August 29, 2019
If you’ve been looking at the news—or social media—this month, you’ve probably seen that changes are coming to the Endangered Species Act. The changes will go into effect 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register. This blog provides a primer on these changes.
What will these changes mean? How this all actually plays out is to be determined, since a variety of organizations are planning lawsuits to challenge these changes—but these rollbacks could have negative impacts for those who are working toward species conservation.Leave a comment
August 6, 2019
by Amber Sparks
Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) represent a complex class of chemical compounds that have been used in the manufacturing of household and commercial products since the 1960s. At the time, PFAS were revolutionary — a compound that could resist heat and chemical reactions, while also repelling oil, stains, grease, and water. The military, firefighting, aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronic industries were all on board. Before long PFAS were incorporated into a variety of products ranging from firefighting foam to commonly used items such as Teflon cookware, fast-food packaging, clothing, carpets, furniture, and cosmetics.
Although once a ground-breaking innovation, today we understand that PFAS are deleterious to human health and the environment, and the longer-chain sub-compound PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are even more toxic, subject to bioaccumulation and persistence in the environment. Even at low levels, PFAS have been linked to cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid and liver disease, decreased fertility, harm to developing fetuses and young children, and overall weakened immune systems.
While the scientific community had begun to identify these impacts years ago, it wasn’t until 2016 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a PFAS health advisory for drinking water that the PFAS compounds truly emerged as a contaminant of serious concern at both federal and state-levels. The 2016 health advisory set the combined exposure level for both PFOS and PFOA at 70 parts per trillion. While the EPA deemed this recommendation sufficient to protect human health, in 2018 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) published a study that found exposure to drinking water contaminated with PFOS and PFOA could be harmful at levels up to 10 times lower than previously estimated by the EPA.
With the release of the ATSDR study, concerns surrounding PFAS contamination quickly elevated making headlines in the New York Times, Fox News, and many others. Yet despite public response for more stringent regulations, there continues to be many overarching challenges regarding PFAS contamination management. First and foremost, because PFAS have become ubiquitous in the environment, it is extremely difficult to identify sources, pathways, exposed populations, and levels of exposure and it’s likely that other unknown and undiscovered PFAS exist within the environment as impurities or byproducts of chemical production. Additionally, while health and occurrence data and validated analytical methods are available for certain PFAS (i.e. PFOA and PFOS), there are potentially hundreds of other PFAS with limited or no toxicity information.
In response to these data gaps, the EPA has positioned to take serious action on PFAS (see 2018 National Leadership Summit and EPA’s 2019 PFAS Action Plan), and several states have begun implementing measures of their own. While these new developments will hopefully prevent the spread of PFAS contamination, they may also create potential liabilities and consequences for industries that previously or currently manufacture, use, or sell PFAS or PFAS-containing products. At this juncture, where environment and industry intersect, Great Ecology steps up to the plate, with an understanding of the cutting-edge issues and regulations, providing ecologically focused solutions for areas that have been subject to PFAS contamination.
Great Ecology offers services in natural resource management, including NRD assessments and reporting, expert witness testimony, habitat restoration planning and cost estimation, and litigation strategy, all while maintaining strict confidentiality. The scale of our NRD work has ranged from confined sites with PFAS specific injuries, to regional projects encompassing hundreds of square miles and thousands of groundwater, surface water, soil and sediment samples. We bring rigorous scientific studies and extensive knowledge to substantiate injury to natural resource and reductions in the ecosystem services they provide, which can stand up in a court of law – to protect critical natural resources while maintaining the interests of our clients.Leave a comment
July 23, 2019
By Liz Clift
The Midwest has been pummeled by storms—and if you’re looking at mainstream online news outlets, you might not even notice amidst other national and international stories. However, Midwestern flooding has implications not only for crops (such as corn, soy, and pigs), which is the focus of the limited news coverage, but also ecology and the environment.
Some scientists suggest that these floods are likely linked to climate change. David Easterling, Chief of the Scientific Services division at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, has pointed out that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water and that much of the rain that’s fallen on the Midwest in recent weeks originated over the Gulf of Mexico. Assuming that this unprecedented rainfall is linked to climate change, we should expect to see this trend continue in the future, perhaps returning parts of the Midwest to the marshier lands that existed prior to the widespread use of tilling.
We know that critical infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, that some people will be permanently displaced, and that clean-up will cost some states billions of dollars. In addition, we can anticipate prices for corn and soybeans will skyrocket due to lower yields. Higher prices for corn and soy will impact not only the food industry, but also the gas (ethanol) industry, some plastics production, and more.
However, the near-term human consequences will have devastating impacts on the people who live in the Midwest (some of whom have lost their homes, livelihoods, or both—or may by the end of this growing season) as well as elsewhere. This most recent set of flooding isn’t even the only flooding parts of the Midwest have experienced this year.
Once the current set of floodwaters recede, ecological consequences will become more apparent. We can probably expect to find that rivers or streams have shifted course (as sometimes happens during large flood events); increased eutrophication in rivers, streams, and the Gulf; rich farmlands scraped bare by rushing floodwaters (with those soils either deposited on other farmlands or at the deltas of the region’s streams and rivers); chemical contamination; cars and buildings in places where they shouldn’t be; soil compaction; and reductions in macroinvertebrates (likely with slow recolonization in areas that have previously experienced flooding this year).
We’ve seen similar floods before in this part of the Midwest, including the Great Flood of 1993—and there may be lessons to learn from that flood as recovery efforts begin with the current flooding, as well as models from around the country. Rebuilding may include efforts to:
Within recovery efforts, ecological design should play a central role. Certainly, ecological design can’t prevent flooding from occurring, but ecological design may encourage the development of more resilient landscapes, which allow communities to remain more resilient as well—not only in the face of flooding, but in the case of drought, wildland fires, and other natural disasters.
In addition, engaging ecologists from the beginning can help streamline recovery efforts. Ecologists and ecological designers can work with project teams to design projects that are more likely to experience long-term restoration success while adding aesthetic and even economic value to impacted communities and sites. Ecologists are skilled at examining the plethora of factors that contribute to the ecological function and health of the site, and have even developed a variety of rapid assessment protocols that allow them to use a variety of objective and subjective tools to assess ecological health. This data can then be used to develop restoration and management strategies.
Streamlining restoration efforts ultimately saves the client—including municipalities—money. As cities, towns, and businesses begin to consider their options for rebuilding, may we humbly suggest you include ecologists and ecological designers on your team?
Great Ecology has experience helping towns and municipalities recover from impacts to widespread flooding, including over varied topographical terrain. We offer solutions that are designed to decrease the impacts of future flood events.
Featured image on this blog is from NOAA.Leave a comment
April 30, 2019
By Liz Clift
Depending on what part of the country you live in, you may already be starting to prepare, or even plant your garden beds. However, did you know that by preparing your bed (or cleaning up winter debris from your yard) too early you can disrupt native pollinator habitat?
Native pollinators may take shelter in brush piles, reeds, and leaf litter from last year’s garden—overwintering, hibernating, or laying their eggs there. They may even nest directly in the soil. If you turn these piles under, or throw them in a compost bin, you could be interrupting the pollinator’s life cycles (and their ability to readily pollinate your garden).
So, when should you prep your garden?
As a general rule of thumb, once temperatures are consistently above 50 to 60 degrees—which is the temperature range preferred by different native bees (honey bees will emerge at the low end of this temperature spectrum) —you can start prepping.
If you can, avoid tilling or turning over the soil as much as possible throughout the year. This is because many ground nesting bees spend much of their lives underground—potentially even at the base of the plant they pollinate.
Why does this matter?
Although the honey bee is the poster child of bee population declines, native bee species actually pollinate large numbers of our crops, as well as native plants, and their numbers are in decline as well. And they’re far from the only native pollinators that rely on debris and shelter in your yard to find areas to nest, forage, or even drink water.
We can support their populations not only by minimizing disturbance of their habitat in our gardens and yards, but also by making sure that we create pollinator friendly habitat that includes a variety of native species, nesting sites, and hydration sites—especially in areas where water is less abundant. Offering a mix of plants that flower at various times throughout the year is also a great thing to do. If you have leafy crops, like lettuce or kale, allowing some of the plants to bolt can also provide additional food sources for native pollinators.
And of course, we can also help support native pollinator populations by minimizing our use of -icides, which can impact not only pollinators, but other insects, fungi and plants that these pollinators rely on for food and shelter.Leave a comment
March 28, 2019
Last week we posted a list of 13 women who have helped shape our understanding of the natural world, our place in it, and how we can learn from, restore, and better protect it. That list (as well as this one!) was far from complete—but as we approach the end of Women’s History Month, we want to cap it off by highlighting seven additional women who are important figures in ecology, restoration, conservation, and related fields.
Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson co-founded Blue Latitudes, an organization dedicated to transforming decommissioned oil rigs into productive reef habitats, which is especially important in a world where reefs continue to struggle.
Gretchen Daily, Ph.D. helped establish the concept of “natural capital,” which views the goods and services that our environment provides as akin to our notion of traditional economic, or “man-made,” capital—in other words, natural capital can become more or less productive over time as a result of human activity, and should be taken into consideration when assessing a system.. This concept and related ones, such as ecosystem services, are fundamental to the field of ecology.
Phyllis Faber co-founded the United States’ first agricultural land trust in Marin County, California—preventing large tracts of land from being sold to developers. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust aims to permanently protect more than 100,000 acres of family farms and ranches by 2040.
Lois Gibbs’ activism led to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which is used to locate and clean up toxic waste, or “Superfund” sites across the country.
Jane Goodall’s primatology work has transformed our understanding of chimpanzees and redefined our concept of the relationship between humans and animals. The Jane Goodall Institute promotes a holistic approach to conservation that revolves around local communities. Goodall holds a Ph.D. in ethology and her research was focused on the behaviors of “free-living chimpanzees.”Leave a comment
March 21, 2019
By Liz Clift
March is women’s history month—and when looking back on recent scientific history, most people probably think of prominent male figures when they picture famous ecologists and conservationists. We’re going to counter that narrative by featuring 13 women who have made a difference in ecology, conservation, restoration, or a related field. These women appear in alphabetical order by last name.
Jodie Darquea Arteaga is a leader at Ecuador Mundo Ecologico and an associate research professor at Ecuador’s State University of the Santa Elena Peninsula. Ecuador Mundo Ecologico is an organization dedicated to understanding by-catch—when fishing lines accidentally entangle non-target species (like turtles, dolphins, or birds)—as it occurs in small fleets. This is, in part, because small fleets don’t face the same international regulatory requirements as industrial fishing vessels, despite the fact that the smaller boats may number in the thousands. Before her work began, there was no documentation of bycatch by these fishermen. Now, alongside other partners, she has documented more than 700 of these fishing trips.
Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, helped revolutionize design thinking. The practice of biomimicry adheres to six design lessons that species use to survive and thrive: adaptation, attunement and responsiveness, evolution, resource efficiency, life-friendly chemistry, and the integration of development with growth.
Rachel Carson is perhaps best known for Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the perils of DDT. However, this was far from her only published work. She also wrote extensively about Atlantic marine ecology, particularly coastal and intertidal ecosystems. Carson worked for the Bureau of Fisheries (which later became the US Fish and Wildlife Service) for many years and continued to write both essays and books, while also battling challenges from the chemical industry about DDT.
Ruth Defries, Ph.D.,uses remote sensing to better understand how the Earth’s habitability is influenced by human activities, which can alter climate, nutrient cycling, biodiversity, and other ecosystem services. She has recently(?) focused most of her attention on tropical deforestation and the impacts it has on atmospheric carbon emissions.
Amrita Devi – Amrita Devi was a member of the Bishnoi religious community, which respects the sanctity of all forms of life. Bishnoi’s view the Khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria) as a critical life force in the desert. In 1730, the King of Jodhpur sent his army to Bishnoi villages to cut trees for his palace. Amrita Devi ran to one of the trees and hugged it to stop it from being felled. She, along with many other Bishnoi, were massacred protecting their trees. Their sacrifice later inspired the Chipko Andolan movement.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a journalist, author, racial justice and voting rights advocate—and a staunch defender of the Everglades. She fought against efforts to drain the massive wetlands and transition the land for development. In the 1920s, she joined the board of the Everglades Tropical National Park committee, the goal of which was to designate the Everglades as a national park. By the 1970s, she focused her critiques on damages being done to the Everglades through development and pollution. Her efforts earned her monikers such as “Grande Dame of the Everglades.”
Sylvia Earle, Ph.D., is a marine biologist, explorer, author, and public speaker who leads Mission Blue and was the first woman to become chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She has been a tireless advocate for the oceans, has led more than 50 expeditions, and has clocked more than 7,000 hours under water (for context, there are 8,760 hours in a year).
Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a sea-level researcher and climate activist who began her career in south Florida, where she was raised. Although she started in academia, she later switched to advocacy after concluding that academic work takes too long to reach vulnerable populations. She’s particularly interested in the disproportionate impacts of sea-level rise on Hispanic and other populations that reside in coastal areas.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ph.D., is a plant ecologist and botanist, and a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York. She supports the Traditional Ecological Knowledge approach, which integrates empirical science with cultural and spiritual considerations, and founded the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment based on this philosophy. The mission of this Center is to create programs that rely on both indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge to support healthy environments. She is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the author of two books and numerous articles. In addition to her work helping to weave together indigenous wisdom and empirical science, Kimmerer believes that one of the ways to curb ecological destruction is to talk about nature in a different way. She points [AR1] out that we talk [AR2] about anything non-human as an “it,” and that this is part of [AR3] linguistic imperialism—a habit which makes it easier for us humans to destroy the earth rather than coexist with[AR4] the other beings of the world.
“Language has always been changeable and adaptive. We lose words we don’t need anymore and invent the ones we need. We don’t need a worldview of Earth beings as objects anymore. That thinking has led us to the precipice of climate chaos and mass extinction. We need a new language that reflects the life-affirming world we want. A new language, with its roots in an ancient way of thinking.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer
Wangari Maathai, Ph.D., founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. The organization restores degraded watersheds and forest lands by planting trees, which improve water catchment, stabilize the soil, and reduce poverty in local communities by providing food and firewood. Since the organization’s founding, Green Belt Movement communities have planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya. The Movement also focuses on empowering people to address the needs of their community through civic and environmental seminars.
Patricia Medici, Ph.D.,is a Brazilian conservation biologist whose main area of study has been protecting the vulnerable tapir population, a jungle-dwelling mammal that is similar to a pig but with a short trunk. Tapirs help shape plant biodiversity in the areas they inhabit and also improve the survival rate of large predators. Alongside those efforts, Medici also focuses on tropical forest conservation, landscape ecology, community-based conservation, and metapopulation management. Since one of the biggest threats tapirs face is from vehicular traffic, Medici and her team decided to add highly reflective stickers to the tapir’s tracking collars, with the hope of increasing their visibility.
Peggy Shepard is an international leader in the fight against environmental racism. In 1991, at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, she helped draft the Principles of Environmental Justice, which aim to ensure justice, respect, and environmentally safe livelihoods for all populations. She is also the co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which has helped New York residents—and people across the globe—engage in community-based campaigns to improve environmental protection and health policies.
Terry Tempest Williams is a conservationist and author whose writing is rooted in the American West. She focuses on topics such as ecology, wilderness preservation, public health, and the relationship between culture and nature. She has written extensively about the ways human activities impact ecological systems, the changing shape of landscape due to natural and anthropogenic causes, and how power can corrupt not just individuals but ecosystems and culture.
We can’t cover all of ecology’s prominent women in the space of one blog—so keep an eye out for our next article in a few days that will highlight even more of science’s revolutionary females.Leave a comment
March 14, 2019
By Liz Clift
It’s easy enough to think about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and call it to mind: you might imagine bright corals or giant clams. You might picture great white sharks or sandy beaches. Chances are good that your mental picture is full of bright colors—from the corals, the tropical fishes, and even the aquamarine waters themselves. Maybe you’ve even visited and you can feel the water over your skin, the snorkeling or scuba mask on your face, the bubbles brushing against you. Maybe you’ve tickled one of those giant clams just to watch it snap shut or even come face to face with a moray eel.
If you’re more familiar with the troubles befalling the GBR, you might instead be picturing the freshwater flood waters that have been impacting it in recent weeks, vast swaths of bleached corals, and ghosts of what used to be a teeming ecosystem. You wouldn’t be far off if you imagined an occasional fish swimming through a nearly barren landscape with algae coating what once were vibrant, colorful corals.
The GBR is foundational to fisheries along Australia’s eastern shore. It brings in tourism dollars, supports diverse and endemic species, and offers shoreline protection, among other ecosystem benefits. But did you know there’s another, lesser known reef system that spans much of Australia’s southern coastal areas—and that(?) may be just as important in terms of providing habitat for a variety of marine life, protecting the shoreline, and offering carbon sequestration?
The Great Southern Reef—a system of temperate rocky reefs that spans 71,000 km2—is defined by dense kelp forests, which support sponges, abalone, fish, corals, sea stars, sea urchins, and crustaceans, among many other animals, some of which do not exist anywhere else on earth. This includes the weedy seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) and the harlequin fish (Othos dentex), but in some areas as much of 80% of the species may be endemic.
And these kelp forests are nothing to scoff at. They produce nearly 145,000 pounds of biomass per hectare (roughly 2.5 acres) per year, which is six times the yield of Australia’s wheat crops. They support the tourism industry and a number of fishing industries (including abalone and rock lobster), and provide significant carbon sequestration.
Unfortunately, these kelp forests are also disappearing. The waters these kelp forests live in are some of the fastest warming regions of the ocean—and were recently(?) pummeled by heat waves, exacerbating the problem. In 2011, a heat wave rocked the region and brought record high temperatures. Since kelp prefers cooler [AR1] temperatures, many of the forests were destroyed; 43% disappeared entirely by 2013. Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera), one of the species that make up these forests, has lost 95% percent of its range over the past 75 years. To put that in perspective for you: that’s basically the same amount of time since the end of World War II—which isn’t all that long ago. And locals have been discussing the decreasing kelp population in the area for years—in part because in some areas, a large part of the economy is reliant on kelp or the species found living among the kelp.
And, rather than the kelp growing back, it’s being replaced with “turf-forming” seaweeds that are more tolerant of warmer waters. At the same time, the inhabitants of these kelp forests are being replaced with tropical species that are drawn to warmer waters. In recognition of the way these ecosystems are changing, the Australian government listed giant kelp forests as an endangered community in 2012 (a designation that still hasn’t been granted to the country’s coral reefs).
One theory about why the kelp forests are having trouble growing back is because kelp propagates via spores (like a fern), and in some areas, ocean currents move water away from places where the kelp has died back. Even when these areas are manually replanted, they may be impacted by species like parrotfish, which is a tropical grazing species. Parrotfish graze on algae—which can benefit corals, but impacts macroalgaes, like kelp. These events could further exacerbate the strain on a species that prefers cooler, nutrient rich waters and is currently having to live in waters that are much warmer than previous points in recorded history.
So what is there to do? With all the news about the impacts of global warming, it’s easy (and maybe even tempting) to feel overwhelmed. There is so little that individuals can do most of the time—especially if you’re already being more conscious of how you consume goods and services. But in this case, there is at least one more thing you can do (depending on where you live).
Researchers have developed a citizen-science opportunity for divers and non-divers alike to support research and restoration efforts. Reef Explorers Down Under offers opportunities to become involved in efforts to protect the Great Southern Reef. Most of the opportunities are best suited to someone in Australia (and near Sydney) or with the ability to travel (who is also SCUBA certified), but there may be opportunities for others to get involved as well. If nothing else, you can support them on social media.
If you don’t live in a place where you can directly participate in the citizen-science project, this may feel like very little. But you can also help raise awareness about the Great Southern Reef by sharing blogs (like this one) and articles that discuss the Great Southern Reef to help raise broader awareness of this ecosystem and its plight.
Featured Image from: Australian Academy of ScienceLeave a comment
March 1, 2019
By Liz Clift
It’s been a while since we posted about podcasts—which are a great way to learn new information, hear other people’s stories, or catch up on the news—so we decided it’s time to post about them again. But this time we want to do it differently.
Here are some podcast episodes we’ve loved that have a nexus with spending time outside or improving/bolstering our understanding of the more-than-human world. There are plenty of podcasts available if you want the entire focus to be about the outdoors or ecology. This isn’t that. This time we’ll highlight particular episodes of podcasts that may be centered on science—or for which science may only be a small part of their focus.
Think of these as “tasters” for podcasts you may or may not already know—and which may or may not always focus on the outdoors, ecology, or related topics.
Episode: 108 – Debris
Family Friendly?: Yes
Summary: Anyone familiar with Lore knows that host, Aaron Mahnke, does his research (with assistance from Marcet Crockett) on folklore. This episode focuses on our oceans—and the monsters we find within them. He covers tales of “sea monsters” that actually come with some pretty reasonable explanations, but also offers insight into the human psyche and why we create such mysteries around the depths of our oceans.
Episode: December 15, 2015 Adam Foote: The Sea Urchin Massacre
Family Friendly?: More or less (mentions sea urchin sex)
Summary: StoryCollider’s narrators tell true, personal stories about science. In this episode, Adam Foote wants to get sea urchins (shipped from San Diego) into Pittsburgh during a polar vortex. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go exactly as planned.
Podcast: The Moth
Episode: Butterflies Beneath the Ice
Family Friendly: Yes
Summary: James McClintock discusses polar diving from the perspective of a chemical ecologist—and what it was like to dive under eight feet of sea ice—including seeing a collage of corals, urchins, and other animals. Things change when he sees a shrimp wearing a little orange backpack.
Podcast: Good Job Brain
Episode: 21 – Plants are Messed Up
Family Friendly: Yes
Summary: As a family friendly trivia podcast, Good Job Brain episodes are generally filled with nuggets of trivia coupled with some story-telling. This episode focuses on the bizarre world of plants. If you like this one, you’ll also want to check out Episode 10 – Animals are Weird (and it may make you think differently about some of your favorite sweet treats).
Episode: Poison Ivy
Family Friendly: Yes
Summary: She’s a medical doctor, he plays a goofball who doesn’t understand things—but together this husband and wife team dissect weird aspects of medical history (and sometimes the(?) medical present). In this episode, they explore the medical history of poison ivy—which pretty much anyone who works in the field tries to avoid, since it can cause skin irritation (or worse for some people). You might be surprised by how it has been used in the field of medicine.
Podcast: Science for the People
Episode: 494 – The Tangled Taxonomic Tree
Family Friendly: Yes
Summary: You might still think about the tree of life or the evolutionary tree—but science has moved on to something much more complex. This podcast explores the tangled web of taxonomy in an accessible way.
Episode: The Long Loneliness
Family Friendly: Yes
Summary: Thousands of people each year spend a collective $2B annually to watch whales—but we haven’t always been so enamored with these massive creatures. In fact, Americans used to think of whales as the raw materials for margarine, animal feed, and fertilizer. This podcast explores what changed in the ways we think about these mammals.
Podcast: Escape the Zoo
Family Friendly: Yes (but fairly scientifically technical)
Summary: Great Ecology associates Amber Jackson and Emily Callahan Hazelwood discuss the transformation of oil rigs into productive reefing structures—which can provide valuable habitat for a variety of marine life. They also discuss how removing an entire “platform jacket” from one of these oil rigs can completely collapse the small ecosystem that formed around the rig. If you want to learn more about their work with converting rigs to reefs, check out their website or listen to their interview on Ocean Alison. They also appeared on Living Lab on NPR.
Podcast: On Being
Family Friendly: Yes
Summary: Robin Wall Kimmerer provides an interview to Krista Tippet about the beauty and intelligence of the more-than-human world, including a discussion about how she became interested in pursuing science in a way that assumes part of the world’s beauty is through evolution. As an example, Kimmerer speaks about the combination of asters and goldenrods in a field, which appear beautiful to people because of their contrasting colors—but which also help attract more pollinators than either plant would alone. If you’ve read (or heard about) Braiding Sweetgrass or Gathering Moss, you’ll want to listen to this interview.
What podcast episodes that are related to ecology, biology, marine science, or botany have you particularly enjoyed? Remember, the goal isn’t that every episode of the podcast be focused on some branch of ecological science (although that may be true), but to find good podcasts that also include a solid basis in science or story-telling. Please link to your favorite episodes on your Facebook page about this blog!Leave a comment
January 3, 2019
By: Liz Clift
On a recent trip, I was back in a familiar landscape where I know a number of the names of native plants—not just trees and flowers, but grasses as well. Being able to recognize these deepened my sense of temporarily returning home, and what it means to belong to a place.
The experience also led me to consider how an ecological vocabulary changes the way we see the world. Much like having a vocabulary around estuary English, having a vocabulary around one’s local ecological environments can add depth and texture to the world. A red-capped mushroom with charming white spots is no longer just a toadstool, or just warning that it’s poisonous. It’s suddenly likely Amanita muscaria (and culinary, if properly identified and prepared. That being said, please don’t eat foraged mushrooms unless you’re very certain in the ID.). Finding a good spot for morels (Morchella spp.)is an opportunity to become acquainted with that plant community—and the conditions that cause morels to fruit. The evergreen becomes a conifer becomes western red cedar (Thuja plicata), whose boughs have been used for medicinal purposes for longer than time can tell and which may have modern applications as a broad-spectrum anti-microbial.
Environmental biologist, botanist, and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that an ecological vocabulary is more than just a base of knowledge. She argues that knowing the names of plants and animals turns them from objects into a part of our communities. She writes
“When I am in the woods with my students, teaching them the gifts of plants and how to call them by name, I try to be mindful of my language, to be bilingual between the lexicon of science and the grammar of animacy. Although they still have to learn scientific roles and Latin names, I hope I am also teaching them to know the world as a neighborhood of nonhuman residents, to know that, as ecotheologian Thomas Berry has written, ‘we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.’”
However, we’re losing nature-words, words that describe our local ecologies all the time. In 2007, the Oxford children’s dictionary removed a number of nature-based words, including acorn, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heron, mistletoe, newt, pasture, and willow (along with a number of other words).
Maybe losing the word acorn from a children’s dictionary seems insignificant. However, it’s also a way to begin to erase a rich social and ecological history. Acorns not only come from, and produce, oak (Quercus spp. and Lithocarpus spp.) trees, they are also a source of food for a variety of animals (including humans). Acorns have been used to barter and for medicine. Acorns are so iconic that they’re frequently used to represent beginnings and potential. You can probably picture one right now.
But what if I asked you about something less familiar, and less ubiquitous?
Picture, if you will, blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). Botanists, plains ecologists, native plant nerds, and a handful of others can probably call it to mind with no problem. We even have a cute trick to help ourselves remember what it looks like.
Got it in your mind?
Unless you’re in a job that requires you to know plains or “decorative” grasses, the answer is probably not.
Blue grama is a type of bunchgrass, which used to grow over large swathes of the upper plains, Rocky Mountains, and midwestern North America. Now, in many places, native prairies—and the grasses that make them up—have shrunk to just a fraction of their historic range. Which, if I’m being honest, is pretty unfortunate. Blue grama has florescence that resembles “a gramma’s eyebrows.” (Now you know the trick for identifying it] and the potential for an incredibly long lifespan, which means it can help stabilize soil for years.
What if I asked you to tell me what a newt is?
Or what you call a group of herons?
Or what we call a baby swan?
Or to describe the difference between a great blue heron (Ardea herodias)and a black-capped night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)?
Or what it means if an animal is crepuscular?
Or the right way to pronounce nudibranch? Geoduck?
How are you doing with your ecological vocabulary?
My point in this isn’t to shame or provide accolades.
My point is that by losing this vocabulary, we disrupt our ability to understand the world around us and the interactions that take place. We might miss the migration of nudibranchs from deeper waters to eelgrass (Zostera marina) beds in the Salish Sea in early summer. We don’t look for a brown lizard-like animal among the leaf litter when we’re out on a hike on a rainy day, or question why it evolved to move so slowly. We miss the opportunity to notice that a cowbird (Molothrus spp.) has replaced another bird in its nest, or to explore the relationship between the decline of sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)and the changes in collection and grazing patterns. We plant milkweed because we think it will help the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), only we plant tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)when that’s not our local variety—and as a result, potentially cause more harm to monarchs.
We say the grass is always greener on the other side, not just because things may seem better from afar—but perhaps also because we can’t tell the difference between the telltale blue-green of western wheat (Pascopyrum smithii) and the deeper green of common spike-rush (Eleocharis palustris), indicating the presence of wetter soil. From afar, perhaps it’s harder to see the places where cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) has already given the landscape a rusty hue—and up close, if we don’t know what we’re seeing, we just know that cheatgrass leaves its seeds in our pants, socks, shoes, and wedged into the soft pads of our dog’s paws.
It’s possible, however, to encourage ecological vocabulary—both in our own lives and in the lives of people around us.
We can do this by learning—and using—the names of plants, animals, fungi, rocks, and other things we encounter, and resourcing ourselves to support this learning (through the use of field guides, apps, college and popular education courses, forays, online identification groups, and more).
In doing this, we enable ourselves to begin to rebuild our relationship to the land—and with each other. We are better able to recognize our interdependence as a species—not only with other people, but with all that makes life on earth possible.
This is not a novel concept.
Director and Founder of Local Futures writes “I have seen that community and a close relationship with the land can enrich human life beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. I have learned another way is possible.” Indigenous activist and economist, Winona LaDuke has said “Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. Power is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.” Terry Tempest Williams offers “I think our lack of intimacy with the land has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other. What we perceive as non-human, outside of us, is actually in direct relationship with us.”
With ecological vocabulary, we can begin to awaken the corners of our mind that recognize that we are part of this world, rather than architects. Wendell Berry writes “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” That is to say, we protect what we love, we’re more likely to love that which we know.
In this, a flower cannot simply be a flower and a bird cannot just be a bird. There still are plenty of flowers in the world. There still are plenty of birds. In Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.”
Make the flower Cephalanthera austiniae, phantom orchid, the only North American orchid that doesn’t produce chlorophyll and which might be dormant for 17 years. Phantom orchid is considered a mycoheterotrophic parasite. Myco meaning fungus. Hetero meaning different. Trophic referring to nutritional requirements. The phantom orchid, then, is a rare parasitic orchid that does not have a direct attachment to its host plant, but instead gets its nutrients from the host plant via a mycorrhizal network.
Make the bird Cinclus mexicanus, American dipper, North America’s only aquatic songbird—and an unassuming little grey bird at that. It catches all its food under water in swiftly flowing streams. It is a common species in parts of the country west of the Missouri River—and can provide an indicator of stream health.
The phantom orchid and American dipper are part of the United States’ Pacific Northwest ecology. We can notice their presence or absence in a forest, or along a stream, and begin to get other clues about the ecosystem. Add to these two organisms every other organism that make up a place and you might begin to decipher other clues about the health or stress of the ecosystem, about interdependence, about historical uses of a place.
Of course, this isn’t limited to the Pacific Northwest. For instance, abundant invasive species may indicate high nitrogen levels in the soil or a recent disturbance. Prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) holes suggest potential habitat for burrowing owl (Aethene cunicularia) and bullsnake (Pituophis catinefer) and are likely surrounded by clipped grasses with encroaching invasive plant species. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) occurs between 2,950 feet in British Columbia up to 12,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevadas, and indicate the presence of Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), which these trees rely on for seed distribution.
With an ecological vocabulary, the world becomes a story, full of rich characters and relationships. We can foster these relationships not only through the tools I mention above—but through reading for pleasure. Some books (including children’s books) I’ve especially loved that focus on fostering this connection are:
B is for Bear: A Natural Alphabet by Hannah Viano
The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane
The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
The Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb
Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney
The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston
The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean
This is, of course, far from an exhaustive list. What books should I add to my reading list? Leave us a comment on social media.Leave a comment
December 6, 2018
By Liz Clift and Jessica Foley
Have you seen this on the beach lately?
If you live in an area with ultra low tides during the summer—the answer is likely yes. During ultra low tides, fields of seagrass, like the eelgrass (Zostera marina) pictured above, can become exposed. However, even if you don’t have ultra low tides—and many areas don’t–you may see seagrass wash up when it becomes uprooted from its substrate due to animals feeding, storms, or human activity.
What is Seagrass?
Seagrass is a general term for a variety of underwater flowering plant that belongs to one of four families (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae, and Cymodoceaceae). Seventy-two species of seagrass are known, and many superficially resemble terrestrial grasses in the Poaceae family (think Kentucky bluegrass [Poa pratensis], which you likely see in urban parks or even in your own yard). Seagrasses, importantly, are like terrestrial grasses, in that they can form roots and rhizomes, rather than having a “holdfast” or floating freely like macroalgae (“seaweed”).
Seagrasses grow in underwater meadows in estuarine or marine environments (not freshwater!) within the photic zone. Like terrestrial prairies or grasslands, seagrass meadows are diverse and productive ecosystems that provide shelter, forage, and breeding grounds for a variety of ecologically important and economically significant species. What you’ll find in fields of seagrass depends on where you live (i.e. tropical versus temperate climates), but some animals that commonly rely on this ecosystem include a variety of juvenile fish, American manatees (Tricherchus manatus), sea turtles, dugongs (Dugong dugong), sea urchins, and crabs.
In addition to providing important habitat, seagrass offers a number of ecosystem services including:
In addition to helping support the $200 billion fishing industry, seagrass meadows account for more than 10% of the ocean’s ability to store carbon—per hectare it is able to store twice as much carbon dioxide as a rainforest! Meaning seagrass meadows are able to support the U.S. economy as well as mitigate climate change all at the same time.
Because seagrasses provide so many services and are experiencing global declines, communities are working to enhance and restore seagrass beds, which have been impacted or destroyed by human activities. Since so much of this work happens under water—and therefore out of sight to anyone who isn’t a diver or looking for news about seagrass conservation and restoration—I wanted to highlight a few of the projects occurring around the U.S. to restore seagrass habitat.
In the Chesapeake Bay, eelgrass beds are essential to maintaining the iconic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and wild oyster industries, two of the region’s most valuable fisheries. major seagrass conservation and recovery efforts, including reducing nutrient loads and seeding seagrass have been underway. Since runoff from agriculture is a major component of nutrient pollution, state and federal agencies have been working with farmers to incentivize better practices that has led to decreased nutrient loads in some areas.
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put the Chesapeake Bay on a “pollution diet,” or a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to reduce levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Six Chesapeake Bay states, and Washington D.C. must have pollution controls in place by 2025. Earlier this year, the EPA released a “check-up” report on the pollution diet. The partnership has fallen short of its nitrogen reduction target; however, this check-up allows the six states and D.C. to use the TMDL information to continue to strive toward the 2025 target and remain accountable.
Concurrently, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) having been activity restoring seaside bays in the Chesapeake region. The VIMS Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Lab has effectively broadcast 60 million eelgrass seeds over 450 acres over the last 15 years. Given the enhanced water quality in the region and successful reintroduction of eelgrass seed, the species has colonized over 6,000 acres of seagrass meadows (over 10 times its originally seeded area!). This successful restoration effort is one of the largest seagrass restoration projects by size in the world.
In the Salish Sea, seagrasses provide critical habitat for herring (Clupea harengus pallasii), Dungeness crabs (Metacarcinus magister), and young salmon (all of which support many types of wildlife and are important commercially and recreationally), and six different types of seagrass exist in this area, of which eelgrass is the most widespread.
However, eelgrass (and other seagrass) growth can be hampered by algal blooms, overwater structures because these things block light, sediment loading, shoreline armoring, and vessels anchoring or mooring. Since seagrass is a vital component of this ecosystem, in 2011, an interdisciplinary taskforce developed a strategy with five overarching goals to help Washington state reach its target of expanded eelgrass habitat by 20 percent between by 2020. The goals are:
The Port of Bellingham, which is part of the Salish Sea has also supported eelgrass recovery efforts, including the redesign of a waterfront park to connect tideflats and eelgrass beds. This project won the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) award for best restored beach in the Northwest in 2012 and America’s best restored beach in 2009.
Since the 1800s, Tampa Bay has lost approximately 80% of its seagrass coverage. Many areas of the Bay were historically affected by direct input of raw sewage from the adjacent communities. This type of nutrient pollution allowed for think mats of algae or seaweed to take over and block all the available light to the seagrasses.
Here, seagrass restoration will provide important fisheries for snook (Centropomus undecimalis), seatrout, and shrimp while also improving water quality. One of Tampa’s approaches to restoration focuses on micropropagation, which is a way to clone plants by collecting the terminal buds, surface-sterilizing them, and then growing them in test tubes with a specific nutrient medium. Once scientists can maintain a rapidly multiplying plant stock in the lab, they will be able to use these plants as a source for additional micropropagation or subculturing (dividing the plant into smaller plantlets and growing plants from these pieces).
This will allow for less disturbance of Tampa’s remaining seagrass beds and allows for more production in less time. Other seagrass restoration efforts include planting and transplanting grasses and repairing scars from anchors or propellers using sediment tubes.
In 1991, when the Tampa Bay Estuary Program was founded, local, state, and federal government set out to clean up and restore seagrasses in Tampa bay. Their goal was to reach 1950 seagrass levels of or nearly double the cover. By 2015, their goal was met and surpassed with seagrass covering over 40,000 acres. The recovery process involved research, planning, enhancing the water quality, and restoring grasses. Work and proper management is still continuing to this day to protect the Bay.
All of these seagrass restoration efforts—and many more that aren’t covered here—serve to improve habitat and forage for a variety of animals, protect shorelines, and trap carbon, among other functions. And, since seagrass exists around the world—and can form meadows large enough to be seen from space, protecting and restoring seagrass anywhere will provide benefits beyond local coastlines. Seagrass restoration is also a two-fold effort where both enhancing water quality and reintroducing the plants are necessary for success.
Keep an eye on our blog for more posts about seagrasses. If you want to learn more about the ecology of seagrasses—as well as their ecosystem services, check out this link.
Orth, Robert & R. Marion, Scott & Moore, Kenneth & J. Wilcox, David. (2010). Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) in the Chesapeake Bay Region of Mid-Atlantic Coast of the USA: Challenges in Conservation and Restoration. Estuaries and Coasts. 33. 139-150. 10.1007/s12237-009-9234-0.Leave a comment