Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Announcing The Alongside Wildlife Foundation!

Hi all,

   I wanted to let you all know about some major changes related to my professional life and science communication efforts. I have been blogging here for about a decade, and over the years my outreach has spread to other platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube (I hope you have already found me at those places!). Soon we will be in print too: I'm excited to announce that I recently signed a contract with Texas A&M University Press to write a new book: Secrets of Snakes and the Science of Their Myths, building off many of the themes you have seen me discuss right here! 

  In other news, to support my science communication work, and the work of other scientists and science communicators, I have formed a new non-profit charitable organization, The Alongside Wildlife Foundation, and I hope you will visit our new website.

  From the site:


    I hope you will check the website and learn about our work to promote and communicate science. Let me know what you think below! If our interests align, please consider joining our (tax-deductible) support network, which helps make it all possible. 

  In other news, I have resigned my job at Auburn University and next week I will be moving to Georgia to start a new position managing the research program of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. I'm excited to join this team! 

  Thanks all for your support here over the years and I'm looking forward to what comes next!


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Animals That Went Extinct in 2017

    It's a tradition here at Living Alongside Wildlife to gather in one place a summary of all the animals that went extinct in the previous year. Click here for the 2016201520142013, and 2012 editions. Let's get into it.

Stichocotyle nephropis, a marine parasite of Scotland last seen in 1986, may be extinct due to overfishing of its fish hosts, writes John Platt over at The Revelator.


Lindy Lumsden/IUCN
The Christmas Island Pipistrelle, an Australian bat last seen in 2009 and known only from, you guessed it, Christmas Island, is now officially considered extinct. Why did this species disappear? It is hard to say for sure but disease and introduced species probably played a role.

That's not the only bad news from Christmas Island, unfortunately. The Lister's Gecko, the Blue-tailed Skink, and the Christmas Island Forest Skink all used to roam the island but now are considered extinct in the wild. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why they got wiped out, but some point fingers at introduced species, like the Wolf Snake, which eats them.


Parks Australia 
Both Lister's Gecko and the Blue-tailed Skink were abundant in the 1970s but they were last spotted in the wild in 2012 and 2010, respectively. There are thriving captive colonies for each of these two species though, so they are technically hanging on. Perhaps they will someday be reintroduced to their habitats.

Unlike the other two lizard species above, the Christmas Island Forest Skink does not have a captive colony to fall back on; the last known captive individual died a few years ago, so it is probably gone for real.

In 2010 the Center for Biological Diversity sent a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service seeking protection for the Beaverpond Marstonia, a snail from Georgia. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service responded, and said it is extinct. Agricultural demands on water as well as pollution likely caused the demise of this invertebrate.

The Fishing Cat is in big trouble in Southeast Asia. After extensive camera trap surveys in Java failed to turn any up there is a fear that they have gone extinct in all of Indonesia (they persist in low numbers elsewhere).

There are over 70 other species to keep a close eye on in the coming years, including for example the Jamaica Giant Galliswasp, that are considered at least critically endangered and possibly extinct in the wild. In many cases we simply just do not know enough about these creatures to know whether or not they are still hanging on.

Simply listing the species that went extinct in a given year is surprisingly tricky. Here are my answers to some commonly asked questions.

1. Just because we are always discovering "new" species doesn't mean we are offsetting extinctions somehow. When we discover a new species it is not actually new to Earth, it is just new to us. In other words, a new life form was not just created, we just happened to learn about it. There is a limited pool of species and the total number of species is decreasing. Evolution leads to the creation of new species but not on a time scale that is relevant to this conversation.


2. Human beings are one of the species on Earth. That does not mean that anything and everything we do is natural and therefore okay, even if it means causing species to go extinct. Other species have value and we should act accordingly to keep them around.


3. In my list I include species that went extinct in a globally significant region even if the species might still exist somewhere else. I think these local extinctions (called extirpations) are important. You might decide not to include them in your list of extinctions.


4. I include in my list species that went extinct in the wild, even if some individuals may still exist in captivity. See above.


5. It is often impossible to know when a species went biologically extinct. That is, there is often no way of knowing when the last individual of a given species dies. So, I often include in my list species that were declared extinct, this official designation often occurs many years after the last actual death. Again, you may not include them in your list of extinctions, but I do.


6. It is not unusual to "rediscover" a species that we thought was extinct. That is always great news. But, they are usually still critically endangered and often "really" go extinct afterwards.

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..."

December 15

A mega letter-to-the-editor appears in the Washington Post, signed by nearly 4,000 people (including me), indicating fundamental disagreements with the original piece.

December 16

On the Bazely Biology lab site, the authors note Dr. Pyron did not effectively communicate his apparent points, writing, "I think that Dr. Pyron allowed himself to be caught in a hype cycle. Like many other ecologists, I cover all of his points in my undergraduate and graduate courses, but I am well aware of the implications of making these comments in a public space."

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.