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If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Does it Sound Like a Symphony?

Liz Clift

What does the succession of a forest sound like?

And, why does it matter what the succession of a forest sounds like?

It matters because our ears are especially attuned to finding patterns, and through the sonification of datasets, scientists (and everyone else) may better understand large amounts of data, or complex data sets—such as variations in the composition of tree species in a forest that stretches 300 miles.

Ecologist Lauren Oakes, a researcher at Stanford University, sampled forest stands in the Alexander Archipelago off the coast of Alaska. This archipelago is known for its isolation, heavy rain, and ancient forests composed of hemlock, pine, spruce, and yellow cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis).


A forest in southeastern Alaska affected by yellow-cedar decline. Photo: Lauren Oakes

The yellow cedar was the focus of her study—yellow cedars on the Alexander Archipelago are dying off as less snowpack has exposed the tree’s shallow roots to freezing temperatures. She and her field crew observed that on the southern stretch of the islands, a few very old yellow cedars remained, but there weren’t many young yellow cedars to replace them and those trees are being outcompeted by other conifers.

To communicate what she’d seen, Oakes did what a lot of us do: she created bar graphs, charts, and scatterplots to represent the data. But she also partnered with a fellow Stanford scholar, Nik Sawe, who put the data to music (listen here, one clip that’s roughly 3 minutes), after assigning each of five species of trees a particular instrument:

  • Yellow cedar: piano
  • Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophyllia): flute
  • Shore pine (Pinus contorta): clarinet
  • Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana): violin
  • Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis): cello

Each note represents a tree. The pitch of each note, and how hard it is hit, correlate with the tree’s height and diameter. This creates a soundscape of the forest. The composition moves from the northern end of the Alexander Archipelago, where a fair number of yellow cedar still grow, to the southern end of the string of islands, where relatively few remain. This means the early portion of the soundscape is dominated by piano, but by the end flute has nearly entirely replaced piano.

For some, this sounds like hope. But when Sawe removes the flute, clarinet, and strings from the piece (listen here, second recording on the page) the dropped notes (representing dead trees) become more evident, and it’s critical to note that the “species solo” ends with several seconds of silence (aka dropped notes).

Those of us who do the work of helping people to understand complex datasets, sonification of data may well be something we should champion. This can help us see patterns we’ve missed, and can make complex ideas more accessible to the public or our clients. Part of what I particularly like about Sawe’s work to sonify Oake’s data is that it’s not just created as a series of notes (some sonified data is truly hard to listen to); instead it sounds like an orchestra.

Interested in learning more about Sawe’s process? Outside Online writes about the collaboration between Oakes and Sawe, with a particular focus on the work Sawe did on the project.

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Estuary English: What It Means to Understand a Place

Liz Clift

This January, I read an article about the way the English language is evolving, and how “the words that give us our sense of place” are slowly being removed from modern dictionaries. The article discussed a 1996 book by John R. Stilgoe, Shallow Water Dictionary: A Grounding in Estuary English. An estuary, if you’re not quite clear on the term, is generally* a body of brackish water with at least one river or stream flowing into it, and a connection to the ocean.

Stilgoe, a professor of the history of landscape at Harvard, has described himself as a person who goes around noticing things. It’s not too much of a stretch to suspect that this noticing—and at least in part an attempt to salvage the words—is what prompted Stilgoe to write Shallow Water Dictionary, which is as narrative as something that calls itself a dictionary can be. Stilgoe guides readers through different terms, including some that we probably use (or at least hear) regularly in other contexts.

Guzzle, for instance, isn’t what you do to your beer so you can order another before last call. In estuary English, it is “the low spaces on barrier beaches that sometimes allow spring tides or storm tides to pass over the beach into marshes inland from the sea.” Knowing this definition, I realize I have seen what were probably guzzles on beaches (sometimes with water, sometimes without), and at best I thought it was a dip in the land or perhaps the mouth of a small creek. To me, there is a beauty in better understanding the words that make up a place, because it gives the world more texture. This texture helps us recognize the ways the natural world makes human life possible.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the 32 largest cities in the world, 22 are located on estuaries because estuaries provide food, recreational opportunities, jobs, and coastal protection. Estuaries also act like “sponges” because they can soak up excess water from floods and stormy tidal surges—which makes them an important component of coastal management.

In fact, NOAA finds estuaries so important that Congress created the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) to protect more than 1.3 million acres (>2,000 miles2 or an area roughly the size of Delaware). NERRS is comprised of 28 coastal sites, focused on the following:

  • Stewardship
  • Research
  • Training
  • Education

During National Estuaries Week (September 17-24), the reserves will be hosting a variety of fun and educational events intended to build awareness about the role estuaries play in our ecosystem.

As a person who holds degrees in both environmental studies and English, I think should care about the words of estuarine English, and the other words that describe nature that are slowly being removed from our language. In 2015, a New Yorker article by Stefan Fatsls, “Panic at the Dictionary” noted that the Oxford Junior Dictionary would no longer include words like blackberry, buttercup, fern, ferret, minnow, and moss. Other words removed from that edition of the dictionary included acorn, dandelion, lobster, raven, and willow. While roughly 400 nature-based words still appear in the Oxford Junior Dictionary and these words still appear in other editions of the Oxford dictionary, it’s critical to note that it’s hard to get people to care about things they don’t understand or don’t believe has any relevance to them.

And, it’s hard to help people understand the texture of the world, and the cultural myths that come along with that texture, if a yellow flower is just a yellow flower and not, say, a dandelion which will eventually provide a seed head we can blow on to make a wish or a buttercup, which we can rub under our chins to see if we’re in love.

Of course, in some cases, the texture of the world is influenced by where you grow up. It’s common knowledge that region impacts language use (think about how soft drink, pop, and soda all describe the same thing, for instance). In Shallow Water Dictionary, Stilgoe highlights the different ways different estuarine words are used in different places and how they have evolved over time. Creek, along the eastern seaboard from Maine through North Carolina, refers to “salt-water inlets of small streams that empty into the sea.” That being said, people in the southern United States might also refer to a stream as a creek or a branch—a fact that James Fenimore Cooper noted in his 1838 book, American Democrat.

This week, if you live near an estuary and have the means, go visit it. Consider that it’s a complex part of our ecosystem and our livelihoods. And, if you take pictures, share them with us.


Randall’s Island Salt Marsh – Learn more about this project here.

*Fresh water estuaries also exist, and are defined as a unique combination of river and lake water that have different chemical properties.

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Coastal Cleanup Day

Great Ecology led the charge on Saturday, September 17th, to pick up trash at Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach. We had a great turnout of about 50 volunteers and we want to thank each and every one of you for joining in on Coastal Cleanup Day! There are a lot of unfortunate, but true facts about the pollution in our oceans (see some below) and we realize the importance of everyone doing their part to contribute to a cleaner environment.

These organized Coastal Cleanup Days are very effective, but we have to remember to continue doing our part every day. Next time you see a piece of trash on the ground or floating in the water, don’t hesitate to pick it up! You never know, that one little action has the potential to save an animal.

Take time to enjoy some photos from the day, below!

Did you know…

Plastic is the most common element found in the ocean. Since it does not break down easily, it is very harmful to the environment and is often considered as food by marine animals.

Over one million seabirds are killed by ocean pollution each year.

Three hundred thousand dolphins and porpoises die each year from entanglement in discarded fishing nets and other items.

One hundred thousand sea mammals are killed in the ocean by pollution each year.

These eye opening facts are taken from the site: http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/various-ocean-pollution-facts.php

img_8600 20160917_beach-cleanup_1 img_8597 20160917_beach-cleanup_2

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Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2 Featured in Urban Land

Urban Land, the magazine produced by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) published an article earlier this month called “Rising Tides: Designing Resilient Amenities for Coastal Cities.” The article featured a project that Great Ecology helped support, the Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2. A variety of design features were used to make this park—and the properties nearby—more resilient, including living shorelines, which Great Ecology designed. Stormwater runoff is filtered through the living shorelines and bioswales before entering the East River.


Hunter’s Point South Park


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The Science of Autumn Leaves

Liz Clift

Pando, which is Latin for ‘I spread,’ is a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and is believed to be one of the world’s oldest and most massive living organisms. Here are its A/S/L stats (that’s right, all of you who were teenagers when AOL chat became a thing, we’re absolutely going down that road):

Age: 80,000 years
Sex: Male
Location: Fishlake National Forest, Utah

Pando may seem a bit old, so let me put that in perspective on the human scale. Somewhere around 80,000-60,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was first making its way into Asia. We had not yet created permanent drawings (60,000-40,000 years ago) or reached Australia or Europe.

With so many years (and roots!) under its belt, Pando has developed quite the mass. With its large root system, and approximately 40,000 trees, it is estimated to weigh roughly 13 million pounds and cover 106 acres. If you search online for Pando, you’re likely to find autumn pictures of it—which is to say, autumn pictures of aspen filled with golden leaves. I haven’t seen Pando in person yet, but it’s on my bucket list!


Depending on where you live, aspen might be a regular part of your autumn leaf experience. Folks in our Denver office have noticed that aspen in some areas of the mountains are already starting to change color, and a local news station recently put out its annual peak colors guide, which lasts through mid-October. Earlier this week, we were talking about what makes for the best fall color (cool nights and warm days with lots of sunshine), and because we’re biologists and ecologists, we think that the science of leaf color is pretty cool. Check it out!

Fall color is caused by four main groups of biochemicals:

  • Chlorophyll
  • Carotenoids
  • Anthocyanins
  • Tannins

You probably know that chlorophyll is what makes leaves green. But, did you know that it is constantly being “renewed” during the summer, and that is part of what helps leaves keep their vibrancy? As the days shorten and nights become cooler, chlorophyll breaks down faster than it is produced, and the carotenoids are revealed.


Carotenoids are responsible for most of the yellows and oranges we see in nature (like the ubiquitous orange carrot!). Although carotene is present throughout the growing season, it is masked by the chlorophyll. As carotenoids are revealed, the leaves start to turn yellow (or orange).

Anthocyanins create autumn reds and purples, and are commonly associated with trees like red oaks (Quercus borealis), red maples (Acer rubrum), and sumac (Rhus spp.). Anthocyanins are produced when the sugar concentration in the leaves increases and reacts with anthocyanidins—and many factors can influence the exact color and vibrancy of the color produced. Leaves with more acidic cell sap will usually produce red colors, while more alkaline leaves will turn purple-to-blue.

Tannins occur naturally in the roots, bark, leaves, and fruits of many plants—but are especially associated with oak trees, due to the use of oak tannins in converting animal hides into leather—in fact, the etymology of the word tannin is from an old German word, tanna, which means oak! Tannins are highly astringent and help protect plants from disease, pestilence, and herbivory. This compound become visible when both chlorophyll and carotene have broken down, and result in leaves simply turning brown and falling off the tree.

If you’re able to see autumn leaves in your area—or if you travel to see autumn leaves somewhere else—we’d love to see the photos. Please share them to our Facebook

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Corktown Common Receives ASLA Honor Award


Great Ecology, as part of the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates team, for Corktown Common, a park in Toronto, Ontario, was honored with a 2016 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Honor Award, in the general design category.

The park is situated on a brownfield, and flooding from the Don River threatened to infiltrate up to 519 acres of Toronto. The park was redesigned to act as a flood barrier and within this design, which incorporates a variety of green infrastructure techniques, are various microclimatic plant zones—including marshes and meadows—intended to attract people and animals throughout the year.

The regenerative ecology of the park specifically serves as a landing point for migratory birds within the urban hardscape; facilitates biofilitration of wastewater that is later used for irrigation; and provides a hub for pollinators.

About the design, the 2016 Awards Jury said:

“A nice design. It’s the anchor of a new neighborhood that’s being constructed. The park is the first gesture. Where before there was nothing, this is now a nicely detailed, ecologically rich area.”

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A Caterpillar Drugged Some Ants?

Liz Clift

Recently, I was listening to a trivia podcast that talked about the relationship between ants and the Oakblue butterfly (Narathura japonica) caterpillar.

The long and the short of it: ecology is complex.

For a long time, scientists thought that the caterpillar had a mutualistic relationship with Pristomyex punctatus ants. The caterpillar has a dorsal nectary organ that produces sugary droplets, and the ants, it seemed, would gather around the caterpillar to collect these rewards, and in turn, would protect the caterpillar from predators.

But the reality is more sinister.

As it turns out, the sugary secretion is a behavior modifying drug that suppresses dopamine. Ants who eat the secretion become less active overall, but show aggressive tendencies when their caterpillar appears alarmed.

Ants who don’t eat the secretions don’t show any fealty to the caterpillar – and thus offer it no protection from predators.

This is far from the only case of scientists gaining a deeper understanding of ecology through additional observations and study (see also, the far from mutualistic relationship between certain large African mammals and the oxpecker). But it does demonstrate why it’s important to consider a variety of ecological factors when working in a landscape, especially when the aim of a project is to design or protect habitat for a particular species.


A Japanese oakblue caterpillar providing a sticky sweet secretion that ants drink, as shown above.


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Tellurium Partners launched by Great Ecology and EnviroFinance Group

Partnership Results in New Ecological Mitigation Banking Company Tellurium Partners launched by Great Ecology and EnviroFinance Group

DENVER, CO (August 19, 2016) – Tellurium Partners is an ecological resource conservation and mitigation firm that specializes in developing strategic mitigation banking opportunities by leveraging our broad experience in ecology and real estate.

Tellurium Partners’ mission is to restore and conserve wetlands and natural habitats, while providing public agencies and private parties a method for complying with governmental requirements for the disturbance of ecological resources.

Tellurium Partners is a Public Benefit Corporation, and as such has within its primary mission the creation of positive social and environmental impacts. “By creating ecological mitigation banks and selling compensatory mitigation credits, Tellurium Partners can achieve its mission of conserving and developing the nation’s ecological resources,” says co-founder and Managing Partner Eric Williams.

Tellurium Partners is the product of a partnership between Great Ecology, an ecological restoration firm, and EnviroFinance Group, a land reuse and redevelopment firm. Both companies opened in 2001.

“The companies’ histories of effective natural resource conservation, mitigation, and redevelopment allows us to hit the ground running,” says co-founder and Managing Partner Dr. Mark Laska.

Visit www.TelluriumParnters.com or contact Founders Eric Williams (Eric@TelluriumPartners.com; 303.521.5805) or Dr. Mark Laska (Mark@TelluriumPartners.com; 858.750.3201).

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Finding Inspiration in a Bee Highway

By Liz Clift

What if a pot of honey cost $182,000?

We’d probably consume a lot less of it. This is, perhaps, because a single bee produces only a single spoonful of honey. It is that statistic that allowed an accountant at a Norwegian accounting firm to calculate the rough cost of producing a single pot honey if “we did [bees’] job, paid at minimum wage.”

The same accounting firm recently added two hives and several flowering plants on its terrace. The hives will support around 45,000 worker bees, and are part of a “bee highway” that is being developed in Oslo, Norway. The goal is to create urban corridors of “feeding stations” filled with nectar-producing flowers. An additional layer to this project is the creation of, and care for, hives.

There’s a website devoted to the project, which allows participants (including companies, governmental agencies, and individuals) to write about, and photograph, where they are planting flowers or locating hives or other bee nesting spots.

One-third, approximately 66 different species, of Norway’s wild bees are endangered. In the US, we have 4,000 species of native bees—and they are at risk. According to a report published in Science, in 2013, some 50 percent of Midwestern native bee species have disappeared from their historic ranges since 1900. Four species of bumblebee have declined by 96% since 1990, and the ranges of those bees contracted by 23 to 87 percent in the same time period.

In other words, our bees are in trouble—and it is not just the (European) honeybee.


A European honey bee collects nectar

I’ve written before about the potential connection between bee populations and mycelium. But perhaps we can take something from Norway’s bee highway as well. What would it look like if we made concerted efforts—especially in our urban areas—to plant bee-friendly plants and practice bee-friendly gardening?

In my own garden, this year I planted wild bergamot (bee balm), and as a result, I seem to have more bees than ever visiting my garden. In my neighborhood, I walk past Datura plants as they are opening up for the evening, and see four, five, six bees burrowing themselves into each blossom. In my neighborhood, there are plenty of nectar-bearing plants for bees to source from—and even more if people practice careful management of their flowering plants that can produce blossoms all season (roses, zinnias, and marigolds come to mind as common garden plants that can be managed to produce flowers through the majority of the growing season).

But we can expand this into our cities in the same way Oslo is beginning to—by creating green roofs and terraces with flowering plants; by introducing hives and nesting spots into our urban centers; by tracking our bee-friendly initiatives.

The makings for this are already there.

The Wildlife Habitat Council offers project guidance for pollinator habitats—as well guidances specific to grasslands and landscapes, both of which can include a diversity of plants that provide nectar over the course of a season—and at Great Ecology we have helped companies earn their Pollinator Certification through this program. Pollinator Partnership works with farmers and garden-creators through an online certification program charmingly called BFF (no, not like your BFF. It stands for Bee-Friendly Farming). Other certifications—and ways of tracking these certifications—also exist, and you may already have some in your area.

On a purely selfish level, we should want to take efforts to protect and support native bees because their existence is critical for our food production. Consciously creating bee-friendly areas—including not only plantings, but providing sources of water and nesting, as well as connectivity to other bee friendly areas—could help curb their decline.

But beyond that, restoration efforts are reliant upon a diverse and vibrant source of pollinators—and pollinators are dependent on a healthy and diverse plant community. In other words, as art created street artists Louis Masai and Jim Vision states [from the perspective of bees]: When we go we’re taking you all with us.

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Welcome Randy Mandel to the Great Ecology Team

“Events have been set in motion whose echo will be heard a thousand or more generations from now.” – J. Valor, Salome

Great Ecology is pleased to announce Randy Mandel, who has more than 32 years of experience as a restoration ecologist and applied plant scientist, has joined our team. His passion for ecological restoration was inspired by a love of the outdoors and a deep desire to be part of the solution.

Randy’s expertise includes wetland, riparian, rangeland, desert, and forest ecologies; plant taxonomy and synonymy; restoration/reclamation project design, layout, and implementation; site assessment and monitoring; site-specific seed collection; native plant propagation and cultivation; wetland delineation; wetland mitigation banking; threatened and endangered species surveys; and the integration of native species into traditional and modern landscape design. His work has been featured on Aspen Public Radio.

Randy says he was attracted to Great Ecology because of the “presence of kindred individuals on-staff who, together, would be wonderful to help create projects of lasting value, benefit, and that further collective knowledge.”

Randy’s recent publications include Searchable River Revegetation Guide for Colorado and Living Streambanks: A Manual of Bioengineering Treatments for Colorado Streams, available from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Colorado Water Conservation Board.


In addition to his work as a restoration ecologist and applied plant scientist, Randy also keeps an orchard, which includes apricots, pears, and plums, among other fruit-bearing trees, and he has a passion for native bees. His passion for native bees is derived from:

  • Seeking, and working to foster, ecological resiliency from a healthy ecological matrix that incorporates diverse species and habitats;
  • The knowledge that successful restoration is dependent upon a diverse and sustainable population of pollinators—and that sustainable pollinator populations are dependent on vigorous and diverse native plant communities; and
  • A desire to increase the fecundity of ecological functions and services for the totality of biota and their abiotic surroundings.

We are thrilled for the chance to share in his knowledge and passion, and proudly welcome Randy to the Great Ecology team.

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