Category: Environment

How Endangered Is Endangered Enough?

Do you care that a rare type of freshwater mussel has been nearly wiped out? Unless you are like me in the throes of Summer and I am still looking-for-a-job-limbo, I doubt you have the time to give more than a moment of attention to the freshwater pearl mussels in Cumbria in the United Kingdom…if that. In my daily perusing of the BBC I saw this article, Rare mussels ‘almost’ wiped out and I couldn’t help but think A) how in danger is in danger enough to warrant media coverage and B) does covering close calls for endangered species result in ‘boy who cried wolf’ response from the public?

220px-Margaritifera_margaritifera-buitenIn summary, the article is about a massive die-off of freshwater peal mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) which are a type of mollusk. The BBC reported that 80,000 of the mussels were lost in a single event out of a total estimated population of 12 million in England and Scotland. It was speculated that the event was caused by a loss of outflow from a lake that caused water temperature to go up and oxygen levels to go down. According to the BBC’s article the loss is significant because it happened in an individual incident and because the freshwater pearl mussel is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one what the BBC called the most endangered species.
I was struck by the term “most endangered” because endangered is in itself a classification. I’ve written about IUCN red list classifications before, but I went back to their website to check how they define the status of a species. The IUCN has nine classifications for a species, they are:
  1. Extinct
  2. Extinct in the Wild
  3. Critically Endangered
  4. Endangered
  5. Vulnerable
  6. Near Threatened
  7. Least Concern
  8. Data Deficient
  9. Not Evaluated
I can’t help but wonder, how much nuance is too much nuance? I think it is very important to provide context and evidence when doing something like evaluating the state of a species. As science writers, we need to be specific because it helps avoid confusion or misrepresentation. I think the classifications are good because they help people determine how a species is doing and what should be of most concern. However, is it possible that by covering the shift of a species from level to level, or a mostly-bad-but-there-are-still-some-that-are-doing-okay-so-all-is-not-lost-event we are causing the public to care less? How many people read the BBC’s article and thought, “oh no, not the freshwater pearl mussel!”
But is lack of love for the freshwater pearl mussel really a reflection of uninteresting media coverage or just the lack of sexiness of the mollusk? Would the giant panda cause a bigger stir, just because it is a giant panda? Probably. Though theoretically all species are important, and seeing one in peril is always worrisome. While you can definitely argue that species like this and the problems they face don’t get nearly enough media attention and thus the coverage that it does get is a solid positive, I can’t help but wonder if people start to get jaded when they see stories like this. Personally, I thought the article in the BBC was interesting. I learned about a species that I wasn’t familiar with and problems that it and other species face. I think it was worth the time and worth the coverage, I just don’t think that opinion is going to land me in the majority.
So then is this a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation? Perhaps it is. I think the argument could be made on both sides. Covering an event that is important to a specific species, even when it does not cause it to become endangered or extinct can muddy the waters so to speak and make readers exasperated with stories that don’t seem pertinent in the grand scheme of things. Covering an event that is important to a specific species can also provide the public with information that is necessary to helping that species survive and can help them learn something interesting in the process. I think any story about species conservation walks a fine line between being appealing and entertaining while still being relevant and interesting.
What do you think, is the freshwater pearl mollusk worth covering? Would you cover it in print or only online? Does having an online platform make you more likely to cover it because it costs you less to do so? Do you think you can make the public jaded with stories that are interesting to science lovers but perhaps not to the general non-science minded public? Would that affect your choice to cover the species? Lots of questions and things to think about. If you’ve got some thoughts on the matter I’d love to hear them so leave them in the comments!

Book Review: Moby-Duck

Recently I departed on my first trip to Europe, to visit a friend who was studying abroad in Germany (Bonn, to be exact.) I traveled armed with several books lest I get bored on my flights or train trips, and one of these books was Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. I really, really want to be able to tell everyone I know to go read this book, but I can’t. It was hard to get through, I kept stopping and starting and coming back to it, reading in short bursts which I don’t usually do because I could only focus on it for small intervals. I feel like someone who isn’t really invested in the subject matter would be likely to put it down and not go back to it. But even though I don’t think it is for everyone doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Actually, I liked it a lot.

cover.moby-duckMoby-Duck starts with the seed of a great story, one so great it has been misinterpreted and told erroneous many times over the last decade. In 1992, a shipping container fell off the back of its transport ship in the Pacific Ocean. The container was holding small plastic bath toys, sets containing a beaver, a frog, a turtle and a duck. These bath toys, set afloat in the ocean traveled the high seas, and ended up washing ashore in high numbers on the Alaskan coast. Hohn is really captivated by the idea of the bath toys, particularly the rubber duck, lost at sea and ends up quitting his job as a teacher to chase the story and find out how far the ocean could have carried the toys. There were rumors that they had washing up in Maine, which would have meant traversing the arctic. It’s a good little story, if you don’t mind the fact that the ducks didn’t actually end up in Maine and Hohn spends the majority of the book chasing a figment of a duck. I really didn’t because this book is about much more than bathtub toys.

If you can see past Hohn’s sometimes difficult to relate to fascination with the rubber duck, you will start to notice though that this isn’t actually a book about rubber ducks. Sure, the science is there. It includes plenty of facts about pollution, plastics, and ocean currents. But really this is a book about fatherhood. Only speaking from my point of view as a 20-something woman who has no children, it feels like the book, the whole fascination with the ducks is Hohn having a hard time with becoming a father. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to be a father, the relationship with his son that he describes in the book is very sweet, but ultimately I think what the duck represents is childhood – Hohn having to let go of his and focus on making his son’s the best it can be.

One of the most likeable parts of the book is Hohn himself. While his self-deprecating descriptions of his participation in his various sea-faring adventures can get a little tedious (we get it, you are not particularly adept at this) at the same time you can’t help but feel a little jealous. Jealous that while you sit at your day job doing all the things you are supposed to, this guy had the balls to quit his job and travel through Asia, Hawaii, Alaska and the Arctic because he was just interested in something. Would you want to do that? I would. I respect Hohn for going in search of his own adventure, for chasing his own personal white whale, and for having the guts to do something unexpected.

The book is also beautifully written. Hohn writes like an English teacher, but in this case it works. His romanticizing of the ducks and the sea works in this book whereas in a different story I think it would drive me a little nuts. The descriptions of what he sees and experiences are pitch perfect for me. For example:

“One imagines, before setting sail, that seafaring promises excitement or romance but on calm tropical seas, the hours pass through one’s mind like cubic meters of water through a manta trawl, leaving a sprinkling of impressions snared in memory’s gauze.” (pg. 168)

Overall, Moby-Duck is a good book, it is well written, it has a great cast of characters, and there are a lot of interesting facts in it. Looking at it as a story about rubber ducks, will leave you disappointed. You have to see it for what it is, Hohn’s own adventure tale as he comes to terms with his life at home. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but I enjoyed it and would certainly recommend it to people with an interest in the ocean, in pollution, or in personal narratives. I would recommend this book for people who normally read narrative non-fiction. There was a lot of good in it, even if it did take me a while to get through.

Polar Bears Resort To Cannibalism

If a picture is worth a thousand words, for me this one is worth a thousand nightmares:
Photograph by Jenny Ross

Photograph by Jenny Ross

The photograph was captured by Jenny Ross, an environmental photojournalist working in Olgastretet, a part of the Svalbard archipelago, located in the Arctic north of Norway. Ross co-authored a paper with Dr. Ian Sterling a biologist with Environment Canada and a professor at the University of Alberta, about the photographs and observed instances of cannibalism among polar bears.

For anyone who reads Science Decoded regularly, I don’t have to tell you that polar bears are sort of my thing. I’ve written about them being Irish, mysteriously dying, having osteoarthritis, status as endangered, and their habitat needs. I make no bones about the fact that they are my favorite and I love them. I’ve loved them since I was a little kid, and have a large collection of polar bear themed…stuff. From earrings to ice cream scoops, I’ve got it all. My collection doesn’t include nightmare inducing, zombie-evoking images of polar bears eating each other. The child in me is horrified by what I now know to be a normal occurrence.

Yes, that’s right. While the above photograph might be some of the most jarring evidence to date about intraspecies polar bear predation, the behavior isn’t abnormal. In fact, according to Dr. Stirling instances of infanticide (killing baby bears) and predation on older bears, in addition to cannibalism have been known to Inuit hunters in Canada and Greenland and reported in scientific literature. In these instances, the bear doing the killing is always an adult male, which would have the advantage over young bears, old bears, and even adult females.

In the paper with Ross, Stirling reports on three instances of what is most likely intraspecific killing and subsequent cannibalism by adult male polar bears. The instances were all observed on the sea ice in Svalbard in midsummer and early autumn. Each incident was photographed (see above). The victims in each case were killed by more than one bite to the head. This is an instantly lethal way to take down prey, and the way that polar bears would take down seals, their typical food source.

According to Stirling, the instances of cannibalism described in the paper, published in the journal Arctic, are different than the normal instances of intraspecies predation. The bears that did the killing appeared to be in good physical condition, not obviously thin which is typically the case in intraspecies killings. Stirling and Ross concluded that the behavioral and ecological factors present in the instances of killing they describe in their paper show that by late summer, when available ice and the number of seals to hunt are significantly reduced, young polar bears may become a source of prey for adult males to still hunt from the surface of the remaining sea ice. While this type of behavior may be relatively normal, Stirling says that as climate continues to warm and reduce sea ice the frequency of kills like this may increase.

I asked Stirling what we should take away from these photographs, and the instances of polar bear cannibalism, and this is what he said:

“Climate-driven concerns for polar bears are real. The bottom line is that polar bears need ice to hunt from and without that, most bears will not be able to survive. At present, it looks like the last ice will be in the area of the northern Canadian Arctic and in Greenland. Some relatively small, but unknown, number of bears may survive there for some time after they cannot continue in more southerly areas.”

So basically, cannibalism is a natural behavior for polar bears. It happens. But due to climate change and the changes that are occurring to sea ice, it is likely that cannibalism is going to get worse. Which leads me to think, do we really want a unique and charismatic species that many people are working to protect to be eating itself? It seems somewhat backwards to invest in conservation and then just watch the bears duke it out amongst themselves. I wish there was a solution I could offer but climate change is its own beast entirely. I will say that intraspecies cannibalism wasn’t something I had on my mind when thinking about conservation, but I’ll definitely remember it next time.

A Pollution Solution, Brought To You By Lehigh University

The Lehigh Mountain Hawk in 2008
photo credit: Erin Podolak

If you’ve ever checked the About section of this blog, you’ll know that my alma mater is Lehigh University. I loved my time at Lehigh (it’s where I first learned about science writing) and thinking about the university evokes a lot of positive memories. But, as much as I love Lehigh, I have to admit it isn’t exactly a premier research institution (despite what they might tell you in the pamphlets). Not that research doesn’t go on at Lehigh, but it’s no University of Wisconsin-Madison as far as a reputation for cutting edge research is concerned.

Imagine my surprise as I was perusing Scientific American a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon Lehigh while reading an article (reprinted from ClimateWire) about a newly developed material that has the ability to pull carbon dioxide and methane pollution from other gases. The material was developed by Kai Landskron, Paritosh Mohanty and Lillian D. Kull of Lehigh’s department of chemistry, and could potentially be used to help capture greenhouse gases.

Creating carbon-sucking materials has been a goal for scientists for years as a way to combat the effects of climate change caused by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, existing systems tend to be expensive, use a tremendous amount of energy, or don’t work well at high temperatures. The new material developed at Lehigh avoids these problems.

The new substance was created using chemicals called diaminobenzidine and hexachlorocyclotriphosphazene. These chemicals are cheaper than others used for carbon absorption, and can operate at heat as high as 400 degrees Celsius. In addition to avoiding the problems that have plagued early carbon capture systems the researchers also had to create something that could take carbon dioxide and methane out of a gas stream, but then release it at a later time for permanent storage underground once compressed.

Coal power plant Somerset NY
Credit: Matthew D. Wilson/Wikimedia Commons.

When they developed their “sponge” the researchers found that the material drew more carbon dioxide and methane from the air than other gases, like nitrogen. This makes the material idea for capturing harmful greenhouse gases out of mixed emissions. The researchers have suggested that the material could be placed inside a tower located adjacent to a coal burning power plant, the flue gas generated from the burning coal could then be transported via pipeline through the material to capture greenhouse gases from the emissions.

According to the researchers, the material has a 90% success rate capturing CO2 from a gas stream. However, some problems with the mass production of this material include the fact that real power plants would emit a more complex mixture of gases than was tested by the Lehigh research team, the material may be too dense for manufacture on a large enough scale, and production would create chemical byproducts that may become difficult to control.

The researchers are confident however, in the product they have created. Landskron told ClimateWire:
“There is no fundamental difference in doing this in the lab versus doing it at an industrial scale.” This material hasn’t been tested on a commercial scale and it remains unknown if it could actually be implemented practically, so we’ll have to wait and see if the material can stand up to the high expectations its creators have set up for it.

Even though the chemicals used in the material are cheaper than others used for carbon capture, the cost of producing and implementing the technology is still a barrier to its use. The researchers hoped to test the material on an existing coal plant in the US earlier this year, but the effort stalled due to a lack of funds, even with a 50% investment by the Department of Energy.

On campus with friends before my graduation from
Lehigh in 2009.

So, while the research is promising and it demonstrates an interesting idea with a lot of potential for carbon capture it needs support and further research to make it something that could actually be used commercially. If you’d like to know more, the research was published in July in Nature Communications.

I was excited to see Lehigh in the news for scientific research. Research wasn’t a big part of my life at Lehigh, in fact I rarely encountered it, but Lehigh is where my passion for science evolved into a career. It is where, with the support of the journalism department and the wonderful professors who gave me my first real introduction to writing, I realized that I could have a career dedicated to science without being a scientist, and that has shaped the course of my life. I’m proud of my school, and even prouder to know that Lehigh researchers are working to find solutions to our greenhouse gas problems. Now lets get some funding to make that research a reality!

The Arabian Oryx’s Comeback Story

We see so many stories proclaiming the final nail in the coffin of so many species around the world (and indeed, species extinction is a serious issue) but today there is actually some good news about the Arabian oryx, which was previously considered extinct in the wild. Good news needs to be talked about more, so inspired by this post from New Scientist I wanted to share the Arabian oryx’s story.
Arabian Oryx, via Wikimedia Commons
Around 1972 the last wild Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) was killed, most likely in Oman. While the species was extinct in the wild there were still several in captivity, particularly at the Phoenix Zoo, which received four wild Arabian oryx in 1963 as a part of a conservation effort called Operation Oryx.
After the species went extinct in the wild, individuals from the zoo’s breeding program were brought together with individuals from royal collections in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to make a last “world herd.”  A breeding program began and in the early 1980’s the first individuals were reintroduced into the wild in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. 
The Arabian oryx has since flourished, reaching a wild population of more than 1000 individuals, and is continuing to increase. This had led to the Arabian oryx officially being moved from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. A 2008 assessment showed that the Arabian oryx had recovered enough to no longer qualify as even an endangered species.

The IUCN Species Program produces, maintains and manages the IUCN Red List, and implements worldwide species conversation projects. The Species Program is headquartered in Switzerland and is designed to determine the relative risk of a species facing extinction. The Red List is used to keep track of and bring attention to the plants and animals that directly risk global extinction. 
IUCN Red List categoriesUnder IUCN Red List Guidelines a species can only move to a lower category if none of the criteria for the higher category have been met for five years or more. To be considered endangered there must be 250 or fewer mature individuals of a species, so the Arabian oryx, which is doing well at over 1000, will be listed as Vulnerable starting this year.
The Arabian oryx is native to the Arabian Peninsula, and doesn’t have many natural predators; humans drove the animals to extinction from hunting. In addition to the 1000 in the wild there are another 6,000-7,000 individuals alive in captivity around the world, many within the Arabian region.

Interestingly, the population that was re-introduced to Oman (where the last wild Arabian oryx were killed before it went extinct in the wild) has been struggling. The Oman population was hurt through illegal live capture for private sale, and has been rendered ineffective because only males remain.  Most new populations are in secure areas that are relatively safe from poaching, but animals that wander outside protected sites have no guarantee of safety. 
Future release locations for animals bred through captivity will be determined by the potential effects of drought and overgrazing, which have reduced available areas where populations could thrive. 
Now that I’m spending my days perusing the internet (so much more than ever before!) I’ve seen a lot of strange, strange, and I mean STRANGE things. In addition there is also so much negative news from hackers to politicians to criminal cases and everything in between that I feel like little glimmers of good news, particularly about successful conservation efforts should to be recognized. It doesn’t make the bad news easier to swallow, but it still makes things seem brighter.