As species rapidly adapt to altered landscapes and a warming climate, scientists and stakeholders need new techniques to monitor ecological responses and plan future conservation efforts. Writing in BioScience, Drs. Stephen McCormick of the US Geological Survey and Michael Romero of Tufts University describe the emerging field of conservation endocrinology and its growing role in addressing the effects of environmental change. The authors argue that, bolstered by the development of new field-sampling techniques, researchers working in this area are poised to make substantial contributions to the wider field of conservation biology.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, Dr. McCormick describes the range of applications spawned by new research involving the endocrine system, which refers to the set of glands that deliver hormones directly to the circulatory system. These new applications span the measurement of birds' altered stress hormones in response to ecotourism to drone-collected blowhole spray from whales, which may contain hormonal clues about the species' broader health. Other applications include the monitoring of human-introduced endocrine disruptors in aquatic systems and various hormonal changes induced by urbanization, hunting, invasive species, habitat disruption, marine noise, and many other potential stressors.
On landscapes around the world, environmental change is bringing people and large carnivores together—but the union is not without its problems. Human–wildlife conflict is on the rise as development continues unabated and apex predators begin to reoccupy their former ranges. Further complicating matters, many of these species are now reliant on human-provided foods, such as livestock and trash.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Dr. Thomas Newsome of Deakin University and the University of Sydney. Writing in BioScience, Newsome and his colleagues use gray wolves and other large predators as case studies to explore the effects of human-provided foods. They find numerous instances of species' changing their social structures, movements, and behavior when these resources are available. Perhaps most concerning, they've found that human-fed populations often form distinct genetic subgroups, which could lead to future speciation events.
Nature's positive impact on mood is easily understood on an intuitive level, but a more fine-grain analysis reveals quantifiable effects with potentially serious implications for human well-being. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we are joined by Dr. Daniel Cox of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, in Penryn, United Kingdom. Writing for BioScience, Cox and his colleagues described recent work that found strong correlations between nature exposure and positive markers of mental health. In addition, the authors used dose–response modeling to uncover threshold effects that may help guide urban planning, with the ultimate goal of reducing the societal burdens of mental illness.
Climate-driven disturbances are having profound impacts on coastal ecosystems, with many crucial habitat-forming species in sharp decline. However, among these degraded biomes, examples of resilience are emerging. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Dr. Jennifer O'Leary, a California Sea Grant Marine Biologist based at California Polytechnic State University, and Dr. Fiorenza Micheli, from Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. Their recent article in BioScience discusses a large-scale study that uncovered numerous ecosystem "bright spots," in which habitat-forming species proved either resistant to or able to recover from sometimes severe perturbations. Of particular importance, say the authors, are the possible implications for ecosystem-sparing management.
For more than 100 years, eucalypts—woody plants that range in size from shrubs to trees—have been transported from their natural ecosystems in Australia to plantations across the globe. This unique history provides a novel lens for viewing the spread of pathogens and may shed light on future outbreaks as ecosystems face growing pressure from climate change.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Dr. Treena Burgess of Murdoch University in Western Australia, who also holds an adjunct appointment with the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She describes her recent article in BioScience, written with Michael Wingfield. In it, the authors articulate seven scenarios of pathogen movement and disease epidemics, as well as the biosecurity risks that arise from poorly controlled germplasm movement. The dangers are significant, with economically important eucalypt plantations and native ecosystems both facing significant threats.
The science of human microbiomes is advancing at an incredible pace. With each passing day, more is known about the vast suite of microorganisms that inhabit human bodies—and about the important role that they play in maintaining our health.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, we look at the human microbiome from an environmentalist's perspective. What are the health benefits of microbiota from environmental sources? What are the threats of altered microbiota? How should we manage the landscapes that play host to this crucial microbial diversity?
To help answer these questions, we spoke with Craig Liddicoat of the University of Adelaide and the South Australian government's Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. Liddicoat and his colleagues recently published an article in BioScience that shines a light on the myriad benefits of preserving environmental microbiomes and proposes a unifying conceptual framework for the multidisciplinary approach needed to tackle this emerging research area.
Over 1 million dams exist worldwide. These structures have numerous environmental effects, and there is no shortage of research on the various ecological consequences of dams. But there is another major threat arising from dammed waters: the release of greenhouse gases.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Dr. Bridget Deemer of the US Geological Survey. Deemer and her colleagues recently embarked on a systematic effort to synthesize reservoir greenhouse-gas data. The results, described in BioScience, point to reservoirs as a substantial yet often unrecognized source of greenhouse gases.
Scientists have long debated the best methods to achieve sound findings. In recent decades, hypothesis-driven frameworks have been enshrined in textbooks and school courses, with iterative and inductive approaches often taking a back seat. However, the advent of big data poses a challenge to the established dogma, as large data sets often require broad collaborations and make traditional hypothesis-driven approaches less tractable. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Michigan State University professors Kendra Cheruvelil, Georgina Montgomery, Kevin Elliott, and Patricia Soranno. Their interdisciplinary work highlights the changing scientific landscape, in which large data sets and new computational methods encourage a more iterative approach to science.
Most interactions between humans and bears result in no harm to either party. However, aggressive bears can occasionally pose a serious threat to human well-being, such as occurred in a recent attack in the Montana backcountry. In this bonus episode, bear behavior expert Dr. Tom Smith of Brigham Young University sheds light on what may have spurred the attack and shares recommendations for avoiding negative interactions with bears when traveling in their habitats.
The installation of structures to protect against coastal threats, called shoreline hardening, is a common practice worldwide, with many coastal cities having 50% or more of their shores protected against floods and erosion. Despite increasing evidence of negative ecosystem effects, shoreline hardening is expected to continue as growing coastal populations scramble to address rising seas and severe storms. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Dr. Rachel Gittman of Northeastern University. Gittman and her colleagues recently conducted a meta-analysis of 54 existing studies on shoreline hardening. The results, described in the journal BioScience, highlight a stark impact to biodiversity but also point to approaches that may mitigate the harm.
The burgeoning field of citizen science offers the public an opportunity to participate directly in research and data analysis—and it offers scientists access to robust data sets that previously would have been impossible to collect. Unfortunately, research on citizen science itself has often been lacking, with most studies focused on existing participants, with little attention paid to the wider public's interest in these important projects. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Vicki Martin of Southern Cross University, in Lismore, Australia, who describes the results of a groundbreaking 1145-person survey of marine users and their attitudes toward citizen science projects. We talked about the study's implications both for the general public and for researchers eager to catch a ride on the citizen science wave.
Hydropower dams generate more energy than all other renewable sources combined. However, they can also produce dire environmental consequences, including the devastation of aquatic insect populations and the food webs that those insects underpin. A practice called "hydropeaking" is evidently to blame. By altering river flows to meet power-generation needs, hydropeaking generates artificial tides that extirpate insect species. In this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Dr. Ted Kennedy, a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey's Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. In this month's BioScience, he and his colleagues describe the underlying phenomenon and the citizen science project that brought it to light. In our discussion, Dr. Kennedy explains his findings and offers possible solutions to the hydropeaking conundrum.
Gene drives have the potential to revolutionize approaches to major public health, conservation, and agricultural problems. For instance, gene drives might one day prevent mosquitoes from spreading a variety of deadly diseases, including Zika virus, malaria, and others. A form of genetic modification, the technology works by causing a particular genetic element to spread through populations, thereby making it possible to change species in the wild. Despite the significant promise, caution is warranted, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Committee on Gene Drive Research. According to the committee, gene drives raise a variety of ecological and regulatory questions that have yet to be answered. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by committee co-chair Dr. James P. Collins of Arizona State University and committee member Dr. Joseph Travis of Florida State University. They fill us in on the specifics of the report and on the future of gene drives.
The world faces unprecedented environmental transformation. Successfully managing and adapting to a rapidly changing Earth requires the swift action of well-informed policymakers. In a State of the Science report for BioScience, Audrey Mayer of Michigan Technological University and her colleagues describe a major role for the field of landscape ecology in informing policy and management. She joins us on this episode of BioScience Talks to chat about the article and discuss some practical applications--both those in use now and those on the horizon. Because landscape ecology operates at multiple scales and across human and natural systems, it is a uniquely powerful tool for those who will make tomorrow's environmental and land-use policies.
The potentially devastating effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs are well known, but the methods used to evaluate the threats are often focused on individual species, viewed in isolation, and often in a laboratory. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Peter Edmunds of California State University, Northridge, who describes that issue and talks about the broad-scale inter-species and inter-population dynamics that may have unforeseen consequences for ocean ecosystems. In particular, differences across scales--from organisms to populations, to communities and ecosystems--will have major impacts on reefs. For instance, differently responding symbiotic species could alter a reef's community structure--and, ultimately, the health of the reef as a whole
Globally declining fish populations are a frequently cited ecological and commercial calamity, but relatively little attention has been paid to the specific threats faced by fish that gather and spawn in large groups. Because they gather in such large groups, these fish are at particular risk of overfishing and population collapse. In this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Yvonne Sadovy, of the University of Hong Kong and Science and Conservation of Fish Aggregations (SCRFA), who studies these aggregate spawners. In our discussion, she outlines the unique threats faced by these species, which also include ineffective management techniques better suited toward fish with different life histories. She also outlines the mechanisms that might help preserve these aggregations in the years to come.
Habitat destruction and the direct exploitation of species often occupy center stage in discussions of biodiversity perils. However, indirect harms, such as that posed by nitrogen pollution, remain underappreciated and poorly understood despite playing a key role in species declines. The mechanisms of nitrogen's impacts are diverse and often involve hard-to-pinpoint chains of causality. For this episode, we're joined by Dr. Dan Hernandez of Carleton College and Dr. Erika Zavaleta of the University of California, Santa Cruz. They and their colleagues recently conducted a survey of 1400 species listed under the US Endangered Species Act, finding a total of 78 that face known hazards from excess nitrogen. They describe their findings here.
Animal-borne diseases have ruled the news cycle recently—from Zika and Ebola to SARS and MERS. However, little is known about the spread of these diseases in their animal hosts. More perplexing, the mechanisms that lead to human outbreaks remain elusive. Dr. Dan Salkeld of Colorado State University hopes to change that through the study of plague—the disease responsible for the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Plague is now a worse problem for the prairie dogs that Salkeld studies than it is for humans, but understanding its unique ecology may shed light elsewhere. By using plague and its complex, multispecies dynamics as a model, Salkeld hopes that we can achieve key insights into why, how, and when diseases like Ebola and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome spill over into human populations.
Across the United States, record quantities of corn and soybeans have been harvested in recent years. However, according Dr. David Gustafson of the International Life Sciences Institute Research Foundation, this trend may soon change. The combined and uncertain effects of climate change could have a devastating impact on grain yields in the US Midwest, with major global implications for food security. To address these rising threats, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues propose a new, coordinated network of field research sites at which precise data on the performance of current and future crops, cropping systems, and farm-level management practices in the US Midwest could be gathered. Dr. Gustafson joins us to describe the plan.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of contact with nature for human well-being. However, despite strong trends toward greater urbanization and declining green space, little is known about the social consequences of such contact. Netta Weinstein, senior lecturer at Cardiff University, and her team used a nationally representative UK study to examine the relationships between social cohesion and exposure to nature. The interrelationships were complex, but the results indicate that, even when controlling for numerous possible confounds, nature exposure may account for meaningful amounts of variance in crime and perceived community well-being.
The integration of data from two or more domains is required for addressing many fundamental scientific questions and understanding how to mitigate challenges affecting humanity and our planet. In March 2015, AIBS convened a workshop that brought together more than two dozen experts in genetics, genomics and metagenomics, biology, systematics, taxonomy, ecology, bio- and ecoinformatics, and cyberinfrastructure development. The workshop was co-chaired by Dr. Corinna Gries, Lead Information Manager at the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin, who joins us to discuss the challenge of complex data integration and AIBS's upcoming Council Meeting on Addressing Biological Informatics Workforce Needs.
Eighty-one percent of US science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) university faculty members are men. The relative dearth of women in the field is a long-recognized problem—but it's one that may be on its way to a solution. Using a three-step intervention derived from self-determination theory, an interdisciplinary team from Montana State University demonstrated a low-cost way to improve gender diversity in STEM-faculty hiring. The results were impressive, with search committees in the intervention group 6.3 times more likely to make an offer to a woman candidate. Dr. Alexander Zale was part of the team, and he joins us on this episode of BioScience Talks.
"Forest restoration" is a common conservation theme, often promoted as a means of repairing degraded landscapes and boosting carbon storage. But when the planting areas are poorly chosen, these initiatives have the potential to eradicate ancient grasslands, with devastating effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services. In Episode #5 of BioScience Talks, Joseph Veldman of Iowa State University describes the millions of acres of grassy biomes currently under threat from forestation and the efforts under way to protect them.
Human-caused fires have the potential to hugely alter tropical forests—and the world at large. In this episode, we talk to Dr. Jennifer Balch, of the University of Colorado–Boulder. She discusses a long-term experiment in which she and her team deliberately lit fires in the Brazilian Amazon, with the aim of simulating the fires that are often released when people use burning to clear land. The forests were resilient to initial burning, but when a major drought hit in 2007, things changed quickly. The combined effects of drought and fire have huge implications, from grassland incursion and climate change to rainforest loss at previously unmeasured levels.
The article is part of a BioScience Special Section on Tropical Forest Responses to Large-Scale Experiments.
Extracellular vesicles (EVs; article here) are one of the biggest stories in biology. These tiny "packets" are released by cells and constitute a previously misunderstood means of intracellular communication -- and their implications are huge. In humans, EVs can reveal disease, including some cancers and viral infections, and EV technology may soon replace many tissue biopsies. In addition, vesicles can be loaded with targeted treatments for a variety of diseases. The role that EVs will play in medicine is only beginning to be understood.
In this episode, I'm joined by Drs. Xandra Breakefield and Mikolaj Zaborowski, two Harvard Medical School researchers working at the forefront of the field.