Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bill Nye, Meet Science Twitter ---Guest Post---


    How can science celebrities and scientists work together to better communicate science? The scientists behind #BillMeetScienceTwitter share their views, and set the record straight on their celebrity “trolling”.

    Recently, there have been ongoing discussions within the scientific community about the nature of science celebrities, and what their role is within science and society in general. Much of the focus has been on two of the biggest names, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Many people think of scientists as nerdy dudes doing physics and chemistry in white lab coats, and unfortunately the current cohort of science celebs (Brian Cox, Karl Kruszelnicki) have done little to dispel this myth. Bill and Neil have a following of over 10 million on Twitter - as a result, each tweet they send can influence the thoughts and perceptions of audiences many times greater than almost all other science communicators.

    Another common misconception of scientists is that an expert in physics, for example, is an expert in all of science. This means that science celebs like Bill and Neil are often asked to answer questions from outside their respective areas of expertise, something for which we do not envy them! Within the science community this is generally dealt with by directing the question to another potential expert who knows about that topic, however for Neil and Bill, with the cameras rolling, they are often expected to give an answer on the spot, which can lead to factually incorrect answers. One that is often mentioned is when Neil said that a species would surely be extinct if its sex was painful. Given the myriad of brutal sexual practices in the animal kingdom (male insects piercing the female abdomen with their penises, penile spines….we could go on), this is simply untrue. Neil, however, has since addressed this, saying that his comments were misinterpreted. Getting such a volume of requests for information outside of your field must be tough to deal with – but the load can be lightened by spreading the work across the wider scientific community.

    These issues were the motivations behind #BillMeetScienceTwitter. You might be asking yourself “Why?” or “Are they trying to bully my heroes?”, or thinking “Scientists are so weird and nerdy.” We understand how you might have arrived at those conclusions based on the Forbes article entitled “Why A Bunch Of Scientists Are Heckling Bill Nye With #BillMeetScienceTwitter”. However, what we were actually trying to do was reach out and offer assistance in areas outside the expertise of Bill and Neil. We also wanted to show the diversity of people doing science, as well as the diversity of the science that we do. Over 50% of the people tweeting on #BillMeetScienceTwitter were women – certainly not just a bunch of nerdy men in lab coats!




    Since the creation of the hashtag, it has been used over 28,000 times and reached over 1.2 billion people. This movement by scientists was so effective that it grabbed the attention of Bill Nye himself. He even highlighted a few of the scientists who introduced themselves to him. 



Needless to say, we were pretty thrilled about this.





    Neil has also subsequently reached out to clarify his responses to information requests outside of his area of expertise. You might say, “‘Mission accomplished! Well done guys!” But whilst the response has been mostly incredibly positive, and we feel we have succeeded in showcasing our awesome science, some of the reactions have been not so great. Some of the reporting still described the scientists involved using terms such as “geek” or “wonk” – the kind of language this whole hashtag was designed to fight against. Language really matters, and science isn’t just for mega nerds. We really hope that people can read beyond these labels, see the diversity of scientists behind the hashtag, and think, “Hey, science is for everyone.” We recommend you take some time today and scroll through all (or some) of the tweets with #BillMeetScienceTwitter. You’ll find a very diverse group of scientists from across the globe, in every discipline, from singing mice to how soil stores carbon to climate effects on different organisms. Each one is trying to make a positive impact on the world in which we live.

    Diversity in science is important for a number of reasons. We each think differently, often due to our different backgrounds. Highlighting diversity shows people from all walks of life that they too can become a scientist. Bringing everyone together helps develop a sense of community and support networks. While each person is unique, putting these experiences and knowledge together can result in outcomes that might just revolutionize our way of thinking, or even our lives.

    We hope this is just the beginning of collaborative efforts between Bill (and Neil!) and the science community on Twitter. As scientists, we have a duty to communicate science accurately and well, and we are sure both Bill and Neil would agree. We are here if you need us, all you have to do is ask!







Dani is a zoologist studying the effect of climate change on African wild dogs at the
 Zoological Society of London and UCL. She has been studying and working in the field of ecology and conservation for 9 years now, and has worked with a variety of animals including bats, foxes and reptiles. More recently, she has co-authored the science humour book ‘Does It Fart?’ - the result of a collaboration between scientists through Twitter. Follow Dani on Twitter: @DaniRabaiotti!



Melissa Cristina Marquez is a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator who studies shark migratory patterns, habitat use, and social media coverage of sharks and their relatives. She is a freelance environmental writer, and founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), a program that brings attention to the unusual and diverse sharks (and their relatives) of the world, the threats they face, and the scientists who study them. She regularly hosts #STEMSaturdays on Twitter to provide career guidance and advice to young women in STEM worldwide. Follow Melissa on Twitter: @mcmsharskxx!








Dalton Ludwick is a first-generation college student. He is currently working on his Ph.D. 
within the Entomology graduate area in Plant, Insect and Microbial Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His research focuses on the management of western corn rootworm with transgenic corn. He also studies the ecology of northern and western corn rootworms. Follow Dalton on Twitter: @EntoLudwick!




Solomon David is an aquatic ecologist interested in fish biodiversity, conservation, and science communication. His current research focuses on ecology, evolution, and genomics of gars and other ancient fishes, and how that research can be applied to better understanding human disease and development. Additional projects involve conservation of Great Lakes migratory fishes, “Ancient Sport Fish” (e.g. gars and bowfins), and peripheral populations of species. He also communicates science through traditional and social media to raise awareness of the value of aquatic ecosystems and freshwater biodiversity. Follow Solomon on Twitter: @SolomonRDavid!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week: A Southern Snake Smorgasbord

Could you identify this snake for me?I live in central Alabama and me and the kids were out in the woods and saw hazel nuts..I reached down to pick one up and this calmly went over my finger I thought it was a worm at first then realized it wasn't by the way it moved....his head is deep dark black solid top bottom and sides,his body was a light brownish red then last nt turned more of a dark brown he has two striped on each side of spine,he doesn't have a distinctive ring where head and body meet like a ring neck...People have told me red bellied snake and brown but he has tan or cream colored belly,his scales under plate are double and appears he has a stripe going across is back also???I hope you can identify him.

Nina J.
Alabama


Hi David

We return to visit our son in Atlanta and discover the attached in the basement. Is it an Eastern garter Snake?
Thanks
Regards
Mike F.
Georgia




We live in Tennessee. What kind are these?

Josh B.
Tennessee











What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.


Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Cotton Fields in the Sky ---Guest Post---

Catch up with Part I and II.

    A standard methodology for assessing Gopher Tortoise abundance across landscapes is to perform “line-transect distance sampling” (or LTDS). Using this methodology, a crew of three people walks in standardized, straight lines across a specified area and searches for tortoise burrows within a set distance to the transect. This methodology works well because tortoise burrows are very visible, with the large mound of sand in front of the burrow (called an apron) and the unique D shape of the burrow entrance. Once a burrow is found, the crew must determine whether the burrow is occupied (if there is a tortoise in the burrow), unoccupied but active (the burrow seems active with footprints, shell marks, etc., but no one is home) or inactive (it is clearly a tortoise burrow, but a tortoise hasn’t been in the burrow recently). To determine this status, we have a digital camera that is connected to a large hose with a scope on the end. The scope can be run all the way to the end of the burrow (think Roto Rooter), thereby enabling us to peer all the way into the back of the burrow (which may be more than 20 feet long).

    Most tortoise biologists have walked countless miles through some of the most beautiful as well as some of the most dreaded, thorny, buggy habitats this side of the Mississippi. During these extensive transect walks, a range of conversations are had, from what we will eat for lunch to the ultimate fate of gopher tortoise populations. I think we are usually optimistic about the latter conversation point. However, even the greatest optimism can give way to pessimism when we walk long distances and never encounter a single tortoise. Over the past couple of years, out of reluctance to accept that a tortoise could ever actually die, we jokingly would declare if we couldn’t find occupied tortoise burrows, that the animals must be out foraging in “the cotton fields in the sky.” Of course, an Elysian reference simply allows us to avoid the inescapable fact that the recent past has been Hell for tortoise populations. But the optimism is not lost.

    While my time has been relatively short in Alabama (just over five years), I think there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future for conservation in this state, and the southeast as a whole. And this is not optimism as seen through rose colored glasses, but is rooted in demonstrable, objective progress. The conclusion to this blog post is going to be an outline of but a few positive movements for conservation, and why, although we have certainly lost much of biodiversity to the cotton fields in the sky, we have reasons to be genuinely optimistic for the future.

    As I wrote in Part I of this series, gopher tortoise population stability is dependent upon adult tortoises surviving for decades, and remaining reproductively viable throughout this long lifespan. Because of this dependence on adult survival, even if adults are no longer being killed, we would still expect to see a lag in populations recovering from past exploitation. To put it another way- tortoise populations (and landscapes in general) do not immediately recover from past mistakes. When it comes to landscapes (and of course tortoises), slow and steady may just win the race. I think that much of the present absence of tortoises from many sites reflects this lag in response and to a lesser extent reflects current threats to adult survival.

Many practices of the past that imposed these significant sources of adult mortality have either been completely eliminated, or nearly completely eliminated. As I have already described, human predation of adult tortoises was common through much of the twentieth century, and this has generally ended. A result of legal protection and the abundance of readily available and cheap food sources, human tortoise consumption is nearly nonexistent today. So thanks, McDonalds.

    An additional detrimental practice to tortoise populations, the gassing of burrows to collect rattlesnakes, has been outlawed in Alabama (more here from the blog on tortoise gas) and across the southeast. This destructive practice was common across the region, and it certainly accounted for significant losses to adult tortoise populations. While this practice is not likely eliminated, it has certainly been reduced over the past decade, and will continue to die out.

    My optimism in not only rooted in the snuffing out of many detrimental practices. In fact, significant gains have also been made to restore and conserve high-quality habitats for biological conservation. Numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations currently operate to restore and protect longleaf pine ecosystems and the flora and fauna inhabiting these systems.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, a branch of the US Department of Agriculture) had a $10.6 million dollar initiative in 2016 to restore and manage Longleaf Pine forests across the historical range in the southeast (click here for details and how you can be involved). This program began in 2010 and has been successful at partnering federal funding with private landowners to incentivize and support longleaf pine conservation measures. Since 2010, the NRCS, together with non-governmental organizations such as the Longleaf Alliance and The Nature Conservancy, have grown Longleaf Pine forests in the southeast from 3 million acres to more than 4 million acres. There is great reason to believe this number will continue to grow.

    In the state of Alabama, great progress has been made by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to secure large blocks of land for conservation, with an ultimate goal of restoring and managing longleaf pine ecosystems (checkout Alabama’s growing WMA additions). I have had the opportunity to sample gopher tortoises on some of these state-owned lands, and there are great reasons to be optimistic. Some of these sites have in-tact longleaf pine sand ridges, including gopher tortoises and diverse, native plant and animal communities associated with this imperiled ecosystem. Additionally, the US Forest Service has been pro actively restoring and managing Longleaf Pine ecosystems across major tracts of land in the southeast.

    It has been suggested that conservation is one of the most depressing fields in which a biologist can choose to work; a good day in conservation is either bringing back what was lost, or preventing the loss of something not yet lost. While these facts may be true, I disagree that the field is depressing. I believe we are at an inflection point in time. We are at a point in which we have acknowledged the unsustainable mistakes of the past and turned to practices that sustain biodiversity into the future. Because of this unique time, conservation is more exciting than ever. We have the present opportunity to see positive change happening all around. And this change is more than merely “feel good” aesthetic change. It is change rooted in saving what we know to be good, not only for ourselves, but for future generations.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Death Warrant for every Black Snake ----Guest Post---

Catch up by reading Part I here.

    As most field biologists can attest, spending extended time far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life provides countless and invaluable experiences. These experiences are not only with the objects of study, but also with the rural human society that calls our field sites home. While we often neglect interest in getting to know these locals, I would submit that the relationship between local human populations and the surrounding ecosystems may be among the most important relationships for successful conservation. For better or worse, this is the front line of conservation.

    Across the southeastern US, locals and landowners can determine whether efforts will be invested in restoration and management of tracts of land for conservation. Additionally, it is locals who can willingly (or unwillingly) and legally (or illegally) steer the direction of the best conservation measures, and in the end determine if these measures drive successful results. While it is true that large tracts of extremely important public lands exist across the US, if we are going to win the good fight for conservation, we must be successful on private lands. While public lands are important for conservation, the total area of public lands relative to private lands is very small; for example, only 3.8% of Alabama is publicly owned. We should not willingly give up on the other 96.2% of this state.

    I have sampled gopher tortoises across Alabama and one of the most unique experiences I have had was in southwestern Alabama, just north of the Mobile-Tensaw Rivers delta (a region that I’ll refer to as the delta). As if I weren’t excited enough to talk about field biology in the southeastern US, this region gets me totally geeked out. In the previous post, I described how longleaf pine ecosystems are a thing of great biogeographic serendipity. Add one more level of intrigue, and you have the delta region. Because of its positioning among some of the largest rivers of the southeast, the delta is characterized by expansive, slow-moving coastal rivers bordered by ancient cypress trees. In great juxtaposition, this region also boasts some of the highest and steepest topography along the Gulf Coast. Here, steep hardwood hillsides crawling with salamanders give way to sandy longleaf pine uplands. Standing on top of a delta sand ridge makes you feel as if you can see clear along the gulf from Florida to Mississippi, and all the way north to Tennessee. While this region is a thing of amazing beauty, it is also extremely isolated. The network of large rivers cutting in all directions has generally made this region less penetrable to modern infrastructure, such as bridges, that could efficiently connect this region to nearby cities (if interested in the more nefarious history of this region, you may like to read Hell at the Breech). Working in this region offers an added level of solitude in nature.

    Because the delta region is in the western distribution of the longleaf pine ecosystem, there are numerous organisms found here and not in the longleaf pine ecosystems further east. The black pine snake is one such species. It is a very large, heavy-bodied black snake. A snake that is quite similar in appearance to the Eastern Indigo Snake (click for more on Indigo Snakes in AL). The black pine snake is non-venomous and specializes in living in sandy longleaf pine ecosystems, and overlaps greatly with gopher tortoise habitats. This snake mainly consumes small mammals, and is only found in a very small portion of southwestern Alabama and southeastern Mississippi. As is the case for so many longleaf pine ecosystem specialists, the past several decades have been trouble for black pine snakes. Fire suppression, conversion of the landscape from longleaf pine forests to more economically expedient agricultural products, and overt killing of these animals has resulted in population fragmentation, and ultimately extirpation (i.e., the local extinction of populations). In sum, this has lead to a severe downward spiral for this species. As a result of this downward spiral, the black pine snake was recently listed as a threatened species on the Endangered Species List. Enter landowner freak-out phase.

    The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into federal law in 1973 by President Nixon. The goal of ESA is “to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend” (FWS.gov). While this goal seems pretty straightforward- don’t let species go extinct- and non controversial, many people still fear ESA. The law, and its subsequent enforcement, has often been perceived as the heavy hand of the federal government restricting the liberties of a free people. And, while this is not the goal of the law, we are all likely aware of the pervasiveness that negative, and often wrong, sentiments have in spreading through society. And like that ancient delta cypress, these sentiments are often unshakable. One such area of commonly held misconceptions, and a very important component of ESA, is the designation of critical habitat. The designation of critical habitat provides a scientific and objective measure of the habitat that is most important for a listed species’ recovery and eventual delisting from ESA. As stated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), critical habitat “may require special management and protection”.  

    So I was in the delta region of Alabama, surrounded by black pine snake critical habitat, in longleaf pine uplands, studying gopher tortoises. One morning when I was heading out to begin my day in the field, I passed a local landowner. We exchanged pleasantries, I explained that I was in the area studying gophers, and our conversation quickly turned to the recent federal listing of the black pine snake. This landowner assured me that he would never kill a non-venomous snake, but he was quick to rat out his neighbors. As a result of the USFWS decision to list the black pine snake, he tells me the new mantra of the private landowners surrounding his property: “A death warrant for every black snake.” Enter biologist freak-out phase.

    Why? How could this be? This community exists in one of America’s crown jewels for biodiversity. A region that boasts spectacular natural riches. And here, these people have made a decision that out of an unjustified fear of legal recourse for finding a black pine snake found on their property, they will promptly kill any snake that even remotely resembles this declining icon of their region. But why such a fear of having a black pine snake on their property? It’s certainly not out of fear of the snake itself, as they have lived with “black snakes” on their properties for millennia. As I said earlier, ESA exists to save species from extinction. This is a goal that is still wildly popular in America and across all (well, at least most) political persuasions. This shared goal- again, don’t let species go extinct- is not the least bit controversial. In fact, this goal is likely even held by those who would deliberately kill the black pine snakes on their property. However, these landowners also fear what legal constraints may be imposed on them should this animal be found on their property. Specifically, this landowner assured me that if a black pine snake was found on his property, that neither he nor his neighbors would be permitted to continue timbering their properties, and that these lands would be held in a state of unusable limbo for the sake of snake conservation. Fortunately, this belief is simply wrong. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to convince someone that their beliefs, largely rooted in fear, are wrong.

    As a result of much fear and pushback by landowners and the forest products industry, the USFWS wrote specific exemptions into the black pine snake listing to avoid these exact conflicts. In their decision, the USFWS states that the presence of Black Pine Snakes would not prevent normal timbering operations (check out a statement from the USFWS on these exemptions). Moreover, (and without getting too off track in the details of ESA), under most situations, private landowners are only prevented from committing “direct take” on listed species. As in, they cannot deliberately kill, collect, harm, or harass a protected species, yet they can generally use their land as they would in the absence of the listed species.

    Knee-jerk reactions of fear that ultimately lead to persecution of threatened and endangered species are not unique to this experience. Talk to many conservation biologists, and you will likely hear stories of illegal, and just plain unethical, vigilantism aimed at preventing the discovery of protected species on private property. These situations are not limited to specific organisms, and are often as unique as the species that ESA protects. They range from bats and birds to lions and bears.

    So how do we combat these fears and prevent these losses? First, as in so much of science, the key to progress is education. And we are generally winning that battle. The messaging of conservation must be one rooted in conveying accurate details in a manner to lead folks away from the conspiracy theories about the federal government’s motives. Secondly, as Livingalongsidewildlife has been so successful at, we must advocate for species conservation in a manner that is not alienating those whose hearts and minds we seek to change. As stated earlier, most people generally appreciate biodiversity and don’t want species to go extinct. As advocates for conservation, we must develop and nourish beliefs about the positive value of biodiversity, and that personal interests do not have to conflict with a shared vision for good.

    Gopher tortoises are currently federally listed in the western portion of their distribution as threatened. They have been petitioned for federal listing throughout the remainder of their range, and the USFWS is soon expected to release a final ruling regarding this listing. With few exceptions, I am unaware of persecution of tortoise populations as a response to current or potential listing (although, I am not sure that those doing such actions would feel comfortable divulging their stories to me). I hope that regardless of the future legal decision, populations of tortoises will not be persecuted, although I fear this may not be the case. I hope to never hear again of a “death warrant” for every turtle or any other native species.


    The past decades have been rough for conservation. The present is scary, yet tremendous progress has been made. In the next post, I will discuss hope for the future.

Part III will appear tomorrow.