Friday, April 22, 2011
Several County Quest sponsors have stepped up with some nice awards, which you can view at http://www.vtecostudies.org/quest/rules.html. This spring, Birds & Beans coffee is offering a challenge to all you java-sipping birders: for each county, the eBirder who initially reports the local arrival of Birds & Bean's iconic species -- Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Baltimore Oriole -- will receive a corresponding 12-oz bag of Smithsonian independently certified Bird Friendly® coffee.
Birds & Beans has provided each county captain (see the list at http://www.vtecostudies.org/quest/countycaptains.html) with these 12-oz bags of coffee, and they will be distributed to the first eBirder reporting each of the 4 signature species. All should be moving north from their Neotropical wintering grounds now, so get out there and be the first in your county to intercept them. Good birding, and promote good conservation by drinking Birds & Beans coffee!
Which county will be the first to hit 150??
Photo courtesy of Roy Pilcher
Thursday, April 21, 2011
The study shows that the observed increase in methylmercury levels, most likely from human-generated emissions, can be observed and tracked over broad time periods in organisms that live in the Pacific Ocean.
The study was published in an online early edition on April 18, 2011, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study has important implications for both environmental and public health, say the authors. "The Pacific in particular warrants high conservation concern as more threatened seabird species inhabit this region than any other ocean," said lead author Anh-Thu Vo, who did her research while an undergraduate at Harvard and is currently a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. "Given both the high levels of methylmercury that we measured in our most recent samples and regional levels of emissions, mercury bioaccumulation and toxicity may undermine reproductive effort in this species and other long-lived, endangered seabirds."
The researchers collected feathers from black-footed albatross specimens in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology and the University of Washington Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and analyzed methylmercury in samples from 1880 to 2002. They found increasing levels of methylmercury that were generally consistent with historical global and recent regional increases in anthropogenic mercury emissions.
"Methylmercury has no benefit to animal life and we are starting to find high levels in endangered and sensitive species across marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems, indicating that mercury pollution and its subsequent chemical reactions in the environment may be important factors in species population declines," said study co-author Michael Bank, a research associate in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).
"Using these historic bird feathers, in a way, represents the memory of the ocean, and our findings serve as a window to the historic and current conditions of the Pacific, a critical fishery for human populations," said Bank. Consumption of mercury-tainted fish from the Pacific Ocean is an important source of human exposure to methylmercury in the United States and may lead to adverse neurodevelopment effects in children, he added. "Much of the mercury pollution issue is really about how much society values wild animal populations, yet we are also faced with the tremendous public health challenge of communicating potential risks from mercury exposure to vulnerable adult and child human populations. Although most people have low or no risk from mercury exposure, for the people who are at risk, for example, from excessive fish consumption, the problem can be considerable," said Bank.
Study co-authors include James Shine, HSPH Department of Environmental Health, and Scott Edwards, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.
Support for the study was provided by the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Harvard College Research Program.
"Temporal increase in organic mercury in an endangered pelagic seabird assessed via century-old museum specimens," Anh-Thu Vo, Michael S. Bank, James P. Shine, Scott V. Edwards, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online April 18, 2011.
The gap between Democrats and Republicans who believe global warming is happening increased 30 percent between 2001 and 2010 – a “depressing” trend that’s essentially keeping meaningful national energy policies from being considered, argues sociologist Aaron M. McCright.
“Instead of a public debate about different policies to deal with global warming, a significant percentage of the American public is still debating the science,” said McCright, MSU associate professor and primary investigator on the study. “As a result, we’re failing to significantly address one of the most serious problems of our time.”
The study is featured in the spring issue of the research journal Sociological Quarterly, online now.
McCright and Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University analyzed 10 years of data from Gallup’s environmental poll, making the study the first of its kind to use multiple years of data. The Gallup poll, conducted annually, consists of a nationally representative telephone survey of at least 1,000 people.
According to the MSU-led study, people on the right of the political spectrum increasingly deny the existence of global warming, while people on the left generally believe in global warming more now than they did 10 years ago. Among other things, the study found:
- Of those who identify as Republicans, about 49 percent said in the 2001 Gallup survey that they believe the effects of global warming have already begun – a number that dropped to 29 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the percentage of Democrats who believe global warming has already begun increased from about 60 in 2001 to 70 in 2010. All told, the gap between these “believers” in the two parties increased from 11 percent in 2001 to 41 percent in 2010.
- A similar trend held for people who identify as either conservative or liberal. When it came to believing that global warming has already begun, the gap between conservatives and liberals increased from about 18 percent in 2001 to 44 percent in 2010.
- Among liberals and Democrats, having a college degree increases the likelihood of reporting beliefs consistent with the scientific consensus. Yet, among conservatives and Republicans, having a college degree often decreases the likelihood of reporting such beliefs.
According to McCright, these results are consistent with the prevailing theory that explains how political polarization occurs in the general public. “In the last few decades political elites have become polarized on climate change. This has driven the political divide on this topic within the American public, as regular citizens have taken cues from ideological and party leaders they trust.”
McCright said the process has been magnified over the past decade by the emergence of media outlets where citizens can seek out news and ideas that reinforce their values and beliefs. He said citizens at either end of the political spectrum can get daily information – albeit very different information – on global warming that further strengthens their opposing beliefs about what is real.
“Unfortunately, this is not a recipe for promoting a civil, science-based discussion on this very serious environmental problem,” McCright said. “Like with the national discussion on health care, we don’t even agree on what the basic facts are.”
This political polarization on climate change is not likely to go away in the near future, he added.
“Many Republican Party leaders have moved further to the right since the 2008 presidential election. We’ve also seen attacks on climate science by Tea Party activists. It seems like climate change denial has become something of a litmus test for Republican candidates,” McCright said.
“This continued elite polarization on climate change means that the general public will likely remain politically divided on climate change for a while.”
Local extinction rates of American pikas have increased nearly five-fold in the last 10 years, and the rate at which the climate-sensitive species is moving up mountain slopes has increased 11-fold, since the 20th century, according to a study soon to be published in Global Change Biology. The research strongly suggests that the American pika's distribution throughout the Great Basin is changing at an increasingly rapid rate. The pika (Ochotona princeps), a small, hamster-looking animal sensitive to climate, occurs commonly in rocky talus slopes and lava flows throughout the western U.S. The study demonstrates a dramatic shift in the range of this rabbit relative, and illustrates the increasingly important role of climate in the loss of local pika populations across the nearly 150,000 square miles of the hydrological Great Basin.
The authors investigated data across 110 years on pika distribution and 62 years of data on regional climate to first describe the patterns of local pika loss, and then examined strength of evidence for multiple competing hypotheses to explain why the losses are occurring. They found that among 25 sites in the Basin with 20th-century records of pikas, a species dependent on cool, high-mountain habitats, nearly half (four of ten) of the local pika extinctions have occurred after 1999. In addition, since 1999 the animals are moving up mountain slopes at an average (Basin-wide) rate of about 145 m (475 feet) per decade, as compared with an estimated Basin-wide average of about 13 m per decade during the 20th century. In contrast, a recent (2003) review found that worldwide, species demonstrating distributional shifts averaged upslope movement of 6.1 m per decade. The species does not seem to be losing ground everywhere across its geographic range, but at least in the Great Basin, it may be one of a group of species that can act as 'early-warning' indicators of how distributions of species may shift in the future.
The study's most novel scientific contribution was that the factors apparently driving the local-extinction process were strongly different during the 20th Century than during 1999-2008. This may mean that knowledge of past population dynamics of a particular species may not always help researchers predict how and why distributions change in the future. That is, the rules of the 'extinction game' seem to be shifting. This study was distinctive in that it relied upon fieldwork across an entire region rather than at just a few sites; had temperature data from the talus spaces that were previously or currently occupied by pikas (rather than simply estimated temperatures from weather recorders far from the study sites); and had three periods of data collection, which allowed for comparison of dynamics during the two intervening periods. Unlike most other mammals that have attracted management and conservation attention in the past, pikas are not widely hunted, don't require large areas of habitat for their individual home ranges, and live in remote high-elevation areas that experience a smaller array of land uses than that experienced by other species. Additionally, with a few localized exceptions, these pika losses have occurred without significant change in the amount or geographic arrangement of their rocky talus habitat. Habitat loss or degradation has typically been the most common cause of species decline, not only in mammals, but also among all animals. In addition to being sentinels, pikas are important because they are food for an array of animals, and as the 'ecosystem engineers' that they are, their presence affects the local plant composition and nutrient distributions.