Friday, December 1, 2017

We Don't Need to Save Endangered Species: All the Responses to the Washington Post Piece (Updated As New Articles are Published)

Hi all,
    Recently the Washington Post published a controversial Perspectives piece by Dr. Alex Pyron. To most readers, the piece seemed to argue that it does not matter if many species go extinct and we should not care. You can view this article here: "We don't need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution".

   The response to this article was swift and widespread. Here I do not want to provide commentary on the article (I am currently writing an independent response) but I wanted there to be a repository for all the rebuttals and commentary regarding the original piece.

   Please let me know as you become aware of additional responses.

November 22 

I posted a link to the article on my Facebook page and a lively comment thread ensued, including in-depth comments from Dr. Pyron.

On The EEB & Flow, Dr. Caroline Tucker wrote: Of course we need to save endangered species, a response. A number of problems with the Washington Post article were identified and the author concludes that it, "presents a misrepresentative and potentially harmful position about the future of the earth's biota."

November 24

Ronald Bailey provides a summary of the Washington Post piece on the Hit & Run blog and describes it as, "fascinating".

November 26

In Extinction, macroevolution, and biodiversity conservation, Dr. Santiago Claramunt Tammaro, Associate Curator in the Department of Natural History of the Royal Ontario Museum goes through the Washington Post piece pointing out the errors and misconceptions in the science and philosophy and states the conclusions are, "the result of a mix of a superficial handling of fundamental concepts and simplistic logic."

Over at A Wilderness Journal, Dr. Christopher Janousek says of the Washington Post piece, "In taking a rather extreme view of the role of conservation, the visceral reaction of many biologists to publication of this op-ed in a major media outlet is understandable. But does the author miss the mark? I think so on several major fronts."

On Greg Laden's Blog, the author dissects the Washington Post piece and what he perceived as the problems pervading the entire thing. He concludes, "There is an editor at the Washington Post that totally stepped in it."

November 27

Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post responds with Don't worry about climate change - it will all be fine if you can just wait a few million years. The author concludes that the arguments in the original piece are a, "short-sighted, self-serving rampage of destruction and extinction."

Over at the Louis Project, the author offers some keen insights to help interpret the piece and put the points in context; I found the following section particularly apt: 

"There are one of two possibilities that explain Pyron’s incomprehensible fatalism. He might be an ideologue so committed to libertarian economics that the long-term prospects of civilization are indifferent to him, just as they are to the Koch brothers who could care less about the future of the planet. As they used to say during the Reagan presidency, those who die with the most toys wins. It also may be the case that the professor lacks the philosophical, ethical and historical breadth to put these questions into perspective. Unlike other scientists who make sweeping judgments on such questions like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, Pyron has never written anything like this outside of his narrow scholarly interest in reptiles."

November 29

In a letter to the editor in the Frederick News-post, Elizabeth Godfrey writes that, "We cannot afford to dismiss any small part."

November 30

Dr. Josh Schimel, UC-Santa Barbara Professor, evaluates the writing and rhetoric of the Washington Post piece on his Writing Science blog: Do species matter: responding to an op-ed by R.A. Pyron in the Washington Post and concludes the author, "failed to live up to [his] basic responsibility as a scientist writer."

Green Momster says on her blog that when it comes to endangered species and extinctions, she doesn't want to get over it.

November 31

Dr. Pyron published a lengthy comment on his Facebook page detailing his intentions in writing the piece, describing what he felt he did wrong, and how  he felt his points were misconstrued.

December 1

At the PLOS Ecology Community blog, Dr. Jeff Atkins provides a summary of the controversy so far, puts it in context, and provides links to many other related articles.

The Washington Post published five Letters to the Editor written in response to the original piece. They all hated it.

On Why Evolution is True, Dr. Jerry Coyne provides a summary of the points in the Washington Post piece and says, "Well, as I always say, we can’t simply dismiss people like this by simply saying they’re wrong. We have to muster counterarguments...Here’s my view of why Pyron is misguided...". Click through to see his detailed breakdown.

December 4

After reprinting the Washington Post piece, a Cleveland newspaper runs a letter to the editor suggesting it should be retracted. They later printed another letter to the editor pointing out that Dr. Pyron walked back a number of the claims in the original piece. 

December 5

Today bioGraphic published a great commentary with incredible photos detailing our responsibility to fight for endangered species. They write, "Scientists have a social responsibility to present science and its role in society as accurately as possible. In his recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Alexander Pyron, an associate professor of biology at The George Washington University, contends that many biologists fail this responsibility by communicating with “unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency” about the need to conserve biodiversity. In making his arguments, however, Pyron falls well short of this standard in at least four of his claims..."

December 8

On Vermont Public Radio, Ted Levin chimes in with his response to the Washington Post piece, stating that it, "may already have damaged our commitment to protect endangered species, especially at the Federal level."

December 9

All the way from New Zealand, Bob Hughes writes to provide an opposite view from the Washington Post piece.

December 10

In his weekly column for The Aspen Times, Paul Anderson writes, "How easy Pyron makes it to deny moral significance as we knowingly kill off species through habitat destruction, recklessly ignorant of the contributions these species make to the complex web of life. The article made my blood boil, so I wrote my friend a retort condemning moral myopia as the same rationale Hitler used in Nazi Germany."

December 13

As a Christian and a scientist, Joshua Holbrook provides a unique perspective to the discussion, "I have a couple things in common with Dr. Pyron – I’m a scientist, and more importantly, I’m also a herpetologist: a rare breed of biologist that will put 50,000 miles on their car in a year to see a handful of rare species only to decry corporate carbon emissions. As far as I can tell from this piece, though, that’s where the similarities cease..."

Monday, November 27, 2017

When Tortoises Attack ---Guest Post---

    As a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University, I study the insects that live within gopher tortoise burrows. One method I use to collect insects is by digging a hole near tortoise burrows that insects fall into, called a pitfall trap, and bait it with something lots of insects find irresistible: gopher tortoise dung. Not exactly glamorous work, but I am interested in how the tortoises and their burrows influence what kinds of invertebrate species can persist in the area i.e., their biodiversity. So why do I care? Some species of insects provide dung removal services in the burrows, potentially benefiting tortoises by reducing parasite loads. These animals may have critical value to the gopher tortoise, yet we know very little about them. So here I am, setting insect traps and digging through dung.

    On one of my first trips to our field site, Carolyn, a fellow graduate student, pointed, “Gertrude’s burrow is over there.” Carolyn was introducing me to gopher tortoise number 159; a large female she nicknamed Grumpy Gertrude. As we approached the burrow, I saw a head emerge from the tunnel. With heavy feet, Gertrude bounded towards us, rapidly bobbing her head, a clear sign of aggression. She approached my ankles as if she wanted to push me back. We were obviously not welcome here.

    When approached by humans, most tortoises will retreat into their burrows or simply ignore us. My study site has a very high density of tortoises, nearly 100 tortoises in 23 acres, and is located in a high traffic suburban greenway, so it is reasonable to assume that they are fairly used to people. Indeed, Dr. Jon Moore, who began researching this field site over 17 years ago, says aggressive behavior is rare, but there are a few individual tortoises with a bad attitude, like Gertrude.

    I went into the field one evening to check my traps, and as I sat digging through dung, a tortoise came out of its burrow with the same aggressive stride as Grumpy Gertrude. “Gertrude?”, I questioned as I excitedly reached for my camera. I was excited because I hadn’t seen Gertrude in almost two months, around the time Hurricane Irma hit Florida. As the tortoise continued to approach me, I got a better look at the ID number on her shell. Number 43. This wasn’t Gertrude. Unexpectedly, she lunged at me, nearly ramming into my camera (check out the video below!)

    Head bobbing, ramming, and occasionally biting are common forms of communication used by gopher tortoises to signal aggression to predators as well as members of their own species. These aggressive behaviors are most often related to competition for resources, mating opportunities, and defense against predators. Based on my personal observations, it seems that Grumpy Gertrude and Number 43 are especially territorial, at least as compared to the majority of tortoises at my study site.

    Gopher tortoises have varying personalities and, as we observe more details of their daily lives, we are finding they even have social lives. These animals interact in complex social networks displaying a variety of different interactions. They form tightly-knit groups called cliques and may intentionally avoid nearby neighbors. On the other hand, some tortoises regularly travel relatively far distances to visit certain individuals that they prefer to spend time with. This may be particularly common for such a dense population like the one at our study site. You could make the case that it is a veritable gopher tortoise high school, and needless to say, Number 43 didn’t want me in her clique.

    These complex social behaviors have important implications for how we conserve gopher tortoises. One of the leading threats to gopher tortoise populations includes the reduction of suitable habitat as a result of human development. At times, animals are moved when their habitat is going to be developed, but successfully relocating tortoises is not as straightforward as just placing them in a new spot. If tortoises are simply released to a new site, they inevitably attempt to navigate their way to their original stomping grounds. As we’ve discussed here, tortoise social behavior can be surprisingly complex and raises lots of questions about what else can be learned about this important, sometimes grumpy, keystone species.

 About the Author

Amanda Cristina Hipps first began researching gopher tortoises during her undergraduate career at the University of North Florida. She is currently working on her M.S. in Biology at Florida Atlantic University, studying gopher tortoise ecology and conservation. Specifically, her thesis investigates burrow commensals in southeast Florida, primarily focusing on invertebrate animals, filling in the data gaps on their ecology and distribution.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dozens of Snakes Rescued From Iowa Well -- Snake Hero Guest Post --

    A property owner reached out a couple weeks ago to find someone to help him with a problem. He is building on an old farmstead and when he opened the well pit he noticed a bunch of snakes inside. His problem was not with the snakes being there, rather that the well was about to be demolished and he didn't want them to get killed in the process. I got in contact with him to find out when the well was being filled in and if there was any way to delay it until spring. 

    Unfortunately, the demolition could not be delayed.

    Iowa's laws are a bit weird in places. As far as I know, there was nothing stopping the land owner from demolishing the well with all the snakes inside...
But, it would be illegal to remove them without permits. I contacted a few people with the Iowa DNR to find out what could be done. Normally, obtaining permits take some time and we did not have much to spare. Thankfully, it was decided that since my name is on Linn County Conservation permits I could be given permission to remove the snakes and keep them for the winter.

    I met the land owner on the property on the morning of November 9th. He told me a little about what was going on with the construction and then showed me to the well pit. 

    Three snakes were immediately visible.

    That didn't seem so bad. He had mentioned seeing more though, and I suspected some others were hiding in the nooks. Sure enough, they were.

    One was even down the small vertical pipe in the floor.

    This still wasn't too many and I was able to get them all out, even the one down in the floor. But... and there is always a but... when I was removing the ones from around a pipe, I saw another one up higher in a crevice, and it slipped away into the hollow part of the bricks. We found a heavy piece of metal and used it to break through the front of the brick and that is when things got interesting. There wasn't just one more snake up in the hollow, there were three more. Then I noticed even more up in the corners. So, I started breaking open more bricks.

    It seemed like every time I broke open a new brick I would find another group of snakes.

    It is a good thing the well was being demolished, and this wasn't just a case of a home owner wanting the snakes to be removed, because I feel like I got a good start on the demolition.

    Fortunately, most of the snakes were restricted to that wall. I did some checks on the other three sides, and did find a few snakes, but nowhere near as many.
    One of the snakes I found was a racer high up in the southern wall that looked to be in the process of crawling into the well through a hole that was drilled for a wire. I had broken into the brick below it, and reached up and felt it. Pretty much every other snake I had done that to would start to flee into another cavity. This racer didn't move though. I very carefully broke out the brick around him, I got a better view, and he seemed pretty stuck.

    I left it there for a little bit, while I dug out other snakes, hoping it would wiggle its way out, but it hadn't budged. When we felt we had found all the snakes we could out from the rest of the bricks, we talked about the options for the racer. Fortunately for the snake, it was in the top row of bricks, not far below the surface... but we didn't have a shovel. The land owner managed to find a flat piece of metal though and it was enough to dig out along the outside of the wall. I dug down to a little above where I thought the snake was, then used my fingers to dig further and eventually found it. I hoped he could possibly pull back out through the hole, but he was definitely stuck. I dug down to find the wire that was in the hole with it, and we were able to cut it, and pull it out. That gave the snake enough room to slip the rest of the way through.

    In the end, we ended up pulling out 38 Western Fox Snakes (Pantherophis vulpinus), and 11 Racers (Coluber constrictor). I have no doubt we missed a few in the walls, but there was some places I just couldn't safely break into. The snakes I was able to catch are currently being kept in a cold place in my house to keep them inactive for the winter. In the spring they will be released back on to the property where they came from.

About the Author

Don Becker is  a self-employed IT professional, that is fortunate to have free time to devote to activities he is passionate about (e.g., conservation, education). He is the Chief Technology Officer for the 501(c)(3) non-profit HerpMapper citizen science project, and volunteers with Linn County, Iowa Conservation Department doing educational programs, wildlife surveys, and habitat restoration.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week: A Snake Rescue and Copper Moccasin Rattlesnakes...

Hi,  We have a snake I was hoping you could identify.  I am sure it’s a copper moccasin rattlesnake but my hubby says not.  But it does have a pretty face and I couldn’t find another picture like it. We live in Elmore County AL on the southeast rim of the Wetumpka Crater.  We live at the top of this hill and a creek runs about a quarter mile downhill from us and there are a few ponds in the overall area but we are pretty dry  here.  I am sure he crawled on my porch to munch a brood of baby lizards that have been living there for a few weeks. He is inhabiting the pine straw in the garden area at the moment.  Thanks in advance for your help.  

Linda U.


Could you please help me identify the snake in this picture? I am in the West Georgia area. The picture was taken at the end of September. Poor guy(?) got stuck in my garden fence running from the lawnmower. I cut him out safely. I like having unpaid rodent control.

Thank you,



My wife saw this snake in our backyard this weekend and now is scared to go out in our yard. Need your help identifying it so I can get her out of the house. We live in Birmingham, Alabama and have a fairly good sized lake in our neighborhood. Houses on both sides of us have young children, so neighbors are concerned too.

Greatly appreciate the help,

Ed B.

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?