Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIV


Blog post coming soon…in the meantime, enjoy these cartoons!

Originally posted on

Another 6 biodiversity cartoons for your conservation giggle & groan (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

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Conservation corridors benefit plants too!

Here is our latest Bio News about a very cool study showing that conservation corridors can increase plant dispersal!

The AMNH link with the study and other resources:

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Just call me the Science Advisor

I wanted to write a little about one very cool aspect of my job: science advisor to bio bulletins. It sounds exciting, and it is! I am a the scientific advisor, or conservation expert, for the videos that play in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History. Now, many of the halls in the museum have their own videos playing and not all the videos in each hall are produced by the museum’s science bulletins team, but many are- and I get to work with them! The science bulletins team is an exciting group of artists, editors, and animators that have an amazing amount of scientific knowledge to boot.

There are three types of ‘bio’ bulletins that I am part of: short 2-minute overview videos of a cool study or conservation science news that come out every month, short bio data visualizations on visible changes on the planet that come out a few times/year, and bio documentaries ~8 minute longer pieces on conservation expeditions and more in-depth analysis of a study that are produced twice a year. See them all here:

So far, I’ve been able to advise on all three types. The process is relatively the same for each, however, with the time needed to research material allocated respectively with the time of each piece (i.e. longer for documentaries), so I will elaborate on a recent bio news that we completed on invasive crazy ants! The month starts out with the bulletins team sending me a few recent studies or conservation news pieces they are interested in making into a bio news story- they also sometimes ask if I have an idea for a story. Last month, one of the producers sent me a story that I thought would be a great visual news story: crazy ants taking over the south!

Now, of course, the story has to be of potential wide interest and have great visuals to accompany the script. My job is to not only read the scientific articles for background and help decipher the science, but I also make sure the conservation message is clear and direct. I specifically take this last part very seriously and make sure each video has a conservation angle people can understand- much like this blog :).

Once a story is chosen, I read the relevant articles and wait for a draft script and accompanying slides. In one case, I also reached out to my fellow scientists and network for some photos to use (see the beetles in: and I suspect I might need to do more of that in the future. I then get to go through a series of edits with both the script and the visuals, mostly editing the script for scientific accuracy and a prominent conservation message. The videos are great and it’s very cool to see our work in the Hall of Biodiversity- and the public taking in the conservation message.

I will post them here as we complete them every month. Here are the two latest visualizations and bio news, respectively:

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIII

Originally posted on

Here are another 6 biodiversity cartoons for your conservation pleasure/pain (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

View original

Posted in General conservation issues | Leave a comment

Maple syrup is why

I love maple syrup. Love it. Maple is, to me, second only to cinnamon when it comes to most amazing flavors in the world. Luckily for me, yesterday I happened to come across a advertisement for the New York State Maple Weekend- when is this weekend? Why this very weekend! Whatever plans I had today, I had to alter them to get my butt to a maple tree farm (or sugar bush). And that is just what I did. I went to Niese’s Maple Farm where I learned all about the production of maple syrup for the first time since I field-tripped to the sugar bush at Blandford Nature Center as an elementary school kid.

20140323_123615I was reminded how very special Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) are and how lucky we are to have these beautiful trees in North America. Sugar Maples were first tapped for their sap by Native Americans and, of course, this practice was adopted by European settlers and is continued today- allowing us to enjoy pancakes and waffles for breakfast. Sugar Maples are one of the major and dominant tree species found throughout Northeastern US and Southeastern Canadian forests; but while they have adapted to our constant use as a sweetener source, they are not doing so well with other human-caused changes.

Spiles over the years

Spiles over the years


The systems at Niese’s farm. The pale shows the old-fashion way of gravity collected sap, while the plastic tubing is attached to a vacuum to speed up the process. The Nieses use a combination of the methods.

During the informative tour provided by Niese’s staff, I asked about the trees- how do they withstand the constant tapping, year after year? It turns out that farmers can only take about 10% of the sap for syrup production without killing the tree, and the syrup season is pretty short. The trees start producing quality sap as soon as the temperatures get above freezing in the daytime, usually mid-February (our arctic vortex pushed this year back some…) and they stop once the nights get too warm- usually by the end of March. Once the temperatures are above 60 degrees during the day for more than 2-3 days, the maples will bud and the sap becomes bitter- aka, no more maple flavor.


Delicious in the making- vats of boiling sap.

As Mr. Niese- an old timer and 8th generation syrup producer- stood over his vats of boiling goodness, addressing the packed crowd, he jumped right into his fear of global warming. He cited the fact that maple farmers in Virginia are all but out of business with the increasing winter temperatures and warmer nights- lowering the sap quality. He also talked about how the Sugar Maples won’t survive several days of warmer temps- prolonged summers with days above 80 degrees spells death for Sugar Maples, turning the forests over to some other, more heat-tolerant tree. Some farmers have started tapping into Swamp Maples for syrup, but the quality is just not the same, as it takes something like 10-20 times the sap to get what you get with Sugar Maples.

With global warming and other threats (they don’t do so well with pollution overall), and the decline of maples and other hardwood trees, the price for Sugar Maple wood has increased. Logging companies offer millions to maple farmers thinking about retirement. Luckily, Niese’s has younger generations lining up to continue the tradition, but not all farms are so lucky. Unfortunately, it seems the deck is stacked against Sugar Maples- and their delicious sap- BUT with increased forest protections and actions to reduce CO2 emitting energy sources, we can at least slow the trend and hope the trees adapt- or at least hope they can survive in the northern part of their range (…the US better stay friendly with Canada).

Otherwise- what would life be like without maple syrup? So much less sweeter. Keeping maple syrup around is one damn good reason to fight harder for emissions reductions and adoption of renewable energies. Let’s do it for the sweet life, and the Sugar Maples.

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The best part of waking up? No beetles in your cup.

While you enjoy your cup of coffee this morning, take a moment between sips to thank the birds and the ants that made it beetle-free. You might wonder why I, a self proclaimed beetle lover, want a beetle-free anything ? Well, even I understand that there is a time and place for beetles…which, while that includes most times and places, does not include my coffee mug in the morning (ok, I’m lying, I’d love that…but I’m trying to relate…).

The tiny coffee-loving beetle I am referring to is known as the coffee berry borer (CBB). I didn’t know the CBB existed until Stacy Philpott and her lab joined my department at UC Santa Cruz a couple years ago. Coincidentally, the CBB showed up in my life again- twice- last week, so I saw it as a sign to share it with you all. The CBB has quickly become a big issue for coffee growers- and drinkers- everywhere as it spreads from its native Africa to Central and South America and, as of 2010, it is even in Hawaii.


The CBB. Photo L. Shyamal

Exit hole of female CBB in a coffee fruit. Photo by L. Shyamal

Exit hole of female CBB in a coffee fruit. Photo by L. Shyamal

The CBB is a tiny beetle in the weevil family that burrows into coffee beans when it is developing into a fruit. Specifically, the female enters the bean and lays her eggs. Once the larvae have eaten enough, they molt into adults and mate. There are 13 females to every 1 male and males never leave the bean and cannot fly. Because of this, female eyes are adapted differently to actually see the berries in the environment, while the males eyes are greatly reduced. Check out this blog post for more info and a cool pic of CBB eyes (the first place I saw the CBB this week).

Once the coffee bean becomes the CBB nursery, it is no longer good for consumption. Thus, the CBB can greatly reduce coffee yields, reducing farmer’s profits and making your coffee more expensive. So, how do we get rid of this CBB?

Stacy and her lab study the insect predators of CBB in Mexican coffee farms, specifically the ants. Here are some cool videos showing what the ants do to the CBB on the coffee (videos by Stacy’s graduate student Esteli Jimenez-Soto):

BUT it isn’t just ANTS taking care of the CBB for us, BIRDS are effective predators too!

Last week for the “bio lunch” at work (when we get together to geek out on a paper- ecologist style) we read “Forest bolsters bird abundance, pest control and coffee yield” by Karp et al. The researchers showed that birds reduced CBB infestation by 50% in Costa Rica coffee farms! They then figured out which birds eat the CBB by checking the bird’s poop for CBB DNA! (Like Julie Jedlicka is doing in CA vineyards)

Rufous-capped Warbler- a CBB predator. Photo

Rufous-capped Warbler- a CBB predator. Photo

The best part about this study is where these CBB-eating birds are coming from. It turns out that patches of forest within and between coffee plantations provide habitat for CBB-loving birds. Specifically, with increasing forest cover, both the number of birds and their predation on CBB increased, causing a reduction in CBB infestation. The study also showed that not just the large, protected patches of forest provide bird habitat- but that small patches throughout the coffee farms work just as well.

In other words, farms that maintain at least some forest get more beneficial free CBB control services- conservation agriculture works! More forest means more birds and ants, increasing coffee yield, farmer profits, and savings for us. Which also means more coffee for you and me. Win!

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Jumping the Fence

Here is a link to a great blog post by fellow museum postdoc Mark Weckel on NYC Urban wildlife and his project with Coyotes. The post is at the Center for Humans and Nature.

Jumping the Fence.

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