Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

My Hit Single: Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

I had promised on this blog a long while ago that I would scan and make available online a copy of my article “Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?”. This article was published in the long-out-of-print (but update: still available via Amazon) book “In Danger” edited by Paola Manfredi (with photographs by Joanna van Gruisen who was the one who spotted my essay and solicited it for the book) for the Ranthambhore Foundation in India. To my continuing pleasant surprise and gratitude, this article continues to resonate with people in India (and elsewhere). It has been reprinted and anthologized several times. I keep getting requests (two in the past week) from people who want to reprint it, distribute it among students or citizens interested in conservation, and continue to share it widely. For what I was then told, as a Ph.D. student, to consider a rather frivolous bit of writing because it was not SERIOUS SCIENCE published in a PEER REVIEWED JOURNAL, this essay has probably had a much broader impact than many of my more serious science papers. Depending on how one measures such impact, of course, and something for my more serious scientist colleagues to consider as some of them keep looking down upon time spent writing for a broader audience outside of peer-reviewed journals.

Anyway, pardon me for being late in keeping my promise, but I have finally scanned the original article, and invite you to read and share it as you please. Do let me know what you think of it too, if so inclined.

Here it is, my Hit Single:

A Fiery Skipper on an inflorescence of Lantana in downtown Fresno, some springs ago.

Pollen TSUNAMI!!!! Happy #PollinatorWeek!

A Fiery Skipper on an inflorescence of Lantana in downtown Fresno, some springs ago.

A Fiery Skipper on an inflorescence of Lantana in downtown Fresno, some springs ago.

It’s National Pollinator Week, a time to enjoy the deviant inter-species sexual dalliances of insects and flowering plants (also over 65 million years in the making, not unlike a certain monster movie currently sucking all the change out of your pockets at the box office). Also a time to curse the other plants which never bothered to enlist insects to be their highly targeted sexual couriers, but instead continued to merely spill their pollen into the air. To kill us all in what this year has become a POLLEN TSUNAMI!!

But, really, this IS the Worst Allergy Season ever:

Worst Allergy Season ever! (image via Comedy Central and Salon)

Worst Allergy Season ever! (image via Comedy Central and Salon)

How can that be, you ask, even as you stare at that rising graph? Watch the full Daily Show clip (below), which is a brilliant example of how to communicate science—in this case a statistically observed pattern—in a hilarious fashion that will nevertheless have you scratching your head and make you go “hmm…” (and perhaps sneeze).

As funny as Jon Stewart is in that report, he is also brilliantly accurate in demonstrating the statistically and biologically valid fact that each year of the past decade has, in fact, seen the WORST ALLERGY SEASON yet on record! That correlation showed by the spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America is a result of, you guessed it, Global Warming / Climate Change!

Well, more accurately, that correlation is a result of increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere, thanks to all the fossil fuel we’ve been burning up like there is no tomorrow. Experiments with plants grown in the controlled environments of greenhouses show that if you increase the amount or concentration of CO2 in the air, plants will increase the amount of pollen they produce, This is part of the broader growth response of plants to increased CO2 levels. More specifically, some plants (like the notorious ragweed which is one of the biggest allergen producers) make more (if smaller) flowers, and invest even more in producing pollen as CO2 levels increase. Now that we’ve turned the whole planet into a giant greenhouse with ever rising CO2 concentrations, this is what we can look forward to in terms of pollen production:

As CO2 rises, so does pollen production

As CO2 rises, so does pollen production. Full PDF of Ziska et al 2000 paper here.

This means, unless we start bringing CO2 levels in the atmosphere down (listen to the Pope, for god’s sake!) quickly, we will continue to face allergy seasons that get worse every year, along with the real danger that television news programs will run out of dire metaphors to describe the rising tide of pollen that will kill us all!!!

Meanwhile, let’s celebrate all the other plants which have enlisted the services of dedicated pollinators to carry out their mating rituals. Make the most of this high CO2: go plant some non-allergenic flowering plants which will attract some lovely pollinators to your yard and add a dash of beauty to your day.

Happy Pollinator Week!

Photo of a Green Leaf Warbler

Watching Jurassic Park in Ambasamudram

As excitement builds for tonight’s opening of the new Jurassic World, I (like many of you no doubt) am remembering the magical experience of our very first visit to see the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, several decades ago

My experience of Jurassic Park, though, was somewhat unique, because I enjoyed it in two vastly different theaters on opposite sides of the world, and at opposite extremes of the cinema-viewing technology (and audience) spectrum.

I vividly remember the visceral experience of seeing it for the first time upon release, in one of the then brand new dolby surround sound equipped multiplexes in San Diego. I was a graduate student in the University of California, San Diego at the time, and on campus in between field seasons in southern India when the movie came out on this very date in June 1993. As a biologist (studying dinosaurs, very tiny ones, as it turns out), and a cinephile, of course I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching dinosaurs come to roaring life in crystal clarity on the big screen, in one of the newest theaters, stadium seating and all! I remember the sheer thrill of seeing this for the first time:

This must be everyone’s favorite scene from the movie, surely! What had Steven Spielberg unleashed upon the cinematic world?!

Thrilled as I was with every scene bringing dinosaurs back to vivid digital life, though, I was also left disappointed at the rather one-dimensional caricature almost every human character had been reduced to from the already limited dimensionality in the source material. Yeah, yeah, we scientists like to complain about how poorly we are represented on film, and I could rage at a long list of cinematic transgressions against science and scientists, not just in the Jurassic Park movies. Nevertheless, that scene when we first meet the dinosaurs grazing on the plains remains indelible in my cinematic memory – even without the help of YouTube. And for that we must all be grateful for the wizardry of Spielberg and his crew.

A year later, the film finally reached the distant backwaters of rural Tamil Nadu in Southern India where I was doing field research on these migratory Green Leaf Warblers (little dinosaurs, as we now know them to be, true) on Mundanthurai plateau:

Photo of a Green Leaf Warbler

A Green Leaf Warbler, on the ground, resting. And yes, this is the same little dinosaur I studied in a Tiger Reserve, and for whom I demanded respect vis a vis tigers.

My local field assistants invited me to join them on an 8 km bicycle ride out of the woods and down the hill into the nearest town, for an evening at the cinema that could not have been more different from the experience in San Diego.

Sankaran and Kumar with my daughter

The amazing Sankaran and Kumar who made many a Ph.D. possible. Seen here with our toddler daughter, and a Slender Loris they had just caught for Kaberi.

This “theater” in Ambasamudram, the only one for many miles around, was in fact a massive warehouse / barn building, with a cloth screen strung up at one end, flanked by big box speakers sitting on the floor, and no seats! Instead of seats, the enormous bare floor curiously had a rope running right through the middle, dividing it into two long halves facing the screen. The mystery of the rope was solved after we had rushed in with the throngs waiting in long lines outside: it was a barrier to keep the male and female members of the audience separate. Obviously, with no seats, the cinema owners could squeeze in (and I do mean that literally) as many viewers as was physically possible. The cacophonous crowd quieted down as soon as the projector was turned on, for this was an audience in perhaps the most cinema-crazy state in India, having elected multiple film stars as chief ministers of the state.

The audience reaction to what followed on screen left me even more astonished than the film itself.

For in that rustic “theater”, packed in like cattle, watching a film entirely in American with no subtitles or dubbing, this Tamil-speaking audience reacted almost identically to the one munching popcorn in the plush stadium seats in California. The gasps of awe at the dinosaurs were, of course, to be expected and relished, but what really surprised me were the reactions to the human characters speaking largely incomprehensible American. The naughty chaotician’s cheesy jokes were laughed at, the old grandpa admired and then critiqued, and the T. rex cheered enthusiastically – especially when it ate the lawyer! Even though lawyers were seldom as prominent or despicable in rural Tamil Nadu as they are in the States.

That is when the true cinematic genius of Speilberg hit me: for he had, in reducing the human characters to simple tropes, turned them into human universals that anyone could relate to (or revile) – something that would likely not have happened had he worried about satisfying the picky nerd audience like me instead. My hat was therefore off to Spielberg as, indeed, a truly great B-movie director.

As we cycled back in the night, high on the adrenalin rush from the movie – and from having battled the throngs in exiting that crazy cinema hall – Sankaran and Kumar could not stop talking and asking me about the movie, and about dinosaurs, and how they had made them come to life on screen. We talked about them for days afterwards, while catching warblers in mistnets, or just walking through Mundanthurai’s forests. Hard core committed local conservationists as these two were, their newfound love of dinosaurs turned into wishful thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually release one of the monster dinosaurs into this forest, sir? That will take care of all the poachers killing wildlife here! That’ll show them!”

The film also spawned perhaps the cleverest bit of political art I have ever seen. At the Tirunelveli bus station some months later, I stood and marveled and laughed silently at a poster mocking the then Chief Minister (and ex movie superstar) Jayalalitha (Jaya-Amma for short): it mimicked the iconic film poster, the one with the profile of the T. rex with the words “Jurassic Park” across it:

Jurassic Park banner image

Except, the profile was that of Jaya-Amma, and the banner read “Jayassic Park“! To my eternal regret, I did not have a camera with me that day, nor did I think to peel the poster off the wall and steal it at the time. Jaya-Amma herself has had a remarkable political resurrection recently, having survived corruption scandals and jail time, only to come roaring back to devour Tamil Nadu politics again. Just as the dinosaurs are back on the big screen this weekend.

So hat’s off again, to Spielberg, and to the anonymous local artist who designed such iconic posters! And to Sankaran and Kumar, who will no doubt go to see the dinosaurs return to the theaters in Ambasamudram (I don’t know what they are like these days, but Google tells me that that little town has more than one theater now) soon. Perhaps with their children this time. And they may again wish for some dinosaurs in their backyards to keep their beloved forests intact.

Meanwhile I prepare to see it in California this weekend, with my 10-year-old self-proclaimed paleonerd daughter who is really excited about it because, she says, “It’s gonna be so stupid! They will get so many things wrong about the dinosaurs! It’ll be fun!!” That it certainly promises to be.


On reaching beyond the low hanging fruit in science education

Yale lowhangingfruit

I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).

This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:

Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.

I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.

Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.

I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.

Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.

Meanwhile, in our world, as Terry notes in a comment under his post:

Of course there are deeper problems that cause students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for grad school and graduate fellowships in lower numbers.

Allow me to add to that broader context, about the deeper problems faced by our students. Such has having a full belly while attending college. Which makes this nut just a bit harder to crack.

Last fall, as we were heading into the holiday feasting season, I wrote a commentary about the problem of hunger on our campus which was broadcast on Valley Public Radio, as part of the series The Moral Is (for which I am a regular contributor). You can listen to me reading the commentary through the audio link on their website. Or read this slightly more expanded (and hyperlinked) text here:


Educating The Poor And The Hungry

by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno
November 2014. 

What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?

We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.

A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three of the students looking up at me in my classroom faces food insecurity: they are literally hungry, not just for knowledge. Another 20% are close to that brink if not over it quite yet. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt.

It is hard not to find the student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans. (The actual profit margin has been debated, for the accounting may be complex, and most of the profit may be based on penalizing graduate students more than undergrads, but nevertheless, the CBO projects healthy profits from student loans.) Meanwhile, we keep telling kids that they must go to college if they want to be ready for a career, taking on loans to invest in their future. 

Even as developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities remain underfunded. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors (but not administrators) stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden “success fees“, tacitly acknowledging that normal fees are not nearly enough to ensure our students succeed through an undergraduate degree any more. 

We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.

Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.


That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.

That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.


How to live with elephants, in the modern wired world

Coexistence is a journey… not a destination”

That useful reminder comes from the main human protagonist of this beautifully told story (see video below) of how elephants and people can coexist, even in places with a relatively high density of people sharing habitat with a small but resilient population of elephants.

Over the course of but a century and a half, less than two elephant lifetimes, a rainforest-clad mountain in southern India known as Anamalai, the Elephant Hills (in Tamil), has become a mosaic of tea plantations, coffee estates, and the settlements of people laboring in those “working landscapes”. The original rainforest habitat of thousands of native species now clings to the interstices of this mosaic, with a few big patches under protection, but many smaller ones facing the vagaries of “mixed use” by humans and non-humans alike.

In most places on Earth, I daresay, this would seem like an unlikely place for a population of elephants to persist. Especially when you consider how their kin in Africa have been slaughtered in recent years even in far less populated places, to slake distant markets for ivory. Yet, here in southern India, a different dynamic is at play, for the local people worship the elephants even as they work their habitats to satisfy other human needs. The elephants too have discovered that there is often more food to be found in the human plantations than in the diminished forests.

Conflict is inevitable when two dominant species compete to appropriate the primary productivity of any landscape. When one of the species is Homo sapiens, the inevitable outcome is seldom a good one for the other species. Yet a cultural reverence for the elephants has combined with the relatively low price placed on ordinary human lives in this part of the world to allow for a tenuous coexistence of sorts. With 39 human lives lost in the past two decades, the elephant god has extracted a bigger sacrifice than might be tolerated in places like the United States.

Now Ananda Kumar and colleagues from the Nature Conservation Foundation (an organization with which I am proud to be associated since its inception, through bonds of friendship and collaboration) tell the story of this coexistence between humans and elephants, and how they have worked to find ways to reduce that human toll and keep both elephants and humans out of harm’s (i.e., each others’) way. And this step forward in the journey of coexistence has been made possible by harnessing some of the very technology that so many of us nature-lovers love to deride as alienating us from nature: cable television and mobile phones!

Watch the story (filmed by my friend Saravanakumar) of how Ananda Kumar and colleagues found ingenious ways to use modern communication technologies to facilitate an ancient coexistence between two species who have long shared habitat in southern India:

Living in harmony with nature – that phrase evokes romantic notions of indigenous people living off the land in lives we imagine to be wonderful and harmonious and wise, but may in reality have been closer to “nasty, brutish, and short”. Nature lovers and conservations love to hate modern technology and blame it for many of our social-ecological ills. This project, and its success in saving human and elephant lives, shows us that we can, in fact, reconcile human development through technology, with the conservation of nature in the constant journey towards coexistence. It is a journey that requires sacrifice, and coexistence may have to be paid for in blood, but technology can soften the blow, even for the most vulnerable among us.


Science needs voices. All of them. Thank you @ehmee.

I can’t tell you how glad I am, as a father of daughters growing up in today’s world, that we have Emily Graslie’s voice, inspiring them every day in ways that I cannot, building their confidence so they too can add their voices to the conversation, as the discoverers and adventurers and explorers they are, without worrying about what anyone thinks of them.

Thank you, Emily, for this in particular today:

For more inspiration from this remarkable voice, this Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum of Natural History, find her on tumblr, twitter, and of course the brainscoop channel.


The Conscience of an Asteroid

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my original, extended version of the essay, before it was pared down for broadcast. You can imagine me reading it in your head, or listen to the broadcast version recorded in my voice.

Artist's impression of asteroid slamming into tropical seas near Yucatan.

Painting by Donald E. Davis depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. More info: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/files/images/captions/p45062.txt

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the earth near modern day Yucatan, setting off a chain of geological and climatic reactions that wiped out the dinosaurs. Nearly 70% of all species alive on that day disappeared forever.

This was the last known mass extinction event in Earth’s history. It was the fifth time that such a mass extinction has occurred on our planet. As far as we know.

The history of these extinctions is quite literally written in stone, in the fossils trapped in layers of rock. Like the pages of an ancient and incomplete book, these layers are inscribed with the story of the plants and animals and bacteria that have lived and died here since long before us.

The tools of paleontology help us decipher these stories written in stone. We can read of the long age of bacteria and other single-celled organisms; of the time when the air held no oxygen because no one had figured out how to make food from sunlight; of the first time that living organisms changed the global climate by releasing oxygen, likely triggering the first mass extinction of species who couldn’t breathe the air that sustains us now.

A later chapter tells of the age of carbon, when dense forests covered the land, before getting buried deep under it to be transformed into coal and oil. Now we burn the solar energy captured in carbon by those ancient forests to enrich our short lives. In doing so, we have transformed the earth’s climate yet again, dangerously.

The first stirrings of plants and animals on to land make for thrilling reading. We particularly love the tale of the plucky fish caught in tidal pools which began breathing the air and crawling around on land! How they eventually gave rise to the land mammals we call our own kin.

We discover pieces of our own story everyday, from humble origins as apes that stood up in Africa and spread out of that continent probably to escape a changing climate, and eventually occupied the entire planet.

Five times during the past billion years, this riveting story is interrupted by unspeakable horrors as some terrifying series of unfortunate events conspired to wipe out most species. Each time, the survivors got a fresh start to evolve on a mostly empty planet.

The Great Dying at the end of the Permian era 250 million years ago was the worst one yet, driving more than 90% of species extinct, including many among the otherwise hardy insects. But it cleared the way for reptiles and mammals. We don’t quite know what caused the Permian mass extinction, but massive, perhaps sudden climate change may have a played a big role.

The asteroid that took out the big dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous was a mere lump of rock drifting in orbit around the sun until it fell to Earth and wiped life’s slate almost clean for the fifth time. Driven by sheer gravity, that asteroid had no conscience or remorse about the horrors it would unleash. Nor any notion that humanity would eventually evolve in the absence of dinosaurs to become another force of mass extinction.

Now we find ourselves on yet another brink, where our own industrial civilization threatens a Sixth Great Dying. Within the past century, we have increased the pace of extinction, willfully or unwittingly, to a level last seen only in the wake of that asteroid. We have come so far, in building our diverse cultures and technologies, achieved so much worth celebrating given our humble origins. Yet our biggest legacy may end up as the epitaph for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, which will doom us just as surely.

We like to think of ourselves as creatures of conscience, infused with a morality and an intellect that allows us to understand and appreciate our kinship with other creatures. But as drivers of this sixth extinction, how different are we from that asteroid? Will our conscience give us pause and pull us back from the horrors we have unleashed? Or will we let our own chapter end abruptly, wiping the slate clean again, just like that remorseless asteroid?