Friday, 24 August 2012

A brief history of citizen science

Academic discussions of citizen science are all the rage right now (for examples, see here, and here, and here). While most describe the successes of individual projects, none (to my knowledge) have taken the long view and examined where this genre of research fits in to the history of science--until now, that is. This month's issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is completely dedicated to the topic of citizen science, and one of its papers examines the birth of this pursuit (particularly with respect to the field of ecology) and its sometimes touchy relationship with professional research.

(Special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment devoted to citizen science. Image courtesy of the ESA.)

According to the authors--a trio of researchers from the U.S. National Park Service, Boston University, and Cornell University--citizen science is not a modern invention, but rather something that has been occurring "for most of recorded history." Indeed, since science-minded individuals could not really pursue their passion as a full-time career until the late 19th century, nearly all "scientists" before this time were actually citizen scientists--people who made a living in other ways but, "because [they had] an innate interest in particular topics or questions," spent their free time performing research.

Even as early as the 17th century, citizen scientists were developing the sort of sophisticated collaborations and networks that professional researchers use today--and all without the aid of social media. For instance, the authors describe a Norwegian bishop who assembled an army of clergymen who could increase his sample sizes by sending him observations and collected specimens. These sorts of relationships allowed researchers to obtain organisms in far-flung locations that they could never visit themselves. Linnaeus is another early ecologist who benefited from these collaborations; the development of his classification system was greatly advanced by his ability to examine countless specimens provided by other amateur researchers.

(Citizen scientists monitoring butterflies in Wiltshire. Image courtesy of Dr. Yoseph Araya and his terrific article on how to become a citizen scientist.)

While it's easy to focus on "armchair scientists" who pursued science just for fun, there were also a number of individuals whose interest in data was much more practical. According to the authors, these include French winemakers, who have been recording grape harvest days for more than 6 and a half centuries, and Japanese court diarists, who, similarly, have been noting the dates of cherry blossom festivals for more than a millenium. Data have been provided not just by the botanically minded, but also those who work with animals: Hunters and fishermen have also kept remarkable records detailing which species were captured, where, and how large individuals are. Cumulatively, all of these numbers are incredibly useful to modern researchers who are interested in investigating changes in species' morphology, population distributions, and phenology (or the timing of events) over time.

The authors note with some sadness that amateurs have, in many cases, become marginalized over the past 150 years, during which time scientific research has emerged as a full-time profession; while many people still conduct scientific research, it is much harder for them to report their findings in respected journals and, therefore, to advance their fields. However, the authors report that there are two major roles of citizen science in modern research: First, to facilitate large-scale and/or geographically diverse projects, and, second, to undertake projects that professionals would (or could) not ordinarily do on their own. One example of the first variety is the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), which provides ornithologists with a huge dataset on nesting activities in both Canada and the U.S. Without the help of volunteers across the continent, professionals would be hard-pressed to come up with the finances and manpower to collect the amount of data generated by the BBS. An example of the second variety of citizen science is Maryland's Save Our Streams project, a locally-founded effort to "monitor, protect, and restore" the state's streams. Such projects, which may also be referred to as "community science" or "participatory action research," may be too locally focused to be interesting to professional researchers; that said, the success of the Save Our Streams project has led it to be used nationally as a model for similar community science programs.

(Henry David Thoreau, naturalist, writer, and citizen scientist. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

For anyone wondering whether they've collected some useful observations over the years, the authors point out that datasets come in all shapes and sizes, including specimens, photographs, point counts, and size measurements. Even if the topic seems pretty specialized, it might still be useful in a greater ecological context. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, collected a list of first flowering dates, first leaf-out dates, and first arrival dates of migratory birds in Concord, Massachusetts; his observations have been continued over the years by an unbroken line of other citizen scientists. Analysis of the data has revealed that the timing of these events has changed over time, and also that plants are changing more quickly than birds. One particularly appealing characteristic of Thoreau's dataset is the fact that it was collected in a well-documented, systematic way--something that professional researchers would like to see for other citizen science data, as well. (If you do have a dataset, it's a good idea to jot down some notes on how it was collected, when, and where.)

Overall, the authors see a promising future for citizen science. When coupled with modern advances in communications and transportation, our renewed interest in this pursuit could help engage the public in research projects, improve scientific literacy and interest in science, and educate participants on the species, processes, and habitats that they are studying. Academics should also benefit, since an increased awareness of the scientific process will likely increase support and improve public opinion towards scientists, as well as providing data that could lead to valuable new insights.

Miller-Rushing, A., Primack, R., and Bonney, R. 2012. The history of public participation in ecological research. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 10(6):285-290.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A nest box success

Nest boxes are most commonly associated with terrestrial birds such as chickadees, barn owls, and wood ducks, but recent research shows that these artificial cavities are also useful to seabirds--specifically, to the Mediterranean storm petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus melitensis), a small member of the family Procellariiformes.

(Incubating Mediterranean storm petrel. Image courtesy of Birdwatching in Malta.)

This group (which also includes albatrosses, shearwaters, and a number of other petrels) is threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, fishing, and predation. Conservation efforts often target the birds' breeding grounds, where managers are particularly interested in improving nesting habitat and removing threats to egg safety. One measure that seemed likely to achieve both of these goals simultaneously was the introduction of nest boxes, which might not only provide extra space for more pairs to lay eggs, but also protect the eggs against environmental hazards.

According to a short communication in the most recent issue of Biological Conservation, the boxes do, indeed, appear to improve petrel demographic parameters. These encouraging results were obtained by a team of Mediterranean researchers who monitored storm petrel nesting efforts on Spain's Benidorm Island from 1993-2010. They captured and banded breeding individuals, monitored nesting success, and kept records on petrel movement between natural and artificial cavities. All of these demographic data were entered into models allowing the researchers to estimate survival, recapture, breeding success, and change-of-nest-type probabilities.

(Spain's Benidorm Island. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

When researchers first started monitoring the petrels, there were 64 breeding pairs in their focal cave. By the year that the nest boxes were first installed, this number had decreased to only 36 pairs. After introduction of the boxes, however, the number of pairs increased fairly steadily, peaking at 108 boxes in 2006 and then plateauing thereafter. After their initial capture and banding, nest box breeders were 22% more likely to be recaptured than breeders using natural sites; more importantly, survival was 7% higher among birds using nest boxes. Pairs that laid eggs in nest boxes had 19% higher breeding success, which is probably why population growth rates based on nest box data were notably higher than those based on data from natural nests.

One parameter that did not vary much between the two groups was the likelihood of moving from one type of nest site to the other; transition probability was only 0.6% from natural nests to nest boxes, and 0.4% for the reverse. The researchers suspect that older, established breeders preferred to nest in "traditional" locations, and that nest boxes were used by new breeders who found the artificial cavities while prospecting for their first nest sites. Typically, younger breeders would be less successful than older ones, so the fact that box-nesters did so well suggests that the boxes themselves were responsible for the higher survival and productivity rates observed here.

(Mediterranean storm petrel chick. Image courtesy of Birdwatching in Malta.)

In fact, survival rates of nest box breeders were similar to those found in colonies where predation rates are lower. This suggests that the boxes were offering protection from predators such as yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis)--some of whom specialize in petrel hunting. The authors report that this outcome was actually a happy coincidence, since the main purpose of nest box installation was to increase the number of nest sites available and, hopefully, improve breeding success by shielding eggs from trampling and falling rocks.

Unfortunately, the petrels only "took" to the boxes in the section of Benidorm Island where natural nest sites were lacking. In other words, it may be difficult to convince all petrels to occupy these cavities, no matter how safe they may be. The researchers offer one other caution: The increased breeding densities caused by nest box use could lead to problems associated with resource limitation or disease; further work will be needed to investigate this. On the whole, though, the results of the study are very encouraging, not only for Mediterranean storm petrels, but also for other sea birds that might benefit from similar conservation measures.

Libois, E., Gimenez, O., Oro, D., Minguez, E., Pradel, R., Sanz-Aguilar, A. 2012. Nest boxes: a successful management tool for the conservation of an endangered seabird. Biological Conservation 155:39-43.

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Monday, 20 August 2012

Genetically engineered algae: adding caution to the optimism

Over the past several years, researchers have been hard at work modifying algae so that they will generate products that are useful to humans--including food, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. There are high hopes that algae can also be "redesigned" to produce biofuels--an attractive idea given the increasing desire to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. As pointed out in a BioScience Forum essay by Allison Snow and Val Smith, the technique offering "the greatest freedom to improve on the performance of wild strains" is the use of recombinant DNA in a "mass cultivation" setting. In other words, researchers create novel genetic sequences in a laboratory setting, introduce them into algae, and then cultivate the organisms in tanks or pools to investigate the resulting phenotype. Similar methods have been used, with great success, to generate many of the foods we eat and the medicines we take.

Accordingly, Snow and Smith acknowledge the many potential benefits of genetically engineered biofuel algae. At the same time, they also advise caution: Should modified algae escape from cultivation and enter the wider ecosystem, they have the potential to disrupt natural processes; this is especially true if these organisms are engineered to grow faster, out-compete other species, and/or persist in extreme environments. We humans have a troubled history with invasive species--rats, feral house cats, domesticated livestock, exotic plants and insects, and so on--and have learned the hard way how much damage they can cause to ecosystem health and function. Thus, before genetically modified algae are introduced into the environment, the authors strongly suggest that researchers thoroughly investigate biosafety issues.

(An algal bloom. Image courtesy of MDP.)

The organisms in question can be referred to as microalgae, a group that includes both prokaryotic cyanobacteria (i.e., blue-green algae) and eukaryotic algae (including Nannochloropsis and Chlamydomonas). Such species are responsible for algal blooms, which can lead to the die-off of aquatic plants and animals, and the production of toxins that can cause human sickness or death. Although Snow and Smith don't necessarily think that such events are likely to result from genetic modifications of biofuel algae, they do feel it would be worth our while to confirm this before beginning mass production and cultivation of these organisms.

Probably the most important question is whether the algae can become invasive at all, or whether they will just live out their entire lives in isolated production tanks. If they can escape, it would be important to know how often this would happen, and why--for instance, would the algae be spread by wildlife vectors, blown in by inclement weather, released as a result of human error? Further, how far might species disperse, and how long would they survive in their new habitats? Given the nature of gene transfer among microorganisms, it would also be vital to understand whether modified genetic material could spread to other organisms--including native bacteria with which humans would be likely to encounter on a regular basis.

(Algae from the genus Chlamydomonas. Image courtesy of NYU.)

The authors are frustrated by the fact that very little funding is offered for research on these important topics; further, much of what funding there is is provided by organizations that have a vested interest in the success of modified algae, and therefore may not look favorably on negative results. Thus, Snow and Smith recommend extensive work by a diverse group of researchers who have "minimal conflicts of interest." They suggest that studies should focus on the survival and persistence of modified microalgae, as well as their potential to contribute to the gene pool and spur rapid evolution. The authors also urge better exchange of information on genetically engineered algae. Currently, a good deal of algae research is proprietary, and outsiders can only glean information from funding bodies, descriptions in patent applications, and the published comments of employees from biofuel research companies. This makes it difficult for outsiders to "evaluate possible risks, rule out unlikely scenarios, and carry out baseline research on relevant ecological questions."

While this research would be predominantly aimed at protecting the environment (and its inhabitants) from the potential negative impacts of modified algae, it could also have other benefits. For instance, health and safety researchers may uncover algae life history data that can be used by biofuel developers to improve their product. Even better, the existence of definitive evidence that algae are safe is likely to increase public opinion of these organisms--something that would have economic benefits as well as ecological ones.

Snow, A.A. and Smith, V.H. 2012. Genetically engineered algae for biofuels: a key role for ecologists. BioScience 62(8):765-768.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Cheese microbes: a primer

It's easy to criticize microbes for all of the inconveniences they cause in our lives, but we also have the little guys to thank for some of our most beloved food items--beer, wine, bread, pickled veggies, and, of course, cheese.

(Image courtesy of La Cave.)

Surprisingly, the last of these was recently the subject of one of Current Biology's "Quick guides," thanks to the fact that some scientists think cheeses may offer a useful system for cultivating and studying microbial communities in the lab. In addition to offering a quick snack to any lab technicians who suddenly find themselves hungry (just kidding!), cheeses are beneficial because they have a long and detailed history; cheesemakers have generations' worth of notes on what ingredients and techniques can be used to cultivate specific collections of microbes to generate particular characteristics. This means that researchers could easily and repeatably grow focal communities in the lab--something that would allow them to isolate individual species and investigate their contributions to the activity of the community as a whole. Once they'd studied the microbes under normal circumstances, they could then introduce "perturbations"--such as invasive species or environmental stressors--to see how they affect community health and function. All of this information could be useful for figuring out how to encourage the growth and maintenance of the beneficial microbial communities that live in and on us, while potentially discouraging invasion by those we'd be better off without.

While this was the take-home message of the cheese microbe primer, the bulk of the paper was actually devoted to explaining the role of microbes in creating the dairy product that so many of us love and snack on. According to the authors, cheese--otherwise known as fermented milk--probably dates back to the Neolithic, and was originally developed as a way of preserving milk. Our friends the microbes are important not only for catalyzing the curdling process, but also developing flavors, textures, and aromas during the aging process.

(Separating curds from whey. Image courtesy of Miller Kitchen.)

"Curdling" refers to the creation of solid clumps of casein proteins and milk fat that float in liquid whey. This is facilitated by two processes: acidification and proteolysis. Microbes ferment lactose and produce lactic acid; this denatures the proteins and allows them to bind to each other. Coagulation is enhanced by the addition of the enzyme chymosin (found in rennet), which removes the negatively charged bit of casein and better allows the proteins to aggregate.

After curds are separated from the whey, they may be heated, salted, pressed, and formed into wheels; the exact techniques used at this point depend on which type of cheese is being produced. Although it is possible to eat these curds, many are aged--left in a cool, damp place where microbial communities can thrive and inject some personality into the cheese. Microbes can grow both inside and on the outer edge (or "rind") of the wheels, and while both groups are important, it is the "multispecies biofilm" of the rind that the authors feel will be particularly interesting in a research setting.

Variations in flavor, smell, and texture of different cheeses are determined by the types of microbe present, as well as the metabolic activity of each organism. Cheesemakers can impact these factors by varying whether they use raw or pasteurized milk, as well as influencing the pH, salt, moisture, and temperature during the initial and final stages of cheesemaking. Specific microbes (both bacteria and fungi) may be deliberately added in order to achieve certain cheese qualities, and cheesemakers may also bathe their rinds in solutions that provide optimum growing conditions for particular microbial species.

(Curds are prepared for the aging process. Image courtesy of Penn Mac.)

The authors also discuss which microbes and microbial activities are responsible for the unique properties of certain cheeses. For instance, they explain that the ooziness of Brie and Camembert results from the addition of Penicillium camemberti, which forms a dense mat of hyphae on the cheeses' surfaces; the hyphae secrete proteases that break down casein in the curds, thus liquefying the cheese. P. roqueforti, on the other hand, is the species that we have to thank for blue cheese. A microaerophile, this species likes to grow in crevices (or "veins") that it carves out of the cheese after wheels are formed. The color that gives the cheese its name comes from a pigment that is produced by the fungus during sporulation. Finally, the iconic holes of Swiss cheese can be attributed to the growth of Propionibacterium freundenreichii, which produces propionic acid and carbon dioxide while fermenting lactic acid. Because the bacteria live on the inside of the wheel, the gas is trapped inside the curds--forming pockets that appear as holes when the cheese is sliced.

Clearly, cheesemakers and scientists have already done a fairly good job documenting the diversity and activity of microbes associated with cheese. Still, there is quite a bit of work that remains to be done if we are to fully understand the tiny differences that separate each type of cheese, and the delicate preparations necessary to ensure these variations. For instance, according to the authors, the microbial components of cheese "are only partially dictated by the pure cultures inoculated by cheesemakers." Other species come from the environment, so their presence (or absence) is associated with an element of chance--though cheesemakers have developed methods of encouraging colonization by some species and communities. Working together, researchers and cheesemakers may come to understand this part of the cheese-making process in better detail, thus reducing the uncertainty associated with this step of preparation, and perhaps even leading to the development of new flavors and textures.

Button, J.E. and Dutton, R.J. 2012. Cheese microbes. Current Biology 22(5):R587-R589.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Using citizen science to educate schoolchildren

Citizen science projects are often lauded for their ability to simultaneously teach the public and gather useful data for researchers. However, it's not always easy to please all participants, especially when the "citizens" involved are schoolchildren. That's because scientists are interested in acquiring datasets obtained in a reliable and standardized manner, while students want practical experiences that help them learn particular facts and techniques that they will be tested on later. Professional researchers have, of course, already finished their schooling and so may be focused on research questions that are simply too advanced for students--even those in the later years of their education--to tackle. Does this mean that researchers and educators should give up the dream of integrating citizen science with formal science education (FSE)?

(Data collection for the Acadia Learning Project. Image courtesy of the Maine Sea Grant.)

A group of collaborators from Maine have answered this question with a resounding "no." The collaborators are responsible for the Acadia Learning Project (ALP), a 5-year-old "scientist-teacher-student partnership" (STSP) involving 11 schools, more than 20 teachers, and thousands of students. The primary purpose of the project is to educate students about the scientific process while generating a useful ecological dataset for researchers at the University of Maine. However, ALP has also been useful for testing whether it is possible for scientists and students to benefit equally from this sort of partnership.

There are many reasons why people have doubted the likelihood of a mutually beneficial "STSP in an FSE setting." For one thing, students are only beginning to learn about science and may therefore need quite a lot of information to get up to speed on organisms, ecosystems, data collection techniques, and statistical analyses; they are also likely to make mistakes as they learn about how to perform certain methodologies. While teachers can help address some of these problems, most will not have received the sort of scientific training necessary to answer all of the questions that may arise. It would be useful to have professional scientists on hand to provide tutorials, but most researchers will be teaching their own classes and taking care of other academic obligations. All in all, it doesn't seem like an easy task to balance out everyone's needs and ensure that all participants benefit in the end.

Knowing of the potential pitfalls of their collaboration, ALP participants utilized a series of evaluations in order to see what aspects of the project might need tweaking. Early on, they found that students could collect data (in this case, on spatial variations of mercury load in wildlife) but were not able to interpret what the information meant. For instance, students were asked to create graphs allowing them to visualize their own results and compare them to the findings of other research groups. This proved to be a difficult task, suggesting that something needed to be done to improve the education aspects of the STSP.  The scientists also conducted interviews with teachers, who indicated that they would appreciate having greater access to researchers and a better understanding of how the data would be used; the educators hoped that both of these goals would help them improve student motivation. Cumulatively, these needs and desires showed that the teachers and students "needed additional support to undertake basic scientific work"--but also proved that they "valued the engagement with a real and complex project."

One of the first things that the scientists wanted to address was the potential tension arising from the fact that teachers had originally expected the students to examine the very same questions of interest to the researchers, and were surprised when this did not happen. As the scientists pointed out, "the students had neither the training nor the knowledge to consider such questions;" further, if students were to focus on these questions (e.g., how Hg biomagnifies and whether it can be used as a proxy for methylmercury), they would not get as much information about the more general topics on which they would later be tested in school (e.g., food webs and energy requirements of animals in different trophic levels).

(Field work during the Acadia Learning Project. Image courtesy of the ALP.)

To better integrate academic and educational goals, the researchers developed a plan involving "regular online and occasional in-person access to scientists"--a technique designed to help students identify research questions that were interesting and useful to both parties. The researchers also organized summer institutes for teachers, providing the educators with the information they needed to help students with project design and data analysis. A review of student performance before and after the "tweaking" revealed improvements in students' ability to create useful graphs and compare their data with those collected by other groups.

Teachers reported that students were highly motivated to "carefully follow field protocols to ensure that samples were useful;" in other words, in addition to collecting data for their own projects, the students wanted to ensure that their datasets could also be used by the researchers. According to the researchers, one teacher has gone "beyond normal classroom science" by using the research protocols in a nearby wildlife refuge and creating a "body of student work that has value in its own right." Likewise, one student took the science course twice in order to have the chance to continue his research. At the same time, the academic researchers were able to use the data generated by the ALP to write publishable journal papers and successfully apply for grants.

Cumulatively, these successes indicate that it is possible for multiple groups of people to approach an STSP "with different needs and inputs, collaborate during program design and implementation, and then diverge, focusing on different outputs and seeking different outcomes." The key seems to be periodically re-evaluating the program to see what needs to be altered, as well as having a willingness to put in some extra-curricular effort to make sure that everyone is on the same page with how the project should proceed. Additionally, the researchers promote program designs that "place equal emphasis on scientific outcomes and learning outcomes"--in other words, teachers and scientists have to be willing to meet each other halfway. If they succeed, the resulting projects can be useful not only to teachers and researchers of all ages, but also--depending on the nature of the research--to conservationists, managers, and the organisms being studied.

Zoellick B, Nelson SJ, and Schauffler M. 2012. Participatory science and education: bringing both views into focus. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10(6):310-313.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Frog-friendly golf course ponds?

Nearly half of all amphibian species in the world are experiencing population declines, and one of the major causes of these negative trends is habitat loss--something that will likely only grow worse as human populations expand in the coming years. A major management question, then, is how we can alter existing habitats to make them more suitable for amphibians.

Two Ohio researchers from Miami University have found that the addition of pond-side buffer zones may help at least some species cope with life in human-modified environments--in this case, golf courses. Golf courses are an important anthropogenic habitat because they cover vast amounts of space (over half a million acres in the US alone) and are already semi-natural; minor changes in management regime, such as leaving a 1-m unmown buffer around golf course ponds, might be a quick and easy way to increase biodiversity and habitat suitability.

(Blanchard's cricket frog, Acris blanchardi. Image courtesy of Michigan DNR.)

Golf courses were already known to host a variety of amphibians--particularly frogs--during at least part of their life cycle: the tadpole phase, during which the animals live in the water. In their new study, the MU researchers investigated whether the addition of pond-side buffer zones might improve the quality of the pond habitat, as well as providing a place for the frogs to live once they reached the terrestrial stage their life cycle. If so, then the animals might be able to spend their entire lives in one place--an important achievement in the quest to establish healthy, self-sustaining frog populations in human habitats.

Three major techniques were used for the latest study. First, the researchers collected eggs from two species of frog (Blanchard's cricket frog, Acris blanchardi, and green frog, Rana clamitans) and distributed the resulting tadpoles among ponds on 3 different golf courses. Each of the courses had different management regimes (ranging from intensive to fairly hands-off), and each had both a buffered and unbuffered focal pond. The scientists counted and measured tadpoles prior to distributing them, and then again at the end of the season (by which time the cricket frogs had metamorphosed; green frogs, however, were still in tadpole form because they overwinter before metamorphosing). All cricket frogs were then given unique identification marks and released near the ponds. In the second part of the study, the researchers returned to the ponds during the next breeding season and performed surveys in order to census how many of the marked frogs had survived over the winter. Finally, the scientists conducted a habitat preference study. One by one, cricket frogs were placed in the middle of pens in which one half was mown and the other was not; whichever half they were later found in was determined to be the preferred habitat type.

(Green frog, Rana clamitans. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Results of the larval study were mixed. At two of the courses, green frogs had higher survival rates in the unbuffered ponds, but greater body mass in the buffered ponds. Cricket frogs, on the other hand, had both better survival and higher body mass at one of the buffered ponds, but not at the other (the third pond was omitted from the analysis because an animal chewed into the tadpole enclosure). Unfortunately, the researchers could not relocate any of the released cricket frogs during the following breeding season (though they did find plenty of unmarked adults), suggesting that their study animals had either died or migrated elsewhere. The results of the choice experiment were a bit more clear, and suggested that juvenile frogs prefer unmown habitat--which was associated with higher relative humidity levels and therefore may have protected the frogs from desiccation.

Although it is hard to make generalizations based on these findings, one thing is clear: Buffers are unlikely to impact all amphibians in the same way, or function similarly on all golf courses. That is because of differences in species' natural histories and course management regimes. Green frogs, for instance, are more commonly found in anthropogenic environments, and are probably less sensitive to contaminants; thus, buffering may not improve their survival as much as it does the cricket frogs' because the former are already fairly tolerant of golf course pond environments. Both pesticide/fertilizer use and pond water level varied across the 3 golf courses studied here, and these factors also likely influenced the efficacy of the pond buffers.

(Golf course pond. Image courtesy of Local Web.)

All the same, the results of the study are intriguing. Larvae from buffered ponds tended to have a higher mass at the end of the summer, and this could confer fitness advantages such as better survival and reproductive success. It's difficult to draw any conclusions based on the current study, as the researchers were unable to recapture any of their released cricket frogs. Thus, future work will be needed to better understand the long-term survival patterns of adult frogs on golf courses. Likewise, it will be necessary to conduct additional research to follow up on the habitat choice study. For example, further investigations might examine whether frogs prefer vegetation of a particular height or width; this information might then be used to perform another enclosure experiment in order to see how buffer characteristics impact the function of these habitat management features.

Despite the need for additional research, the authors were encouraged by their results because they showed that a) larvae can survive in golf course environments, and b) adults are present during the breeding season. Now the trick will be perfecting management techniques to ensure that larvae produced on the courses survive to become adults who, in turn, will generate their own tadpoles. If such self-sustaining populations can be established on golf courses, then maybe other managed green spaces can also be rendered more amphibian-friendly.

Puglis, HJ, and Boone, MD. 2012. Effects of terrestrial buffer zones on amphibians on golf courses. PLoS ONE 7(6):e39590.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The many benefits of bird banding

Bird banding--or ringing, as it is called in Europe--dates back at least to the 16th century, and was first performed in the US by none other than John James Audubon. It is a technique that has given us amazing insights into the movements of migratory birds and the demographics of bird populations. However, according to biologist Çağan Şekercioğlu, this is only a fraction of what bird banding efforts can achieve. He sees long-term banding efforts as a means of providing science education, job training, and ecotourism opportunities to locals, as well as initiating grassroots conservation projects.

Şekercioğlu wrote about the many benefits of bird banding efforts in Biological Conservation, which recently released a special issue devoted to honoring the memory of conservation ecologist Navjot Sodhi. Like Şekercioğlu, Sodhi was heavily involved in bird banding efforts, and both biologists believed that close ties between researchers and the communities in which they worked could be helpful to all involved. For example, scientists might benefit from the expertise of local guides, who could point out where particular habitats or species could be found. On the other hand, local schoolchildren might have the opportunity to see wild birds up close and personal for the first time, while more mature residents could be trained as bird banders and develop a marketable new skillset. According to Şekercioğlu, such mutually beneficial interactions have the potential to spark grassroots conservation efforts that facilitate "holistic biodiversity-monitoring" by integrating "community involvement, capacity-building, outreach, environmental education, and local job creation."

(Şekercioğlu, tracking birds at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica. Image courtesy of the Stanford University News.)

Both Şekercioğlu and Sodhi saw the creation of such programs as vital, since "top-down, large-scale quick fixes" often fail to work--partly because locals (quite rightly) resent the intrusion by outsiders, and oppose conservation plans because they do not understand their value and/or do not benefit from them. Bird-banding efforts, and the creation of long-term biological research stations that facilitate them, have the potential to avoid this problem. As evidence, Şekercioğlu offers case studies of two banding stations that he has helped establish over the course of his career.

The first is the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, where the author initiated a banding program in 1999. Unlike many tropical countries, Costa Rica is fairly wealthy, and its residents are well-educated. Once local teachers heard about Şekercioğlu's banding efforts, they approached him in the hopes of exposing their students to science in action; thus was born the author's interest in forging a close bond between environmental work and public outreach. He describes how some children reported giving up their slingshots after feeling the heartbeat of a live bird in their hands; it is easy to see how that sort of inadvertent success would inspire Şekercioğlu to attempt further conservation education efforts.

(Ethiopian schoolchildren release a bird captured as part of the Ethiopia Bird Education Project. Image courtesy of Biological Conservation.)

The second case study is the Ethiopia Bird Education Project, or EBEP. Unlike Costa Rica, Ethiopia is a relatively poor country with undereducated inhabitants (literacy rates are 42% for men and only 18% for women). Many Ethiopians have never had the opportunity to learn about the natural history of their country, or find out how valuable it is. As part of the EBEP effort, banding sites were deliberately established near schools, and partnerships were formed with both educators and local tourism bureaus. During banding events, ornithologists hand over the captured birds to educators, who then show the animals to students and teach the children how to handle and release the birds back into the wild. While students are learning about ornithology, migration, and conservation, the researchers are collecting information on thousands of birds in a variety of habitats--a vital step towards censusing Ethiopia's avian diversity and developing appropriate management plans. As a result of these efforts, many locals have eventually become staff members at the banding station, and one became the first Ethiopian ever to get a banding license.

Şekercioğlu's essay focuses mainly on banding stations in developing countries because these are the areas where formal environmental education is most lacking, and where high levels of biodiversity make conservation efforts most vital. Scientifically, these regions are also interesting because they are typically understudied; ornithologists tend to know more about temperate than tropical species, and we know surprisingly little about what happens to migratory temperate species once they reach their tropical wintering grounds. Unfortunately, according to the author, funding bodies tend to offer only limited funding for research, outreach, and "capacity-building" in tropical regions; in his words, the financial support offered is "disproportionate" to the number of birds (and people) that the research efforts would impact. On top of this, government agencies tend to make it difficult to obtain and renew permits; Şekercioğlu laments that "it is easier and faster to get a permit to hunt birds than to study them." He therefore urges funding bodies to reconsider their stance on grant distribution--particularly in light of the fact that a 3-month field season is often much more affordable in tropical areas than it is in temperate climates.

(A map of estimated avian biodiversity shows why tropical research and conservation efforts are so important. Image courtesy of Gavin Thomas.)

Overall, the author hopes that his essay calls attention to his and Navjot Sodhi's belief that "it is imperative for bird banders, conservationists, ornithologists, and other concerned citizens to constantly communicate to the public and decision-makers the conservation value of bird banding and its negligible impacts to birds." The success of his own banding programs in two extremely different tropical habitats suggests that Hopefully, an increased awareness of the value of bird banding as a tool for helping both birds and humans will help provide a better future for everyone involved.