Posts Tagged ‘science’

Online museum collections: overwhelming, useful and fun

You would expect to see a dinosaur skeleton or two at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, but there's a lot more to it. For example--a public online database of 710,000 records of plants, animals, fossils, and minerals. Photo: Robert Linsdell, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

You would expect to see a dinosaur skeleton or two at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, but there’s a lot more to it. For example–a public online database of 710,000 records of plants, animals, fossils, and minerals. Photo: Robert Linsdell, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Technology sure can be a double-edged sword. Besides examples of excess in surveillance – or equally sinister pursuits –  in other wonderful ways knowledge is being set free, for all to see and use.

Take things like free e-books from Project Gutenberg. (It’s not new, but maybe more people should know about it.)

Along similar lines, many museums are digitizing their records and collections, making such material available to researchers or interested persons around the world. Examples include the British Museum: “There are currently 2,126,783 records available, which represent more than 3,500,000 objects. 823,748 records have one or more images.”

That’s pretty overwhelming, so try narrowing it down to something manageable, like artifacts recovered from the ruins of Pompeii. From which one can see singe items, like this wall painting of a bird pecking at cherries, or a portrait of a man and woman to make ancient times feel like people who once lived real lives.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (regular adult admission $25) has 258,856 searchable items one may view for free online, many of which are not on display, such as this queen from a deck of playing cards, circa 1470-80.

Want more? Try the Smithsonian for everything Americana. (Drill down for local content, such as an 1866 painting “Whiteface Mountain from Lake Placid” by Sanford Robinson Gifford, or ”Group skijoring behind 1920′s automobile“.)

Well, you get the point. It’s not that everything is, will be (or should be) available online. But more and more stuff is, from soup to nuts.

This week the Canadian Museum of Nature announced their own contribution to the world of online access. From this recent press release:

Ottawa, March 26, 2014—The Canadian Museum of Nature, Canada’s national museum of natural history, has launched a free scientific database featuring open access to more than 710,000 records of plants, animals, fossils, and minerals that are part of the museum’s national collections. The searchable online resource is accessible through the museum’s web site at nature.ca/collections-online.

The digitized records represent about one-quarter (or 22%) of the museum’s estimated 3.2 million “cataloguable units” of biological and geological material. Overall, the museum estimates it manages more than 10.5 million individual specimens that have been acquired over more than 150 years. The collections, which cover Canada and other parts of the world, are stored and curated at the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec.


Now, this museum’s collection encompasses all of Canada (and more), which may seem “foreign” in some respects. But Canada and the U.S. (including New York and Vermont) share vast similarities in the realm of plants, animals, minerals and so forth. Which means this very much counts as a local resource for NCPR country too.

As detailed by Tom Spears in the Ottawa Citizen (speaking with plant scientist Jeff Saarela):

“With the Internet, we can share the information with the world,” mainly researchers, says Saarela.

The high resolution shows tiny details needed to identify plants. “It’s almost like a microscope where you can zoom in,” Saarela said.

“But it’s also accessible to the public,” he noted.

This opens up information to amateur birders, gardeners, nature lovers, high schools and the merely curious.

Before he ended up in Hawaii, my maternal grandfather did a fair bit of botanizing in places like the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sable Island and Newfoundland. He had the good fortune to be hired to do summer expeditions for the Canadian government while completing a PhD, circa 1912-17. Much of that work went to the Canadian Museum of Nature. Using the advanced search function of this new data base, I could almost instantly compile a list of plant specimens he collected – along with a map of where they came from. With apologies to Grandfather, and other plant scientists, I’m not actually very interested in taxonomy. But what fun to “see” his travels and imagine him as a more-wholesome Indiana Jones. (A fair number of natural scientists have Hollywood-worthy wilderness adventures – minus the Nazis, supernatural religious relics or grave robbing.)

I don’t know which part of exploring museum collections appeals to you, if any. I just think it’s amazingly cool that so much is now at our fingertips.

In the realm of natural sciences, there’s even a clearinghouse portal for online data:

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is an international open data infrastructure, funded by governments.

It allows anyone, anywhere to access data about all types of life on Earth, shared across national boundaries via the Internet.

Happy browsing and successful research to all.

Stargazers: Earth Hour starts Saturday at 8:30 pm

Cities around the world dim their lights each year for Earth Hour--the better to see the stars. Photo: Christian Haugen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cities around the world dim their lights each year for Earth Hour–the better to see the stars. Photo: Christian Haugen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Love it or hate it, it’s back. Earth Hour will be marked by many around the globe tonight from 8:30 – 9:30 pm, local time.

This hour of action represents a magnificent rallying point, silly symbolism, or something in between, depending on your own point of view. A side-effect of going dark is how well that makes light pollution more apparent. And with so many lights switched off, it’s a good opportunity for armchair astronomy.

Here’s an experiment from National Geographic to measure light pollution by working off the Big Dipper and the North Star – can you see the stars that make up the Little Dipper?

If you live within reach of Ottawa, the Science and Tech Museum offers periodic stargazing for the public, including a session that starts at 8 pm tonight:

Stargazers of all ages enjoy an evening of astronomy at the Museum’s Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory. Weather permitting, visitors can look through the historic 15-inch telescope at the stars, the planets, and the Moon.

It’s free but donations are appreciated. If that’s your cup of tea, once things warm up a bit more, the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society holds public stargazing events from May – Oct.

This is moving further and further afar from Earth Hour, but I also came across an obituary for John Dobson, who did much to popularize star gazing. As written up for the New York Times by Douglas Martin (1/21/14):

Mr. Dobson, who died last Wednesday at 98 — or, as he might have put it, 123 days into his 99th orbit around the sun — is credited with developing the first high-powered portable telescope that amateur astronomers could build inexpensively, and tens of thousands have done so. Dobsonian telescopes, as they are known generically, are still a popular item on the market, though Mr. Dobson chose not to benefit from them commercially.

It’s nice to recognize that sort of selflessness.

(Saturday morning postscript, 10 am) 

Here is more on why admirers praise the Dobson telescope, or how to build your own.

New Canadian app tracks vaccinations, outbreaks

Getting a flu shot. Photo: Lance McCord, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Getting a flu shot. Photo: Lance McCord, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The fractious issue of childhood vaccinations is back in the news in Ottawa after health officials here recorded the first case of measles since 2011. (And it’s amazing how little the whole subject has changed since I was a new parent well over 20 years ago.)

The pro-science side decries those who refuse to vaccinate, whether the reason stems from complacency or opposition. The concept of community immunity (AKA “herd immunity”) is explained and re-explained. Conversely, those who question conventional medical wisdom are back to defending their views or their right to make that choice.

The whole tempest makes this an excellent time to introduce a new app to help track vaccinations. As reported by the CBC:

Ottawa Hospital researchers have developed a free app to help Canadians store, manage and access immunization information.

Dr. Kumanan Wilson of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute said the ImmunizeCA app will also alert users if there’s an issue in their area, such as the recent measles outbreak in Ottawa.

“So that would be in the outbreak section, they would see how close they are to the where the report is,” he said.

“They could see if their family is up to date. They may say, ‘Oh, time to get Johnny vaccinated. It’s time to get catch up the vaccine.’”

The app is privacy-protected and not accessible to any health agency.

The Ottawa Citizen details how Dr. Wilson came up with the app idea after a casual discussion with a neighbor in a park. He worked with an electrical engineering student, Cameron Bell, to come up with something better than the traditional shot card. According to the Citizen:

A prototype version of their app has been available for Ontario residents since 2012. As of this week, an improved version is available for residents across Canada at immunize.ca/app.

The national app, which is a collaboration between the Canadian Public Health Association, Immunize Canada and The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, not only helps people to manage their own health information — letting them know when and if they are due for immunization — but provides information about vaccines.

It also links to a U.S.-based mapping system that can inform the user of any vaccine-preventable outbreaks in their proximity. Although recent measles outbreaks have been widely publicized, Wilson noted that members of the public often aren’t aware when there are nearby outbreaks.

An Internet search reveals a fair number of apps with similar functions in the U.S.

When I was at that stage of parenting, the official form was a yellow shot card issued by the State of Hawaii. The new Canadian app described above sounds like a useful aide, but I can’t see that it would serve as proof of immunization. What is the format for vaccination record keeping where you live now?

Just to throw gas on this already-hot fire, I straddle both sides. I think many (most?) immunizations are reasonably safe. Statistically speaking, shots have saved innumerable lives. But I also mistrust the push to immunize against each and every disease imaginable, at the earliest possible age. It seems to me that can be taken too far.

When it comes to health, I would argue one size does not fit all. I’d even go one further and say science is great, but it is not infallible.

Thoughts?

New prospect of controlling zebra mussels?

Zebra Mussels. Photo: GeraldM, Creatuve Commons, some rights reserved

Zebra Mussels. Photo: GeraldM, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Area boaters and swimmers have been dealing with zebra mussels and their spread for the past 25 years, more or less.

The U.S. Geological Survey has a useful information page on those invasive mussels, including maps of their known distribution to date for zebra and quagga types. Researching this post I learned that zebra mussels are native to the Black, Caspian and Azov Seas. Here’s the USGS summary of the creature’s spread:

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, zebra mussels had spread to most all major drainages of Europe because of widespread construction of canal systems. They first appeared in Great Britain in 1824 where they are now well established. Since then, zebra mussels have expanded their range into Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Italy, and the rest of western Europe. Zebra mussels were first discovered in North America in 1988 in the Great Lakes. The first account of an established population came from Canadian waters of Lake St. Clair, a water body connecting Lake Huron and Lake Erie. By 1990, zebra mussels had been found in all the Great Lakes. The following year, zebra mussels escaped the Great Lakes basin and found their way into the Illinois and Hudson rivers. The Illinois River was the key to their introduction into the Mississippi River drainage which covers over 1.2 million square miles. By 1992, the following rivers had established populations of zebra mussels: Arkansas, Cumberland, Hudson, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee. By 1994, the following states had reported records of zebra mussels within their borders or in water bodies adjacent to their borders:Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (Benson 2012). More recently, Connecticut has been added to the list of states where zebra mussels have been found.

It reads like like some inexorable march, doesn’t it? Daunting enough to think shoot, that’s that – they are here to stay. Well, maybe, maybe not. Reporting for the New York Times on Feb 24th, Robert H. Boyle details a promising development:

Now the mussels may have met their match: Daniel P. Molloy, an emeritus biologist at the New York State Museum in Albany and a self-described “Bronx boy who became fascinated by things living in water.”

Inspired by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in high school, Dr. Molloy, now 66, has long been a pioneer in the development of environmentally safe control agents to replace broad-spectrum chemical pesticides.

Leading a team at the museum’s Cambridge Field Research Laboratory in upstate New York, he discovered a bacterium, Pseudomonas fluorescens strain CL145A, that kills the mussels but appears to have little or no effect on other organisms.

The article says New York State has licensed a California-based company, Marrone Bio Innovations to produce a commercial product “Zequanox” with impressive test results thus far. (According to the manufacturer, Zequanox has been approved in California for  control of zebra and quagga mussels in pipe systems since November of last year.)

As recounted in the same Times article, Molloy has an inspiring life story. Earlier in his career he was part of an international effort that established the potential of Bacillus thuringienis israelensis, or Bti, as an environmentally benign way to control for black fly larvae.

It may be wishful thinking to expect a magic wand that produces exactly the results wanted – with no down-side or unintended side effects. But this is an interesting development, with appealing results to date.

I’m just coming to the topic as a lay person who cites articles of interest. Undoubtedly many In Box readers have first-hand experience with invasive mussels and some also have expertise on the subject of wildlife management, control efforts, etc. I’m interested in hearing  more thoughts on this issue.

Yet more bad news for migratory monarch butterflies

Migrating monarchs in Mexico. Photo Brian Mann

Migrating monarchs in Mexico. Photo Brian Mann

Sorry for the pessimistic headline, but this item is just plain gloomy. The already-precipitous decline of migratory monarch butterflies just got worse.

As reported this past week by the New York Times, the most current measurement of the migratory population has plummeted:

The migrating population has become so small — perhaps 35 million, experts guess — that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.

The Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund said at a news conference on Wednesday that the span of forest inhabited by the overwintering monarchs shrank last month to a bare 1.65 acres — the equivalent of about one and a quarter football fields. Not only was that a record low, but it was just 56 percent of last year’s total, which was itself a record low.

At their peak in 1996, the monarchs occupied nearly 45 acres of forest.

The decline is generally blamed on changes in land use that reduce available habitat and food supply along migratory routes. But recent weather swings have also been a factor. Here’s more from the World Wildlife Federation’s Mexico office. (Note: That article is in Spanish, but my browser offered an English translation that seems fairly accurate.)

This discussion is about the migration of monarchs that move from Mexico to North America each year. While beautiful and massive, it’s not the whole population. National Geographic put it this way:

Though monarchs are found in many parts of the world, the migratory monarch is the most thoroughly studied, since it’s the group that’s most at risk. (Watch a video of monarch butterflies.)

Omar Vidal, director general of WWF-Mexico, noted by email: “The monarch butterfly as a species is not endangered. What is endangered is its migratory phenomenon from Canada to Mexico and back.”

Even if monarchs may hang on in non-migratory locations, this big-picture, overall trend seems discouraging. This Christian Science Monitor article offers up a glimmer of hope through activism, saying “Teachers, schoolchildren, brides, and others have begun fighting back, one seed at a time” by planting milkweed and other plants butterflies need.

The Internet offers a fair number of useful informational or advocacy sites devoted to this topic, such as the Monarch Butterfly Fund. A leading expert on monarchs, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, called the recent news out of Mexico “terrible”. While deeply saddened, she added this call to action:

…as a conservation biologist, I know that what is happening to monarchs is also happening to many other uncounted organisms – organisms whose loss would be equally tragic.  We know about monarchs because they gather in discrete locations every winter, and because thousands of volunteers count them as part of over a dozen different monarch and butterfly citizen science programs.  Monarchs can serve as both indicators of what is happening to many other insects, and as an impetus to save the habitat that they and these uncounted insects require.  To preserve the monarch migration, we need a groundswell of conservation engagement, similar to that experienced in this country during the 1960’s and 70s when we passed important environmental legislation that resulted in protection for endangered species, as well as the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

Another organization, the Live Monarch Foundation, even offers free seeds as part of a “Got Milkweed?” campaign. (One wonders if the dairy industry will object to that slogan similarity?)

Looking for flowers that “scrub” toxic land

Echinacea purpurea (eastern purple coneflower or purple coneflower) Source: Wikipedia

Echinacea purpurea (eastern purple coneflower or purple coneflower) Source: Wikipedia

Many gardeners are well-acquainted with echinacea - or coneflower – which grows well from Texas to Ontario and most states in between.

The most common color is purple, though it comes in white, yellow or even green too. Purple coneflower much-loved as a hardy perennial that needs little care, can handle drought and is excellent for attracting bees and butterflies.

In herbal circles, echinacea has a longstanding reputation of doing all sorts of helpful things, including reducing the incidence or severity of common colds. Mind you, some scientific studies appear to support those medicinal claims, while others do not. (This post takes no position on that question.)

Victoria island (bottom) in the Ottawa River, connected by bridge to City of Ottawa near Parliament hill (top). Wikipedia image by Shanta Rohse

Victoria island (bottom) in the Ottawa River, connected by bridge to City of Ottawa near Parliament hill (top). Wikipedia image by Shanta Rohse

Now comes word that studies taking place in Ottawa are trying to see if echinacea can help clean contaminated land. As reported by Tom Spears, University of Ottawa biologists Christiane Charet and Jules Blais have been working since last summer with test plots on Victoria Island, a small Ottawa site that collected a lot of hydrocarbons and other pollutants from long use as a factory and rail area.

According to the Ottawa Citizen article the cleaning action consists of a tag-team event that takes place below the soil and above:

The research looks at how natural soil fungus helps plant roots to absorb a class of contaminants called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Plants often draw on underground fungus to help them absorb nutrients. The work is funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

“What we’re finding is that they (fungi) makes the hydrocarbons much more bioavailable,” Blais explained. In other words, it makes the pollutants easier for the plants to take in.

“We’re not entirely sure how they do this.

“We’re testing now to see to what extent the plants can metabolize and break down these (chemicals),” he said.

“We’re in the very early stages but it does appear quite promising.”

In this case, tough, pretty, low-maintenance echinacea got the nod for the plant part of that experiment. Which is great, because there’s a real need to de-contaminate polluted land. And all the better if the cleaning is based on natural, sustainable processes.

Update on the Franklin Expedition mystery

Memorial to Lieutenant John Irving, Royal Navy, a casualty of the Franklin Expidition. Photo: byronv2, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Memorial to Lieutenant John Irving, Royal Navy, a casualty of the Franklin Expedition. Photo: byronv2, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Here’s a follow-up to earlier posts about the Franklin Expedition. For those who haven’t followed that long-running historical mystery, it’s easily understood that two well-provisioned British ships set off in 1845 off to explore the Arctic and look for the Northwest passage. But – ultimately – both ships and the entire crew of 129 perished, leaving only a few known graves and tantalizing clues behind.

Much energy has been directed toward understanding what when wrong and where any remains may be. Indeed, Parks Canada is still looking for the wrecks in Arctic waters.

New research suggests that theories about lead poisoning (from improperly-tinned food) may not be as significant as once thought. Here’s more from a January 8th University of Glasgow press release:

8 January, 2014

New Light cast on ill-fated ‘Franklin Expedition’ to find Northwest Passage

Fresh analysis of forensic and other historical data by University of Glasgow scientists has cast new light on the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin’s Royal Navy expedition to find the Northwest Passage nearly 170 years ago.

The disappearance of the “Franklin expedition”, which set off in 1845, made international headlines and led to the biggest search and rescue mission in history.

Twentieth-century analysis of ice-preserved remains found high levels of lead, prompting  the theory that lead poisoning caused by inexpert soldering of the expedition’s tinned provisions had played a significant role in the catastrophe by causing widespread death and debility.

Now, a reappraisal of that theory is taking place as a result of further research carried out by Professor Keith Millar of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences and Professor Adrian Bowman of School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Glasgow, and their colleague, the archaeologist and author William Battersby.

Their analysis, published in the journal Polar Record (Cambridge University Press), has shown that whilst levels of lead in the crew were high relative to today’s levels, they may not have been exceptional in lead-contaminated 19th century Britain where lead poisoning was not uncommon. Using statistical estimation, they also showed great variation in lead levels amongst the crew which is similar to that seen in present-day, lead-exposed workers.

From this, they conclude that although a proportion of the 129 men may have suffered symptoms of lead poisoning – much as in the contemporary land-based population – the physical and mental state of others would have been largely unaffected, at least while their general health remained good.

This finding, linked to other historical evidence that suggests the crew suffered no serious debility until their provisions began to run short after more than two years in the Arctic, may justify a reappraisal of the supposed central role of lead poisoning in the disaster, suggest the team.

It is now known that the expedition had the misfortune to set out at a time when, according to ice-core analysis, Arctic climatic conditions were unusually harsh. The two ships involved in the expedition to find the Northwest Passage – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – became trapped for two winters in a region so remote that neither rescue nor escape was possible.

“The failure of the Admiralty to equip the crew adequately in the event that the ships had to be abandoned, and delay and miscalculation in organising the rescue mission, sealed their fate as they attempted an overland retreat that was beyond their capability,” add the team.

The Canadian Government agency Parks Canada conducts an annual summer search for the expedition’s missing ships. Their eventual discovery may provide definitive answers to the Franklin mystery, suggest the researchers.

The full article is behind a pay wall, but an abstract of the findings can be found here.

Is science being “muzzled” in Canada?

A "Stand Up for Science" demonstration in November at Science World in Vancouver, BC. Photo: Chris Yakimov, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

A “Stand Up for Science” demonstration in November at Science World in Vancouver, BC. Photo: Chris Yakimov, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

It’s a little past New Year’s with the customary round ups of top stories – or ignored stories – for the year that was. But I find it hard to let go of this topic, which has raged – quietly – in Canada for a few years now: the so-called “muzzling” of scientists.

How does a topic rage quietly? By generating passion in small circles (scientists and journalists) while being virtually ignored everywhere else.

Admittedly, I’m biased. As a thinking citizen of two western democracies, I believe information should be freely available for open discussion. As a taxpayer I’d like to think publicly-funded research is being shared and used in a non-partisan manner. As someone who works in news circles, being able to speak to expert sources directly is easier, faster and more useful for me, and far more informative for the public.

Taking the flip side, there the old adage that “information is power.” And I agree that news coverage can be unbalanced/biased. Let’s face it, some news outlets have a tone, or agenda, whether they like to admit it or not. To name names, many point to Fox News when those charges come out, but I detect bias in organizations like CBC and NPR too. Taking all that into consideration, should it really be a surprise if politicians try to steer the conversation?

Here’s a article on that topic from Maclean’s Magazine’s out of their round up of favorite long-form articles from 2013. (There are many others, but one should suffice for a simple blog post.) Written by Jonathan Gatehouse back in May of 2013, the title alone does not sound completely objective: “When science goes silent: With the muzzling of scientists, Harper’s obsession with controlling the message verges on the Orwellian”.

I don’t cover a lot of hard news or breaking stories in person, but a number of years ago I did meet with at least one federal government researcher and asked if he/she had to get prior approval for our interview. (I am trying to obscure who I spoke with.) That nameless scientist said her/his field wasn’t considered sufficiently controversial to need constant supervision. But “hot potato” fields were a whole different ball game. Some Canadian researchers had to tread pretty carefully indeed. Sensitive subjects included gene research, GMO foods and just about anything to do with climate change or potentially negative environmental impacts associated with resource development.

So, as indicated earlier, I have a dog in this fight and I may not be able to present it in an even-handed way.

If you have the time or interest, give the Maclean’s article a read and comment further on the topic.

Americans and Canadians face a lot of policy decisions that (one would think) should be based on the best available information. Even if this seems like some other nation’s small domestic quarrel, how knowledge is funded and released should matter – to everyone.

The ups and downs of wild animal success stories

Whooping Cranes are among the rebounding threatened species. This family group is at its nesting ground in Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta. Photo: Angi English, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Whooping Cranes are among the rebounding threatened species. This family group is at its nesting ground in Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta. Photo: Angi English, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

There’s a lot of bleak tidings for far too many creatures these days, including (but not limited to) bats, monarch butterflies and bees. So it’s a relief when happier trends come along.

Here’s an example from Canadian Geographic‘s December issue: “Species on the rebound – The remarkable resurgence of seven Canadian Critters” As the intro puts it “From pintsize Prairie predators to Pacific giants, these seven Canadian species have rallied from the very edge of extinction.”

Those seven are: whooping crane, humpback whale, Eastern wild turkey, Swift fox, sea otter, wood bison, and peregrine falcon. The article added a “too close to call” category for three species that may be headed toward stability: black-footed ferret, Newfoundland marten and Kirtland’s warbler.

On a similar note, here’s a BBC comeback article highlighting gains in populations and health of key wild animals in Europe, including predators and scavengers like bears, wolves, lynx, eagles and vultures:

Frans Schepers, the organisation’s director [ed. note: of Rewilding Europe] said: “People have this general picture of Europe that we’ve lost all our nature and our wildlife.

“And I think what the rest of the world can learn from this is that conservation actually works. If we have the resources, a proper strategy, if we use our efforts, it actually works.”

Obviously, revitalizing animal populations – especially predators – is often controversial.  Scott Sayare offers a poignant view of how that can play out in this September 2013 article for the New York Times: “As Wolves Return to the French Alps, a Way of Life is Threatened”:

But to the exasperation of this region’s shepherds, who for generations have scaled these hills with the seasons, the species’ success has been due in no small part to the ample, easy pickings. Wolves have been slaughtering vast numbers of sheep here — at least 20,000 in just the past five years, according to an official count. The government has spent tens of millions of euros in efforts to stanch the attacks, but to little avail, and shepherds increasingly call the wolf an existential threat.

“They’re killing shepherding as I know it,” said Bernard Bruno, 47, who has lost at least a thousand sheep in recent years. The wolf’s return may symbolize environmental progress to some, said Mr. Bruno, a stout, blue-eyed man who has spent 25 summers alone here with his flock and a walking stick. But it has also imperiled “one of the last natural, ecological kinds of livestock farming,” he said.

Of course, wild animals were here first and have every right to healthy continued existence. Similarly, a balanced ecosystem supports all life on earth, including we humans. But challenges arise when it comes to balancing conflicting interests. Ottawa residents know all about the wild turkeys of Barrhaven. (They may sound harmless, but check out the story-comment shared by Michael Greer.)

Are you in favor of putting the wild back in wilderness, or are cougars, wolf packs and such more than you want to deal with?

Bats continue to be devastated by white-nose syndrome

Bats infected with White-nose Syndrome in Hailes Cave, Albany County, NY. Photo: Nancy Heaslip, NYS DEC

Bats infected with White-nose Syndrome in Hailes Cave near Albany, NY. Photo: Nancy Heaslip, DEC

Here’s a Canadian update on the plight of bats affected by white-nose syndrome, a topic followed in detail by Brian Mann as that outbreak came to light.

Earlier this year, CBC news reported the impact of white-nose in Canada’s Atlantic provinces has been quite severe – perhaps up to 99% of New Brunswick’s overwintering bat population has been killed. For those who may shrug and say “so what”, the CBC article offered more to consider:

Bats can live between 30 and 35 years and have a relatively low birth rate, with only one offspring born every year, so it could take many years for the population to recover, scientists have said.

The declining bat population is a serious problem because bats are a natural form of pest control, officials have said.

If there aren’t enough bats to eat insects and help control insect populations, that could have a serious impact on farming, pesticide use, and the price of food.

This past week something called the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)  recommended Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq grant endangered status to three bat species: the little brown, the northern and the tri-coloured bats.

In case you’re wondering, here’s an explanation of that committee from their website: COSEWIC “… is a committee of experts that assesses and designates which wildlife species are in some danger of disappearing from Canada.”

According to CBC Aglukkaq is required to respond to that request within 90 days. Options include accepting or rejecting the recommendation – or requesting additional information.

Here’s the view on the bats in question, from a larger COSEWIC December press release discussing 28 Canadian wildlife species assessed as “at risk” during recent COSEWIC meetings held in Ottawa this past November:

Three bat species assessed at this meeting remind us again that even the most abundant wildlife populations can plummet rapidly. In late 2011, wildlife officials in Nova Scotia asked COSEWIC to assess the Little Brown Myotis, Northern Myotis, and Tri-colored Bat. Alarming numbers of hibernating bats were dying from an introduced fungal disease known as White-nose Syndrome. This fungus flourishes in the caves and mines where these bats overwinter. Each of these three bats has experienced steep declines of up to 94% since the disease arrived in Canada in 2010, and millions of bats have died in northeastern North America. White-nose Syndrome first appeared in a cave in central New York in 2006, and has spread 200-250 km per year into 22 U.S. states, as well as Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The disease is expected to spread across North America within two decades, and is likely to affect other species of hibernating bats. COSEWIC confirmed its emergency assessment of 2012, assessing all three bats as Endangered.

For these three bat species, the road to recovery will be long. The disease is still spreading, bat populations will continue to decline, and successful recovery is not guaranteed. We have learned from limited successes with other species that a coordinated approach that includes scientific research, effective conservation management, public awareness and private and public stewardship provides the best chance that these bats will once again fill our night skies.

The group White-nose syndrome.org has more information on this subject, including a map of the spread of white-nose syndrome to date and a section on what you can do to help.