Chernobyl’s Birds Adapt to Radiation- latest Science Bulletin!

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster had a high ecological cost, with local wildlife suffering from physical deformities and reduced populations. The site has since emerged as a unique environment for scientists to study the long-term effects of continuous radiation exposure on plants and animals.

Our latest Bio Bulletin looks at a recent study showing that many bird species are surprisingly adaptable to life in highly radioactive areas.


Functional Ecology: Chronic exposure to low-dose radiation at Chernobyl favours adaptation to oxidative stress in birds

Nature: Chernobyl birds adapt to radiation

University of South Carolina: Chernobyl Research Initiative

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Veil of Ignorance

Hi readers! I just got back to NYC from Missoula, Montana! I was at the North American Conference for Conservation Biology. It was a good conference and I was able to present some of my work on tiger beetles and watch many of my fellow museum colleagues give great talks. I also went to a great session on invasive species- but not in the way you’d think. I’d like to take this post to summarize some of what was discussed in that session.

Beautiful coastal terrace prairie? It is FULL of invasive grasses.

Beautiful coastal terrace prairie? It is FULL of invasive grasses.

How do you react to the word “invasive”? It has an immediate negative connotation, so when you call a species “invasive” it sounds like a property of the species and you may automatically think about how we need to get rid of it! Well, species are only “non-native” and “invasive” because we, humans, moved them from one place to another- either on purpose or by accident. Native species, the “good” guys, are those which have evolved in a place and adapted to it. Think about your neighborhood park or backyard- or any natural area you spent time in- growing up. Does it look differently now? Were the species there when you were a kid “native”? What about those now present? There is often an emotional connection with “native” species that also makes us having negative feelings against the “invasives”. Many scholars have likened this feeling to xenophobia- or fear of foreign people- but I’m not going to get into that philosophical debate here.

One speaker at the session, Emma Marris, challenged us to conduct a “Veil of Ignorance” experiment. In other words, if we didn’t know if the species were native or not, how would we manage the site? For example, if we were managing an area- say a park- for a rare fish-eating bird as well as trying to maintain good recreation conditions, would we try to eradicate all of the grasses that cover the meadows? Why would you do this? If those grasses happen to be from another country originally, you might call them invasive and might decide to attempt to get rid of them. But would you be successful? Probably not. In the meantime, you might just use up all of your limited time and money that you could have spent attempting to improve habitat for the rare bird- such as improve water quality. The ‘Veil of Ignorance’ is a useful thought experiment when checking management priorities versus values.

TallamybookOf course, there are many examples of how eradicating invasive species should be at the top of a manager’s priority list. For example, Doug Tallamy from the University of Delaware discussed how non-native trees in suburban neighborhoods support half the number of butterfly and moth caterpillars, thus drastically reducing the amount of food available to birds, and in turn, bird populations. Tallamy argued that the butterflies and moths are specifically adapted to the native trees and couldn’t effectively use the non-native trees to breed. Thus, Tallamy writes about how planting and replacing non-native with native trees and plants can greatly improve biodiversity, particularly in human dominated areas. He concluded that it is better question to ask if introduced plants have net value when managing rather than just aim to eradicate them immediately.

A final couple points raised in the discuss I found very provocative and worth thinking about were well, what about the Endangered Species Act? If, say, the Tea Party politicians caught on that conservation scientists are not as concerned about non-native species, will they use this reduced concern for native species as a reason to go after the Act? Finally, I leave you with a thought posed by Chris Thomas from York, “If we define base lines [for conservation management] as a past state, then everything is going to move away from those baselines, and we are dooming ourselves to failure.”

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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

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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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