Archive for the ‘Citizen scientists’ Category

Feel Good Friday

Friday, April 17th, 2009

I love stories about intrepid species on the brink of oblivion due to human activities who manage, with or without our help, to make a comeback. (In fact, I named my company, Blue Crocus Consulting, after one of these creatures, the Chilean blue crocus.) That’s why I love the story in yesterday’s Science Daily about Caloplaca obamaea, a species of lichen recently discovered on Santa Rosa Island, California by Kerry Knudsen, a researcher at UC Riverside. The species barely survived intensive grazing by sheep, cattle, elk, and deer. However, the livestock have been removed, and according to Knudsen, when elk and deer, both of which were introduced to the island, are removed, Caloplaca obamae is expected to fully recover.

Note the species name: C. obamae is the first species of any kind to be named in honor of President Obama. Knudsen discovered the species in 2007 while doing a survey on the lichen diversity of Santa Rosa Island. “I made the final collections of C. obamae during the suspenseful final weeks of President Obama’s campaign for the United States presidency,” Knudsen said. He wrote his paper on the species during the “international jubilation” over Obama’s election. And, he pointed out, the final draft of his paper on C. obamae, which was published in the March issue of the journalOpuscula Philolichenum, ”was completed on the very day of President Obama’s inauguration.” 

Lichens, which grow slowly and live for many years, are composite organisms consisting of a fungus and an alga living together. There are approximately 17,000 known species of lichen worldwide, approximately 1,500 species in California, and more than 300 on Santa Rosa Island—almost as many as higher plants native to the island.

More feel good: Knudsen has no academic degrees, but one heck of an interest in lichens. A retired construction worker, he volunteers in the UCR herbarium and has published more than 70 research papers in peer-reviewed journals.  

Help the Hemlocks

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

I first saw the hemlock wooly adelgid in action about 15 years ago. Its telltale wooly white egg masses appeared on a few branches of three hemlock trees in my next-door neighbor’s yard in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Within three years the trees were dead. Since then the insect, which arrived in North America from Asia in the 1920s, has become a major scourge of eastern forests from Maine to Georgia. It is spreading rapidly into the oldest and largest hemlock stands in the Southern Appalachians, where some of the trees are 800 years old and more than 175 feet tall.

In fact, new research suggests the hemlock woolly adelgid is killing hemlock trees even faster than expected in the Southern Appalachians and most of the region’s hemlocks could be dead within the next decade. The hemlock plays a fundamental role in the ecology and hydrology of mountain habitats. Its thick, evergreen canopies help cool mountain streams that are home to trout. Many birds find shelter and places to nest in the hemlock’s evergreen boughs. In one study, 96 percent of all wood thrush nests found by surveyors were in hemlocks. Some warblers only nest in hemlocks.

Few of the growing number of U.S. native trees beset by pestilence have a federal task force devoted to their survival. The hemlock does. Among other things, the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid Action Team coordinates control efforts and runs a public education and outreach campaign. While homeowners can treat individual trees with horticultural oils or chemical pesticides, this isn’t practical for entire forests of afflicted trees. The most promising backwoods treatments found so far are two tiny nonnative beetles that dine voraciously on adelgids (and, scientists say, only adelgids). Tests in Connecticut and Virginia show that these beetles can reduce hemlock wooly adelgid populations by 47 to 87 percent in five months. The beetles have been released in selected areas throughout the Southern Appalachians.

Still, the scale of the hemlock wooly adelgid epidemic is so huge that scientists and public land managers won’t be able to contain it without the public’s help. Details on how you can monitor and treat trees on your own property and get involved in efforts to protect hemlocks in the wild are on the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid Action Team’s website.

Missing Bees — How You Can Help

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

About a decade ago, bee biologists began to observe that several wild bumble bee species were declining dramatically. Three of them were important crop pollinators: the western bumble bee, once one of the three most common bumble bees in the western U.S. and Canada, the rusty patched bumble bee, which was widespread in 26 eastern and midwestern U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, and the yellowbanded bumble bee, which was frequently found throughout the east and upper Midwest of the U.S. as well as most of southern Canada. A fourth, Franklin’s bumble bee, historically had a small range in southern Oregon and northern California and may now be extinct.

What caused the decline? Commercial rearing of bumble bees for crop pollination may be the culprit. Bumble bee expert Robbin Thorp believes that members of these closely related species probably caught a disease from a European bee in the same rearing facility. The North American bumble bees would have had no resistance to the pathogen, which then spread to wild populations.

The Xerces Society is asking citizen monitors as well as scientists to be on the lookout for these species and report back with any findings. You can find photos, identification tips, information on the life history and habits of the bees, and contact information in the Bumble Bees in Decline section of their website. 

Citizen Scientist Documents Plants on the Move

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Three cheers for citizen scientists! Twenty years of data compiled by an avid hiker and naturalist and analyzed by researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson show that plants in the state’s Santa Catalina Mountains are flowering at higher elevations as summer temperatures rise. 

Dave Bertelsen told Science Daily he’s been hiking the Finger Rock trail one to two times a week since 1983 and recording what plants are in flower. His 5-mile hike starts in desert scrub and climbs 4,158 feet, ending in pine forest. He’s completed 1,206 round-trip hikes and recorded data on nearly 600 plant species. The researchers found that during the 20-year study period, summer temperatures in the region increased about 1.8 degree Fahrenheit.

Bertelson hooked up with the scientists at a 2005 meeting about monitoring plant species held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in which one of them, UA climatologist Michael Crimmins, discussed his need for data to study the effect of climate change on ecosystems over time. According to Theresa Crimmins, research specialist for the UA’s Arid Lands Information Center and lead author of the resulting paper, the role of citizen scientists is becoming ever more important—biological changes caused by climate change are coming fast, she says, and ”more eyes on the ground” are needed to monitor them.

Creating Science Whizzes

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Good news for public gardens, zoos, and other places where visitors engage in “informal learning” about science. (For those new to the jargon, informal in this context basically means outside the classroom.) According to a new report sponsored by the National Science Foundation, “there is abundant evidence that these experiences contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science.” What’s more, “they may also support academic gains for young people from groups historically underrepresented in science,” like minorities and women.

The report has some useful recommendations for people who create exhibits and other informal science programs: The exhibits should be interactive and designed with specific learning goals in mind. They should encourage visitors to relate what they have learned to their prior experiences and interests, and when possible the exhibits should be rooted in scientific problems, ideas, and activities that are meaningful to their communities.

Professionals who evaluate informal science programs for a living will be pleased to hear that there are some useful ways to measure “outcomes” (more jargon, meaning  ways to assess how well people have learned the science lessons the exhibits are intended to teach). But, sorry, to learn what these are, you have to shell out the $42.26 for the report.

You’d think that studies paid for by our tax dollars would be available for free on the internet. But I guess that kind of learning is a bit too informal for the NSF.

Will Somebody Please Adopt This Tree?

Friday, December 12th, 2008

This year there seem to be more Fraser firs than ever for sale in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. No big surprise. Woody plant expert Michael Dirr once called them the “Cadillac of Christmas Trees.” Fraser firs have a gorgeous pyramid shape and a profusion of soft, short needles arranged spirally around the branches. They also smell great. 

What is shocking is the stark contrast between the countless Fraser firs that line city streets, lending a festive air during the holidays, and the gray skeletons found in the tree’s native habitat. The species is endemic to the seven highest peaks in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia; it is found nowhere else in the world. But in the past fifty years the number of mature Fraser firs on these mountains has declined by as much as 91 percent. The species is threatened with extinction in the wild largely because of an introduced insect, the balsam wooly adelgid, which first appeared in the southern Appalachians in 1957. The insect attacks by entering the trunk of a tree through fissures in its bark that develop as it ages; two to seven years later, the tree is dead.

Another threat to the Fraser fir: As temperatures rise due to global warming, it has nowhere to go. It can’t migrate upward to cooler, higher habitat because it already grows at high elevations on those seven mountains, in forests believed to be ice age relicts. When the last of the Pleistocene glaciers retreated north, Fraser fir was left stranded on these mountaintops, which have climates similar to those of Maine and Quebec. 

Someday it may be possible to see Fraser fir only on Christmas tree farms, or frigid Gotham streets.

The species is in the National Collection of Endangered Plants, under the auspices of the Center for Plant Conservation, a coalition of botanical gardens. But Fraser fir deserves to live wild and free, outside the cultivated confines of a farm, a garden collection, or a seed bank. For a number of years, the National Park Service reportedly tried to control the balsam wooly adelgid at Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee, using the only effective control known to date — coating each limb of each tree with a mild soap. But this proved too time consuming and costly and was given up.

Scientists and government officials have their hands full with invasive pests and imperiled plants, not to mention budget cuts and a host of other impediments. But citizens can fill the gap. Another endangered native conifer, the Florida torreya, has a group of activists, the Torreya Guardians, advocating and acting on its behalf. Friends of the Fraser fir anyone?

Be a Bee Watcher

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

Well, after years of writing about bee watching, I’m now an official Bee Watcher. Twice a month, from spring through fall, I’ll be observing which bee species visit six native wildflowers I’ve planted on the roof of my Manhattan apartment building: common sunflower, woodland sunflower, mountain mint, milkweed, beebalm and goldenrod. I’m part of a New York City citizen science program that hopes volunteers like me can help researchers understand the challenges facing these essential pollinators, among them parasitic wasps and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, which continued to decimate managed honeybee hives over the winter. There has been a lot of focus on honeybees of late, but surprisingly little is known about native bee species. Although they are also believed to be declining, there is little hard data to back this up, because most museum bee collections were made before World War II.

Being a Bee Watcher has its advantages. I’ve gotten free seeds and plants, and I’ve even learned a few things – for example, that North America has a very rich bee fauna, even relative to the tropics. This now includes 26 known introduced bee species in the U.S. and probably more – some of which are potential pests. And who knew that although butterflies and moths (except for migrants) tend to be sparse in urban habitats like mine, bees apparently take much better to city living?

The New York City Bee Watcher program is an outgrowth of the nationwide Great Sunflower Project, which is looking for volunteers. Which means you can be a bee watcher, too.