New Amphibian Diseases Threaten to Exacerbate Worldwide Decline

Red-spotted newts are one of the North American salamanders susceptible to the new chytrid disease. (Wikimedia Commons)

Red-spotted newts are  susceptible to the new chytrid disease. (Wikimedia Commons)

The decline of the world’s amphibians, in part due to disease caused by the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), has caused alarm among conservationists, wildlife managers, and herpetologists. Just as treatments for the disease were showing some successes, including boosting immunity through exposure to dead or live pathogens and skin probiotics, two new diseases have been announced in the last year: a new species of chytrid fungus and two new ranaviruses, both discovered in Europe. The chytrid fungus (B. salamandrivorans) was discovered in Bunderbos, The Netherlands in 2013 after a 96% decline in fire salamander populations was observed there. The new ranavirus was found in northern Spain, and caused population crashes for the common midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans), the alpine newt (Mesotriton alpestris), and the common toad (Bufo bufo).

A paper just published in Science showed that the new chytrid fungus is from Asia and identified dozens of susceptible salamander species from Europe and the Americas, as well as three optimal reservoir species that can clear the disease after harboring it–and potentially transmitting it–for months. The researchers found that newts are especially likely to be infected by this disease, and the trade of Asian newts for pets is the most likely way that the disease was introduced to The Netherlands.   

Conservationists are calling for testing and quarantines of potential reservoir species in the pet trade. In the US, which harbors the greatest salamander diversity in the world in the Appalachian Mountains, monitoring is only required for animals crossing borders if they could harbor diseases that pose direct threats to humans and livestock, according to a press release from University of Maryland. Karen Lips of University of Maryland, one of the coauthors on the Science paper, has been working on bringing this issue to policymakers. She wrote a post on the Leopold Leadership 3.0 blog about learning to bring her science to inform policy. Much of her advice resonated with the outcomes of the panel discussion I organized at ESA, especially her point about the time investment necessary to develop trusting relationships between policymakers and scientists. In light of the results from this recent paper, inaction will spell impending declines in salamander populations of the Americas. More scientific and policy developments are likely to emerge in the coming months and years. Stay tuned.

Beetle Battle Specialization

Dynastinae

From Wikimedia

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed Erin McCullough of University of Montana about her research on the evolution of rhinoceros beetle horns; she published that work in July in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

I was excited to see that a few months later in August, she published another related paper in PNAS. In this paper, she explores how the form and function of animal weapons is related to diversification of beetle horns. In the beetles she studies, males fight other males using their horns, in order to secure a mate. She found that male beetle’s horn structure is adapted to  the typical fighting tactics used by his species.

Stepping Out of the Terrestrial Frame of Reference: An Update on Ty Tuff’s Work

Last year at ESA 2013, one of my favorite talks was Ty Tuff’s about his ongoing research about pelagic bird migration patterns from a solar frame of reference. I explained the details here. For an update, watch his talk from the ESA 2014 conference:

Predicting migration in 3D from Ty Tuff on Vimeo.

Summary of the Panel Discussion: “Is Anybody Out There Listening? Measuring Success in Science Communication”

The panel discussion at ESA 2014, organized by Liza Lester and myself, was well attended (~50 people) and fostered a dynamic conversation. When we put together the panel, Liza and I were conscious about making it more than an echo chamber for science communication people, and I think the diversity of the panelists–journalist, press officer, citizen science organizer, trainer of scientists in communications, scientist in advocacy, and scientist studying the social science of policymaking–meant that everyone brought different experiences and information to the table and everyone came away with new info.

The Importance of Connection and Considering Others’ Interests


I kicked off the event with a video of a guy on The Bachelorette completely boring his date when she asks why she should care about the environment. He talks about on-demand water heaters… and she dumps him on the spot. He seems totally clueless that her body language is saying she’s becoming progressively less and less interested in water heaters. Her reason for dumping a guy who seems to be her “dream guy,” is because she doesn’t “feel a connection” to him. My point here is that effective communication is most about developing a trusting relationship with a group, and connecting to that group’s values and interests.

What is Successful Science Communication, Anyway?

Liza Lester then asked the audience to guess which of the following press release titles would be the most effective or successful:

  • The story of the fig and its wasp
  • Poo pump: whales as ecosystem engineers
  • Crocodile tears please butterflies and bees
  • Yellowstone wolves take a blow to their rep
  • Inaugural cross-disciplinary Public Participation in Scientific Research conference
  • Landscape connectivity: corridors and more

Of course, everyone went for the poo pump and the crocodile tears, with a few loyal fans of fig wasps and wolves. Liza’s point ended up being more nuanced: Each of these articles was successful in its own way. Some are the most clicked on their website, the most retweeted, the most broadly distributed across popular sites, the highest longevity of interest, etc. And some, she noted, were just about timing. “Inaugural cross-disciplinary Public Participation in Scientific Research conference” was released at the time of the conference, and a lot of people wanted to know about it. Then, Liza posed her real question: Is this success? The overarching answer was… not necessarily.

Virginia Gewin noted that her idea of success as a freelance journalist is getting hired again by an editor. She said that she doesn’t think analytics and engagement mean much, and that it means a lot more to her if someone takes the time to write her and tell her how her work made an impression on them. Many others in the audience and panel agreed that online analytics and social media engagement are not accurate measures of success or effectiveness when it comes to science communication, yet they are often used in that context.

Once Scientific Results Are Published, Is the Scientist’s Job Done?

Virginia Gewin then talked about how most scientists think that their job is finished when they publish a scientific paper. As an example of the repercussions of this attitude, Virginia talked about a recent news feature she wrote for Nature on the relationship that developed between California governor Jerry Brown and two paleoecologists, Anthony Barnowsky of UC Berkeley and his wife Elizabeth Hadley of Stanford, after the latter two published a paper in Nature that concluded that the Earth had reached a global tipping point in loss of species and ecosystems and pollution because of human-caused climate change.

The most powerful part of the Nature news feature, Virginia thought, was a phone call between Brown and Bernowsky that basically came down to Brown wanting to know: If most or all scientists agree on this, why haven’t you been shouting it from the rooftops? And Hadley said, “We thought we were….”

From then on, Governor Brown worked with Bernowsky and Hadley to translate their science into a “consensus statement” from scientists to policymakers, which included 3,300 signatures from scientists. The document has been used in a variety of policymaking circles, and has ended up in powerful hands, including those of President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Hadley now calls this document “more valuable than anything else I’ve done in my career.”

In response to Virginia’s point about the attitude that a scientist’s job is done when they publish a paper, members of our audience made the point that even if they don’t think their job is done, they often do not have the time to work on effective dissemination of their results to the public and policymakers, and they may not know who can help them.

Virginia pointed out that editors look for strong characters in her writing, and this story was powerful because Bernowsky and Hadley were characters in a narrative.

“So What” is More Important than “What” or “How”

Heather Galindo, of COMPASS, emphasized that scientists often spend too much on the “what” and “how” of their work, when the public and media are more interested in the “so what.” That “so what” should come first, before any other nuances are communicated. She also emphasized that trust and relationships are a key metric of science communication success but are rarely used.

When Your Audience Can’t Ask Questions, They Struggle with Abstract Concepts

Holly Menninger of NC State University brought an activity to show how difficult it is to communicate abstract information when the audience cannot respond with questions: She assigned abstract line drawings to small groups. Only one person was allowed to see the drawing, and that person had to describe it while the others drew it but could not ask questions. The task demonstrated (1) how difficult science journalism and communications work is because your finished product is disseminated without feedback from the audience first, and (2) the importance of metaphor and analogies in describing an abstract image.

The Importance of Taking the Time to Communicate Well

Jensen Montambault of the Nature Conservancy talked about how communication and collaboration can lead to better and more widely used science. To that end, she noted, the Nature Conservancy is organizing social scientists who study science communication to come talk to scientists in their organization. Many scientists do not appreciate how much further their science can go until they make communication a priority. The public may resist listening to scientists because they do not trust them and may see them as narcissists.

Jonathan London of UC Davis, who researches decision-making and policymaking in environmental justice, focused on the issue of time. He emphasized that collaborative partnerships take time–You have to learn the language of other groups (policy, law, the public), build trust, and build capacity. It isn’t easy, and he noted that tenure committees do not always value time spent this way, despite the fact that such relationships are deeply meaningful to your work reaching beyond the Ivory Tower.

Should Scientists Be Impartial or Advocates for Issues They Care About?

Heather Galindo, Jensen Montambault, and Jonathan London all agreed on the answer: Scientists must work hard to be seen as honest brokers of information–as information advocates. Heather noted that studies show that if a scientist becomes associated with a polarized issue, he or she may not be able to shake that image and the stereotypes associated with it. Once the public has an association, it is very hard to change, said Heather. Jonathan talked about his experiences in policymaking, where he often helped bring empirical tools–such as demographic mapping–to an advocacy group or government agency. In doing so, he was giving them information they sought without needing to explicitly take sides. He noted that in some situations, solutions or policies were not ideal in his opinion, but his job was to help them fill knowledge gaps. It was their jobs to decide what to do with that knowledge. For him, keeping those boundaries was an important part of maintaining trust in him as an honest broker of information.

How Do You Successfully Reach a New Audience, Rather than Those Already Interested?

The response from the panel and audience was loud and clear: Listen. Communicating what is important to you is not about you and what you want them to understand. “Take yourself out of the equation,” one of the panelists advised. “Address the concerns of the audience you want to reach in a relevant way.”

Down with the Deficit Model!

Heather Galindo added that the problem usually is not that a new audience has not been exposed to enough information, but rather that they don’t think that information is important, nor do they value the sources of it. This idea that people don’t have enough information, called the deficit model, prevailed in early social science studies of science communication. Over time, the conversation shifted: The information is available; they just don’t care about it in the first place. So, step number one is understanding what your audience cares about, and what sources they value, so that you can make your ideas relevant to them and, even better, perhaps they can hear it from someone whose word they already trust.

ESA 2014, Tuesday talks

Sacramento 2As usual, I went to some great talks and missed some great talks. Here are summaries of the ones I caught:

Thomas Newsome of Oregon State University talked about his work with William Ripple on a trophic cascade involving wolves, coyotes, and foxes. He pointed out that carnivores in North America–including the wolverine, gray wolf, cougar, and lynx–have undergone large range contractions. The role of wilderness areas in their recoveries is a big unanswered question. He posited that Continue reading