Monthly Archives: June 2012

Distribution and Foraging Behavior of Ground and Tree Squirrels in an Urban Environment

It is another landmark day for my Reconciliation Ecology lab here, when one more graduate student, Jordan Anderson, is ready to fledge. Jordan will be presenting an exit seminar based on her master’s dissertation projects this afternoon. She studied a native ground squirrel and an introduced tree squirrel in the Fresno area for her thesis. I’m encouraging her to write a blog post about her research to share here – especially since she used some citizen science approaches to gather data on squirrel distributions, and intends to sustain that as a longer-term monitoring effort. Once the dust has settled a bit on her thesis and she calms down from the end-of-thesis anxieties, I hope she will have more to share about her work here on this blog. She will go on to become a high school science teacher, fighting the good fight for science education in the trenches of the not-always-science-friendly Central Valley schools. In the meantime, an abstract of her thesis is below. And if you are interested and able to attend her seminar, please join us in Science 242 this afternoon at 3:00 PM.


Distribution and Foraging Behavior of Ground and Tree Squirrels in an Urban Environment

Animals are constrained by the urban landscape as human population density and building density impinge on the distribution and abundance of various species. This study used transects and citizen science observations to determine the distribution patterns of the local squirrel species Sciurus niger and Otospermophilus beecheyi. Sciurus niger were primarily distributed in the central, western, and northern regions of the Fresno Clovis Metropolitan Area. Otospermophilus beecheyi were primarily distributed along the northern, southern, and western edges of the study area. This study examined the habitat use of S. niger by identifying all trees and shrubs, and estimating cover class and utility cable density. This study also aerially digitized cover categories and included housing data from Zillow as well as socioeconomic data. Two socioeconomic variables were significantly positively correlated with squirrel presence; the average household size and the average family household size (Logistic fit: R2 = 0.054, P < 0.0225; and R2 = 0.057, P < 0.0184; respectively). This study examined the foraging behavior of S. niger using Giving-Up Density experiments (F (habitat)1, 163 = 19.86, P = 0.0001).

As metropolitan areas grow, the sustainability of the urban landscape of local flora and fauna becomes an increasing concern. Even though squirrels are considered pest species, increased understanding of their ecology should govern appropriate management decisions.

Jordan Jill Anderson

June 2012

Of wanton plants and prudish immune systems: late-night thoughts for National Pollinator Week

This is a post to mark the end of National Pollinator Week 2012.

You see, I am enthralled by the beauty and evolutionary significance of pollination. My body, on the other hand, wishes nowadays, like the dinosaurs may have—at least according to one hypothesis regarding their extinction proposed by Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume—that plants had never figured out this depraved manner of breeding in the first place.

For pollination encompasses, when you catalog it all, a collection of some of the most weird, wonderful, bizarre, beautiful, perverted means of sexual reproduction. The moment plants figured out how to use animals as willing or unwitting instruments in their sexual acts must count as one of those hugely significant moments in our planet’s evolutionary history when everything changed. Of course it probably wasn’t any one moment, but you know what I mean… the series of moments when a variety of plants and animals discovered the steps to a coevolutionary dance that bound them to each other in an ever more passionate tango.

My mind is enthralled by the sheer beauty of pollination, as you can witness in this video from a TED talk:

Pollination makes me physically ill. Don’t get me wrong: my mind is liberated enough to embrace, even revel in, the wide variety sexual perversions flagrantly put on display by the flowering plants every spring, as they shamelessly display their brightly colored genitalia to entice hungrily unsuspecting insects and birds and bats and other beasts. My body, though, seems to have turned quite prudish lately, rather like the dinosaurs in Jitterbug Perfume:

“Ninety million years ago, give or take twenty million, there occurred two events that should be of interest to all perfumers. It was then, toward the end of the Cretaceous Period, that the flowers wiped out the dinosaurs. Science knows that the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the appearance of flowers occurred simultaneously, yet, strangely, it has never drawn much of a connection between the two events. It is up to perfumers to correct the oversight.

“Vegetarian dinosaurs dined on ferns, floating water plants, and the palmlike cycad. They were not very intelligent, and certainly not very French, having developed a limited, strictly specialized diet. When the great mountain building took place during the Cretaceous Period, seaways drained and swamps dried up. First the aquatic plants, then the ferns and cycads succumbed. Insufficient surface water. Some new plants had been gradually moving in, however. These plants were inconspicuous at first, and neither the dinosaurs nor the swamp plants paid them much attention. Ah, but they had plans for the future. They began to grow their roots longer and longer, sink them deeper and deeper, until they could reach the moisture trapped beneath the surface, and when their stringy little exploratory organs hit the water table -POW! They exploded in a scandalous display of sexual invitation.

“The old claw-and-fang world of drab, predatory, reptilian repression had never seen anything like this. Lasciviously colored, scandalously scented blossom after blossom flaunted its genitalia openly, enticing with visual and heretofore unknown olfactory charms any who might be inclined to sample its pleasures.

“With their appalling genius for adaptability, insects responded enthusiastically to the outbreak of sensuality. So did the smaller birds. Dinosaurs, however, were repulsed. Although their reproductive equipment must have been monumental -the penis of a Brontosaurus would have been only a couple of yards shorter than the thirty-foot organ of the great blue whale- it was kept out of sight and infrequently used. The dim-witted, thin-blooded dinosaur was not a hot lover, another way in which it differed from the French. It mated once a year, barring headaches. So put off was the prudish dinosaur by the sexy smell of flowering plants that it starved to death and went extinct rather than eat them.”

For me, the trouble started soon after I moved into the Central Valley of California. For almost four decades, I had gone along happily sticking my nose into flowers, watching closely the insects and the birds participating enthusiastically in the plants’ mating rituals, inhaling deeply of the scented springs with nary a care in the world. No more, said my immune system soon after arriving in Fresno, as it started putting on ever more elaborate and full blown security theater displays every spring when the flowers open: and I mean the full works, ranging from swollen sinuses to watery nose to headaches to wheezing lungs to itchy red and eventually almost-swollen-shut eyes. Not sure what set my damn internal security apparatus off like that, but all of a sudden, I am reduced to being almost an indoor recluse, afraid of riding my bike to campus for fear of spending the next three days wheezing and sneezing and bleary-eyed! Was it that my body had somehow imbibed the conservative family values of the valley’s dominant culture, and started frowning upon the blatant sexual displays of the flowers? Would it want to move to Florida next, where they had recently outlawed pollination (well, sexual acts involving animals, which would include pollination) itself? My mind had remained in coastal California, it would seem, while my body was being steeped in valley culture! At least it is a curious coincidence that my allergies started only after moving here…

But I can’t really blame the flowers for my allergies, can I? At least not the ones that involve animals in their sex acts, because surely they are less likely to let their pollen simply drift about in the air and get into my nostrils and eyes and lungs triggering the massively over-reacting intruder alerts from my immune system. Its the wind-pollinated plants that are more likely to blame, don’t you think? Unless its the molecules making up the floral perfumes that cause my allergies?

Nah… it may well be my own species that has transformed ecosystems so much as to upset our own immune equilibrium: by moving and growing allergenic plants around the planet, by isolating us in a hygienic bubble as we grow up alienated from plant life in our cities, and (most importantly) by spewing into the very air we breathe a wide variety of novel synthetic molecules with which our immune systems have had no experience. And so they panic, and set off all kinds of alarms, inflicting more harm on our own bodies from within even as we continue to inflict damage on the planet without. In our pursuit of better living through (synthetic) chemistry in our modern agriculture, we have let loose quite the witch’s brew of chemicals that are now killing off pollinators that even our own crops depend upon. Not to mention making us sick. And the Central Valley leads the nation in poor air quality, especially when it comes to particulate matter in the air, so who knows what synthetic molecules might be causing these allergies. Even as bees disappear from our industrial farmlands, and some of us try to offer them refuge in our little urban gardens. Can we save the beauty of pollination for our own sakes?

So I sit here as another National Pollinator Week comes to an end, unable to sleep because my head feels like a swollen pumpkin and the medication messes with my sleep cycles, contemplating the meaning of it all, this endless sexual dance unleashed upon us by these wanton flowering plants. It is quite beautiful, even if one is reduced to watching it more on video than out in the wild… so I hope the insects (and indeed our immune systems) can bring the full power of their “appalling genius for adaptability” to respond to the modern challenges of our technologies, and that we can figure out better ways to avoid disrupting their dance with the flowers.

I hope you had a happy week filled with all the joys brought to you by your friendly neighborhood pollinators!

Elinor Ostrom, champion of the sustainable commons, RIP

I just read the very sad news that Professor Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics (in 2009), and an inspiration to many of us struggling to understand and transform the dynamically intertwined human and natural systems, passed away earlier this morning, after a battle with cancer at age 78. She was a remarkable scholar whose life’s work demonstrated that the tragedy of the commons was not an inevitability, but something that people had very often found ways to avoid by building a diversity of institutions for governing the commons for the benefit of all instead of mere private profit for a few. Here she is, in a simple short video, explaining the basic concept of how truly sustainable development can avoid the tragedy of the commons:


I last met Lin Ostrom a little over a year ago, very briefly, in a hallway in Arizona State University’s Memorial Union, in one of the interstices of the Resilience 2011 conference (I shared my talk here). I remember well my nervous thrill at getting to shake the hand of a Nobel Prize winner (my previous meeting with her, which I’m not sure she remembered, had been well before she won the prize) for the first time in my life! She, of course, was very kind and disarming and took a few minutes to sit down and talk to me about our shared connections. My last postdoc mentor, Marty Anderies, is one of her close disciples/collaborators, and I am grateful to him for introducing me to her work, which I consider one of the truly transformational influences in my life. She was happy to hear how one of Marty’s postdocs was now doing in trying to apply some of her ideas to urban water and biodiversity issues. We also talked about one of my newer collaborators, Harini Nagendra, who worked closely with Lin in studying the governance of forest ecosystems in India and Nepal. She told me how she looked forward to speaking with Harini, now based in Bangalore, during their weekly Skype conferences! I wish I had had more opportunities to get to know this truly remarkable, inspirational woman, but am glad I was at least able to meet with her and speak to her on a couple of occasions. One must make the most of whatever chance happenstance grants one a brush with true greatness.

Her website at Indiana University has more details of her life (and death), with links to videos of other talks, photos, and texts. CHANS-Net, the International Network of Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems, offers this obituary.

If you want to know more about her work, start with her landmark book Governing the Commons, which should really be required reading for all ecologists, especially those who are enamored of the more cynical and popular “tragedy of the commons” meme. Anyone concerned about how to build a more sustainable world, who calls themselves an ecologist/conservation biologist/environmentalist/green activist/deep ecologist really must read her work. It took the Nobel committee long enough to recognize the value of her work at a time when the world’s economies are crumbling under the dictates of the very free-market Chicago-school economists they’ve rewarded far more often. We ecologists had better pay good attention to her work as well, and absorb and internalize her deep insights, as we go about trying to find ways to build a better, more sustainable, more biologically diverse, and more environmentally equitable world. She would have liked to see us try, harder.

Why teach kids to walk when we have invented the wheel?

“Is it still necessary for kids to learn their times table when they can pick up their iPhone and ask Siri what is 20 times 2?” asked Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

A new set of national standards, called the Common Core, has sought to answer that, offering states a guide for what skills and knowledge children should have at the end of each grade level.

The ultimate goal is to get every child college and career ready. That means, cursive is out and keyboarding is in. Repetition and rote learning are passe while critical thinking is, well, critical.

Literature and novels see less class time than literary nonfiction and informational texts, including essays and speeches. Spelling gets a cursory nod, with the caveat that kids can consult “references.”

via New education standards end rote learning, cursive.

Oh boy… I’m not really looking forward to the next generation(s) of unimaginative students who will come to college ostensibly able to ‘think critically’, but unable to solve “20 times 2” in their heads, or spell anything correctly (or even write by hand) without looking up “references”, nor have even read any good works of fiction!

Now I’m all for moving away from rote memorization and towards critical thinking and information processing skills, don’t get me wrong. But doing the times tables in our heads, or spelling words correctly, ought to be like breathing and walking, really. Its been some millennia since we invented the wheel and a century since we even motorized them – but we haven’t given up on walking yet, have we? So why do these school administrators think we don’t need to use our brains for basic tasks like arithmetic and language, which are among our unique abilities as a species?

“You kind of make choices on what you’re going to spend significant time on,” said Maria Santos, Oakland Unified deputy superintendent.

In sixth grade, for example, that means “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research,” or “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.”

That sounds reasonable enough, and can build skills my students rely on considerably as I make them read, research, reflect, and write (both technical papers, and less technical blogs) a lot in my ecology and evolution classes. But let’s hear what that school administrator has to say again:

In other words, the new system focuses less on learning facts and more on using that information to synthesize and create new ideas, said Domenech, a supporter of the national standards.

“What we’re trying to do is to take the level of learning to the higher levels of cognitive development,” Domenech said. “What (students) have to learn now is not how to get the data, but what to do with it when you have it.”

Whoa – come again? Students don’t have to learn “how to get the data“, other than from the internet and “references”? Are you serious? Say goodbye to preparing them for careers in science then, because here it is all about how to get the data. But then again, the Governor of California is ready scratch a whole year of high school science requirements in this state, so I guess the whole point is moot anyway. Let us prepare, instead, a new priesthood that will only sit around interpreting already published information rather than gathering any new data, because that’s all been done, apparently, in this pinnacle of human civilization we now occupy.

Can the human brain even build or maintain the capacity for “higher levels of cognitive development” without the solid foundation of basic numeracy and literacy? Yet this is in the new national Core Standards, this lack of “dwelling” on the basics?!

But the Common Core doesn’t skip over the basics, such as multiplication tables or spelling, it just doesn’t dwell on them, Domenech said.

“We cannot lose sight of the basic skills,” he said. “On the other hand, we shouldn’t spend 12 years teaching basic skills.”

Oh – so you do think the basics might be important – but just not enough for teachers to “dwell on them” all that much in class. We already get students coming to college utterly lacking in basic writing and maths skills, so how is not dwelling on these basic skills going to “get every child college and career ready“, exactly?

At least some of the local teachers are finding ways to “adapt” to these new standards without losing sight of the basic skills, which I guess is a strength of the American school system with its varied local control. Then again, its this same local control which allows many teachers to “adapt” to science standards requiring the teaching of evolution while actually teaching creation myths in the biology classroom. So there is that.

Perhaps I am overreacting, based on the reporting in just one article. If so, I sure hope some teachers will stop by to tell me if there is more to these new national common core standards that actually address the existing holes in how and what kids are taught, than simply getting rid of some basics to replace them with an over-reliance on technology and the internet. Please, tell me there is more…

Support “…a journey through the eye of beauty, across an ocean of grief, and beyond”

Among the entirely too many tabs open in my web browser are two I have been meaning to share here for some time, both dedicated to the Midway Journey project: one contains a trailer of the film, which I find myself watching in silent grief from time to time; and the other links to the project’s blog, which has updates on the progress of the project, and more heartbreaking and heartening video clips.

I have blogged about plastics—perhaps our biggest contribution to planet earth—and what they do to the environment many times. But if you really want just one powerful example of how far our plastics reach and how much damage they cause, one reason to give you pause as you are about to throw away the next bottle cap or even just the thin plastic sealing ring of that cap, then this is it:

The MIDWAY media project is a powerful visual journey into the heart of an astonishingly symbolic environmental tragedy. On one of the remotest islands on our planet, tens of thousands of baby albatrosses lie dead on the ground, their bodies filled with plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch. Returning to the island over several years, our team is witnessing the cycles of life and death of these birds as a multi-layered metaphor for our times. With photographer Chris Jordan as our guide, we walk through the fire of horror and grief, facing the immensity of this tragedy—and our own complicity—head on. And in this process, we find an unexpected route to a transformational experience of beauty, acceptance, and understanding.

We frame our story in the vividly gorgeous language of state-of-the-art high-definition digital cinematography, surrounded by millions of live birds in one of the world’s most beautiful natural sanctuaries. The viewer will experience stunning juxtapositions of beauty and horror, destruction and renewal, grief and joy, birth and death, coming out the other side with their heart broken open and their worldview shifted. Stepping outside the stylistic templates of traditional environmental or documentary films, MIDWAY will take viewers on a guided tour into the depths of their own spirits, delivering a profound message of reverence and love that is already reaching an audience of tens of millions of people around the world.

Now the filmmakers are looking to you and me for donations to help complete the film, completely independently of any corporate funding so that they can then share it freely with everyone on the internet. My 7-year-old just watched this trailer on their Kickstarter page and urged me to contribute – so I just did. I hope you will too.

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The rising seas that must not be named…

The republican tragicomedy of innovative legislative maneuvers to counter climate change and sea level rise continues in its relentless effort to hold back, if not bury altogether, the science that says many of our coasts will be underwater by the end of this century. Last week, it was the North Carolina legislature that decided, when a scientific commission of their own appointment told them to brace for a 39-inch sea level rise, to simply legislate that the seas shall not rise more than 8-inches!! Just outlaw the scientific models if they predict scenarios you don’t like – problem solved?!

Their neighbors to the north, in Virginia, faced with a similar report from a study they commissioned, have responded by simply removing the term “sea level rise” from the report because it is such a “left wing term”! How easy was that?

I guess it must seem easier to bury one’s head in a soon-to-be-underwater pile of ideological sand than to actually deal with the real world problem. Here’s Comedy Central’s Indecision blog (where else do you get your news?) on how ‘Climate Change’ is now “truly the republican Voldemort…”

Indeed, many seemingly neutral terms are actually straight [out] of a Marxist grad school seminar. At least someone’s read the haunting opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of climate change,” and recognized the left-wing refrain, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his sea level rise.”

However, while Virginia Republicans are to be applauded for ridding the language of “liberal code words” from “sea level rise” to “science,” it’s not clear how much further we can take this. The issue of “adrenal gland” health is an important one, but I’m not sure legislatures should be limited to writing laws that are anagrams of Ronald Reagan’s name.

via Virginia Excises Marxist Words, Like “Sea Level” | Indecision Blog | Political Humor | Comedy Central’s Indecision.