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).

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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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Day at the Museum

I am in my fourth week here at the American Museum of Natural History and as soon as I step off the subway, I am reminded of the importance of the work I and so many others do as conservation scientists, educators, practitioners, and the like. Here is a little overview of what I get to experience as I walk through the museum to my office.

The museum stop at 81st St. Central Park West is unlike any other subway stop you’ll encounter in NYC. The walls and floor are covered in mosaics and outlines of organisms from dinosaur bones to pelicans to monarch caterpillars and- believe it or not- to a tiger beetle! I’m still learning which subway car will drop me exactly at the tiger beetle, but this morning I was luckily to have that happen and took this picture to prove it!

Tiger Beetle at Central Park West

Tiger Beetle at Central Park West

Hall of Biodiversity

Hall of Biodiversity

Once off the subway, I go up the stairs and through the Hall of Biodiversity and am greeted with the sight of a myriad of butterflies, beetles, crustaceans, fish mammals, reptiles, birds and a giant jelly fish.

Rain Forest






Half of the time, I take the side route so that I can go through the rainforest replica that plays videos explaining research and conservation efforts in rain forests around the world. Part of my position is to be the “science advisor” to the Bio Bulletins that are played throughout the museum. I get to help create and review content in these great, educational films. Check them out here: Bio News and Documentaries.

Redwoods in the Hall of North American Forests

Redwoods in the Hall of North American Forests

Once through the Hall of Biodiversity, I walk through the Hall of North American Forests and right past the Redwood exhibit. Whenever I feel a little homesick for the redwoods and Santa Cruz Mountains, I can come to this exhibit and pretend I’m there. It isn’t the same, but it is something!



Turkana Boy

Turkana Boy



Right before my office, I reach the Hall of Human Origins. Something I haven’t shared here on this blog is that my first love in science was with Archaeology- I nearly minored in it in college- and I was a little obsessed with the Leakeys growing up. Thus, it is no trivial matter that I walk by replicas of the hominid skeletal remains of both Lucy and Turkana Boy. This exhibit brings me back to my kid-like initial scientific curiosity and amazement. Also in this hall are videos of scientists explaining the importance of evolution to all of biology and life. I absolutely love watching museum patrons as they explore and learn the vital connection between themselves and the earth.

Finally, I arrive at my office in the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. Here, I work on creating, reviewing, editing, and maintaining the large collection of conservation modules of the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners. Please check out and use our modules, they are peer-reviewed and completely open source: There are background documents, presentations, exercises with solutions, and case studies on a myriad of conservation topics from around the world. We are working on initiating a new, more user friendly format but with the same great thorough information, so stay tuned. Speaking of, I need to get back to work!

View from my office at Central Park West.

View from my office at Central Park West.

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Urban Nature: How to Foster Biodiversity in World’s Cities by Richard Conniff: Yale Environment 360

Good Read:

“it’s not enough for cities to plant a million trees, preach the gospel of backyard gardens, or build green roofs and smart streets. The trees, shrubs, and flowers in that ostensibly green infrastructure also need to benefit birds, butterflies, and other animals. They need to provide habitat for breeding, shelter, and food. Where possible, the habitat needs to be arranged in corridors where wildlife can safely travel. “

Urban Nature: How to Foster Biodiversity in World’s Cities by Richard Conniff: Yale Environment 360.

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2013 in review

2013 has been a big year for me and unfortunately that meant that this blog suffered neglect the last half of the year. I hope to turn that around soon now that I am settled in NYC at the American Museum of Natural History! More on that come, but for now, here is the wordpress year in review for Conservation of Biodiversity- check out the most popular posts!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,000 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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