Category: Environment

An Extinction Intervention

Over the course of the year doing grad school work at UW-Madison, I’ve written a few different articles for class assignments. I’ve decided to publish this article here, though it should be noted that this was written in December 2010 from interviews conducted throughout the Fall of 2010. I feel that the information and perspectives still hold a lot of value, so I wanted to share it anyway.

Managed relocation is a potential solution to the biodiversity loss posed by climate change, but the policy’s unpredictable risk ignited the scientific community in a debate that questions how society views conservation in the context of impending extinction.
Every summer, your backyard garden produces a cornucopia of vegetables because it gets enough sunlight and rain to make your plants bloom. But, then your neighbors plant trees in their yard that cast a shadow on your garden. Without sunlight your plants wilt and suddenly its goodbye tomatoes. So what do you do? Well, next year you move the garden to a sunnier spot. Problem solved.
Moving your garden to a sunny spot is an easy way to keep up with the changing environment of your backyard, but would it work on a larger scale?
The rapid changes to ecosystems around the world predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) include the widespread extinction of species that don’t adapt fast enough. That is, unless a policy like “managed relocation” — the shifting of species to new environments to counteract the affects of climate change — can be implemented successfully.
Some conservationists in the United States have jumped on the idea of managed relocation. The most notable project so far is the transportation of the Torreya (Torreya taxifolia,) a conifer tree, from Florida to North Carolina by the independent group the Torreya Guardians. Whether the Torreya experiment will work is unknown, but it has drawn attention to the risk associated with relocating species.
Torreya taxifolia
via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike moving your garden to that perfect sunny spot, moving species involves a fragile web of ecological connections that when broken, could create more problems than solutions.

Managed relocation is exemplary of an overall trend in ecology toward an interventionist approach focused on species. This trend is a challenge to previously established conservation policy that focused on protecting habitat to help species, and has opened debate about whether human meddling will save or sacrifice Earth’s biodiversity.
David Richardson, Professor of Ecology and Deputy Director of Science Strategy at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa,) says whether more attempts at managed relocation will be made and whether they occur with the sanction of government will depend on the success of projects like the one conducted by the Torreya Guardians.

“A few spectacular failures would probably nail the coffin on the concept,” said Richardson in an email message. “Managed relocation is undoubtedly very risky and the practice could cause more problems than it solves. But then, losing species is also very risky, so the price of taking no action could be very high, perhaps higher than undertaking managed relocation.”

The Risky Business of Managed Relocation

Moving species through managed relocation poses both a risk of total failure, and a risk of extreme success. The fragile connections between species in an ecosystem cannot be easily replaced, and even the most heavily researched relocations can fail completely. Unexpected new connections can also form, causing a species to explode in their new habitat and become invasive.
“The way managed relocation gets framed is that it is a trade off,” said Jason McLachlan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “On the one hand you don’t want species that you care about to go extinct, but on the other hand we have a bad track record with moving species around. We come with good intentions but cause more problems.”

According to Ralph Grundel, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Porter, IN the complex science of moving species is enough reason to be skeptical that managed relocation will succeed. Grundel’s own work relocating the Karner Blue Butterfly only a few miles away from its natural range has failed, even after extensive research into the habitat specifications needed by the species.
Karner Blue Butterfly Source: Wikimedia Commons

“When you introduce a new species into another species range, you are rolling the dice because you don’t know how the species will interact,” said Grundel. “It can be really challenging, so aside from the ethics of whether we should meddle, our ability to succeed if we wanted to do these things I’m pessimistic about.”

With debate mounting about whether humans could or should micromanage the survival of species, researchers like McLachlan and Grundel say that a redefinition of the way the US thinks about conservation is needed to consider the ethical problems posed by intervening.
From conservation to intervention

According to Ben Minteer, Associate Professor at the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University, for over a century the United States’ stance on conservation (outlined by the Endangered Species Act) has been to protect species from human involvement in the species native environment.  But, if the habitat can’t be maintained – due to climate change – then a new policy will be needed.
“Now things are changing,” said Minteer. “In the most extreme cases we have to go in and round the species up and move them to a place that is different from their native range. If we don’t do that we’re committing them to extinction.”
According to Minteer, the majority of researchers who have investigated the implications of climate change on biodiversity are in agreement that a plan is needed for future action. But, whether managed relocation is that plan is uncertain.
 “What we are going to be forced into is this strong interventionist approach to conservation,” said Minteer. “I say this with a heavy heart, but we are moving toward a planetary management situation where we become much stronger manipulators of the landscape to make it more amenable to saving species, and to make sure that it provides the services that humans depend upon.”
More harm than help

“We really don’t know what we’re doing,” said Jessica Hellmann an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “But everything that we do has side affects.”
Hellmann says managed relocation can be thought of like a medical treatment. Cancer patients are given chemotherapy even though it has detrimental side affects, because the treatment is more beneficial than the side affects are harmful. Managed relocation may be a treatment for species suffering from climate change, but researchers don’t know if the benefits will outweigh the side affects.
Researchers are experimenting to figure out which species can be moved, and where they can go based on climate change models. “We want to create the sweet spot,” said Hellmann. “You want the population to be successful, you just don’t want it to be so successful that it starts overwhelming other species and damages the ecosystem.”
While some researchers are busy figuring out the feasibility of managed relocation, others have taken a different approach to finding solutions to the extinction problem posed by climate change.
“We aren’t going to be good at managed relocation, and the consequences of not being good at it go back to this larger issue of how we as a society deal with changing climate,” said McLachlan.
According to McLachlan, instead of trying to make solutions like managed relocation feasible researchers should attack the underlying problem, climate change itself.

“The idea that any of these other plans is going to be easier and less expensive than just reducing green house gas emissions isn’t true,” said McLachlan. “At least with green house gases we know how to reduce them and we know it would work.”

When compared, the uncertainty of managed relocation makes the certainty of reducing green house gas emissions a sensible undertaking.

“Right now our path is to totally perturb the earth and then go around and fix it afterwards,” said McLachlan. “If you don’t like that option, you might think about not breaking the entire Earth system in the first place.”

According to Grundel, the United States is in the middle of what he calls “devilishly difficult decisions,” about ecological policy. While researchers may be at odds about human interference, one thing is certain – rash future action could trigger unexpected detrimental effects.

“We’re doing an unprecedented manipulation of earth’s atmosphere, but we can’t predict the dynamics,” said McLachlan. “The answer is we better be careful, everyone lives on this planet, so it’s really not a good idea to do an unprecedented experiment on it.” 

Nuclear Legacy: Chernobyl Turns 25

The worst nuclear disaster the world has ever known, began with a trial run of an experimental cooling protocol on April 26, 1986. A power surge occurred in reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the town of Pripyat in the Ukraine (then part of the USSR.) An emergency shut down was attempted, but the situation was already out of control. Another power surge – stronger than the first – ruptured the containment vessel through a series of explosions that launched radioactive fuel and core materials into the atmosphere. When the reactor’s graphite moderator was exposed to open air, it ignited in a fire that sent a plume of smoke, ripe with radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Map of Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout

The plume drifted over parts of the former Soviet Union and Europe releasing into the open more radioactive material than the atomic bomb dropped of Hiroshima during World War II. The most effected regions include Belarus, Ukraine and what is now Russia – though radioactive material was detected at elevated levels throughout Europe.

The disaster killed 31 people who either worked at the reactor or were part of the emergency response crew, but the number of people who have been killed as a result of subsequent radiation exposure vary from the World Health Organization’s estimated 4,000 to the Greenpeace estimate of 200,000 or more.

The Soviet Union tried hard to downplay the April 26th fire and explosion back in 1986, but two days later on April 28th workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden 680 miles from Chernobyl detected radioactive particles on their clothes. Sweden’s search for the source of the radioactivity (after it was determined that there was no problem at their plant) led to the conclusion that a serious incident had occurred in the western part of the Soviet Union. Chernobyl become the center of world wide attention.

On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, society is still dealing with the legacy of fear, misinformation, and health effects left by the destroyed power plant. Chernobyl was ranked as a level 7 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES,) which is the highest possible ranking. The world is still reeling from March’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the only other INES level 7 disaster in history. But Fuskushima is not Chernobyl. Fukushima has not caused the level of death and destruction as Chernobyl – and the plants were of completely different designs.

The nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were made based on a now defunct Soviet design, which had known cooling problems. The plant’s workers were testing a new cooling protocol because it was known that in the event of a power outage the system in place (back up generators, etc.) would not have been able to cool the reactors quickly enough. There has been much speculation about who is to blame for the Chernobyl incident – if it was the reactor design or if it was human error.

Chernobyl as it is today

The first reports out of Chernobyl blamed the workers – reporting that they didn’t have adequate training and experience, that they were operating the plant with key safety systems (like the Emergency Core Cooling System) turned off, and that they knowingly ignored regulations. However, over time the role of these accusations has been downplayed, while flaws in the design of the control rods (part of the cooling system) and the reactors ability to deal with the build up of steam has been blamed for the bulk of the incident.

The initial clean up of Chernobyl was done by “liquidators” who moved the majority of debris into the damaged reactor, which was covered in sand, lead and boric acid dropped from helicopters. A concrete enclosure was built around the damaged reactor – a task that exposed the construction workers to significant amounts of radiation.

In February I did a post on What We Don’t Know about Chernobyl – namely that the site of the damaged reactor has been without a proper containment vessel all these years. The concrete sarcophagus originally erected around the destroyed reactor is still in place, and there are cracks in it. The money was never raised to build a more permanent enclosure.

The Fukushima disaster has brought Chernobyl back into the headlines, and today on its 25th anniversary we have to stop and ask ourselves how our understanding of nuclear power has been influenced and shaped by that April day back in 1986. In the wake of a nuclear disaster many people question whether the science is really safe, but I think the question we should really be asking is whether the science, in human hands, is really safe. It isn’t an issue of nuclear power – it is an issue of what happens when people try to harness nuclear power.

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Giant Earthworms

This is my third post for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School. We have been talking about animal behavior with Alex the Genius Parrot and Animals who use tools, but now to kick off the first grader’s new science unit, we are going to talk about worms.
When it comes to worms, there is no specimen more impressive than the Giant Gippsland Earthworm. Check out this video to learn more about this massive worm:

Giant Gippsland Earthworms are gross yet fascinating, but these worms are found in Australia. What about the worms in your own backyard? They might not be giants, but the common earthworm are still pretty impressive little animals.


The common earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris,) also called a night crawler, is found throughout North America and Europe. Compared to the Giant Gippsland Earthworm which is usually about 20cm long, the common earthworm is usually just 7-8cm long.

The earthworm has a mouth and a butt (anus). It also has a brain, a nerve cord (the way humans have a spinal cord,) a heart, and a digestive system. So we know what worms look like: they can be big or small, and they are made up of several different parts. But what do earthworms do? Earthworms are experts about dirt. They tunnel through soil making pockets of air and water which are important for plants and the microorganisms that live in the soil.

To help learn more about worms check out these Frequently Asked Questions posed by students just like you! As always, feel free to ask me questions, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Good luck on your new science unit, and learning all about earthworms!

How To: Recycle A Chicken?

Once again I’m using Science Decoded for my long form journalism class. Our assignment this week was to do a post that was under 350 words. I put up short posts all the time, but I decided to use the assignment to go back to my blogging style from last Fall and give a short run-down of newly published research.

Did you know that you can recycle a chicken? Well, recycle part of a chicken at least. Research has previously been proposed to use bio-waste (hair, nails, or in this case chicken feathers) to create plastics. But new research presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society shows that a new mixture using 50% chicken feathers (the largest amount used to date) can actually make the material we use for shopping bags, eating utensils, children’s toys and millions of other objects.

Millions of chicken feathers are discarded in the United States each year, which makes finding a use for them highly worthwhile. Feathers are made of the protein keratin. When combined with the chemical methyl acrylate, the feathers form a strong but relatively light weight plastic substance.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Typically making plastics requires petroleum derived products like polyethylene and polypropylene. The feather-methyl acrylate combination could reduce the need for petroleum derived plastic products, which would be environmentally beneficial. Without petroleum the plastics would be more degradable and sustainable.

This research, led by Yiqi Yang of the University of Nebraska was conducted on a small scale. Until the new feather compound is tested on a large scale for ease of production and energy required for production it is unclear if it could realistically be used to manufacture commercial plastic products.

This research is exciting because it is essentially a form of recycling. The chicken feathers are just being discarded anyway, so if they can be used to make plastics that are more environmentally friendly not only will we benefit from finding a use for the feathers, we’ll also benefit from having a more sustainable plastic.

The big BUT in this article is that it needs further testing before it can be implemented. It is important with research like this to remember that a scientific find isn’t a definite. Just because something works on a small scale, doesn’t mean that it will work on a large scale. So even though the finding is exciting, it doesn’t mean that it will actually be implemented.

Sequencing Genomes to Save Species

For this post I’m trying something a little different. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’m using Science Decoded for class, and as a part of that we were assigned to write a post in the form of a list.

All living organisms are made of DNA, a series of nucleotide bases (Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine) contained in chromosomes. Genome sequencing is an analysis of DNA, conducted by “reading” the different patterns of nucleotides A-G-C-T for differences between species, and abnormalities within a species. Researchers around the world are working to sequence the genomes of a variety of organisms, including those on the endangered species list.

1. Orangutan (Pongo abelii) – In January 2011 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the publication of the orangutan genome sequence. Funded by the NIH, researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX sequenced the genome of a female Sumatran orangutan, five additional Sumatran orangutans, and five Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus.) The research shows that orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans, but compared to humans and chimpanzees, orangutans have evolved much slower leading to fewer mutations (variations in the code between individuals of a species). (Read more

2. Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) – Fifteen years ago a facial cancer was identified in tasmanian devil populations. The cancer has ravaged the species, resulting in an 80% decline that has forced the species to the brink of extinction. This cancer is transmissible, which means that biting the face of an infected animal passes it between individuals. In September 2010 researcher from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the genome sequencing company Illumina announced that they sequenced the tasmanian devil genome in an attempt to learn more about the cancer and how to stop it from wiping out the species. (Read more)
3. Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) – Arguably one of the cutest endangered species, the giant panda is a prominent symbol of China, where it lives in a restricted mountain area. According to the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) the number of giant pandas left in the wild is estimated between 1600-3000. In December 2009, BGI published the complete sequence of the giant panda genome. With the information obtained by the genetic analysis researchers hope to learn more about the genetic and biological factors that shape this species behavior to assist in disease control and conservation efforts. (Read more)

4. Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsoni) – Listed by the United Nations as an endangered species since 1979, the Tibetan antelope could hold the key to understanding the pathogenesis of chronic plateau sickness. The species calls China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau home, making them ideal for studying the evolution of species that thrive in environments characterized by extreme cold and low oxygen levels. The genome sequence of the Tibetan antelope was announced in December 2009 by researchers from BGI and Qinghai University. (Read more)
5. Coral Reefs (Acropora millepora) – Coral reefs are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems, yet according to the Genome Center at Washington University it has been predicted that in the next 50 years between 40%-60% of the world’s coral reefs will die. In 2005 the NIH funded the sequencing of the coral A. millepora (which is not an endangered species, though coral reefs as a whole are endangered ecosystems) to serve as a “lab rat” for studies of the environmental factors (light, sediment load, or acidity) that can cause coral death. (Read more)
Not quite endangered & not fully sequenced:
6. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) – Recently removed from the list of endangered species recognized by the United States, researchers at BGI are still working to sequence the polar bear genome. The polar bear sequence is a part of a three-pronged project to sequence the Tibetan antelope (completed in 2009) and emperor penguin genomes.

7. Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes fosteri) – One of the most recognizable penguin species, the Emperor Penguin is found in Antarctica. The emperor penguin is currently under consideration for inclusion under the Endangered Species Act, due to the effects of climate change. The genome sequencing project is being conducted by researchers from BGI in conjunction with sequencing the polar bear, and Tibetan antelope genomes. (Read more)
8. Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia) – In October 2009 researchers from Oregon State University, the Western University of Health Sciences, and the Miller Park Zoo (IL) announced plans to sequence the genome of the snow leopard (which is on the Endangered Species list). According to Oregon State, the snow leopard is prone to diseases that do not plague other big cats including pneumonia, enteritis, hip dysplasia, and papillomaviruses. Sequencing the genome could help researchers identify what makes the snow leopard susceptible to these disorders. (Read more)
Genome sequencing technology continues to develop, making it easier and cheaper to sequence the genomes of various organisms. While an endangered species has yet to be saved due to the information obtained by sequencing its genome, what researchers learn will help them gain a better understanding of endangered species, which is a step in the right direction towards improving conservation efforts.