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Citizen Science and Penguins

Liz Clift

Peep on Penguins. For Science.

Have you heard of backyard bird counts? If so, that’s because of an initiative by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. The Great Backyard Bird Count was launched in 1998, and was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds.

Citizen-science is scientific research that is conducted partially or completely by amateur and non-professional scientists–and there are many ways to get involved.

Researchers seek help from citizen-scientists for research endeavors. To this point, citizen-scientists can contribute in a variety of ways–including monitoring a species, a newly restored habitat, or helping create a “map” of where certain species exist. Monitoring is a crucial, and often overlooked, part of the process of conservation and preservation. Utilizing citizen-scientists can be a great way for a company, corporation, or university to decrease monitoring costs while contributing to environmental and science education.

The possibilities for citizen-scientists to get involved are wide ranging.  They can participate in research on the monarch butterfly or the impact of sunflowers on pollinator gardens. Citizen-scientists can observe mushrooms or get out on a boat and photograph humpback whales. They can wander Michigan and upload sightings of amphibians and reptiles using an app, or count backyard birds. They can even count critters in the Australian outback or Antarctic penguins.

That’s right. Penguins.

A group of scientists is conducting research around Antarctic penguins. Penguins are top predators in their food chain, and changes to penguin population can represent larger changes to the Antarctic system. The scientists set up 50 cameras in hard-to-reach areas or in settings where human activity could disturb wildlife and disrupt their behavior. They hope that in addition to providing a way to monitor the penguin population, these cameras may also capture penguin behavior we haven’t seen before.

The goals of Penguin Watch are to:

  • Monitor changes in the timing of breeding populations over time, including arrival and departure dates, hatching, incubation, guard and post guard periods).
  • Compare survival of offspring between populations and analyze whether low nest survival is linked to anthropogenic or ecological factors.
  • Determine frequency of predation on chicks, the main predators and scavengers, peak timing of predation, and any large-scale predation occurrences.
  • Observe whether particular colonies spend the winter at their breeding site, and if that behavior is influenced by certain types of sea ice.

Each camera takes between 8 and 96 photos a day, each day of the year. That means that every year, there are somewhere between 2,290 and 4,800 photos to look through. The researchers currently have three years of data stored.

The pictures may contain penguins or anything else that happens to show up in the frame, including blue-eyed cormorants, boats, and researchers. Citizen-scientists count adult penguins, chicks, eggs, and “other” (any living thing, or boat, that is not a penguin).

All it takes is an internet connection and the desire to look at penguins.

And really, who doesn’t want to look at penguins?

Some pictures have no animals. Others have a bunch of penguins or other animals that live in Antarctica. Either extreme and everything in between provides useful information for researchers.

What’s it like to monitor penguins through Penguin Watch? It’s really straight forward, and when a citizen-scientist visits the site, they are presented with a very short introductory lesson that takes less than a minute to complete. After that they can start marking, or annotating, penguins. Each image includes a time and date stamp, so citizen-scientist can start observing the different behaviors (and numbers) of penguins based on the time of year. The site also includes a helpful graphic about the breeding cycle of penguins.

In a few minutes of being a citizen-scientist, I looked at one picture with no penguins, several with fewer than 30, and one picture that had easily 150 penguins. For this last one, I quickly annotated about 100 of them, using the built-in tools, which are conveniently color-coded to help you (and the researchers) quickly determine the composition of the population in the photo.

Sound intimidating? It’s really not. A citizen-scientist can stop counting when they want. When they click the button to say that they are finished counting, they are prompted to confirm whether they counted all the penguins in the picture or if there were too many to count.

Could this be more user friendly? Yes, actually, and it’s already built in! After a citizen-scientist reaches 30 individuals of any category (say, adults), the site issues a prompt that reminds the citizen-scientist they can move on to a new picture—although they can certainly keep annotating the image they are working on.

Any given citizen-scientist won’t be the only person looking at the image, so if they don’t get every penguin, that’s okay. This type of redundancy also helps validate the information provided. Additionally, after a citizen-scientist has reviewed a picture, they have the option to discuss it with other citizen-scientists (if they’re signed in, that is). This provides a valuable collaboration and learning opportunity for participants and may provide researchers with more insights as well. Citizen-scientists can also visit the FAQ page to learn more about the project, and the penguins – and participate in the FAQ section as well, if they register with the site (registration is not necessary to participate in penguin counting).

This project is also working with innovative technology. The researchers are collaborating with the Computer Vision laboratory at the University of Oxford to develop a recognition tool that will allow computers to automatically count each penguin. Each annotation made by a citizen-scientist helps train the program to recognize individual penguins (or, eventually, other species).

If you’ve participated in a citizen-science project, or if you’ve worked with citizen-scientists, we want to hear from you! Leave a comment about the experience on our Facebook page or Tweet us.

penguin watch

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Dr. Laska Appointed to the National Mitigation Banking Association’s Board of Directors

President and Founder of Great Ecology, Mark S. Laska, Ph.D., has been appointed to the Board of Directors for the National Mitigation Banking Association (NMBA). The NMBA, established in 1998, is the only industry-appointed foundation of mitigation bankers in the US. It is dedicated to restoring and conserving America’s wetlands, streams, habitats, and other resources. The NMBA encourages advanced compensatory mitigation as a way to offset adverse impacts to our nation’s environment through promoting federal legislation, regulatory policy, and education.

Dr. Laska said, “I have been a participant in the mitigation banking world for over a decade and I am delighted and honored to provide service to the Board of the NMBA and help the organization and its stakeholders achieve success in this new and exciting time in the sector.”

As the founder of Great Ecology, Dr. Laska brings over 25 years of industry experience and ecological design expertise to the distinguished board. He noted that this is an incredibly exciting time in the industry, because of the recent presidential memo that encourages private investment and the application of environmental credit systems in many new arenas. There is also an emerging market for a variety of environmental credits, including natural resource damages, water quality, and habitat banking.

Great Ecology provides a full range of services that support liability reduction and mitigation activities, including business planning, strategy, design, permitting, construction, and site closure.

Theodore Roosevelt NP

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Great Ecology Designs Featured on ASLA Blog

Great Ecology’s designs are featured in a recent post focused on ecological design, over at The Field: ASLA Professional Practice Networks’ blog. The article originally appeared in the 2015 Colorado Design Journal.

Chis Loftus, a landscape architect who has worked closely with Great Ecology, notes that many landscape architecture firms are collaborating closely with ecologists—and that some have even added ecologists to their payrolls. This structure is how Great Ecology was designed. We are a firm that has a 15-year history of putting landscape architects, planners, and ecologists in the same room to work on projects that will meet our clients’ diverse needs while creating ecological lift in the environment.

Loftus lists some of the models ecologists use to predict the outcome of a particular set of ecological conditions, which help ecologists (and the designers they work with!) create or develop restoration plans for habitats that will thrive.

However, Loftus is a realist: he knows that many projects lack the necessary resources to complete a rigorous scientific analysis. He urges landscape architects to apply the core principles of the ecological approach to help ensure the successful establishment of a functional habitat.

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Landscape architects can help communicate the restoration potential of a site. A rendering depicts proposed improvements including native revegetation, constructed wetlands, and public access amenities at a former industrial site.
image: Great Ecology

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Six Must-Watch Ecology Videos

Liz Clift

About a year ago, we posted 5 Must Watch TED Talks. But, of course, people are continuously learning and sharing their knowledge with the world. We’ve updated that list with some new TED talks, and a couple of Bioneers talks.

Janine Benyus: Biomimicry’s Surprising Lessons from Nature’s Engineers

Why: Biomimicry is a component of urban ecological design. Janine Benyus, a biologist and author, discusses how we might use nature to solve some of the most pressing ecological problems facing the world today by integrating information from the world into our engineering practices. She has said biomimicry relies on the “conscious emulation of 3.8 billion years of time-tested wisdom,” and that it’s a revolution for human’s relationship to the natural world.

“We live in a complicated universe, and we are part of it.” – Janine Benyus

Andy Lipkis: Restoring Los Angeles: The Healing Nature of Our Cities

Why: This talk makes urban ecological design practical. Andy Lipkis reminds us how small we all are when we face a disaster. He addresses how we can combine the efforts of urban planning and resource management to create changes in the infrastructure of cities – including changes in systems of education and community revitalization.

Kristen Marhaver – How We’re Growing Baby Corals to Rebuild Reefs

Why: In this talk, Kristen Marhaver discusses the things we’re learning about corals, and how we can begin to grow them in an effort to rebuild reefs. This type of work can also inform ecological design and the design of products, such as oil rigs and sea walls that go under water.

Paul Stamets – How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

Why: Paul Stamets, a mycologist, discusses how we can incorporate fungi into more aspects of our lives – ranging from shipping boxes to ethanol – and the ways in which fungi can prove regenerative to soil.

Check back soon for a blog discussing Stamet’s research on bees and mushrooms!

Graham Morehead – Save the Urchin Fishery with this Once Weird Trick!

Why: Graham Morehead talks about complexities science and complex systems and how learning to look for patterns in these complex systems, combined with using population models, might be used to avoid the demise of fisheries.

Jaap de Roode – How Butterflies Self-Medicate

Why: Understanding how monarch butterflies selectively lay their eggs can – with enough crucial information about growing conditions and reducing the spread of a parasite plaguing these butterflies — inform our choices in designing pollinator gardens.

Check back soon for a blog discussing monarchs and the protozoan parasite!

 

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A Mathematical Formula for Conservation

Liz Clift, MFA

“Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.” – Terry Tempest Williams, from Finding Beauty in A Broken World

Recently, I was walking into a symposium on Urban Ecological Design and Restoration with one of my coworkers. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but just before we walked in the doors, I said “Just the fact that the blue whale exists – that we are living at the same time as the biggest animal that has ever lived on Earth – makes me happy.”

My undergraduate environmental economics teacher would have jumped all over this, asking me to assess intrinsic and extrinsic values to the existence of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), and then brought whatever answers I gave into less-romanticized reality by asking how much I would personally be willing to give (in money and in time which would be assigned a monetary value) to save the blue whale. He would have engaged me in a conversation about whether my answer would change if there was only one or even 100 blue whales left in the world compared to the 10,000-25,000 currently believed to still exist.

My co-worker didn’t ask any of those questions, but brought up the panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).

Mathematical Formula for Conservation

It’s easy for us to talk about conservation when we’re talking about species that are well-known:  charismatic megafauna (pandas or blue whale, for instance) or species who we’ve designated (officially or unofficially) as national icons, such as bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus).

It’s much harder when we talk about the conservation of less widely known species. Some of these species might be newly discovered, or considered “pest” species, or perhaps have just never had a strong advocacy group encouraging all of us to care. These species may or may not be keystone species. They may or may not be crucial to successional growth in an ecosystem. They may or may not be a lot of things.

Ultimately, this comes down to a question of the ways we place value on living things. More specifically, we have to determine how, given limited conservation funds, we determine which species we should work to conserve.

Project Prioritization Protocol (PPP) offers a mathematical solution to help us determine this. The idea was first advanced by economists Andrew Metrick and Martin L. Weitzman in 1998, and was further developed by Hugh Possingham at the Queensland University Centre for Excellence in Environmental Decisions. It has been adopted by the governments of New Zealand, and New South Wales (NSW), in Australia, as a way to prioritize which species receive limited conservations funds.

In New Zealand, which has been running this type of program for about 6 years, priority was placed on preserving the greatest possible number of species that are endemic to New Zealand. To try and limit community objections to this way of prioritizing species, the initial project included community consultation, including with NGOs, Maori tribal representatives, and the public at large. In addition, project leaders decided to allocate a certain amount of conservation funds to species that are iconic to New Zealand, and exclude those species from the PPP process.

NSW’s project, Saving Our Species (SOS), which began more recently, focused on maximizing the number of threatened species that could be maintained in the wild over the next 100 years. Higher priority animals included the masked owl (Tyto novaehollandiae) and the yellow spotted bell frog (Litoria castanea), while a lower priority species was the purple crowned lorikeet (Glossopsitta porphyrocephala).

The mathematical formula used to prioritize species relies on converting the benefit of a species surviving to an economic value. This may be based partly on dollars added to the economy (for instance, koalas are an integral part of the Australian tourist economy, estimated to add AU$1.1 – 2.5 billion to the economy) and partially by monetizing the value of the species’ role in the ecosystem. This is multiplied by the benefits of the program and the probability of the conservation program’s success, then divided by the program cost.

In short, the formula looks like:

Mathematical Formula for Conservation

W = Species value

B = Benefits of the project

S = Probability of success

C = Project cost

Critics of PPP are reluctant to accept some extinctions as inevitable. It probably doesn’t help that the focusing of conservation resources is sometimes referred to as “conservation triage.” Michael P. Nelson, an environmental philosopher and ethicist, finds the term triage problematic because he opposes celebrating the recovery of one species if it means the failure to save another due to limited resources. Further, Nelson acknowledges that while conservation resources might be scarce for a particular agency, they are not – at least in the US – genuinely scarce; we are just choosing not to allocate funds toward conservation. Like other critics, Nelson implies that if governments are serious about conservation, they would put more money toward it.

Of course, it’s never that simple. We live in a world in which we are on the verge of another mass extinction. And, we also live in a world where funding for conservation programs is limited, and often divided among many competing groups who are advocating for a variety of different species. One potential benefit of this mathematical formula is that it allows for the conservation of species who may be critical to an ecosystem – but might not have loud voices advocating on their behalf.

As any economist would tell you, we are always assigning value – in this case, to various species (not to mention the conservation and restoration projects often associated with helping maintain a particular species) – the PPP just makes it more explicit.

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Earth Day 2016

Liz Clift, MFA

On Earth Day, a year ago, I was working with youth in an afterschool program located in Northeast Denver. My co-workers and I asked youth what they’d learned about Earth Day in school or at home, and then asked them how they’d like to help the planet.

The youth voted to pick up trash in the playground and around the school where the program is housed. If every youth picked up just 10 pieces of trash (and some picked up more), that means the youth picked up 750 pieces of litter. As one of my 5th grade youth calculated (without his phone or a calculator, I might add), if they all did that every day for a year, they would place 273,750 pieces of trash in either the trash can or recycling bin.

That is a lot of trash!

Of course, there are many ways to celebrate Earth Day, and there are events in communities around the world. Great Ecology is thrilled to have helped facilitate one of those events, through our Florham Park Pollinator Habitat & Landscape Enhancements project in New York. Volunteers turned out to the facility to help plant the pollinator garden, which will provide habitat for a number of pollinator species, including the rare Long Dash butterfly.

Charles Howe, one of our landscape architects in New York, was on site for the event. Highlights of the day included:

  • Volunteers shoveled and moved 8 tons of dirt and mulch
  • Volunteers planted many varieties of flowering plants, including purple coneflower, phlox, and blue salvia
  • A community organization joined with BASF volunteers to get the pollinator garden planted

How else did Great Ecology celebrate?

One of our ecologists, Emily Callahan, celebrated the day by being honored at the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards for her work converting decommissioned oil rigs to artificial reefs.

Employees in our California office took some time to clean up a local highway and employees in our Denver office made a point of biking to work today (okay, to be fair, our Denver employees regularly do this anyway).

I spent some time in my garden before and after work pulling weeds and readying the bed for starts to go in the ground in a few weeks. Last year, in fact, I also spent some of Earth Day in a garden – only it was with the youth at the afterschool program, and in the garden at their site, where we were likely weeding and building the frame for a vertical garden.

We’d love to hear what you did to celebrate Earth Day!

 

 

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Economic Impacts of Ecological Restoration

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How do you generate between $2.2 and $3.4 million in total economic output? Invest $1 million in ecosystem restoration, according to a new study released earlier this month by the US Geological Survey (USGS).

Economists employed by USGS reviewed and evaluated 21 restoration projects backed by the Department of the Interior and found that for every dollar invested in ecological restoration there was a two- to three- fold impact on economic activity at the local, state, and federal levels. Every $1 million invested in restoration also creates between 13-32 job years – which can have a significant, and lasting, impact on a community.

The analysis looked at a wide range of ecological restoration projects, ranging from sagebrush and sage grouse habitat restoration to wetland and tidal marsh restoration to post-fire restoration projects – all projects that aim to provide a number of “ecosystem services,” which often have an under-appreciated function in our economy, and are also important for the environment.

What does this all mean? In short: investing in ecological restoration supports jobs and livelihoods, small businesses, and rural communities – something which can be part of the narrative told by businesses, governments, and others investing in ecological restoration.

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Emily Callahan Honored at Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards

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Great Ecology is pleased to announce that Emily Callahan, one of our ecologists, will be recognized at the Tribeca Film Festival during the 7th annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. The event takes place tomorrow, April 22, at 11:00am. According to the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards website, “The goal of the awards is to share insights into innovation to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.”

Emily will be honored alongside Amber Jackson, her co-founder of Blue Latitudes, an organization whose mission is to “unite science, policy, and economics to create innovative solutions for the complex ecological challenges associated with offshore structures.” In short, the work they do involves turning oil rigs into reefs. Rigs-to-Reefs allows an oil company to choose to modify a platform so that it can continue to support marine life as an artificial reef, which has been shown to increase biomass and attract additional marine species to the site.

Artificial reefs created from decommissioned oil rigs have the potential to facilitate artificial biodiversity, which can help mitigate marine ecosystem losses due to manmade stressors, including: pollution, overfishing, mining, coastal development, and climate change. This mitigation work to support of marine ecosystems may be especially important as human activities continue to impact marine ecosystems.

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Urban Ecological Design and Restoration: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

Liz Clift, MFA

On Thursday, March 31, the Colorado Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLACO), the Central Rockies Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (CeRSER), and the Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) hosted the Urban Ecological Design and Restoration Symposium at DBG’s York Street gardens.
 
The symposium featured talks by Marion Hourdequin, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Colorado College who, with David G. Havlick, edited the book Restoring Layered Landscapes: History, Ecology, and Culture; Keith Bowers, founder and president of Biohabitats; and Rick Bachand, Environmental Program Manager for the City of Fort Collins. Following the presentations, the three speakers participated in a panel discussion moderated by Tina Bishop, a founding partner of Mundus Bishop.
 
Hourdequin’s presentation focused on restoration of landscapes with complex socio-ecological histories. She highlighted the restoration of former military and weapons-making sites, including Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a 15,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge only a few miles northeast of downtown Denver. Hourdequin pointed out that despite the complex socio-ecological history of the site, black-footed ferrets were recently re-introduced to the land. Many of the refuge’s visitors, as indicated in one recent survey, didn’t even realize the history of the wildlife refuge. Hourdequin also spoke about a chapter in her book by Martin Drenthen, who proposes absurdist artwork in locations such as Rocky Mountain Arsenal as a way to acknowledge “the problematic nature of the past human activities, such as the production of chemical weapons.”
 
Keith Bowers illustrated a variety of ways, via projects led by Biohabitats, that urban ecological design could fit hand-in-hand with restoration. He talked about biomimicry as a way to incorporate ecological design through both restoration ecology and landscape architecture, and how this can be done with both form and function – and that even if not well versed in biomimicry, landscape architects and restoration ecologists may still benefit from following these processes. Bowers opined that in many urban environments, there is very little nature left, and for this reason, monitoring can be especially crucial. He reminded the room that once the project is on the ground only 20% of the work is done – monitoring and maintaining the project remains a crucial component to success.
 
Bachand illustrated perspectives on restoration through descriptions of personality types in environmental design, and he provided as a case study his work with a team to restore the Poudre River. Bachand identifies as having a Type A personality, which serves him well in paying attention to detail – but is less useful when Mother Nature decides to throw a curveball. Flooding occurred shortly after the restoration project had been completed, and created a sandbank which Bachand’s Type B personality co-workers deemed would be great for beach volleyball – or a relaxing day lounging on the beach!
 
During the panel discussion, Hourdequin, Bowers, and Bachand were asked to define urban ecology and to talk about their vision for future cities. To some extent, each panelist responded that urban ecology must take into consideration that people and the non-human environment are going to interact – and that we must stop seeing people as separate from the environment. Hourdequin emphasized that we should consider nature and culture intertwined. Bowers pointed out that ecological processes happen from a natural standpoint, and we must consider how these processes flow into, and interact, with people. Future cities should be built with these ideas in mind.
 
The presentations and panel discussion were followed by a happy hour, where guests had a chance to mingle with each other, the presenters, and event sponsors.
 
The event was coordinated by Chris Loftus, RLA, a landscape architect with Great Ecology, and Casey Cisneros, Land Stewardship Manager for Larimer County Natural Resources. Tim Hoelzle, Vice President of Technical Services at Great Ecology emceed the event

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VP of Great Ecology to Speak on Habitat Mitigation at SER Northwest Next Week & Has a New Publication

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Tim Hoelzle, Vice President of Great Ecology, is slated to present on Habitat Equivalency Analysis (HEA) at the Society for Ecological Restoration Northwest’s (SER NW) regional conference in Portland, Oregon next week. The talk, “Increasing Federal Focus on Regulatory Mitigation: Is Habitat Equivalency Analysis the Answer?” will explore recent presidential memoranda, and Department of Interior orders, related to mitigation and ecosystem services, as well as look at several case studies of HEA in application. Check out his talk at the SER NW Conference, in the Multnomah Room, at 1:30 PM PDT. The session is titled: Strategic Planning of Ecological Restoration.

Tim will discuss how HEA can be applied outside of Natural Resource Damage and Restoration (NRDAR) frameworks to meet recent goals laid out by the US Department of the Interior and Presidential Memoranda that focus on habitat mitigation and ecosystem services. HEA acknowledges that when a site is impacted, it loses a portion of its total ecological services over space and time. Restoration of the site balances the human and ecological impacts with the benefits of ecological recovery, including lost ecological function and ecosystem services.

But, how do we know that a habitat has recovered?

Tim has an answer for that, too. He is an author of a recent publication on habitat monitoring of contaminated environments. The paper, “Integrated Risk and Recovery Monitoring of Ecosystem Restorations on Contaminated Sites,” stemmed from a 2014 Technical Workshop organized by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and SER.

This article appeared as one of six articles in a series titled, “Restoration of Impaired Ecosystems: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Cure?” This open access series is a collaboration between industry, government, the private sector, and academia, and appeared in Volume 12.2 of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management.

Great Ecology specializes in restoration, planning, and design of both natural and urban environments through sustainable solutions. The company integrates science with design to solve complex ecological challenges to achieve environmental, social, and business goals. Reach out to Tim to learn more.

 

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