowner motivations as they went. Their results suggested that landowners were encouraged by a sense of autonomy, efficacy, and social connection. Interestingly, after they gathered this data, they found that these motivations aligned with a framework called project analytic theory, which connects personal projects with a person’s intrinsic motivations and goals. The aspects of this model are structure, efficacy, community, meaning, and stress, and are based on their effect on personal wellbeing. The first three of these agree with the findings of this study, and the fourth, Gooden and Grenyer say, is supplied by the context of the biodiversity crisis. That leaves stress. While many of the landowners interviewed reported high stress levels along with high satisfaction with the project, the researchers  concluded that the other benefits of the project, combined with stress-relieving properties of connection to nature, outweighed the stress of managing the land.


NGOs “blow a lot of hot air,” according to one landowner. Similarly, governments are perceived as inefficient. Individuals may decide to buy land instead of donating money just so they can see and directly affect their impact. They can also experiment with management practices. Interestingly, strategies in which organizations use monetary incentives to encourage conservation can reduce the perceived independence of the landowners. Gooden and Grenyer suggest that these incentives should be carried out carefully. They should affirm existing motivations, rather than existing as the only incentive for a landowner to invest in conservation. Since monetary incentives do increase participation in private conservation, this method should not be discounted entirely.


The autonomy of owning land is in part an intrinsic aspect of owning a PCA; measuring the effects of a project, however, requires additional effort. Landowners like to know that what they are doing makes a difference, and the best way to do this is to measure it. Participating in a program may provide a framework for measurement. Some organizations already provide descriptions of “best practices.”

Social Connection

In addition, some owners say they benefit from the social interactions that come with managing their property. In addition to associating with those on the team managing the property, landowners benefit from connections to other landowners. They also connect to conservation organizations and universities for support. If conflicts arise around management of property, however, this can increase the stress levels of the owner.

Relevance for Programs

What can conservation organizations or governments do to encourage private conservation? The answer is rooted in the three motivations. Programs should allow as much autonomy as possible, while still being effective. One way to encourage autonomy that doesn’t reduce the large-scale effectiveness of the program is to suggest that the landowner can have some control over the fate of the property that would be otherwise out of their hands, such as by preserving the land from development through a conservation easement. The program should also include ways to measure efficacy; for example, standards and best practices. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it should connect landowners to one another through local and/or global networks.

If the conservation world is to increasingly rely on them, it is time to learn from landowners how best to work with them.


Works Cited

  1. Gooden, Jennifer, and Richard Grenyer. “The Psychological Appeal of Owning Private Land for Conservation.” Conservation Biology, 28 Aug. 2018, Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/cobi.13215.


  1. Gonzales, Richard, et al. “Trump Orders Largest National Monument Reduction In U.S. History.” NPR, National Public Radio, 4 Dec. 2017.


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Captive Pandas: Are We Raising Them to be Picky-Eaters?

5402340884_e472d9f447Panda” by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC 2.0

Thanks to aggressive conservation efforts by China and international groups, the population of giant pandas is beginning to stabilize, and the giant panda is no longer considered an endangered species. Despite the good news, captive breeding and release of captive-bred pandas are still needed to aid the giant panda in its continued recovery. While captive breeding programs have been quite successful, the first release of pandas born and reared in captivity, however, was far from a complete success. Three of the eight pandas died within one year of their release into the wild. The high mortality rate indicates much remains to be done to increase the post-release survival rate of captive-bred pandas.

For captive-bred animals to survive successfully in the wild, captive-release programs need to identify which skills necessary for survival may be impaired in a captive environment and work to ensure captive-reared animals develop these skills in captivity. While the causes of death for the released pandas are not known, the poor body condition of some of them suggests undernourishment could have been a contributing factor. Their undernourishment points to potentially compromised feeding behavior of pandas in captivity and the need for release programs to develop and nurture their feeding skills.

A study published in the journal Animal Conservation by Dr. Swaisgood et al. of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research looked at whether panda feeding behavior is negatively impacted by captivity. The researchers compared the feeding behaviors of giant pandas bred and raised in captivity with those of giant pandas born in the wild and brought into captivity to determine if there were differences. They found that feeding behaviors of the captive-bred pandas differed from those born in the wild in subtle ways that could make it more difficult for captive-bred pandas to survive in the wild.

The researchers also found that captive-bred pandas spent more time and energy eating less nutritious parts of the bamboo than the wild-born pandas. They determined captive-bred pandas spent most of their time eating the large, hollow stem part of the bamboo, whereas the wild pandas preferred the leaves. The captive-bred pandas also spent less time eating both the bamboo leaves and the smaller bamboo stems, whereas wild-born pandas preferred bamboo leaves over stems and preferred smaller stems over larger stems. These differences in feeding behavior can be very important to the health of pandas in the wild because leaves are more nutritious than the stems, and smaller stems are more nutritious than larger ones. Additionally, they found the captive-reared pandas spent less time chewing and biting on the more nutritious bamboo leaves than the wild-born pandas. Because of this, captive-bred giant pandas may be less efficient in taking in energy and nutrition than their wild-born counterparts.

Giant pandas are energy-limited, meaning they are limited by their energy intake despite spending a lot of their time foraging. Because they are energy-limited, even a marginal decrease in their feeding efficiency can be detrimental to their survival. This raises concerns that the compromised feeding behaviors observed in captive-bred pandas may negatively impact their ability to survive in the wild. More research, however, is needed to demonstrate that this is indeed the case. It is also unknown why captive-bred pandas prefer larger food pieces over smaller, more nutritious parts. Why is it they, like humans, seem to prefer the super-size but less healthy order? How can we foster better eating habits in captive-bred pandas?

Studies like this to help us understand panda feeding behavior are the first steps toward preparing captive-bred pandas for release into the wild. Panda breeding programs owe much of their current success to intensive efforts to understand panda breeding behavior. We need to apply similar strategies and efforts to understand panda behavior in the wild and use that knowledge to create an environment that will develop and nurture the necessary behavior in captive-bred pandas. This will help us address the challenges of successfully releasing captive-bred pandas into the wild so that we can ensure sustained recovery and expansion of the giant panda population.


Swaisgood, R. R., Martin‐Wintle, M. S., Owen, M. A., Zhou, X., & Zhang, H. (2018). Developmental stability of foraging behavior: evaluating suitability of captive giant pandas for translocation. Animal Conservation. Advance online publication.


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Species adrift: What do European bison and a rare flower have in common?

Twelve. There are twelve individuals to whom all European bison (Bison bonasus) alive today trace their lineage (Slatis 1960). After the species was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century, the European bison, historically abundant across Europe, is now made up of 3,200 individuals between the wild and captivity. The subsequent population bottleneck has led to the fragile persistence of the species at rates far from the vastness of their ancestral counts (Olech 2008).

Simply put, when a population undergoes a traumatic event resulting in the loss of many individuals, the gene pool that propagates from the survivors has undergone a bottleneck. The bison are only one such example of this effect. In a study by Lee, Kim, and Kim, published this past June in the journal Ecology and Evolution, the Hallym University researchers concluded that bottlenecks in the evolutionary history of a species can, and will, lead to widespread genetic similarities within isolated populations, such as those observed in the rare Plagiorhegma dubium plant. Such likenesses are a phenomenon caused by genetic drift, a process that explains how some genotypes become more prominent than others within a given population.  


A close relative of Plagiorhegma dubium, Jeffersonia diphylla, also known as “Twinleaf,” can be found across Eastern North America. Picture: Gould, Anita. “Twinleaf”, Taken 18 Apr 2009

P. dubium is a prime example of a species suffering from genetic drift, brought about in two key steps: an initial population bottleneck, followed by a lack of reasonable gene flow. The combination of these factors made the various populations, though physically near one another, genetically distinct across microhabitats.

Researchers didn’t initially know there was a bottleneck in P. dubium, but observed unexpectedly low genetic variation between individuals within a given population. This cannot be chalked up to inbreeding, as we’ll discuss later, rather the authors point to an historic bottleneck as the source.

Likewise, limited inter-population gene flow contributed heavily to the observed genetic drift in P. dubium plants. In the study, Lee, Kim, and Kim identified ten populations of P. dubium across the Korean peninsula, each varying in genetic distinctness from the other nine. If individuals of a species were unable to interact between populations, for cross-breeding or otherwise, the populations were considered ‘isolated’ and prone to drift, on the sole basis of founder effect.

Founder effect, along with a population bottleneck, acts as a prime cause for genetic drift. A founder effect occurs when individuals of a species are isolated from other populations, leaving any future progeny to come from the genes present in the founding members. This presents a limit on the variation available to the group, outside of any mutations that may arise.

Ultimately, this is what happened to the European bison and the existing population continues to struggle. Low genetic diversity will always make them prone to inbreeding, opening the doors for ruinous dormant traits and other genetic concerns.

P. dubium, however, has not yet reached that fate. Since there are multiple populations, albeit in low numbers and each one genetically distinct, it would not be difficult to simply cross-breed members of different populations and introduce the new progeny into each of the groups. By cross-breeding the populations, we would reintroduce genetic diversity where it was lost, a model that would suit any endangered species with multiple sub-populations.

The way they are now, the lack of genetic diversity across P. dubium populations makes each group more rare and more threatened. Each tiny population ritually breeds out any adaptive power they may have, as they get closer and closer to uniformity with each new progeny.

In this way, the study confirms that, by identifying population bottlenecks and other spatial discrepancies in genetic variation, we can designate species most at risk of extinction. Understandably, if we know that a population suffered a significant bottleneck in the past, conservationists can make sure to protect species’ habitats, counteracting an inherently limited ability to adapt to any future changes in the environment. If we can protect the ones most at risk, the rest of our world should fall in line.




Gould, A. (2009). Twinleaf [Photograph]. Retrieved from anitagould/3597092106/in/photolist-T4ZYUH-bsiVtC-6tS3aq-4BqwTX-Gz2XEN-6gu3Mg-4BuP8d-4BuPcU-JNYHo-4BqwQB-bRr15t-6kWkVJ-e8AAys-Tx9yid-263rhhL-6gq8Ur-9uywm4-SxVZvd-CJURLT-DfbYiG-eeCuUM-D8Pn88-FX4bb3-tbapuM-bFdPnZ-sTy35S-FrHhSN-TCeMiY-TCeKY3-TNz67Q-ULQEAM

Lee, S.-R., Kim, B.-Y., & Kim, Y.-D. (2018). Genetic diagnosis of a rare myrmecochorous species, Plagiorhegma dubium (Berberidaceae): Historical genetic bottlenecks and strong spatial structures among populations. Ecology and Evolution, 0(0).

Olech, W. (IUCN SSC Bison Specialist Group) (2008). Bison bonasus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T2814A9484719.

Slatis, H. M. (1960). An Analysis of Inbreeding in the European Bison. Genetics, 45(3), 275–287.

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There’s no place like home – or is there? How riparian reserves are helping tropical birds thrive

Agriculture is a major cause of species loss in the tropics. One of the most profitable and prolific tropical crops is oil palm. The fruit of this plant is used to make palm oil, which is found in everything from the food we eat to the shampoo we use to wash our hair. Therefore, demand is high, creating an incentive to replace forests with plantations. These agricultural lands support fewer bird species than forests. Just like the Wicked Witch of the West, oil palm plantations have swept bird habitats up into a tornado of destruction.

So, are tropical bird species doomed to extinction from habitat loss?  Is it time to stop purchasing and toss out all of your products containing palm oil? Or, can we click our heels three times and help the birds return home like Dorothy?

According to an article published in the Journal of Applied Ecology by Dr. Mitchell of the University of Kent and his colleagues, it is possible for oil palm plantations and bird communities to coexist, but only if riparian reserves of a certain size and quality are present. These reserves are sections of protected forest along waterways within oil palm plantations. They must be large enough and have sufficient forest cover to support a diverse array of bird species. Just as Dorothy followed the Yellow Brick Road into the land of Oz, many bird species are traveling along “the riparian reserve road” into these remnant forests within oil palm plantations.

While the presence of riparian reserves within plantations is often mandated by law for flood prevention throughout the tropics, the size and amount of tree cover within the reserves is not regulated. In an effort to determine what size and quality of riparian reserve would support diverse bird communities, the authors surveyed 28 different sites in both oil palm plantations and forest habitats in Sabah, Malaysia. They discovered that the reserves had to be at least 40 meters wide on each bank of the waterway to support similar bird diversity to that found in forests. However, the quality of the reserve was the strongest predictor of the number of species counted for both birds that are threatened with extinction and those that rely on forest habitats. Reserve quality was determined by the amount of forest trees present within the plantation. The more forest trees that were observed, the higher the quality of the reserve. Therefore, riparian reserves that were wider and had more trees supported more bird species.

These findings are significant because they give specific and measurable parameters and guidelines for the type of riparian reserve that will support more bird species within oil palm plantations. So, are riparian reserves our magical ruby slippers? According to one of the authors, Dr. David Edwards of the University of Sheffield, they are. He stated that “riparian reserves save a surprising amount of biodiversity within oil palm, suggesting that they are a valuable investment for conservation.”

While this study is unique because it presents specific guidelines for riparian reserve size and quality, it bases these parameters on the presence of only one group of animals, birds. But, habitat loss due to agricultural expansion is not only a problem for tropical birds. It is a threat for all species living in the tropics. More research is certainly needed on the size and quality of riparian reserve required for increased species diversity of other groups like mammals, amphibians and insects.

However, the findings of this paper are still informative and present hope for birds living in the areas were oil palm plantations are prevalent. If large reserves with more forest trees are protected along rivers in these plantations, then the birds will return. As it turns out, Dorothy might have been wrong. There is a place like home.


Mitchell, Simon L. et al., 2018. Riparian reserves help protect forest bird communities in oil palm dominated landscapes, Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol 55: 2744-2755.


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Turn Off the Lights: Illuminating the Effects of Light Pollution on Ecosystems

A recent study has revealed something alarming: artificial light pollution may be more damaging to the environment than previously thought, affecting all trophic levels within a community. Published in Journal of Applied Ecology from the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter (Cornwall, UK), the study’s findings indicate global implications for ecosystems that exist near to human development. By looking at the effects of artificial nighttime light on producer growth and herbivore populations in a simple ecosystem, Bennie et al. measured the light’s bottom-up, top-down, and indeterminate effects, or those operating independent of food chain dynamics. The study’s results have ramifications for conservation in natural and semi-natural ecosystems, namely that efforts made should attempt to minimize disruption by reducing the light pollution that is currently ubiquitous.

The authors argue that natural and semi-natural ecosystems exposed to human-made light, like roadside berms and hedgerows, have value that is threatened by this pollution. These small, man-made ecosystems are often neglected in conservation efforts. Bennie et al. state that that “continuous artificial light at night equivalent to that recorded in roadside vegetation under street lighting, can cause population-level effects on plants and invertebrates, that these effects can be mediated by both top-down and bottom-up processes, and that the nature of these effects depends on the lighting technology employed” (Bennie et al., 2018). Essentially, while some nighttime lighting is less damaging than others, all forms affect producer and invertebrate populations that are critical to ecosystem function and can impact predator-prey dynamics, resource availability, and animal behavior. To combat these effects, the authors suggest that cities utilize LED lights to better control the emitted wavelength and produce less ecosystem disruption.

To arrive at these conclusions, the researchers studied the influence of different types of light pollution on a grassland ecosystem’s producers, herbivores, and predation dynamics. They found that both artificial nighttime light and herbivore presence significantly affected the number of flower heads generated by L. pedunculatus, the system’s key producer; as the base of the grassland ‘food web’ L. pedunculatus provides other species energy, shelter, or sustenance for their prey. Amber light resulted in about 50% fewer flower heads, white light about 30% fewer, and herbivore presence about 45% fewer than the plant grown alone in natural conditions (Bennie et al., 2018). When both herbivores and predators were present, the interactions of these dynamics with artificial light produced a more serious effect.

These interactions between light and interspecies relationships were also evident in D. reticulatum, the gray field slug, a herbivore acting on L. pedunculatus. Slug abundance decreased 55% under a combination of white nighttime light and predation, while predation or white nighttime light alone had no significant effects. This illustrates the complex ways in which light pollution can interact with dynamics and relationships within an ecosystem: assumptions can never be made automatically about how species are affected by the light we produce.

Artificial light also impacted populations of the pea aphid, A. pisum, another herbivore consuming L. pedunculatus. These aphids are an important food source for larger predators, other insects that are in turn consumed by birds, mammals, and reptiles. Aphids were 17% less abundant under amber nighttime light but unaffected by white light, predator presence, or interactions between the factors (Bennie et al., 2018). As such, swapping out the amber lights pervasive in street lamps for white would eliminate light pollution’s effect on this species.

To be sure, the authors are not suggesting that light pollution can or should be completely eliminated. Nighttime lighting is critical for the function of cities and safe driving conditions across the world. The authors simply suggest that when lighting is needed for safety or public amenity, its timing, location, and brightness should be limited to what is absolutely necessary. Secondly, while light pollution is often ignored by conservation efforts, the importance of other types of pollution these efforts combat can not be negated or reduced. Chemical, plastic, and air pollution all unmistakably affect ecosystem health, and conservationists should attempt to reduce light pollution in conjunction with these other man-made effects.

Overall, to decrease ecological damage, the authors suggest planning outdoor lighting according to a few basic principles of lighting design. If possible, avoid illumination around natural and semi-natural environments, taking care around species more susceptible to artificial light and assuming that ecosystem effects are much wider than simply known impacts on specific species. As mentioned above, limit light where possible, and control the wavelengths emitted in different situations. This could mean switching the amber lights along roads for white LEDs, limiting lights’ ‘on’ time with motion sensors or timers, or even just households making an effort to turn off their lights at night. Buildings could be designed with reduction of light emittance as a priority, providing the added benefit of reduced energy usage, another important method of conservation. Through these few adjustments, we can minimize the ecological impact of our light pollution and reduce systemic damage to ecosystems.

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An Unorthodox Approach: How Lampreys can help Conserve Great Lakes Fish

Who knew that the best way to save native fish species might be by letting lamprey coexist with them? Although this sounds counterintuitive, the idea has been proposed for the Great Lakes region by researchers. Dams are currently situated at many waterways to limit the damage of invasive lamprey, but they also block tributary access to the habitats of desirable fish species. Tributaries are smaller streams that flow into lakes or larger rivers. These fish play an important role in maintaining the balance of their ecosystems by keeping organisms below them in check and providing a food source to those in upper trophic levels. Cutting off access to lampreys would also irreversibly harm the fish that are the focus of conservation efforts.


“Sea Lamprey” by Cory Genovese is licensed under CC 2.0

Instead of traditional barriers such as dams, researchers are suggesting alternative solutions that can minimize lamprey expansion while also reducing the harm to native species. The lampreys have no natural enemies in the Great Lakes and prey on many fish species. Unchecked, this can lead to the extinction of these native species. A study published in the journal Conservation Biology by Dr. Milt of the University of Wisconsin proposed several solutions. One solution that Milt proposed was replacing dams with fish friendly passages. The researchers tried to maximize the benefits to the desired species while also minimizing the costs of removing the barriers. Barriers that provided little benefit to increase desirable access, were expensive to replace, or resulted in a large increase to lamprey access were not considered. Lampricides were considered as a last resort.

Potential habitat expansions through barrier removal were examined through the possible cost to restore a portion of the access to the tributaries. Dr. Milt found that removing barriers offered diminishing returns as habitat access increased. For example, each species can access 115 km2 of the waterways under current conditions. Tripling the area available would cost $14 million. However, increasing the available habitat to 550 km2 drove costs up to $80 million. To think that an extra 100 km2 could drive up prices that much!

Another finding brought up was the variance in current habitat area and relative gains from removing barriers for different species. At one extreme, mooneye started out with 19 km2 of available habitat and can add 96 km2 to its range with $15 million in renovations. On the other end, yellow perch would need $65 million to increase its range to a similar level. Now that’s a big difference! This shows that the preexisting ranges of certain fish are more restricted by dams and culverts than their counterparts.

Besides removing dams, which have varying degrees of success between species, lampricide use was also explored. Current use by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission has seen lamprey populations in most areas decline over 85%. Although the lamprey population cannot be completely eradicated, the lampricides have been a positive boost in limiting their effects on other species.

A counter point noted is that this plan only helps a subset of the species of interest. The “barrier-centric strategy is limited by the money” that can be spent said Dr. Milt, researcher at the University of Wisconsin and lead author of the study. Some fishes will benefit over others due to spatial range differences. A suggestion for further research could be to try and find a solution benefiting more of the 37 local species. This could occur through increased lampricide use. Milt said that “lampricide could offset the potential effects” of letting in lampreys. Lampricide use should be monitored to prevent lampreys from adapting and building immunity to the poison. It seems there must be a balance of barrier removal and lampricide to limit lamprey expansion.

By using a combination of calculated dam removals and lampricide, lamprey populations can be controlled while ensuring the wellbeing of desired fish species. Each fish plays a role in maintaining the balance of their ecosystem through providing a food source to carnivores and helping control the population of organisms they prey on. These fish are an invaluable part of their ecosystem and have shown they need to be conserved.



Works Cited

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Can Crowdfunding Team Work Make the Biodiversity Conservation Dream Work?

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Coast of Iceland. Photo By Author 2018.

Technology is rapidly changing. With the creation of the Internet new methods of communicating and connecting people across the world like Facebook and Twitter have evolved. These platforms have revolutionized how information is spread around the world. Could online crowdfunding be the next revolution? Online crowdfunding is the raising of funds through an online platform that allows users to create a cause and allows individuals to go online and donate to that cause. While not a new technology, online crowdfunding has moved into the domain of fundraising for causes like biodiversity conservation. Could this novel use of online crowdfunding be the next technological revolution that changes the way people connect with each other and tackle the worlds’ issues?

The first step in answering this question is to better understand the use of crowdfunding for biodiversity conservation. This is exactly what Gallo-Cajiao and colleagues from the University of Queensland did in their 2018 paper “Crowdfunding Biodiversity Conservation” published in the Journal Conservation Biology. By searching all major crowdfunding platforms for biodiversity related projects and analyzing these projects Gallo-Cajiao and colleagues discovered some fascinating trends that illustrate the potential of crowdfunding.

The first notable trend Gallo-Cajiao and colleagues found was that crowdfunding is connecting people around the world allowing them to take action. Most of the project campaigns listed on the crowdfunding sites were created by individuals in developed countries. However, the projects themselves were planned to address conservation issues in 80 different countries that varied in their development. Furthermore, 31% of the projects were created for an issue of a country that was not the country of the project organizer. This clearly shows the power of crowdfunding to connect people around the world by allowing money to move between different countries. Therefore, crowdfunding makes funds for conservation more accessible to developing countries, where the need for biodiversity conservation might be great but the funds scare.

The second main trend was that freelancers organized 26% of the projects analyzed. This speaks volumes to the accessibility of crowdfunding. You do not have to be a specialist working for the government, a non-governmental organization (NGO) or a university to champion biodiversity conservation. Crowdfunding further increases the power of the individual because the authority of the crowdfunding site validates the individual’s cause and request for money. This makes it so smaller NGOs and individuals are no longer beholden to larger grants and “conservation finance” (Gallo-Cajiao et al., 2018). This allows for more ideas to have the potential to reach actualization and the diversity of ideas will be key in solving the biodiversity crisis we are currently facing.

While it is true that the numeric amount of money raised by crowdfunding is quite small compared to the amount of funds provided by governments and international organizations, the value of crowdfunding is in its ability to fill the gaps in traditional funding sources. Crowdfunding is by no means a replacement for traditional fundraising mechanisms, but rather a supplemental fundraising mechanism. Additionally, some may argue that crowdfunding lacks accountability and may question the success of projects that get funded. However, as Gallo-Cajiao and colleagues argue we shouldn’t write off online crowdfunding until we have evaluated the success rate of funded projects.

Crowdfunding’s true potential to revolutionize the world of biodiversity conservation comes from its empowerment of the individual. It allows individuals to pool their money together to make an impact, similar to how all of the individual pebbles on the Icelandic coast pictured above collected together to make a pebbly shoreline. Local communities could come up with an idea and then with the aid of crowdfunding implement it. This empowerment makes them more invested in their community and more likely to continue to take action creating a positive cycle. With these benefits it is easy to see how crowdfunding as a form of biodiversity conservation fundraising has great potential. However, we should go forward cautiously as the accountability and success of funded campaigns still needs to be assessed. As Gallo-Cajiao says “Crowdfunding has been used to advance biodiversity conservation goals around the world, now it’s time conservation biologists dedicate research efforts to better understand this very phenomenon.”


Gallo-Cajiao, Eduardo, et al. “Crowdfunding Biodiversity Conservation.” Conservation Biology, June 2018, doi:10.1111/cobi.13144.

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Secondary Foundation Species: The Unsung Heroes of Biodiversity

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“Mussels” by Andrew Gustar is licensed under CC 2.0

The most important members of a thriving ecosystem aren’t always the biggest and flashiest: sometimes, you can’t see them unless you look closely. A recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution by Dr. Watson of Charles Sturt University reveals that the presence of secondary foundation species significantly enhances both the species richness and abundance of related ecosystems. By refocusing conservation efforts on these lesser-known “support species” that actively stabilize and expand available habitats, this research shows that we can improve biodiversity outcomes.

Primary species–organisms that supply the fundamental habitats and resources for ecosystem inhabitants, like pine trees in deciduous forests, or seagrass in oceans–receive the majority of the limelight in conservation biology restoration efforts. However, the more “behind-the-scenes” role that secondary foundation species play in providing suitable habitats is just as important. Secondary foundation species include organisms like algae, lichen, mussels, and seaweed, which often live in conjunction with primary species, whether attached (like lichen on trees), entangled (like seaweed in seagrass), or embedded (like mussels growing in seagrass) within their hosts. Though these species can sometimes have harmful effects on related primary foundation species (they may leach nutrients from their hosts, almost like parasites), the net effect on the ecosystem as a whole is positive. Secondary foundation species (FS) both stabilize and expand available habitats for inhabitants, as well as reducing other stressors like predation.

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“Seaweed” by Henry Burrows is licensed under CC 2.0

Dr. David Watson, a professor at Charles Sturt University in Australia, has come across many unique and fascinating secondary foundation species throughout his career. “I find mistletoes especially interesting—a weird group of aerial parasitic plants that attaches to other plants and relies on them for all of their water and nutrients,” he says. But although they are technically parasites, they aren’t all bad: “These plants act as facilitators, boosting diversity and enhancing ecosystem health.” While host plants are generally dependent on the availability of resources like light, water and nutrients, mistletoes aren’t limited by the same constraints. Their leaves are nutritious with high water content, and they provide a year-round food supply for seed dispersers and pollinators. Additionally, they shed their leaves often, fertilizing the forest floor and promoting growth for their hosts.

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“Mistletoe” by Amanda is licensed under CC 2.0

There hasn’t been much conclusive data on the effects of secondary FS on biodiversity. Hoping to learn more about these organisms, a group of researchers including Dr. Watson consolidated data from 141 different studies that observed the effects of secondary FS on species richness (the number of different species in an area) and abundance (the number of individuals per species). They then used a statistical analysis technique called Hedges’ g to measure the relative size of the effect that secondary FS had on their respective ecosystems. In all cases, the presence of secondary FS significantly increased both species richness and abundance, primarily through forming, stabilizing and diversifying available habitats for inhabitants. Even more surprisingly, the effect of secondary FS on species was on average comparable to that of primary FS. These tiny members of our ecosystems pull more than their weight when it comes to supporting biodiversity!

Modern conservation efforts tend to focus on well-known and well-loved primary species like trees and other large fauna. Dr. Watson points out that secondary FS seem relatively unassuming by comparison: “Traditionally, mistletoes and other secondary foundation species have been ignored, or dismissed as curios of little importance or influence.” The use of these “mascot” species has some validity: giving the conservation cause a familiar face promotes public awareness and interest. But although secondary FS are not conventional choices for biodiversity mascots, they are the key to keeping our remaining ecosystems intact, Dr. Watson says. “Even though they are minor constituents of their ecosystems in terms of numbers of individuals, species richness or biomass, they [secondary foundation species] have a disproportionate effect on diversity, stability and productivity.” By introducing conservation strategies that focus on preserving secondary FS–whether through including them in captive breeding programs and rewilding efforts or simply by raising general awareness–we can improve the overall health of our ecosystems more quickly and sustainably. Secondary FS remind us that we should never underestimate the power of small actions to prompt big change. These “unsung heroes” have the power to induce ecosystem-wide changes from the bottom-up.


Works Cited

Thomsen, M. S., Altieri, A. H., Angelini, C., Bishop, M. J., Gribben, P. E., Lear, G., He, Q., Schiel, D. R., Silliman, B. R., South, P. M., Watson, D. M., Wernberg, T., & Zotz, G. (April 2018). Secondary foundation species enhance biodiversity. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2, 634-639.

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Can Logging Actually Benefit Butterflies?

Amazonian species of butterfly that faces potential effects because of logging industry in the Amazon. “White Peacock” by Katja Schulz and licensed under CC 2.0

     If a tree falls in a forest, does it make sound? While the answer to that question has troubled many minds for years, recent research shows that if a tree is logged in a forest, it has abundant effects on butterfly species. Even excluding the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, humans now designate 400 million hectares of rainforest for logging while unaware of the impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. That’s an area more than twice the size of Mexico! If extraordinarily large areas of rainforest are being cut down, shouldn’t people know the impacts that this logging has on biodiversity?

     Lucky for us, Gabriela Montejo-Kovacevich of Cambridge University published an informative study in Biological Conservation on how the intensity of logging affects biodiversity. Because changes in the number of individuals and composition of a species in the logged area do occur with high logging intensities (Bicknell et al., 2017), Montejo-Kovacevich argues that we need more research on the impacts of logging (Franca et al., 2017).  

     Montejo-Kovacevich’s study found that there are two ways in which the effects of logging intensity can be detected: (1) the impacts on the number of different species in a given area  and (2) the impacts on the number and makeup of individuals in a certain butterfly species. Researchers used both explicit data and mathematical models to figure out the effects of logging density on the butterfly species of Rondonia, in south-western Brazilian Amazon. Butterfly samples were taken across multiple areas with different logging intensities to create these mathematical models that helped predict relationships between the number of individuals in a certain butterfly species and environmental factors. After collecting a grand total of 5,608 butterflies from 160 species across 60 sites, researchers found that there was a 30% greater number of species in the logged sites compared to the unlogged sites. Overall, the number of individual butterflies across species was actually found to be highest at intermediate logging intensities!

     Researchers also considered two different types of hypothetical logging methods in the area and how these each would affect the butterflies. The first was land-sharing logging, which is low intensity logging throughout a given area. The second was land-sparing logging, which is high intensity logging with areas of no logging whatsoever. Researches found that in land-sharing logging, 68% of species that showed more than a 10% change in the number of individuals actually had an increase in the count of individuals. Plainly speaking, logging at a low intensity in a given area is more likely to increase the number of individuals per butterfly species. Surprisingly, while logging intensity has this effect on how many butterflies of a certain species there are, it does not affect diversity of different species in the area. This information is extremely valuable. Logging industries can now use this information when deciding efficient ways to cut down trees for timber.

     But be warned — there are still risks associated with both land-sparing logging and land-sharing logging. In fact, for land-sparing methods, too high of a logging intensity will detrimentally affect butterfly species. Specifically, land-sparing methods become detrimental aboving logging at twenty cubic meters per 2.4 acres. Land-sharing logging also brings potential risks. When harvesting trees over a large area, though this harvesting is at low intensities, companies will have to build roads and paths to get crews in and out of the forest which will affect the flora and fauna in the area. That being said, there are still ways in which logging does indeed affect butterfly species positively, as I mentioned before.

     The final conclusion from this study is that logging at low intensity predicts positive effects on the butterfly species in the area. In an era in which the large focus is on how humans are always negatively affecting the environment, this research seems refreshing. Yet, we cannot be totally complacent, especially in countries like Brazil where there are no limitations on logging intensities in designated logging areas. The logging industry must keep in mind that these primary forests are extremely important for tropical biodiversity and we must work to conserve the species local to the area. Now, I circle back to my original question with a call to action. Ultimately, if a tree is cut down in the forest, it has rippling effects on the surrounding biodiversity and our primary focus must be to maintain the integrity of these local species.

Literature Cited

Montejo-Kovacevich, Gabriela, et al. “Impacts of Selective Logging Management on Butterflies in the Amazon.” Biological Conservation, vol. 225, 23 June 2018, pp. 1–9., doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2018.06.012.

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Weeding out the Wildlife: How Our Landscaping Choices Affect Predator Behavior

Growing gardens, creating parks, planting trees. These are the things we do every day that help us preserve what Henry David Thoreau referred to as “the tonic of wilderness”. We value these pockets of the outdoors as a way for us to experience nature and preserve the environment. However, our own small tonics of wildness can have unintended consequences. In the paper “Predation Risk Shaped by Habitat and Landscape Complexity in Urban Environments,” researchers looked at the predation risk of artificial prey by birds and arthropods in urban home gardens and woody habitats at the landscape scale to see how woody vegetation in cities affects ecosystem functions.

This study focused on the city of Zurich, Switzerland, and focused on “green spaces”-areas that don’t have extensive forests but still have some significant vegetation coverage even though they might be developed. Examples of this are home gardens, backyards, small forests patches, hedgerows, and parks. For this study, researchers looked at gardens specifically since they were representative of all urban green spaces given their small size, distribution along gradients of increasing urbanization, and variety of plant species. They randomly selected 24 gardens, on average about 5 km apart from each other for their study.


A garden in Zurich, Switzerland “DSCO2267” by Joey Studts CC 2.0  Source


To analyze the plots, researchers mapped complexity the woody vegetation of the gardens to measure habitat heterogeneity and measured the surrounding amount of woody habitat at different spatial scales. The researchers then measured predation in the gardens by using artificial caterpillars as sentinel prey, which were screened for attacks from birds and arthropods. After 48 hours, the caterpillars were checked for attack marks, which were scored as either present or absent. This was done twice per garden four days apart.

The overall predation rate was 16.2%, with 66.5% of that coming from birds and 20.5% coming from arthropods. The results of the study showed significant interactive effects between the variety of plant heights in garden habitats and the size of the habitat in the surrounding landscape on the risk of predation for caterpillars. In total, both the size of the habitat in the landscape and the local height variety of woody plants in the garden habitat positively affected predation by birds is surrounding landscape was low but decreased significantly if surrounding landscape became too low. For arthropod predation, the risk of predation was also strongly affected by the diversity of the garden habitat – the less diverse that habitat was, the more predation was present, especially when habitat amount in the landscape was intermediate at large spatial scales. It increased in diverse habitats only when the habitat amount of landscape was also high, but the researchers found a high statistical uncertainty for this effect.

These results mean that the previous hypotheses for these effects don’t always capture the complex relationships between these environments and predatory behavior. Moving forward, these results mean that we can tailor our urban green spaces to positively affect animal behavior instead of harm it. For example, we can create gardens with high vegetational diversity to encourage a space where birds can feed and nest. However, we should bear in mind that such measures only have the desired effect when we also consider also the situation of the surrounding landscape.

David Frey, the author of the paper, agreed, saying “I think one important insight from this study is that we should consider the properties of the landscape to efficiently favor biodiversity on urban green space patches, of which most are rather small… We should therefore also think which animals can be most effectively favored, or have a higher conservation priority, given the properties of the patch and the landscape”. To be sure, this study only discusses one effect of these spaces on one group of animal behavior, so more research should be done to get a more holistic view of exactly how our choices with these spaces effects the natural world.

This study has long-term effects on the management of land in urban areas. The more we know about how our actions affect the processes and interactions in the ecosystem such as predator-prey relationships across different spatial scales, the better we can become at reaching an equilibrium between human habitation and protecting nature. The closer we can get to that ideal, the closer we will get to a healthy and protected Earth.

Works Cited

Frey, David, et al. “Predation Risk Shaped by Habitat and Landscape Complexity in Urban Environments.” Journal of Applied Ecology, vol. 55, no. 5, 2018, pp. 2343–2353., doi:10.1111/1365-2664.13189.

Quote from: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Canterbury Classics, 1854.

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