EcoNews Round-up: April 1, 2013

Along the trail in Cache Creek Canyon Regional Park

Happy April!  I’ve got some fun things planned for spring on the blog.  Hopefully, you will see these coming up in the next few weeks (sneak peak of a new travel post via this pretty picture).  For the moment, I wanted to share with you all some more of the interesting science news I have been hearing lately, or at least thinking about lately, as some of it is not super-duper recent.  Spoiler alert, none of these are April Fools Day stories (or are they…).

This is a little less “breaking news” at this point, but I couldn’t resist telling you guys about how amazing dung beetles are!  These little guys are using light from the Milky Way to navigate around their habitats!  The point of this navigation is to roll the dung ball (a precious resource!) away from the dung pad in as straight of a line as possible.  This helps the beetles avoid competition from their potential dung ball stealing fellow.  This Science Friday story is worth a listen for several reasons, not the least of which is the great explanation by the study author and the amazing mental image of a dung beetle wearing a Milky Way obscuring hat (just listen, believe me).  These sorts of findings are adding to the growing field of sensory ecology.  Researchers are learning about how organisms perceive the world, and how that world view, or umwelt, impacts the ecology of different species.  It’s more than just cool facts too!  Sensory ecology can be used to help plan protected areas or understand the impacts of a new development.

I like this article mostly because of the title:  Somewhere Over the Brainbow.  Thanks NPR.  I’m also genuinely intrigued by the idea of a brain activity map.  Obama claimed in a speech that this project would help with the treatment of brain disease, specifically mentioning Alzheimer’s Disease.  The story starts by comparing this project to another major government science initiative, The Human Genome Project.  It’s an appropriate comparison, I think, but the brain is so complex results will likely be very slow in coming.  One issue brought up by the article that interested me was the argument against the project, which stated that such large groups organized by the government aren’t the best for science.  In any case, I’m excited to follow the story!    

If you want to talk about Fracking,  pro or con, you should understand how it works.  Here is how these wells are supposed to work under ideal conditions.

For more on Fracking, check out the cover story for the March issue of National Geographic.  Here is another interesting article by Nat Geo about the same issue but centered in New York.  I would love to know some people’s opinions.  Do you think Fracking has a place in America’s energy future?  Not at all, or as a stepping stone to more green technologies?      

Last, here is an Ecological Society of America press release about one of my very favorite habitats:  the salt marsh.  Unfortunately, as the press release explains, these already threatened habitats are not doing too swell.  Specifically, on the east coast, erosion is slowly eating away at these valuable habitats.  This is due, at least in part, to some of the same food web processes discussed in the last EcoNews Round-up.  Another contributor to the erosion are drainage ditches meant to draw off standing water in the marsh and, thus, decrease the available breeding ground for mosquitoes.  It’s a complex problem, but, as so many love to say, that’s ecology.  It’s always very interesting to see how human alterations to an environment have so many unforeseen consequences.  This is another excellent example of that phenomenon.

Again, I like to leave these news segments, which can often be kind of depressing, on an up note.  Check out this gem sent to me by a friend during finals week.  Love.

 Last Word:  I love these news round-ups because they encourage me to stay (at least a little) up to date on what is popular with the media.  One thing I highly suggest for those who aren’t scientists themselves, is to check press releases from organizations like the Ecological Society of America.  They have trained scientific journalists writing these articles, so you are must more likely to get a does of quality scientific reporting

What do you think?  Is there a place for Fracking in America?  Do these news round-ups amuse or depress you?  Is there any sort of news you would like to see more of on this blog?  Probably, you just want more nerdy boys singing about beer.  I’m right, aren’t I?


EcoNews Round-up: Feb. 4, 2013

I figured it was time again to share some of the science news I’ve been crunching on this last week or so.  Note, not every story occurred in the last calendar week.  Graduate student here, so I’m usually just a little bit behind the times.

I thought this graphic from the original article bore repeating.
Even scientists love LOL Cats.

First, I’d like to share two stories about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, privilege in the world of science.  This particular conversation about privilege in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering  and mathematics) was started with an article about privilege in the marine sciences and followed up by this insightful article about how access to these fields is sometimes closed to students before they even get to college.  I think the former article does a good job defining privilege and charting out some general territory where it can come into play once you are on your path to a scientific career.  If you are interested in reading about diversity in the sciences, I would suggest Dr. Kate Clancy’s blog over at Scientific American or the always amusing Dr. Isis (a pseudonym!) over here.  The latter article, in my opinion, gets much more at the heart of the diversity problem in STEM professions.

My example of my own experience of privilege is always this:  When I was in 3rd grade, or maybe 4th, I was working on some math homework.  It was some sort of word problem, I don’t remember the details.  I asked my mother to help me (sign of privilege numero uno!) and instead of just helping me with that one word problem, she explained to 8/9 year-old me how to set up a simple algebraic equation to get the correct answer.  I recall being really annoyed with her at the time for not directly answering my question, but dang.  I am sure that my current position as a scientist is thanks to a million little interactions like this one.  I am privileged beyond belief, and I thank the authors of these two articles for pointing this out, and pushing scientists to think about these issues!

The next two articles are born out of discussions we had in my classes last week about food web ecology (my favorite!).  The first hits very close to home (geographically speaking) for me, and concerns the canceling of a class planned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife on predator hunting.  We talked at great length in class about how predator exclusions can really mess with ecosystem health.  The article makes this same point as well:

“In recent years, a flurry of scientific papers have pointed out the valuable role predators play in keeping ecosystems healthy, including preying on jack rabbits and rodents that can carry disease.”

One thing the article fails to point out is the difference between a top predator (such as a mountain lion) and a meospredator (such as a coyote).  In some cases, both are positive for ecosystem health, but in other cases, removal of the top predator can relax pressure on the mesopredator, leading to other problems.  Food webs are complex ya’ll.

Last, here is an article about how humans can really insert themselves into a food web.  This is the tragic tale of the Atlantic cod.  This story also highlights one of the real challenges of viewing ourselves in an ecosystem context; humans can be adversely impacted by recovery plans.  The short story is this, much like the passenger pigeon, we thought cod were an inexhaustible resource, but in recent years the fisheries have started to collapse.  In an attempt to recover cod populations, take numbers have been reduced, and eventually slashed.  I don’t think anyone involved is denying the difficulties ahead of cod fisherman on the Atlantic coast.  However, without cuts in take (weight of fish brought to shore) the fishery will, likely, never recover.  Furthermore, it is possible that this entire issue (and the loss of billions of dollars in governmental aid in the US and Canada) could have been avoided if we had simply examined ourselves as part of the ecosystem.  Can we really expect to consume our resources at this break-neck pace and not see those resources depleted?  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but we must do better.

Wow.  I refuse to leave you guys on such a downer!  So, here you go, a sad, sad, nerdy break-up song with YEAST!  You can read an NPR write up about  this silly video here.          

Last Word:  This week I got to integrate two of my favorite topics, diversity issues in STEM fields and food webs.  How lucky am I?  Let’s hope the news for the coming days is just as stimulating!

What do you think?  Are there any topics in the news you would like to hear me discuss?  If there is ever an issue that strikes your fancy (please say food webs!), I would be more than happy to expand it into a full post.  Just let me know!

EcoNews Round-up: Jan. 20, 2013

I thought it might be fun to share with you guys some of the stuff I have been mulling over this week.  I listen to the radio…a lot, so you will notice a certain bias toward NPR.  Please excuse me, but I was quite literally raised listening to NPR every time I got into the car, everyday while prepping meals, and while drinking coffee in the mornings.  So, here is some of the ecology/environment/science related news and media I’ve been thinking about this week:

Airpocalypse!!!  For once, it seems that the media’s crazy names for things aren’t that off the mark.  This looks and sounds nasty.  I think China always causes an interesting debate in my own head.  Obviously, I think that they should be doing more for the environment (among other things, but that’s a little off topic).  However, other countries use so many of the raw materials produced in China, it’s hard for environmental regulations to keep pace with demand.  One quotation from the article really brings that point home:

“Meanwhile, the Global Times has been pointing out China’s role as the global factory and the “biggest construction site in the world”…Seventy percent of global iron and steel, and about half of the world’s cement is produced in China,” it says in an editorial. “Against this backdrop, it is impossible for China to be as clean as the West.””  

This story about scientists sharing the internal details of their scientific methods really intrigued me.  It does a lot to bring out the more human side of what we do.  My first “overly honest methods” tweet would probably involve how I am listening to a constant stream of history/science podcasts while doing all my lab work.  For example:  “I ground up plant matter until I literally couldn’t stand to listen to another episode of Stuff You Missed in  History Class.”  I, personally, don’t think that admitting that scientists are real people who have to deal with real equipment and time constraints impacts the view of science by popular culture.  Maybe others disagree?        
Last, I loved this story about right whales!  I happen to be a secret nut for marine mammals.  I think this sighting is amazing, concerning, and uplifting all at the same time.  Anytime an endangered species with only about 500 members is seen with an infant, that’s amazing.  But why is this whale so far from the normal spawning grounds?  More questions than answers concerning this article in my opinion.  
Last Word:  I’m always on the outlook for good science news, especially if there is a study linked to the news article.  Scientific reporting is a big interest of mine, and I like to see if I agree with the high points the reporters have drawn from the studies.  I’ll try to keep a running list of articles I’m interested by each week and share.
What do you think?  Would you like to see more science news on the blog: