Tag Archives: biodiversity

What do we do with the aliens among us?

Over at the excellent The Nature of Cities blog, editor David Maddox is hosting the site’s 8th Global Roundtable, this time focusing on the challenge of invasive and exotic species in cities. David recently invited me (as one of the regular contributors to the blog) to take part in this roundtable with a brief essay stating my perspective. My essay was posted to the roundtable earlier this week, along with about a dozen other perspectives from urban ecology practitioners around the world. Please visit the forum site to read all the different views, and share your own by commenting in the discussion – I really hope you will do so. All of the authors are reading comments and participating in the discussion actively over the next few weeks. So I hope to see you there. Meanwhile, as promised, here is a somewhat expanded (or more rambling) version of my essay:

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Aliens! Invasives! Species that don’t belong here and are taking over the ecological roles of native species. Those weeds choking the understory of native forests. The Starlings and House Sparrows pulled out of Shakespeare’s England that now so tragically dispossess native birds of their nest holes!

How can we tolerate these aliens among us? How fast can we get rid of them? Exterminate the aliens!

Pretty exotic flowers that make our suburban gardens so lovely. Grasses from halfway around the world that knit the dense mats of our lush lawns. Lovely succulent plants and delicately spined cactuses that dot our newly water-wise xeric landscapes and window ledges. Plants that flower and fruit out of their time and place, maybe year round.

Where can we get more of them so our gardens in Arizona look just like the ones in England or Singapore or Australia? So the corporate landscapes in Bangalore make the techs returning home from Silicon Valley feel like they never left California? Like the peacocks whose plaintive calls and stunning displays might make California feel more like Gujarat!

A Peacock in California

We humans sure do have a passionately ambivalent relationship with nature. Never more so than when it comes to the plants and animals we move around among our global habitats. The very words we use to describe them are so heavily laden with value judgment: invasive, alien, exotic. We move them around with us so we can evoke the landscapes of our childhoods halfway around the world, or recreate imagined ones from somewhere else entirely. We wage war on them when they refuse to stay in the gardens and pens where we put them, and start exploring new worlds on their own.

Humans are the most invasive species on Earth. Our cities, ecosystems we build and replicate around the world, are also focal points from which other species have invaded native habitats. Just as wanderlust defines our species, so does the biophilia which makes us take living elements of our habitats with us wherever we go. Carrying a suite of species as sources of food, comfort, companionship, and beauty, has always been part of our cultural and evolutionary baggage. Invasiveness is something evolution tends to reward, and our own evolutionary success springs from a certain restless invasiveness.

Ever since our ancestors realized they could control the lives of other plants and animals, so they could rely on them to feed the body and nurture the mind during lean times, humans have been moving species around the world. In scattering across the planet, we deliberately carried many such species to help fill our bellies, beautify our homes, and stave off homesickness in strange new lands. Meanwhile, other species latched on to our coattails, hitching rides around the world with this walking ape, this most efficient global form of transport and dispersal they had ever encountered! Wittingly and unwittingly, we set off evolutionary changes in species we want, species we tolerate, and species we hate, as they all became part of a human-ecosystem-complex we have set about replicating across the world. These places we call cities often serve as outposts from which many other species launch their invasions into surrounding native habitats. And so we end up with the dilemma of wanting to move some species with us to our new homes, but struggling to keep some of them from spreading out of our gardens and farms and taking over entire native ecosystems.

It is in the very nature of life to try to take control of its immediate environment, to transform resources to nurture itself, and to expand outwards to occupy and transform new places. Invasiveness, the ability to “invade” new habitats, is always favored by evolution. Natural selection rewards traits that allow species to grow rapidly, to outcompete other species vying for the same resources, or simply eat them as food. Moving to a completely new habitat, while quite risky, can also bring the benefits of escaping the co-evolved competitors and predators and parasites that might hold a species back in their native range.

So most species are always sending out their seeds and young ones into new habitats by whatever means available. Most often, these dispersals end in tragedy, but every once in a while, they open up vast unimagined new territory for the species, and new evolutionary opportunities to express and expand the range of their genetic potential. Humans, increasingly, provide some of the most perilous, exciting, and potentially high-risk/high-reward challenges to other species: if you can attach yourself to a human, and figure out how to survive in the strange new urban world, you stand a good chance of surviving in this Anthropocene, sometimes in places far from your evolutionary home.

We have spent millennia figuring out how to make some species grow where and when we want them. Meanwhile, other species have latched on to our coattails making the most of this new mode of hyper-efficient long-range dispersal: the hairless ape that travels the world, with baggage. Only recently have we realized the often devastating consequences of bringing exotic species into native habitats. Invasive species fuel some of the most intense debates among conservationists, often laden with hysterical rhetoric about alien, exotic, invaders who must be exterminated.

Invasiveness is in the nature of the most successful species. To know the truth of this, one need but look in the mirror. We are, after all, the most successful invasive species now occupying the planet! But our success has been the downfall of many other species, and we are only just now grappling with the consequences of our invasiveness. Yet the most passionate debates about what to do with invasive species, heavy with the metaphor of war and genocide and extermination, tends to somehow tiptoe around this elephant in the room: the fact that we humans are the ultimate invasive species on Earth, and are responsible for most other invasions that are destabilizing native ecosystems worldwide. Indeed, displaced species often form a big part of our own preferred global habitats.

Cities are where most humans now live, where we often first introduce new species, and whence some of these species launch invasions into new habitats. Indeed, cities themselves seem like invasive habitats proliferating in and destabilizing ecosystems around the world. Cities must therefore be central to our efforts to address the challenge of invasive species. Cities embody the contradiction between our desire to control nature, shaping entire ecosystems to suit our purposes, and our growing desire to conserve nature and biodiversity.

Urban gardens

How do we reconcile our innate desire to build habitats for our own biological and cultural needs with a growing awareness that perhaps we should leave nature alone? It must start with owning our central role in this ecological conundrum. It is time we accepted our responsibility, as the ultimate invasive species that has moved entire ecosystems around and built new ones. It requires us to transform our role beyond the dichotomy of active perpetrator / passive bystander in the drama of invasive species. We must embrace the role of more deliberate stewards of the lands we now dominate.

As more people recognize the problems of invasive species, many now seek ways to build native species friendly urban landscapes. Ecologists are good at understanding the effects of non-native species in native habitats, and in raising the alarm about invasive species. We haven’t done enough to actually transform the practices that contribute to the invasive species problem. Urban ecologists have been lax in engaging with one group who arguably wield the greatest influence on this challenge: gardeners, nurseries, and landscapers. The growing desire to make urban gardens native-friendly is constrained by lack of available species options in local nurseries, and of expertise in nurturing native species. Ecologists must fill this knowledge gap by developing better ways to support native species in urban habitats in partnership with the people who actively transform the landscape.

Forget “leave nature alone”; in cities we must become better ecosystem engineers, designing habitats more consciously to enhance native biodiversity while limiting opportunities for non-native species. We must also recognize that some non-native species have become naturalized to play important roles in their adoptive ecosystems, so simply eradicating them is not the ideal solution. People move and grow plants and animals to fulfill complex social, cultural, aesthetic, and emotional needs. We must develop a broader vision of biodiversity that includes both the ecological roles of species and their cultural resonance for people. Balancing these will be key to managing invasive species in and around urban landscapes.

Humans will continue to move species around, despite conservationists’ (and agriculturalists’) best efforts to limit the movement of exotic species into regions outside their native range. Some of these species can and do become invasive in their new habitats. As good gardeners in the city, we will therefore also have to keep a close eye on all the species in urban ecosystems to make sure they don’t escape and start threatening native habitats nearby. At the same time, it is also worth remembering the plight of the House Sparrow, that ultimate city slicker introduced around the world as part and parcel of the global urban template. Alarmingly, it has recently disappeared quite mysteriously from many of its native cities in Europe and Asia. If the species were to somehow go extinct in its native range, at least its emigre populations, like the House Sparrow diaspora in the Americas, may remain the only living populations of a threatened species! We therefore have to be careful even in our efforts to eradicate non-native species lest we destabilize ecosystems, or drive species to extinction in unexpected ways.

Leaving nature alone is not really a viable option in the social-ecological systems we call cities. Instead, our respect for nature, and our growing enthusiasm for enhancing native species diversity, must be tempered by Constant Vigilance (if I may borrow the wise Mad-Eye Moody’s words) when it comes to the interlopers from elsewhere.

African bushmeat in Canada! F*ck you some more, biodiversity!

Its easy to demonize the Chinese when it comes to illegal trade in endangered animal bodies for meat and medicine. See my previous post for a link to the latest “fuck you” to biodiversity from that rich ancient culture. After all, the Chinese, more than anyone else, act like all animals were put on this earth to give them boners.

A bush meat market in Ivory Cost. (Reuters)

As large as the Chinese market for wild animal parts is, it is not the only one. Smaller underground bushmeat markets continue to pop up in cities all over the world. So you can buy all kinds of African bushmeat, including the flesh of gorillas, even in cities as far away and “civilized” as Toronto.

If you know where to go in Toronto, you can shop for the most exotic of African bush meat: rodents from the forests of West and Central Africa, bats, even cuts of gorilla meat, an endangered primate. “It’s like a mini farmers’ market with tables set out,” said Justin Brashares, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of California at Berkeley, describing the makeshift markets he has visited in Toronto that are specifically set up to sell bush meat. “Animals are in boxes, some things in coolers beside the table. They sell it often in precut quantities,” he said. Small mammals such as bats, as well as fish from the continent, are the most common offerings but Brashares said that as much as 30 per cent of the meat sold can be primate. A vendor sitting at an empty table is a sign that there is more expensive primate meat for sale.

Hurray for globalization:

The study is international in scope because what was once a staple food for a local population in West and Central Africa has become a globally traded commodity, just like quinoa or chocolate. This one just happens to be illegal in most countries in the world. According to the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, the global bush-meat trade is estimated to be at least $1 billion annually. While most wild animals smuggled into the West from all over the planet—not only Africa—are destined for the pet market, a significant number are headed for dinner plates. It is estimated that 25 million kg of bush meat arrives in the United States each year.

And again, while it is easy to get outraged when a Chinese boat full of threatened pangolins crashes into a protected coral reef, those anteaters remain on the menu elsewhere too, including the gourmet markets of Paris:

“We know a lot comes in through personal luggage,” said Brashares. In October last year, several hundred kilos of African bush meat including monkey and pangolin, an animal that resembles an anteater, were found in passenger bags at Charles de Gaulle Airport, reportedly destined for a Paris market. The contraband also arrives through the postal system and in cargo shipments. Brashares learned of a seizure of 10,000 primate parts at a land border crossing between Canada and the U.S. “They were drawn to the issue [because] the boxes were saturated in blood,” he said.

Lest you think your own hands are clean, and it is just an unscrupulous and ravenous subset of humanity that is involved in this horrendous trade – pause and consider this:

If you’ve ever snuck in cheese from France or homemade sausage from a great aunt back home into your suitcase, it’s easy to understand how enough bush meat makes it into Canada to supply the markets Brashares has been tracking. Just as the nostalgia of that sausage makes an honest person lie on a customs form, bush meat offers a connection to culture and to the past. “Apparently the smoky taste that you get from bush meat is not replicated in any of the meats you get in Canada,” said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto who also is a conservationist and works on bush-meat awareness in Central Africa.

Yes, this is another bane of globalization, of the way we move freely across the entire planet now, able to savor whatever the world has to offer, but insisting also on bringing along (and trading for) bits of our own cuisines and other cultural baggage with us wherever we go. So, just as my family’s occasional craving for Ilish maachh, that most delectable of Bengal’s fishy delicacies, takes us rooting in the freezers of south Asian grocery stores and Asian supermarkets in California (for legally imported ilish, yes, but what are the environmental costs of globalizing that market for a local fish?), so might an African immigrant in Canada go seeking the irreplaceably smoky flavors of the bushmeat from her native corner of Africa.

“I miss it because it’s my food,” said Ruth Bom, a Montreal mother who moved here from Cameroon four years ago and hasn’t tasted bush meat since. She grew up in a village eating the animals her father hunted, such as porcupine. “It’s a little bit like beef,” she recalled. “It’s not fatty. Even its skin is good to eat.” Her favourite way to prepare porcupine is in a tomato sauce, served with a side of boiled plantain. Monkey is also good, she said—though “it has a strong flavour and smells a lot when you cook it.” Just as your neighbours know when you are frying fish, the smell of monkey cooking can travel.

As does the delicious smell of that ilish maachher jhol from our kitchen. And at what cost to biodiversity?

But it is the commercial trafficking of the meat that is said to be the biggest threat to biodiversity in this region, where healthy forests benefit all humans on the planet. There have been widespread local species extinctions, and the very existence of our nearest relatives, the great apes, is in danger. In the Republic of the Congo, 295 chimpanzees were killed for their meat in 2003 alone. One scientific paper out of the University of London that tracked what passengers arriving at French airports in 2005 smuggled in their luggage, described some people arriving with only bush meat in their bags. When officials searched 30 passengers on three planes, they found what amounted to flesh from 76 animals.

So how do we stop the underground part of an international trade in which we all participate, as we carry our native bits of cuisine and medical lore with us to remote parts of the world? How deep and wide does this iceberg go? After all, the efficiencies of global travel allows us to not merely hang on to the once-tenuous threads linking emigrant diasporic communities to their native cultures, but actually strengthen it, and share our native biodiversity with our new neighbors, not through pictures and stories alone, but on the dinner plate.

Brashares said some of his sources are participating in his study with the hope that information about bush-meat trafficking might one day lead to legalizing trade in non-endangered species to satiate people’s craving for a taste of home without too much harm to the environment.

One thing that might put some brakes on this trade is the fear of parasites that might come hidden in all that meat, and make the frightening jump to humans. Yet, I don’t know if that too can slow this trade down (let alone stop it completely) soon enough. After all, we’ve been transporting parasites along with our foods for just as long as we’ve been traveling away from our ancestral homes. 

Sad as all this makes me, contemplating not just this ugly trade, but my own culpability as a global citizen enjoying the diversity of the world’s cuisines and cultural artifacts in places far removed from their native soil, I felt even sadder reading this line about why Brashares got into studying the bushmeat trade:

He has an ecologist’s interest in bush meat that grew out of his doctoral research in Ghana, where hunters kept killing a species of antelope he was studying. By examining the global bush-meat trade, he hopes to gain insight into why humans use wildlife the way we do—and the consequences.

As an ecologist, I’ve been there, and I know far too many young people (bright eyed, energetic) who are there: exploring the wonders of the natural world, studying rare (and not so rare, yet) species in remote places, trying to add to our knowledge about nature and evolution, natural history and culture, only to become unwilling horror-struck witnesses to the death of that very nature we wish to study and protect. We ecologists are all part of this global death watch – yet some of us, like Brashares, have the courage turn around and look at this ugly face of humanity fully in the face, holding a mirror up to it. Hoping against hope that that reflection will somehow pull humanity back from the brink of the abyss in time.

When I told my 13-year-old daughter (who imagines a rather different path for humanity) that she could buy gorilla meat in Toronto, her jaw dropped, and she stared at me in growing horror. Then she asked:

“Why don’t they sell human meat instead? It would be just as bad!”

Well… it might yet come to that soon enough… once we’ve eaten our way through all the wild animals, and yet cannot still that persistent ancient craving, what will we eat? Might we not turn upon each other? After all, as a species, we are not entirely averse to cannibalism. So it may yet come to that.

Bon appétit, I guess!

“Hey Biodiversity! F*ck You!!” – Homo sapiens

As far as “Fuck You”s to the environment, biodiversity, and endangered species go, this one is pretty spectacular: Fill a boat with 11 tons of illegal endangered/threatened Pangolins (click on the name for my blog post for World Pangolin Day recently), and crash it into a protected coral reef in the Phillipines. Well done, my Chinese “fisherman” friends. Well done indeed. The earth should be getting the message loud and clear now.

Fuck you too, Humans, it probably says to us all.

Pangolins on a grill

The photo isn’t from the boat—I don’t think—but it illustrates the nature of the problem.

[UPDATE: The above photo is from 2011, when Indonesian officials caught another haul of pangolins being smuggled there, and burned all the poor carcasses.]

What did the poor Pangolins ever do to us humans to deserve such a fate?

“Hey, Fuck You, Pangolin! Go Fuck Yourself!” – says Homo sapiens

:-(

Presenting the first fruit of a sabbatical – “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy”

As regular readers (and friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter) may be aware, I am currently on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities, and am trying to make the most of this year to maximize my productivity in terms of research, catching up with paper writing, and science communication, here on the blog and elsewhere. The blogging has been rather light over the past few months as I have been traveling and getting involved in some fascinating collaborations which haven’t left me much time to write. I hope to make up for that over the coming weeks and months, especially now that I’ve moved my blog to be part of this Coyotes Network. Nice to be part of so many exciting and invigorating collaborations on all fronts! I was so ready for it after 8 years of the teaching and scholarship grind…

My sabbatical started with a lovely two months in Stockholm, working with my friend and colleague Thomas Elmqvist to put together the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO) for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A Professor of Ecology at the Stockholm Resilience Center, at Stockholm University, Thomas is also the chief scientific editor of this effort bringing together some 150 scientists and practitioners from the urban ecology disciplines (yes takes multiple disciplines to study the ecology of cities) to make the first comprehensive assessment of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities throughout our increasingly urbanized world. Here is Thomas explaining the mission and context of the CBO:

[vimeo 42603843]

It was quite an inspirational and productive way to begin my sabbatical – to go to a city that was so different in so many ways from Fresno, to explore a new country, to meet some fantastic new colleagues and friends from distant lands, and to engage in such a stimulating exercise as assessing the world’s urban ecosystems to help identify ways to better manage them for long-term sustainability. I may write more about these experiences and share photos from the trip as time allows.

By the end of my nearly two months there, we had finalized the text of the CBO’s first major document: the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy. This is our distillation of the current scientific understanding of urban ecosystems and biodiversity, and various ways cities can and are addressing the challenge of managing cities for sustainability. We synthesized insights and case-studies from the collective expertise of our 150-odd collaborators to produce a document that is intended to help ordinary citizens and urban planners, policy makers, and non-government practitioners grapple with the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization. As such, it is a relatively concise, well illustrated document written for non-expert readers – something for which my blogging had prepared me rather well, I realized. A more detailed Scientific Assessment, comprising of chapters covering different aspects of the urban ecological challenges, and detailed case-studies, written by the world’s leading experts in urban ecology, is currently being compiled and will be released sometime in spring 2013, as a print and an open-access e-book. Stay tuned for announcements about that.

Meanwhile, after spending a couple of weeks in Germany attending conferences, giving research talks, and catching up with some old friends, I wound up in India preparing for the official launch of the CBO at the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the CBD. The first public presentation of the CBO was a keynote talk by Thomas at the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Mumbai on 10 October 2012. Then we moved to Hyderabad where the CBO was formally launched at last on 15 October 2012, at the Cities for Life Summit organized as part of COP 11. Here is Thomas (in the middle with the CBD Executive Secretary Mr. Braulio F. de Souza Dias on his left) showing it to the media at the launch press conference:

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That was when I finally got to see our work in print – quite nice colorful print too – and was pleasantly surprised to find myself listed among the 10 lead authors of the CBO! I honestly hadn’t really paid attention to the authorship of this report because it had been such a rich community exercise. In addition, since COP 11 was in India, and a large contingent of government officials, biodiversity scientists, and NGOs from all over India were in attendance that day, we simultaneously released another document: Urbanization, ecosystems, and biodiversity: Assessments of India and Bangalore. A smaller group of us (primarily Harini Nagendra, Maria Schewenius, and I) wrote this during a frenzied few weeks – and through an insane flurry of emails – after the CBO: Action & Policy had gone to the printers. Our initial print run of a 1000 copies of both the documents was exhausted within the hour, with journalists at the press conference fighting for the last copies of the India Assessment! I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for such an enthusiastic reception – but it has certainly reenergized the team working on the Scientific Assessment to complete the overall CBO mission.

A few hours ago, I had the opportunity to present an overview of the CBO at the December 2012 meeting of the Central Valley Café Scientifique in Fresno, to a very interested local audience of science enthusiasts and concerned citizens. Here are the slides from my presentation (adapted from Thomas’ keynote talk in Mumbai):

[slideshare id=15479286&doc=cbo-valleycafesci-dec2012-121204021824-phpapp02]

I was once again surprised, and gratified, by the keen interest and sharp questions and comments from the audience in the vigorous discussion that followed. But I really shouldn’t be surprised – after all, we are all city dwellers, so who among us wouldn’t be interested in learning about the state of our own home ecosystem? I hope the key messages (the CBO has 10 of them) we worked so hard to craft over the summer in the Stockholm archipelago, will percolate and spread beyond last night’s immediate audience and start to reach those involved in the governance of Fresno and Clovis (and other cities). I am now hoping to meet the mayors of both cities so I can present them with copies of the CBO: Action and Policy.

We urban ecologists have done our best to put together this report – now we must ensure that our messages translate into real world action in cities worldwide if we are to contain some of the alarming trends of urbanization’s impacts, and create better habitats for ourselves and for other species on an urban planet. Let me leave you with that thought, and with some links for further reading and action:

Tales from the Concrete Jungle: a symposium on urban biodiversity at ESA 2012

Are you in Portland for the 97th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (or following along in the twitter backchannel via #ESA2012 or, even tripping on the tweetbeam)? Are you interested in urban biodiversity? Want to know how much of the earth’s biodiversity still occurs in cities, how we influence species interactions, and how we might better manage our cities to support more species on our increasingly urban planet? If so, then today is your lucky day, because this afternoon (Portland time!), we have a symposium for you covering just these topics:

SYMP 15 – Tales From the Concrete Jungle: Understanding and Sustaining the Earth’s Urban Biodiversity From Local to Global Scales

Wednesday, August 8, 2012: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM

Portland Blrm 253, Oregon Convention Center

Organizer:

Myla F.J. Aronson

Co-organizers:

Mark Goddard , Madhusudan Katti , Frank La Sorte , Christopher A. Lepczyk , Mark McDonnell , Charles H. Nilon , Paige S. Warren and Nicholas S. G. Williams

Moderator:

Myla F.J. Aronson

The rapid urbanization of the world has had profound effects on global biodiversity. The increasing number of people living in cities and towns, coupled with the magnitude and intensity of human activities has resulted in significant impacts for local, regional and global environments. The creation and expansion of cities produces new types of land-cover and environmental conditions. These changes in land use and land cover result in native habitat loss and landscape fragmentation, toxification of the biosphere, loss of ecosystem function, the introduction of exotic species, and the loss of native species. The predicted increases in the number and size of human settlements, especially in developing countries, over the next 20 years, coupled with the predicted changes in climate has created an unprecedented call for scientific information to guide management strategies and mitigation options to create sustainable and habitable cities and towns for the future. Despite recognition for the importance of urban biodiversity by the Convention of Biological Diversity and an emerging base of science on the biodiversity of urban areas, a general synthesis on biodiversity is in a fledgling state. A comparative approach to urban biota is needed to produce comparable methodologies to understand, preserve, and monitor biodiversity in cities. The design and construction of urban infrastructure can create novel habitats for plants and animals that can supplement remnant habitats for species and communities in cities and towns, or that can provide habitat that has been destroyed in a region due to human development of the landscape. This symposium will bring together an international group of urban ecologists to identify: 1) global patterns of biodiversity within and across cities; 2) their environmental and social drivers; and 3) opportunities for using ecological knowledge to develop effective biodiversity management, restoration and planning strategies. The symposium will be structured into two parts. The first will address the patterns and drivers of biodiversity within and across cities in order to provide a general synthesis of biodiversity. The second part of the symposium will address design and planning of cities for biodiversity from the micro-scale (green roof ecology) to the city-scale.

The symposium grew out of a working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) we convened throughout last year, to compile a global database of urban plant and bird diversity, and address questions about the patterns and processes governing urban biodiversity. Till date we have species lists of plants and/or birds from more than 150 cities from all continents (except Antarctica, of course), and continue to add to this database. Putting together this big database (the biggest one on urban biodiversity of which we are aware) and playing with the data on our computers is the most fun thing I’ve done in recent years! We are pretty excited about what we’ve found so far (first manuscript is in review) and expect others will be interested as well. This symposium is the first big public forum where we will share results of our broad global synthesis (tale #2 by Frank La Sorte, in particular). Many of the collaborators in the working group are also presenting results from their own more local research, focusing in greater detail on the processes governing the big patterns, as we continue weaving the tales together towards capturing a richer tapestry of urban biodiversity. You can find the full list of talks, with links to abstracts on the symposium page. Members of the NCEAS working group who are in Portland (which is no longer actually supported by NCEAS since our funding ended) will meet this weekend (after ESA2012 is over) to work on further analyses, and discuss ways to continue building on this growing network of urban biodiversity researchers. If you are interested in finding out more, and even joining our network, please leave a comment below, or email/tweet me and I will be happy to help in any way I can.

Meanwhile, alas, having helped bring together these tales from the concrete jungle, I can’t hear them in the room myself because I’m in faraway Stockholm! Which means I will, of course, be lurking in the twitter backchannel especially during this symposium (the #BiodiverCity). There I hope to see lots of the participants’ faces/avatars pop up in the tweetbeam as they relay the proceedings to distant participants like me.

Live-tweet this session for me, won’t you?

Cities and Biodiversity: prepping a #BiodiverCity twitter campaign

As you may know, I am in Stockholm, Sweden this summer, working with colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) where we are compiling a global assessment of urban biodiversity for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Here’s a blurb about the project:

Cities and Biodiversity Outlook

A Global Assessment of the Links between Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystems

The “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook” (CBO) will consist of a global assessment of the links between urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Combining science and policy, scientists from around the world will analyze how urbanization and urban growth impacts biodiversity and ecosystems, delivering key messages on the conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources to decision-makers. Cities, local authorities and sub-national governments will have the opportunity to showcase their practices on sustainability and biodiversity and learn from existing experiences how to incorporate those topics in their agendas and policies.

via Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO).

If you explore the links on the above page, you will find drafts of the CBO, to the latest version of which I made some contributions. If you are more televisually inclined, here’s Thomas Elmqvist, the Scientific Editor of the CBO (and my host here this summer), explaining what it is about:

The CBO will be officially launched on October 16, 2012, at a City Summit organized by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) during CBD’s 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) meeting in Hyderabad, India. I will write more about that over the coming weeks, including information about some side events being planned to publicize the CBO.

As part of the goal to make the CBO an effective tool for communicating the significance and value of urban ecosystems for biodiversity, Maria Schewenius (also here at SRC) has been collating a list of 100 Facts About The Nature of Urbanization which will be part of the report. Seeing her list immediately made me think: twitter campaign! Maria and Thomas liked the idea, so we ran it up the UN flagpole (this being my first serious involvement in a UN scale effort, I’m learning about the opportunities and constraints for communicating science at this level), and we got the thumbs up a few days ago.

We are now preparing to launch the twitter campaign using the hashtag #BiodiverCity (which I was pleasantly surprised to find hitherto unused!) starting on Monday, Aug 6, 2012, which is 70 days before the launch of the CBO in Hyderabad. It would’ve been better to start tweeting 100-facts 100 days before the launch, of course, but I got in late on the act, so here we are with 70 days, which actually allows us to start with one tweet/day and ramp up the frequency as we approach the launch date.  The complete list of 100 Facts will be available on the CBD’s CBO website (see links above) along with the rest of the report, and I will also storify the tweets, and any responses they generate.

So, dear reader, if you are interested in urban biodiversity, and are also a citizen of the twitterverse, here’s who you should keep your eye on:

It goes without saying, of course, but: Please RT!

[Updated on Aug 6 with several more twitter accounts added to the list.]

Hamsadhwani: an inner dialogue contemplating humanity’s swansong on earth

Anirban Mahapatra (aka Bhalomanush, a good man I have come to know on Twitter) recently (well, a month ago) shared with me a thought-provoking essay he had written contemplating some of the deepest questions in conservation: where do humans fit into the rest of life on our planet? Is it hubris on our part to think we can save the planet or that we are even superior to other species when we have all evolved from a common ancestor? What does it matter if species go extinct, when we know that most species that have ever evolved are already extinct, and everything must die eventually? Questions that certainly haunt me as I try to find meaning in my own research and educational efforts aimed at conserving biological diversity on this little blue dot we inhabit. The essay, written in the form of an inner dialogue in the author’s mind, resonated with me immediately. Yet Bhalomanush said it was among the least read of his blog posts! Surely, this contemplation deserves more attention, so I offered to share it here to try to reach a broader audience interested in reconciliation ecology. He was kind enough to send it to me as a guest post! The essay is titled after a well-known “raga” from Indian classical music, the name of which literally translates as “Swansong” – an appropriate title, I think. I hope you like it – and if you do, please pay the author’s own blog a visit and let him know.

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An almost apocalyptic image of the fiery sky at dusk earlier this week at Morro Bay beach in California. via flickr.com

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Hamsadhwani

by Anirban Mahapatra

I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.

The possibility that one day we will inflict the full force of our ruthlessness on the earth is quite real. At some point in our history, we may succeed in pushing the climate to a point of no return, we may annihilate ourselves through a cold and dark nuclear winter, or we may generate a grave pestilence against which we have no defense. But can we really destroy the earth?

No. The earth needs no saving.

But how can you say that humans are not capable of destroying the earth? That our planet needs no saving? In a very short span of time, humans have put a physical mark on the landscape like no other species before us. We’ve lit up the night sky and etched wonderworks which are visible from space. We’ve climbed the tops of mountains and dived into the depths of the oceans. 

For the earth is not just any planet. It is the only one we know which teems with life. The myriad life forms on earth are as much a part of the planet as the oceans, ice-shelves, and canyons. And we’re killing these life forms off at an alarming rate. If we continue to impact the environment, won’t that threaten living organisms which are a constant part of this earth? As for anthropogenic climate change and nuclear war – wouldn’t events such as these be cataclysmic for the planet?   

The earth does need saving.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: if someday the technology that aliens in science-fiction novels use to pulverize the earth becomes a reality for our descendants, would they contemplate using it? There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that they would. For all of our skills, we are still capable of extremely short-sighted suicidal tendencies. We don’t lack the impudence to think about destroying the planet: we lack the technical ability. The earth will survive because we can’t destroy it, regardless of how hard we try. At worst, we are a  pesky comet or a supervolcano. We are not a heating sun or a supernova. Life, as it exists on our planet is supported by the alignments of the planets, the precise temperature of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon, and other planetary and geological wonders which we cannot violate.

Speaking of extinctions, most species that existed on this planet – by some estimates, 99% or more – became extinct before we could contemplate our place here. We helped death along by precipitating the demise of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Before we become extinct, we will continue to kill off other species. Perhaps, in our final dying moments, the number of species which are wiped out will spike. But the earth will survive as it has in the past. We are in a hurry to modify our surroundings because our lifetimes are short, but evolution does not follow human timetables. With time, traces of the ugly abominations we erected will vanish and new life forms will develop and cherish this wonderful planet. Maybe they will be wiser than us? We will never know. When our time comes, we will go. The earth will still survive.

Are you saying that if the earth is physically destroyed that would be a tragedy, but that the extinction of life around us is inevitable? If the earth changes because of us, then we have failed to save it. You can’t deny that humans have modified the planet like no other single species before us. If we don’t save the wondrous life around us, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Don’t you feel a pang of sorrow when you see a polar bear stranded on shrinking ice knowing that it might be too late to save the species? When you know that there are plants in the Amazon River basin that are dying because of massive deforestation to feed our so-called progress? We can do something about it. We should do something about it. We’re an advanced species with the gift of conscious thought and the power to make decisions that impact our planet.

I never condoned inaction. We’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction, no doubt. This worries me immensely and I wince to think about how many forms of life we are destroying each moment, some perhaps, without our knowledge. The fact remains that the earth is the only planet I will ever know. I wish I had many lifetimes to study it, to observe it, and to simply be filled with wonder. I’ll do whatever I can to save the polar bear, the panda, and the tiger, even though for some species it may be too late. I do not attempt to explain why I feel this way logically, but I consider this part of what makes me human. Our descendants deserve to enrich their own lives by knowing the life we have around us; by killing it off, we’re failing both our ancestors and our descendants.

On a human scale, the plants we farm and the animals we’ve domesticated have changed irreversibly already. As natural surroundings change, so do organisms. Plants and animals should live unaltered according to my own convenient whim. But this is an anthropocentric view. My curiosity, my sorrow, my acknowledgement of the scale of tragedy of death has no bearing on what happened billions of years on this planet and what will happen for billions of years after my infinitely short life. What I can do is to try to prevent destruction in my own lifetime.

I’ve heard the argument that humans are an advanced species, but why do we take that at face value? How are we superior? There are other organisms which exceed us in numbers: there are many more tiny bacteria in the human body than “human” cells.  There are organisms which can live in more extreme environments like the boiling cauldrons of sulfurous springs. Many species of bacteria can replicate in the span of minutes. Tortoises live longer than us by decades.

And species we consider primitive? If all living organisms trace their roots back to common ancestors that arose several billion years ago, if we all evolved over the same billions of years in a constant struggle to survive in our changing niches, how are any more advanced or primitive than others? The dodo was no less suited for its environment than the monstrously-oversized chicken is in an assembly line farm where it thrives. We precipitated its demise. Who is to say that someday some other organism doesn’t precipitate our own? Neither is the sloth lazy nor the snake vile, in an absolute sense. For all of our superiority, a minor change in atmospheric temperature might wipe us out, without causing the least discomfort to a unicellular bacterium.

That is not to say that humans are not unique. We possess intellect. We can manipulate tools. We can record our histories and archive our collective thoughts. We have certain skills which no other organism possesses. We can analyze and learn from our mistakes, when we choose to do so. To be able to express emotions, record abstract thoughts, and attempt to understand surroundings are both collectively and individually a blessing. I am grateful for the written words on this screen, longevity due to modern medicine, notes of Hamsadhwani, the frescoes of Ajanta, bitter dark-chocolate, and comfortable walking shoes, among countless other gifts.

But, quintessentially, in our minds humans are the most advanced species on the planet because we are human. Perhaps, since I am a member of the species, I find nothing wrong with this prismatic viewpoint. But, increasingly I believe that the earth was not created for us and will not perish with us. There is nothing divine about us. We are not the Chosen Ones.

If this world is all we have- and there is no compelling reason in my mind to believe otherwise- there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve it. Especially with the sobering knowledge that ultimately it is an impossible feat.

In reality that is what saving the earth is about. It is about saving ourselves and the life we know and value.

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Great Migrations begin on National Geographic TV tomorrow…

… well, the new series Great Migrations begins on said television channel tomorrow, in what’s being rolled out as a global event. The migrations themselves have been ongoing spectacularly (and often spectacularly unnoticed by us) for a while now. If you want to see some fantastic footage of a variety of animals migrating through different places, on land, in the water, through the air, across the planet – get ready to see it in a typically televisual National Geographic special. After weeks of wanting to watch it but being distracted by various other things, I finally started on my preview discs last night, and will share my reviews here soon as I work my way through them. For now, let me just whet your appetite with a clip of one of the segments from the first episode “Born to Move” that set my mouth watering – ok, it is visually appetizing, but I also I happened to be watching it with a friend who is a seafood enthusiast from India’s left coast – and we both wondered if the remoteness of the island where these critters occur has saved them from humanity’s never-satiated appetites:

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/videos/satellite/satelliteEmbedPlayer.swf

Here another clip, of danger at the end of a rather more well-known and truly mind-boggling migration, that of the Monarch butterflies across north America:

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/videos/satellite/satelliteEmbedPlayer.swf

What I’m really excited about is the extra hours that come at the end of the series, especially the Science of Migrations, where we learn more about the clever ways scientists like Martin Wikelski have devised to track even such small creatures as the Monarchs across vast continents. You’ll have to wait for that one to air on Nov 9th. 

Meanwhile, if you want more reviews before I start posting mine, here’s a round-up of reviews from some fellow science bloggers (including this one from the now $10k scholarship winning nerd Christie Wilcox, of whom I wrote here recently), all of them raving about the Science episode, in a mini-carnival put together on the NGC blog. And get ready for the spectacle to begin on your telly tomorrow (although you might want to turn the volume down if you are allergic to overwrought prose – but I’ll save the quibbles for my review).