Lecture on Wolf Conservation

By: Trevor Drees, Ceyda Kural, Kimberly Wood, Kathryn Iverson

We made a video lecture on wolf conservation history in the United States, including some of wolf natural history, their role in the ecosystem, threats, as well as past and present conservation efforts. Please leave feedback in the comments section. Enjoy the video!

Watch the lecture on Youtube here

Download the PDF version of our presentation here

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Coffee and Bees are in Danger!

By Kseniya Anishchenko, Michelle Zhong, Alex Rovner, and Yanghwa Hong

Imagine opening up the morning paper, with the top headline: “we must save coffee from extinction.” What would you do?

Bees and coffee are related in ways we may not have expected! Bees gain pollination productivity from the caffeine in coffee plants, and coffee plants benefit from this additional pollinator; in fact, bees are responsible 25% of coffee plant productivity! Since global bee populations are suffering, this indirectly affects coffee production as well.

Visit our website to learn more about how you can help!

References:

Imbach, P., Fung, E., Hannah, L., Navarro-Racines, C. E., Roubik, D. W., Ricketts, T. H., … & Roehrdanz, P. R. (2017). Coupling of pollination services and coffee suitability under climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(39), 10438-10442.

Barcus, C. U. (2013, March 9). Bees Buzzing on Caffeine. National Geographic News. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/03/130308-bees-caffeine-animal-behavior-science/

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Hurricanes, conservation, & climate change

By Matthew Miller, Lani Dufresne, and Siddharth Gorantla

Have you ever wondered how hurricanes affect wildlife? Or how climate change is affecting hurricane formation? Then you’re in luck! The following presentation gives answers to these question and more, delving into the complicated relationship between hurricanes and conservation biology. It also summarizes the results of a survey which shows how Rice students answer these same questions.

To view the presentation, which is a powerpoint overlaid with audio narration, click the link below, and then from Google Drive download the file to your computer. Open it in powerpoint and start the presentation from the beginning. For any questions, or for more information, please contact mjm14@rice.edu.

 

https://drive.google.com/a/rice.edu/file/d/1BnnAI11cG-pGOJw2-FI4GAr4lo9BCoEx/view?usp=drive_web

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Ice-Solated Polar Bears Fight For Just-Ice

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Polar Bears” by Natalia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming! Whether you may wish to take up Dory’s life advice or not, it is something the polar bears have no choice but to live by. In 2008, the Endangered Species Act registered polar bears as a threatened species, with two-thirds of polar bears projected to disappear by 2050. A recent study published this September in the journal Global Change Biology by Durner et al. of the Alaska Science Center showed that climate-induced reduction in thickness of the Arctic sea ice drifted sea ice apart, negatively affecting polar bears’ lives. The remaining population struggles to maintain its population, fighting for their habitat rights while their homes are slowly drifting apart. Dr George Durner, research ecologist with the USGS and lead author of the paper, said in an interview with USGS that “increased sea ice drift rates likely exacerbate the physiological stress due to reduced foraging opportunity already experienced by many polar bears in the warming Arctic”. His paper highlighted the importance of sea ice and concluded that it is crucial to understand ice drift dynamics to learn more about habitat and energy conservation for the polar bears in the Arctic.

The paper published concerns about the diminishing sea ice that has been abridging polar bears from accessing their prey. Lack of access to food sources have been causing poor health conditions for the polar bears, critically affecting “the ability of polar bears to access their main prey, resulting in declining body condition, reproduction, survival, and abundance”. Durner et al. studied two regions of the female polar bear subpopulations that were contrasting in oceanographic characteristics: in Chukchi and Beaufort, during two period of time: from 1987 to 1998, and from 1999 to 2013. During these times, they specifically studied the ice composition, thickness and extent over time. With this data, they studied the change in the energy exhausted by the female polar bears over time in relation to the microhabitats and the time periods.

Results showed that ice drifts caused by climate change, indeed, did increase in both Chukchi and Beaufort, by 37% and 30%, respectively, causing a decrease in habitat quality. They also hypothesized that the polar bears in these regions would require an increased rate of energy, by 2.0-6.1% to capture prey in the changed conditions. This increased energy required exacerbates the polar bears’ physical conditions for reproduction and survival as well as their hunting abilities, as less time apportioned to actual hunting (due to 7.6-9.6% increase in time allotted to look for food). As Dr Durner describes it in his interview with USGS, these polar bears are chained to a “ fast moving treadmill” of sea ice that is accelerating due to thinning ice, wind and ocean currents, and is slowly exhausting away the polar bear population.

Indeed, there have been refutations faulting the methodology used to gather data due to limitations in the tools used. Nonetheless, the long term research showed consistent data plots of the ice drift trends over the years, indicating that the pattern is more than just coincidental. Furthermore, the paper highlights how the tools used minimized the trends relative to other tools used by NSIDC, and that despite this, the data was still significant. Furthermore, a trending view on climate change is that arctic species, such as polar bears, are only claimed to be endangered to be in favour of certain political agendas. Nonetheless, concrete statistical evidence highlight that these species will indeed start going extinct by mid-century as a direct result of climate change, and that climate change is more than just a “political weapon”.

As ice drifts continue, polar bears are continuing to face habitat loss and energetic costs that cause a population threat. The paper ends with a note that we need to study the impacts of this ice drifts on a regional level to analyze the impact of arctic warming on polar bears. With this, we need to focus on gathering substantial data to raise awareness of what dire impact climate change has on the ecosystem; otherwise, our next National Polar Bear Day may only be celebrated by antique pictures of an extinct species.

 

References:

Durner GM, Douglas DC, Albeke SE, et al. September 2017., Increased Arctic sea ice drift alters adult female polar bear movements and energetics. Glob Change Biol. ;23:3460–3473.

Ellie Zolfagharifard., “Is the Polar Bear a Political Weapon? Arctic Creatures Are NOT Threatened by Climate Change, Says Scientist.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 17 Sept. 2014.

Lewis, Tanya., “5 Weird Facts About Polar Bears.” LiveScience, Purch, 27 Feb. 2014.

Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey., “Increased Sea Ice Drift Puts Polar Bears on Faster Moving Treadmill.” USGS Science for a Changing World., 6 June 2017.

 

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Bringing Back the Dead: “Ghost Ponds” and Aquatic Life Conservation

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Frog Pond” by liz wes licensed under CC BY 2.0

            Over 75% of small ponds across the United Kingdom have disappeared since the 1900s1. Much of this destruction stems from agricultural consolidation, causing numerous species of local aquatic plants and animals to decline or go extinct. There is some small modicum of hope for some species who may persist, dormant, in the soil for over 150 years1. By transplanting these species, we have the rare opportunity to recover the buried treasure of plant diversity. However, this is a method of last resort, and aquatic environments need to be better protected to preserve current life.

Agricultural fields may seem a monochromatic array of plants and soil, but underneath the roots lie a variety of preserved life. A recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation by Emily Alderton of University College London demonstrates the viability of recovering seed and egg banks from so called ‘ghost ponds’: ponds that have been filled in with soil for agricultural use. Alderton and her colleagues resurrected the dead by evacuating three different ghost ponds in Norfolk, England and searching for 45 to 150-year-old aquatic seeds and spores, like those of green algae.

What they discovered was surprising. The researchers found seeds and spores “of a number of species were able to remain viable, even after prolonged burial underneath intensive agriculture”3.

The dead rose again. Of the at least 15 different plant species, 8 germinated in a controlled experiment. The ghost ponds seeds and spores varied in successful growth. One of the ponds had been drained before it was filled in with soil, while another had remained wet before being filled in. When samples of seeds were tested from each of the three ponds, the two ponds that had been preserved wet showed a greater diversity and higher viability of life than the dried-out pond.

These positive results demonstrate that, even now, destroyed ecosystems are not the end. Dr. Alderton remarked “where ghost ponds contain the seeds of plants which have since become rare or extinct in the local area, resurrecting these buried ponds could restore lost species and genetic diversity to the landscape”3.

However, recovering these filled-in ponds will not be easy, and will never replace the diverse breadth of species that thrived in the pond before they were buried. This is one of the last methods of conservation to recover a destroyed ecosystem. Land development is a major driver in habitat destruction and the subsequent decay of local diversity, causing unique species to disappear entirely not only in the UK, but across the world. Humans are the stewards of the planet and so have an obligation to preserve this biodiversity.

To be sure, recovering ponds utilizing this recovery method may still be unfeasible and costly in the long run. A number of the preserved seeds germinated, but spores from other pond species demonstrated only a 20% viability1. The narrow number of species able to be recovered does not include larger animal species. In addition, seed dispersion is an important part of aquatic life, so the long term reproductive viability of the plant flora is still uncertain. Despite these concerns, researchers in the Czech Republic have successfully grown fen pondweed, a species that had been deemed extinct for over 30 years2. This area may require additional research, but has proven itself as a method of some value to conservation that may be applicable beyond aquatic life.

The fact that life could persist under such extraordinary conditions, literally rising from the grave, gives hope to the recovery of some local pond diversity in England and elsewhere. Although all the dormant seeds and spores did not thrive, a large portion germinated and revitalized previously extirpated species. Unfortunately, recovering biodiversity is not enough. The aquatic ecosystems that remain survive under more threats than being filled in, and we must look toward other avenues to protect the flora and fauna of these ponds. Local involvement in habitat perseveration could be key to saving these aquatic species. Otherwise, not even these recovered ghost ponds may be enough to preserve life.

 

1 Emily Alderton, Carl Derek Sayer, Rachael Davies, Stephen John Lambert, Jan Christoph Axmachera. “Buried Alive: Aquatic plants survive in “ghost ponds” under agricultural fields”, Biological Conservation, Vol 212 Part A, pages 105-110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.06.004

2 Zdeněk Kaplan, Kateřina Šumberová, Irena Formanová, Michal Ducháček, Re-establishment of an extinct population of the endangered aquatic plant Potamogeton coloratus, In Aquatic Botany, Volume 119, 2014, Pages 91-99, ISSN 0304-3770, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2014.08.005.

3 Alderton, Emily. “Re: Student Blog- Questions Concerning ‘Buried alive: Aquatic plants survive in ‘ghost ponds’ under agricultural fields’.” Message to Kimberly Wood. Oct 25, 2017. Email.

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In the Dark: North American Bats and Their Plight

512px-Myotis_Mytis_with_White-Nose_Syndrome-2

Myotis mytis with White-Nose Syndrome” by Tamás Görföl, via Wikimedia Commons

 

At first glance, the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas looks unexceptional, a gray concrete structure. But it doesn’t only transport cars across the lake, it also houses 1.5 million bats – it’s the world’s largest urban bat colony, according to Bat Conservation International. At dusk, all these creatures emerge from underneath the bridge to embark on their hunt. As incredible the sight of this may be, it’s also a sign of just how much we’ve intruded onto the home of these animals.

The polar bears, the pandas, the tigers share the spotlight for species endangered by human activities. But hidden backstage: bats. They fly at night, and especially to the public, they’re overlooked. The important services they provide are also not well-known; they’re the stage crew that helps control insects, the very same agricultural pests that burden farmers. They’re also the bees’ coworkers; they feed on nectar and fruit, and in the process, they pollinate. Which is why it’s all the more important that we focus our conservation attention on them too.

White-nose Syndrome, wind turbines, and habitat loss are a few of the threats that bats in North America face, as stated by a study published in the journal Biological Conservation by Dr. G.A. Hammerson of NatureServe and his colleagues. They discovered that almost half of these species are at risk, and most of them are concentrated on the East Coast. The biggest threat is White-nose Syndrome (WNS), which affects hibernating bat species. It’s characterized by a white fungus that sprouts on the diseased bat’s muzzle, and it’s estimated to have killed several million individuals over the past decade. In some caves, populations have been almost, or completely, wiped out.

The second largest threat is wind energy, in particular to migrating species; bats die from collisions with wind turbines. They’re also threatened by disturbances to their roosting sites, such as mining, vandalism, and flooding to create reservoirs.

However, the effects of pollution and climate change on North American bats are still largely unknown. Chemicals have been found in their body tissue, and pesticides cut down on their food source – insects. Droughts and warming induced by climate change are also predicted to have a negative impact, but all this speculation calls for research to answer these questions.

Dr. Hammerson’s study assessed the conservation status of North American bat species, and data shows that the situation is worse than the separate International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) report. According to their study, 31% of the 45 species are at risk, grossly more than 9% (IUCN) and 13% (USFWS). For comparison, this proportion is higher than birds (15%), mammals (19%), and scaled reptiles (16%). The bats’ future isn’t bright; this statistic will probably increase as WNS spreads west and wind energy expands.

Dr. Hammerson and his team discovered that geography had the strongest association with conservation status. Even though more bat species call the Southwest home, more at-risk species are actually located in the East. This indicates the East is where caves for cave-roosting bats might not be available, where forests for tree-roosting bats might be lost. Bat populations may number in the thousands, and their ranges may be large, but their numbers are sharply dropping, meaning threats are serious, though the exact rates of decline are still unclear.

It’s not all bad news though. A conservation success story: the gray myotis went from being “Imperiled” to “Apparently Secure” as a result of the push to protect the caves they inhabit. Because of cave protection, Townsend’s big-eared bat and the Indiana myotis improved as well.

That doesn’t mean that they’re wholly safe though – there’re still the impending threats of WNS and wind energy. Dr. Bruce Young, one of the paper’s coauthors, says that we can “prevent the spread of WNS by closing caves where bats roost to human entrance. Wind farms [can] stop and feather turbine blades during seasons and wind conditions when bats migrate.” Clearly though, as the vulnerable bat populations in the East have already illuminated, bats are in a precarious position, and conservation efforts, and research of, should be directed towards the safeguard of their homes, lest we lose the earth’s natural pollinators and pest exterminators.

 

 

 

 

References:

Hammerson, G. A., Kling, M., Harkness, M., Ormes, M., and Young, B.E., (2017). Strong geographic and temporal patterns in conservation status of North American bats, Biological Conservation, 212: 144-152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.05.025

 

 

 

 

 

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Meltdown in the Trophics: using glacier runoff to model ecosystems

Melting ice caps are good?! Global warming has a largely negative reputation, yet its most well-known effect, rapid melting of the world’s ice sheets, might be more than just sad polar bears on broken ice. Take for example, Alaska. Its ice sheets are some of the fastest melting ice caps in the world. As a result, massive volumes of freshwater flow off Alaska into the Gulf and drive the major ocean currents in the area. Although much is known about the freshwater’s effect on current, salinity, and other physical aspects, less is known on freshwater runoff’s direct effect on biological systems.

In a study conducted in Prince William Sound, a team of researchers led by Dr. Arimitsu “strive[] to provide science that makes the linkages between terrestrial and marine systems, and also highlight[] the importance of freshwater resources to food webs in coastal ecosystems” (Arimitsu). Such information is very important in deeply understanding ecosystem functioning and is depicted in their article, “Tracing biogeochemical subsidies from glacier runoff into Alaska’s coastal marine food webs,” which will be published in an upcoming edition of Global Change Biology.

4935867601_ff56725ac7_oFigure 1: “Prince William Sound, Alaska, kayaking 2010”  by Matt Zimmerman and licensed under CC 2.0

At the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, Dr. Arimitsu her team gather information on how the land to ocean ecosystem works; information that is essential in effective resource management and conservation efforts of Alaska’s unique wildlife and essential fisheries. First, they tracked glacial runoff’s organic matter, which could be loosely thought of as the basis food blocks, in marine food webs. Then, they created a three-isotope Bayesian mixing model, which is as fancy as it sounds. The mathematical model they created enables one to predict where a particular species resides in a food web, and this information can be used to predict responses of an ecosystem in the event of extinction, new competition, etc. This model is also particularly useful in determining how a loss or significant decrease in specific organic matter, such as a large surge or decrease in freshwater runoff, can affect the biological components of the ecosystem.

To create such a useful predictor of ecosystem trophic levels, the team various types of carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen isotopes. These isotopes were tracked from its source, i.e. glacial, precipitation, or riverine runoff, to the various levels of the food web by sampling the tissues of many different species. The use of the stable hydrogen isotopes, in particular, was extremely useful in determining how organic matter was transferred throughout the food web, since they expressed unique, identifiable qualities.

From tracking the isotopes, the researchers found that there were several species in the ocean habitats that relied heavily on runoff matter, more younger matter than older. This means that severe changes in runoff source (i.e. ice, rain, or rivers) could quickly impact these species. Another finding was that species of the same or similar taxa did not necessarily rely on the same sources of organic matter and also did not necessarily have the same role in the food web. There were two species of krill that exemplified this finding, a quite surprising one at that. With the data they gathered, the team was able to make their predictor model.

To be sure that the mathematical basis of the study’s trophic-level predictor model was logical, realistic, and useful, the team employed a Bayesian approach rather than a frequentist approach. This means that the model incorporates prior data, in addition to the user’s inputted data, in order to estimate a result. Although this may seem like another language to a non-statistician, the important thing is to know that Arimitsu and her team ensured that their mathematical model was a strong and defensible one.

With this assurance, both the model and study can be used by researchers around the world “as a framework for understanding terrestrial-marine linkages at the coastal margins” (Arimitsu). Therefore, the results and tools presented by this study provide a way for similar experiments to be conducted in many different ecosystems throughout the globe. Ultimately, deeper understandings of biological land to ocean systems will be found; more effective resource and conservation management actions will take place; and people can worry just a dust-speck less about melting ice sheets.

Source:

Arimitsu, M. L., Hobson, K. A., Webber, D. A. N., Piatt, J. F., Hood, E. W., & Fellman, J. B. (2017). Tracing biogeochemical subsidies from glacier runoff into Alaska’s coastal marine food webs. Global Change Biology.

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