Chemical Factory at Night (cc) darth light @ Flickr.com

Human Evolution in Response to Pollution? Fact or Fiction?

Cross-posted from Emily Monosson’s Evolution in a toxic world As I am nearing the closing chapter (I hope) of my book on rapid evolution in a chemical world – I am struggling to More »

Where did you park?

Executive Orders for 2014: Richard Willson

Back in November of 2013, President Obama issued an executive order on climate preparedness. Because executive orders circumvent Congress within certain limits, they allow the president to implement action to address climate More »

taste the rainbow (cc) Tirzah @ Flickr.com

Learning What Feels Green

There’s a great interview of anthropologist David Howes in the 14 September 2103 NewScientist (subscription access) about the role of synesthesia in marketing products.  Synestesia—the sense of mixing senses (experiencing color as More »

Crowd (cc) James Cridland @ Flickr.com

Overpopulation Is Not the Problem…If Climate and Biodiversity Do Not Count

In his recent New York Times article, “Overpopulation is not the problem,” geographer Erle Ellis comes to two optimistic conclusions: (1) we can feed our planet’s growing human population, and (2) we More »

Innovative “park connectors” through the urban tree canopy have helped Singapore become “a city in a garden.” Photo courtesy of Biophilic Cities Project.

More Bugs, More Plants: A Crash Course on Biophilic Cities

Cross-posted at TheCityFix We need nature even more these days. As more people live in cities, nature offers a potent remedy to many of the environmental, economic, and emotional challenges presented by More »

ForewordFriday: Rhino Latrine Edition

Some people collect coins, some people collect books; people like Eric Dinerstein collect sightings of rare species. In The Kingdom of Rarities, newly released in paperback, Dinerstein shares stories from his career spent traveling the world in search of Andean cocks-of-the-rock, armadillos, and saolas. As he travels, he shares stories of how these species affect the ecosystems they live in and how scientists are working to learn more about them and how they can be protected. In this chapter, he takes his reader to Nepal and explains how to identify old rhino latrines.

 

On Interning at Island Press: Inner Workings

In this installment, Production Intern Melanie Meanders talks about the importance of hands-on experience.

I love language and literature, and I’ve always dreamed of being a part of the publishing process. That’s how I found myself moving to Washington DC from Salt Lake City, Utah, to get a master’s in publishing from the George Washington University. But as I went through my school courses, I found myself disappointed by the lack of practical experience and application. Everything was lofty discussion about office management, and I began to feel like I’d simply missed the train on learning actual, day-to-day editorial work.

Then I found the production internship at Island Press. Finally, I’m seeing the inner workings of a publishing office and I’m getting hands-on experience! As an intern here, I’m not just making copies and fetching coffee (the intern’s worst nightmare); I’m actually contributing to the production process for completed manuscripts and acquiring important skills for my chosen field. I’ve learned all the calculation that goes into determining the length a manuscript will be once it has been converted to a printed book. I’ve learned all about the proofreading process and how to incorporate changes from authors and freelancers. I’ve learned more about the application of style guides and standardization—and I’ve seen the difference it can make to a finished product.

I love the experience of suggesting my own changes and adjustments to the language and mechanics of a manuscript and I appreciate that my input is valued and my skills are utilized. At Island Press, I really do feel like part of the team.

My favorite thing about working at Island Press is that they are committed to making it an educational experience, not just a work experience. I’m not just asked to perform tasks, but to learn processes, and questions are encouraged and thoroughly addressed. I was especially impressed by “Island Press 101.” This is an entire day set aside for the interns, with a presentation to introduce each department and give a better understanding of how it contributes to the overall strength of the company. This day really shows that an Island Press internship is more than just office experience, it is an introduction to a whole field!

Finding Your Voice

Post by Nancy Baron

While not everyone may be interested in your science at first, many people are interested in scientists, as your work seems…mysterious. What do you actually do? Why are you so devoted to it? They want to know what makes you tick. Even if your research can seem obscure, they are often eager to discover a new perspective on the world through your eyes.

I remind scientists (and myself too) that when talking about your work, it’s often best to tell your story as if you were talking to friends who appreciate you and are hanging on your every word. Let your audience meet the real you.  You’ll see their eyes light up and their attention engage.

For many scientists this is liberating. I have had scientists rush up to me after a talk and say what a relief to hear it’s not only okay, but essential for them to be themselves.  All too often, scientists are trained to downplay, or even cloak their passion for their work, for fear of appearing to erode the scientific rigor of their science or their credibility as a researcher. Yet after they experiment a little with revealing their enthusiasm, they are convinced.

Jim Barry, a benthic ecologist from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, recounted at a reception at The Ocean in a High-CO2 World Symposium that followed a COMPASS communication workshop, “I was surprised by how important personality is. Be human.” Jim is a funny, charming guy. But when he spoke at the front of the room, he would put on his “science face”, become serious, and hide his sense of humor.  It was an aha! moment when he realized he could entertain people while talking about his science, just as he did when he talked about other things. Another young scientist, Heike Link  wrote me after a workshop to say “all of a sudden people really listen to me when I answer their questions about my work.” The difference? She told them why she cared about it.

But don’t try to be funny if you aren’t funny, or flamboyant if you are not. The important thing is to be your authentic self.

wolf

Finding your voice.
(Photo courtesy of Javier Q via Flickr)

There are many ways to find your voice. It can be fun – especially with the feedback and support of others.

A few weeks ago, at a science synthesis and advanced communication workshop I co-facilitated in Vancouver, British Columbia, I encouraged a group of academic scientists to experiment with different ways of expressing their personality as well as their knowledge. They were given options that included “How to be yourself on camera,” and “Twitter — a discipline in conveying your content and voice in 140 characters”. But most of the scientists chose to focus on creating op-ed articles in a session titled “Writing Opinions: Your Informed Argument”.

Read the full post at the COMPASS blog

Nancy Baron is Outreach Director of COMPASS, the Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea, and author of Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter.

Wolves in a Tangled Bank

elk in YNP

Elk browsing aspens in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Cristina Eisenberg.

The wolves’ return to Yellowstone and the subsequent recovery of plants that elk had been eating to death in their absence has become one the most popularized and beloved ecological tales. By the 1920s humans had misguidedly wiped out most of the wolves in North America, thinking that the only good wolf was a dead one. Without wolves preying on them, elk and deer (also called ungulates) exploded in number. Burgeoning ungulate populations ravaged plant communities, including aspen forests. Decades later, the wolves we reintroduced in Yellowstone hit the ground running, rapidly sending their ecological effects rippling throughout the region, restoring this ecosystem from top to bottom. Yet today some scientists caution that this story is more myth than fact because nature isn’t so simple.

For decades scientists have been investigating the ecological role of wolves. In his 1940s game surveys, Aldo Leopold found ungulates wiping out vegetation wherever wolves had been removed. He concluded that by controlling ungulates, wolves could restore plant communities and create healthier habitat for other species, such as birds.

Since Leopold’s time, many scientists have studied food web relationships between top predators and their prey—called trophic cascades. In the 1960s and 1970s Robert Paine, working with sea stars, and James Estes, working with sea otters, showed that ecosystems without top predators begin to unravel. John Terborgh called the ensuing rampant species extinctions an “ecological meltdown.” Paine created the metaphorical term keystone species to refer to top predators and noted that when you remove the keystone, arches and ecosystems collapse. Over the years ecologists found trophic cascades—also called top-down effects—ubiquitous from coral reefs to prairies to polar regions. However, William Murdoch and others have maintained that sunlight and moisture, which make plants grow, drive ecosystem processes from the bottom-up, making predators relatively unimportant. The Yellowstone wolf reintroduction provided the perfect setting to test these contrasting perspectives.

In the mid-1800s in his book The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin presciently described nature as a “tangled bank.” Nature’s complexity results from myriad species and their relationships with other species and all the things that can possibly affect them individually and collectively, such as disease, disturbance, and competition for food. Science works incrementally, taking us ever deeper into nature’s tangled bank as we investigate ecological questions. Each study answers some questions and begets new ones. Sometimes we find contradictory results. Learning how nature works requires what Leopold called “deep-digging research” in which we keep searching for answers amid the clues nature gives us, such as the bitten-off stem of an aspen next to a stream where there are no wolves.

waterton lakes

Browsed aspens in high predation risk area, Waterton Lakes National Park. Photo by Cristina Eisenberg.

Trophic cascades science that focuses on wolf effects is still in its infancy, with huge knowledge gaps. For example, we’ve linked wolves to strong effects that cascade down through multiple food web levels. However, we’re just starting to parse how context can influence these effects. Some Yellowstone studies have found that wolves have powerful indirect effects on the plants that elk eat, such as aspens, due to fear of predation. With wolves around, elk have to keep moving to stay alive, which reduces browsing pressure. Conversely, a growing body of studies are finding no wolf effect—that aspens in places with wolves aren’t growing differently than those where predation risk is low. Other studies have found that wolf predation risk doesn’t affect elk feeding behavior. In my own research I’ve found that wolves need another keystone force—fire—to most effectively drive trophic cascades. With wolves and fire present, elk herbivory drops, aspens thrive, and biodiversity soars due to the healthy habitat created by young, vigorously growing aspen.

aspen, Glacier National Park

Aspen growing above elk reach after fire and wolf recovery, Glacier National Park. Photo by Cristina Eisenberg.

It’s human nature to try to find simple solutions. Today we are grappling with monumental environmental problems such as climate change and habitat fragmentation. Due to the wolf’s iconic status and our need to fix broken ecosystems, the environmental community and the media have run with the science that shows a strong wolf effect. This has inspired other scientists to prove that ecosystems are more complex than that. These dissenting studies demonstrate that the wolf dwells in a tangled bank, working alongside many other ecological forces.

Tangled banks seldom yield simple answers. However, arguing about what exactly carnivores do ecologically and why we need them is fiddling while Rome burns. Large, meat-eating animals improve the health of plant communities and provide food subsidies for the many species that scavenge on their kills. A system with wolves in it is far richer than one without and can support many more grizzly bears, coyotes, wolverines, and eagles. There are things we don’t know and disagreements about what we do know. But given the accelerated human-caused extinctions we are experiencing today, a precautionary approach to creating healthier ecosystems means conserving large carnivores.

Beyond empiricism, scientists often operate based on instinct. Instinct led Darwin to dig more deeply into species adaptation and Leopold to doggedly delve into the effects of predator removal. For many of us who conduct trophic cascades science, our instincts are telling us that wolves should be conserved in as high a number in as many places as possible, due to the invaluable benefits they can bring to ecosystems. To do anything other than conserve wolves would be foolish, given all we’ve learned thus far.

ForewordFriday: Get Your Hands Dirty Edition

With spring finally starting to show its face, we’re thinking about everything that’s green and growing. But as Yvonne Baskin shows in Under Ground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World, we’d be nowhere without that most overlooked of substances: dirt. In the first chapter, she introduces an amazing world that holds two-thirds of the planet’s biodiversity, from gigantic fungi to ancient microbes that can live in boiling hot springs or under sheathes of polar ice. After reading it, you’ll never think “plain as dirt” again.

On Interning at Island Press: Wednesday Meetings

In this installment, Editorial Intern Alex Manasseri talks about her new favorite extracurricular activity.

For the past three years, I’ve experienced Washington, D.C. while immersed in a world of academia. My life has revolved around school; and in this way, my collegiate tasks have become my job, often involving reading an endless stream of articles, writing papers, giving presentations, and taking exams. This semester, however, I have had the pleasure of embarking on another journey. What I call my “job” is in fact quite different despite its office setting; and my experience working as an editorial intern at Island Press is more like a wonderful extracurricular activity than a strictly professional pursuit.

To say that interning at Island Press has been eye-opening would be an understatement. I’ve discovered that there is so much more to the organization than simply publishing books. In particular, the Editorial Department has a hand in so many aspects of the writing and developing process, from guiding the authors to clearer tables of contents and organizational structures within their manuscripts, to sitting down and pulling apart a chapter in order to ensure that it truly contributes to the overall value of the book. The care and consideration I see from the editors on a daily basis is inspiring; and I have the utmost respect for the heartfelt advice and extensive work they pour into each project. It doesn’t matter if they have been working with an author for a month or over two years – and their patience and perseverance is reflected in the exceptional content of Island Press’s books.

My favorite part, however, has come in the form of my two weekly meetings on Wednesdays. In the morning, I sit down with my two supervisors in the Editorial Department, and I get to be a part of the conversion about all of the current projects, from proposals to manuscripts already in the works. After this meeting concludes, I have a little time for some of my own assignments: reading over book proposals and writing reviews, contacting authors, assessing permissions for artwork, among other tasks. Then, finally, we have the main event: the week’s roundtable meeting.

At roundtable, projects that are under consideration are brought in, and each department gets to weigh in on the pros and cons of pursuing publication. It is absolutely fascinating to hear what each individual has to say about these books – from production costs, marketing strategies, and how the content of the book fits into Island Press’s mission for “Solutions that Inspire Change,” each and every participant provides valuable contextualization and advice for whether or not the book is the right fit. The mood is always friendly, and disagreements are encouraged; and there’s no shortage of witty banter preceding each discussion. No matter how serious the issue, these meetings give one the reassurance of the knowledge that the very best, most passionate environmentalists are giving it their all in the fight to bring about sustainable change.

Bumfuzzled by Epigenetics

Cross posted from Emily Monosson’s Evolution in a toxic world

Ding Dongs

While there is absolutely no scientific evidence is it possible that all those Ding Dongs I scarfed down in middle school could possible affect my future grandchildren?

This week at our local Toastmaster’s meeting the word of the day was bumfuzzeled. The challenge is to use it as much as possible that night.  As I struggled to give my two minute “Table Topic” an impromptu presentation about the paint color Tart Green – it was enough just to try and tell an entertaining story let alone work in a new word. But, as I write about epigenetics I can say without artifice that I am truly bumfuzzeled.

Thanks to genomics, we know that we are not solely the product of our genes but also of nature and nurture (and increasingly a whole slew of bacteria, viruses and who knows what else – but that’s another story). Epigenetics, altered gene expression caused by an environmental influence is a part of this new understanding. In this context, the nature and nurture environment can include stress, temperature, nutrition, even toxic chemicals. All of which have been shown, under certain conditions, to reach right in and jiggle the genetic code – causing certain genes to be turned on, or off.

Just as silent pauses in music influence how we hear a song or melody, genes too can be either silenced or turned on to great effect. What’s more, some epigenetic changes don’t just influence the expression of our own DNA, but can influence our children’s and our grandchildren’s gene expression. This is pretty wild if you think about it. There are several ways this can happen. One way is for molecular tags (methyl groups) to be added to the DNA, like pins in a clock timer – telling DNA when to turn off.

An increasing body of literature suggests that epigenetic influences may last a generation or two or even more depending on the species (in some plants epigenetic tags may stick for several generations).  For example studies are showing that a grandparent’s nutritional experience can influence their grandchildren’s health; possibly through epigenetic changes.  Biologically, and hypothetically, this sort of makes sense. If you have been struggling to make that Saber Tooth stew stretch, it may be a good thing to produce metabolically thrifty descendants.  But some toxic chemicals too can influence subsequent generations;not only the grandchildren but the great grands as well. Granted these studies to date have used concentrations of chemicals not relevant in the real world – but they certainly are suggestive. Could we inadvertently be jiggling the DNA of future generations with our modern day chemicals?

Where will this take us? I think about all the Yodels and Ding Dongs that I consumed back in the day, combining a sugar high with poor nutrition and quite possibly toxic chemicals. What if they influence future generations? Is this why my daughter craves an all white diet? What of her kids? Its enough to make one shudder. This is purely hypothetical of course. Scientists have not linked Ding Dongs to disease in grandchildren – though I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they did.

But you see where I’m going.  Epigenetics raises fascinating questions. And in the context of my current project (rapid evolution in a chemical world), one in particular looms large. Are epigenetic changes relevant to evolution? And can they be caused by environmental exposures to industrial age chemicals? If my diet influences my grandchildren and perhaps beyond –could my generation’s poor choices from diet, to climate change to toxic chemicals – influence human evolution?

There certainly is quite a bit of excitement about the prospect. Here are biologists David Crews and Andrea Gore writing about the topic: “Epigenetics is the next epoch in evolutionary theory, as these mechanisms alter heritability and force us to confront classical genetic ways of viewing the environment.” Psychology Today ran this headline, A Revolution in Evolution: a return to Lamarck?  While others get excited that Some Evolution May Not Depend on Genes. When it comes to evolution, it’s like Epigenetics is the new Black!

Yet as fascinating as many of these studies are, until we know more about the process we ought to proceed with some caution.

Think about it. One some level, it could certainly be beneficial to have this kind of genetic flexibility. Say if I were to move to the arctic wouldn’t it be great if my kids or grand kids were better adapted than I? Maybe stouter bodies or a little more insulation — they’d surely be grateful. But what if my kid decided southern Florida was more to her liking. So she moves there and starts a family. Would her kids be mal-adapted, thanks to me? Of course assuming there is still enough juice to power up the A/C in ten or fifteen years, the grand kids will survive. But consider the plight of wilder animals. While the ability to survive dramatic temperature shifts is a good thing – permanent change in response to temperature in an unpredictable world isn’t. Here is evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne:

…if the DNA code changed unpredictably back and forth each generation, natural selection and evolution wouldn’t work.  Second, there are also epigenetic changes that are induced not by the DNA sequence but by the environment. Temperature, starvation, and other environmental factors can cause methylation of the DNA as well.  The thing is, though, that such changes, because they’re rarely passed on to future generations, cannot serve as the basis of evolutionary change.  Such changes constitute true Lamarckian inheritance, i.e., the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

And lots of studies show us that Lamarckian inheritance doesn’t operate. Changes that are induced by the environment, or the organism’s “striving,” can’t somehow get incorporated into the DNA.…. My conclusion: if epigenetic changes are involved in an evolutionary adaptation, they must be coded for in the DNA rather than acquired from the environment alone…

So…. those Ding Dongs those of us of a certain age consumed in high school? Clearly not a great choice. But, even if they were to leave behind epigenetic marks influencing the health of my children’s children let’s hope that Coyne has it right. That they won’t change the course of human evolution; we’re leaving enough of a mess behind as it is, we don’t need to be messing with their genetic inheritance as well.

ForewordFriday: Chico Vive Edition

Island Press is pleased to be co-sponsoring the 2104 Chico Vive conference at American University in DC this weekend. The conference brings together grassroots activists, NGOs, students, engaged scholars, applied scientists, policymakers, journalists, and others to discuss the development of the global grassroots environmental movement in the 25 years since environmental martyr Chico Mendes’ death. As an introduction to issue, this week’s Foreword Friday offering is the beginning of environmental reporter Andrew Revkin’s The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest. In this selection, Revkin ponders the historical importance of Mendes’ murder and takes his reader into the tense December days surrounding his death. If you enjoy this excerpt, keep in mind that the full e-book is $4.99 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and your local indie bookstore now through April 30th.

 

Human Evolution in Response to Pollution? Fact or Fiction?

Chemical Factory at Night (cc) darth light @ Flickr.com

Cross-posted from Emily Monosson’s Evolution in a toxic world

As I am nearing the closing chapter (I hope) of my book on rapid evolution in a chemical world – I am struggling to understand what this means for humans. If you search rapid evolution and humans, you will find all sorts of excitement in the popular press about how traits enabling humans to drink milk, or tolerate low oxygen or malaria, Evolved Rapidly! Or, Humans, we are still evolving! (All this, despite David Attenborough’s opinion.) It’s all very interesting but in the scheme of things, these traits are estimated to have evolved over the past several thousand years. Talk about relativity! That may well be fast for us long-lived, low fecundity species, but what does it mean for humans in today’s fast-paced world? And, since I’m focused on industrial age chemicals – what does it mean in the context of chemical exposures? Is there a chance we could be responding to industrial age chemicals?

An increasing number of studies are emerging supporting the idea that even in contemporary time frames – human populations can indeed evolve. That is, over a hundred or so years. This is just fascinating. For the past year even as I’ve written about Darwin’s finches evolving within a generation or two, the great majority of this book has focused on other species from bugs to minnows — highly fecund species that have adapted over the course of fifty or perhaps twenty-five generations. At twenty-five years a pop for humans, that would be somewhere around 1000 years give or take.

Maryland Chemical Co. Inc. (cc) Chris @ Flickr.com

Maryland Chemical Co. Inc. (cc) Chris @ Flickr.com

This is a time frames that trivializes chemical exposures, stretching well beyond the lifetime of most industrial-age chemicals (except for long-lived radioisotopes). As bad as we are with chemical management and regulation, we eventually figure out which are particularly egregious and rein them in. It may take decades to recognize our folly– as with organochlorines – but eventually we get it right. So even if any chemicals were to impose a powerful selective pressures, most likely they would be gone within a generation or two.Maybe industrial age chemicals just aren’t all that relevant to the question of human evolution? (Barring any discussion of epigenetics that’s a post for another day, for now check out this video, where as one participant says “everyone has their definition”.)

But what if the pressure was pervasive, reaching across large swaths of a population? And what if it hit us where it really hurt, reproduction?

Here’s a fun hypothetical really, JUST a hypothetical.  Consider a chemical or group of chemicals that act upon reproductive output – not so hard to do considering the apparent wealth of industrial age chemicals that do so. Perhaps they interact with estrogen receptors. They might be subtle, not shutting down reproduction, but just making it that much more difficult to conceive. What if, rather than a scenario like PD James’ Children of Men (where sperm went downhill fast,) women’s estrogen receptors instead evolved just enough to “ignore” estrogen binding plastics and plasticizers or other chemicals that might influence fertility and fecundity? It’s a totally fascinating mental exercise. Because if that were to happen, given all the other stuff estrogen does – the trade offs would be anyone’s guess. Hopefully that is all this will ever be, an interesting mental exercise. But given the fast pace of human evolution – and this brave new chemical world we are creating, you just never know.

Tracking the Ultimate Keystone Species

As an ecologist I have spent the past ten years of my professional career tracking apex predators and large herbivores and their effects on whole ecosystems. Abundant research from all sorts of systems demonstrates that when you allow dominant species, such as lions or elephants, to return to ecosystems, they affect many other species in those systems. For example, by toppling small trees, elephants help maintain the rich, open grassland habitat that provides a home for countless species, such as songbirds and insects. By both killing and keeping their prey moving, lions prevent plant-eating animals such as antelopes from damaging shrubs in riparian areas. Ecologists refer to these food web relationships as trophic cascades and to the species that drive these powerful relationships as keystone species.

In North America much research has been done on wolf impacts on forest food webs. The wolf’s return to places from which humans had exterminated it has been linked to lush growth of shrubs and trees. However, I am among those scientists who have long suspected that another, more elusive keystone species may be responsible for the trophic cascades we have been witnessing in the northern Rocky Mountains. Still, after putting in thousands of kilometers of track transects in forest ecosystems, I had yet to spot this powerful ecosystem engineer.

On a blustery April day in Alberta, my perseverance paid off. The snow had just melted, revealing winter-killed grasses and the carcasses of elk and deer killed by wolves and other predators. My crew and I were pulling a transect deep in an aspen stand, counting elk tracks and scats to determine whether in a system with wolves, elk avoid habitat such as the interior of forests, where it is easier for wolves to kill them. The elk fecal pellets stood out starkly on the forest floor. Among them, cleanly pressed into the forest duff, we spotted some enormous tracks: first one, and then another, and then a half dozen of them in one spot. I noted that the plantigrade, five-toed tracks were those of a large animal. And then it hit me, could it be? I rapidly consulted my field guide to most elusive mammals in the world, which I kept with me at all times in case of such an event as this, and clearly saw that the tracks were definitely those of the creature I had been tracking for years—the ultimate keystone species. The tracks looked fresh—so fresh that we could still smell the animal’s musky scent. I drew my field crew closer and briefed them in whispers. “Be careful, keep your senses as open as possible.”

A field technician began to tenaciously pull a transect tape on a north bearing through a seemingly impenetrable tangle of hawthorn. All at once there was an explosion of sound, and out from the hawthorn, impervious to this deciduous shrub’s vicious thorns, burst a tall hairy creature with impossibly large feet—Sasquatchinus grandipedicus, also known as “Bigfoot”—providing incontrovertible evidence that even in science everyone loves a good laugh. As for those trophic cascades, I am still convinced that Bigfoot has had a hand—or a foot—in them, but need more data to fully test this hypothesis.

Bigfoot caught on tape.

Bigfoot caught on tape.