Biologist, Conservationist, & Portlander. My passion lives in Africa.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Overfishing alters food chains to the extreme.

11:22 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
Photo credit: Catherine Jubb

Cannibalism has been observed in many different forms of nature. In Nambia, I learned about the white lady spider, who waits underground for the vibrations of nearby prey, or male wanting to mate. The male will perform a "dance" that supplies a rhythm that the female senses underneath. If she likes it, they will mate, but if she doesn't, she will often eat him instead. 

photo credit: David Doubliet
My favorite example is the notorious intrauterine cannibalism performed by some shark species. This is when the strongest or most developed embryo literally eats the other embryos and eggs in the uterus of the shark for nutrition. It is true survival of the fittest before birth.

But until now, only in captivity had lobster cannibalism ever been witnessed. In this article on Marine Science Today, it describes the behavior now being documented in the wild. The overfished stocks of the lobsters' main predator, cod and halibut, combined with the warmer waters in Maine due to climate change, has led to a drastic boom in Maine lobster populations. So much so, they have turned on each other for food. 

Banded lobster claw. Photo credit: junehug via photopin cc

I can't be the only one who's as concerned about the effects we have on our ecosystems...

Not only that, but tensions rise in the business world too as Canadian markets suffer from Maine lobsters sudden drop in price. Simple supply and demand, as this article on Reuters states at the end. The depletion of our resources never ends well. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Something tells me this will end badly.

12:30 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
In 1979, it was officially reported that burmese pythons were found in the wild of Southern Florida. Since then, they have taken over and have decimated local avian and rodent species.

Burmese pythons were introduced to the Everglades through the exotic pet trade. Many people buy these snakes as a cool pet, and when they outgrow their cages (like this monster to the right) they are set free. The Everglades and other natural areas around it are prime habitat for burmese pythons, originally from Southern and Southeast Asia, thus the rapid invasion. 

Now, wildlife officials, overwhelmed and exhausted, are looking for solutions. The only way to deal with a harmful invasive species is to eradicate it. Because there are more wildlife issues than just hunting pythons, they've turned the issue over to the public. Florida's Fish and Wildlife Service will be hosting a python hunting contest. To test it out, it will only take place for a month, starting January 2013. 

At first, it sounds like a reasonable solution. Why not let enthusiastic reptile hunters loose on the problem? 

Here are some logistics:
  • Cash prizes for the contestant who hunts the largest python, and for the one who hunts the most pythons.
  • Contestants over 18 do not need a hunting license.
  • Training before the hunt consists of a 25 minute PowerPoint presentation. 
  • Snakes are only to be killed in a humane way and in marked zones. 
Seem reasonable? Well, I'm concerned. I'm concerned that native species of snakes will be killed at a high rate because they are mistaken to be young pythons. I'm concerned that someone is going to get tagged by an Eastern Diamondback or get hurt some other way. I'm concerned this small experiment will turn into a desperate attempt at some cash. 

Example: Ever heard of the term "cobra effect"? Here's where it comes from: 


The Indian Cobra
The term cobra effect stems from an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi.[3] The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising persons began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.[2][4]
A similar incident occurred in HanoiVietnam, under French colonial rule. The colonial regime created a bounty program that paid a reward for eachrat killed.[3] To obtain the bounty, people would provide the severed rat tail. Colonial officials, however, began noticing rats in Hanoi with no tails. The Vietnamese rat catchers would capture rats, lop off their tails, and then release them back into the sewers so that they could procreate and produce more rats, thereby increasing the rat catchers' revenue.[5]  

But who knows. Maybe it'll work out. Maybe whatever possible harms will show themselves within the first month and Florida will learn quickly that it's a bad idea. Or MAYBE everyone will take their training seriously, abide by the rules, and no person or animal will be hurt. In my experience, this doesn't happen often, but for the sake of the Everglades and all the wonders it stores for us, I sure hope it all works out. 

UPDATE: Only 11 snakes killed so far in the python challenge (1/16/2013)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hundreds attend public hearing to stop coal exports in Washington.

4:31 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
For the past couple of months I've been volunteering with a small group in Portland called "Friends of the Columbia Gorge". As much as I value the mission of this organization, I have to admit, it takes a lot of motivation every Tuesday and Thursday to get up, drag myself downtown, pay for parking, and do the same thing every time: update our membership and events database. I was starting to get discouraged. You see, when I picture volunteering, I picture doing different things each time, being active, meeting new people and making connections, not sitting in front of a computer all day. But I said I would help out around the office with whatever they needed, and entering data is what they need. 

Columbia River Gorge
It wasn't until I stumbled upon this article while scrolling through my Twitter feed that I was reminded of the bigger picture. 

Friends has been concentrating on a campaign to stop 5 proposals to ship millions of tons of coal through the Columbia Gorge and on to Asia (for dirt cheap, might I add). The environmental impacts, potential risks and damage to the gorge, and lack of economic incentive make these proposals a big threat to Oregon and Washington, who have historically avoided coal as much as possible, and to the world as the threat of CO2 pollution becomes more and more recognized. 

For months Friends has been phone banking, tabling, and collecting comments to get people involved with stopping these proposals. The support that we've received has been overwhelming, with most people we talk to being strongly opposed to the idea of more coal near their communities. What I've been doing, every Tuesday and Thursday, is updating our events pages with the names of the people we've talked to who have said they will come to one of the public hearings. It's tedious and boring, but then my supervisor uses that information to follow up with everyone, send them directions, and make sure they don't forget when it is. 

Eagle Creek, a gem in the Gorge.
The result? Hundreds of people put their schedules on hold and attend long and exhausting public hearings to give their opinions on coal exports and make sure their local governments hear them. It's pretty awesome. I can't wait to go to the hearings in Portland and Vancouver myself! 

Seeing this article reminded me of the pride I had in Roots and Shoots at NCSU. And come to think of it, most of my days running that organization were spent cooped up in a study room emailing people, updating our membership database and our website, scheduling events and coordinating volunteers. Just because I'm not the front runner of this project, doesn't mean that what I am doing to help isn't just as important.

To learn more about these proposals and how you can help, check out the Friends of Columbia Gorge's website. The Sierra Club is also a front runner on this issue.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The importance of biodiversity hitting home.

10:16 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
Have you noticed all those gluten free menu items in the grocery store lately? No, this isn't some new diet craze. It's to cater the ever increasing list of people with food allergies. It's not just gluten, it's wheat, soy, nuts, grass, trees. I even developed an allergy in high school that I still haven't quite figured out, but it's banned most raw vegetable and fruits from being my healthy afternoon snack.

Last year, my roommate and best friend came home with some awful news. Her previously misdiagnosed condition of irritable bowel syndrome turned out to be a whole host of allergies that were upsetting her digestion. The list was so ridiculous, she had no idea what she could eat, especially being a college student with limited time and money. I've seen more and more cases like hers, and I wondered if allergies have just been misdiagnosed for other things all along, or if they were truly becoming more and more of a problem. 

So here it is, a start to answering this question. Check out this article about the research being done by NC State's very own Rob Dunn


"What can be said with certainty is that, as we have become more urban and as we have transformed the world, we have also become experts at replacing habitats filled with many species with habitats populated by just a few. We plant inert cement where forests once grew. We clean and scrub our houses with antibiotic wipes. We overuse antibiotics to clean out pathogens in our bodies. We overuse antimicrobials to clean everything else. One can now even buy underpants preloaded with chemicals that clean away the bacteria below the belt.
The word “clean” seems wholesome, but what it usually means is kill. We kill some species and favor others. We once cleaned the predators and snakes from around our homes. Now that the snakes and predators are gone, we clean what is invisible. As we do, we kill the life most susceptible to our weapons. In their place grows a more depauperate and resistant wildness—nature despite us, not for us—a jungle of potentially dangerous weeds. We are reducing diversity in our daily lives, even on our bodies, in exactly the same way that we are reducing it in the world. We manage our own flesh as we manage the earth."
Of course, this is not to say that this is the cause of every autoimmune case, but it's certainly interesting. 
We've all heard the threats: Climate change, coral reefs, the rainforest... the loss of biodiversity has been red flagged for decades as a danger we cannot ignore for multiple reasons. But humans, as intelligent as we are, are really kind of dumb. We don't view our health, the earth's health, in a long term manner. We want what we want and we want it now. Immediate fixes, not long term solutions. So I'm happy about this study. And I HOPE that it starts to hit home, and more people start paying attention to nature of all kinds, not only the most glamorous. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Now that's determination.

1:09 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments

I once sat on a rock for 8 straight hours while conducting research on rattlesnake/squirrel behavior in California. I was waiting on a squirrel to approach our bait station so I could launch a harmless, spring loaded cannon to measure his reaction time. The target squirrel had already been scared away once because of the presence of a rattlesnake, and because of this, we predicted that his reaction time would be faster out of the fear of a snake still possibly being around.

I had a feeling, however, that one sighting was all this little buddy needed, and he was not coming back. I was right. The rest of the crew finally called my team in; they were hungry, and we were all tired of waiting. We'd try again tomorrow.

My butt was bruised, and sitting on anything hard was quite uncomfortable. Erynn, my friend and co-intern who sat there with me kept saying, "It's OK, this is just training for the big leagues, for when we have to wait for 7 months to film a snow leopard hunt in the wild." We were quite fond of that episode of Planet Earth. If you haven't seen it, you should.

I thought that was hardcore. But it doesn't compare to John Lukas's work. Featured in a book I am reading called "Wildlife Heroes", this admirable man especially caught my attention. He has been working to protect okapis for 25 years, and has never even seen one in the wild.

This strange and elusive animal, the only living relative of the giraffe, is a master of disguise. This, in turn, makes them very difficult to study. Scientists aren't even sure of how many there are. Thought only to live in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, John Lukas's Okapi Conservation Project works there to establish protected areas for the okapi. 

I can't imagine being so dedicated to one species that I had never even had the privilege of seeing. I applaud Mr. Lukas for his outstanding commitment to the conservation of this unique animal. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fantastic news for sharks!

11:29 AM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
Congratulations to the Shark Savers Singapore group on their recent wins in the battle to stop the consumption of shark fin soup! I was beyond thrilled to read this news article describing how more and more Asian companies are taking shark fin soup off their menus at corporate events as an act of environmental and social responsibility.

The act of shark finning is a cruel and wasteful practice that has caused 90 percent of shark species to become threatened with extinction (up from the previous 15 percent before the soup gained so much popularity). Because the fins of the sharks are the only part of its body that is used, fishers will cut the fins off the sharks and throw them back in the water to die. This allows hundreds of sharks to be killed on a single boat in one night because the fins do not take up room on the ship. 

Some countries, including the United States and European nations, created a ban on the use of shark products unless the whole body was brought back to shore with fins attached, hoping this would allow continued use of shark meat, but in a sustainable way since a boat can only hold so many. Unfortunately, this proved to be unsuccessful as poachers found loopholes. 

Then, Pacific states in the US banned shark fin trade, followed by the first inland state of Illinois. Some Central American countries also banned shark fin trade in an effort to protect their own highly productive coastal waters, and the movement started to gain momentum. 

I came across this meme in July and wanted to pop a bottle of champagne I was so happy! Chinese officials agreed to take shark fin soup off their menus at official functions. I repeated it over and over in my head. It's a small move, but from such a huge and influential consumer. Shark fin soup is a highly prized delicacy in China, often served at official functions, weddings, and celebrations. But when Asian celebrities such as Yao Ming found out how the shark fins were obtained, and what it was doing to the populations and ocean ecosystems, they began advocating for the shark. Their word started to make the difference. 

As Shark Savers Singapore's Director said, "We want local companies to come on board and Singaporean CEOs to make this pledge. It doesn't make sense, for instance, for Bill Gates to come and tell Singaporeans not to eat shark's fin. This isn't a foreign imported agenda". 

I am so glad to see this movement take off. When I first learned about this issue, I thought about how difficult it can sometimes be to change deep traditions of a massive group of people, but if we work from the inside out, perhaps this can be one of the biggest conservation success stories I will have witnessed so far in my life. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Find your passion and pursue it.

2:03 PM Posted by Tara Easter No comments
The idea of starting an animal conservation club that eventually became the non-profit Roots and Shoots at NCSU was originally formed in Africa. In the summer of 2010, I took a study abroad trip to Namibia, and the group I was with instantly formed a bond that I think will last a lifetime. We had a passion for conservation, and wanted to share it with the world. What we had learned in Africa about the difficulties of wildlife management on the social, political, and economic scale we wanted others to understand.

But when we got back to school… life took back over. Most of us being upperclassmen, our work load became heavy, we had very different schedules, and we rarely saw each other. We mentioned getting the club started a few times, but none of us really knew how to go about creating it. 

Then, by some act of fate, Jane Goodall moved all of her research to Duke University and gave a a presentation there. My Namibia study abroad group did not hesitate in buying tickets to this event. I had been aware of Jane Goodall’s story for a long time, but her presentation and reasons for hope almost brought me to tears, filling me up with faith and inspiration. She is without a doubt one of the most incredible women alive, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to see her in person. After researching in Gombe for 50 years, making remarkable strides in primate knowledge, she travelled all over the globe and continually witnessed the same problem. She said the youth had given up. They seemed to think the generations before them had compromised their futures and the environment beyond repair. She was determined to show these young people that they can make a difference, and that’s how Roots and Shoots was born. As she described this international conservation organization that she had created, now with over 6,000 chapters, I knew this was how my friends and I were going to lead NC State students into ways of making positive change for animal conservation.  Our mission was simple: raise awareness of global animal conservation issues, like “Hey, this is what’s happening in Africa right now with rhinos, and this is how it affects you right here in North Carolina and here are some organizations that are doing something about it”. 

Launching this club was a lot of work. The other officers and I met every week to plan for half a semester before our first meeting. Even after the biweekly meetings took off, we would continue every single off week. Every single Thursday evening was taken up by Roots and Shoots for the officers, and then some. We were constantly advertising. We chalked all over our brickyard, painted murals in our Free Expression Tunnel, spoke in classes, emailed fliers out, recruited faculty support, partnered with University Scholars, the Global Perspectives Certificate Program, and Women In Science and Engineering. We arranged free documentary showings at our campus cinema and created our website, Facebook page, and NCSU Student Organization Page. 

Yeah, it was a ton of work, but was it hard? No, I didn’t think so. The ideas and actions seemed to role effortlessly off our backs. Everyone had a role in the success of this group and it could not have been done without a single one of our officers. And it paid off! 

Meeting with Dr. Meg Lowman, world famous for pioneering research in the canopies.

The response we received was incredible. Students at NCSU were excited for this new way to make a difference. When we first started and had not yet made connections with potential speakers, we gave lectures ourselves, and the attendees listened attentively to our thoroughly researched topics of the ivory trade and burning and shark finning. Once we had a base, we had speakers coming from all over the globe, driving down from D.C., Skyping in from Africa and Asia, and from local universities and organizations. 

I found a new confidence within myself as a leader of this non-profit organization. We all felt like we were truly making a difference on our campus and beyond. We volunteered for local organizations, and fundraised for a voted upon animal conservation groups abroad. We partnered with Dr. Meg Lowman, world renowned canopy researcher and director of the Nature Research Center and even got to meet the President of the Jane Goodall Institute! So many things came from creating this group that I could have never imagined. I want to thank my fellow officers, and most importantly, everyone who helped make this so successful. I hope I left a legacy at NC State. I would love to come back in twenty years and give my own talk as a professional in wildlife conservation to the new Roots and Shoots at NCSU generation.