Find fireflies, help keep the forests alight


Across eastern North America, one of the most magical signs of summertime is the beginning of firefly activity—hundreds or thousands of flying beetles, their abdomens glowing or flashing, filling twilight backyards and woodland clearings with floating lights.

But those displays—which fireflies put on to attract mates—are getting rarer. Or seem to be, anyway—but we don’t have the kind of comprehensive census of firefly activity that could really tell us how they’re doing. A citizen science project out of Clemson University aims to change that by enlisting anyone with a smartphone or a home internet connection:

The objective of the Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project is to promote environmental
sustainability and stewardship through the participation of local communities in environmental science research. The Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project offers a mobile app that everyone – from elementary students to seniors – can use to measure firefly populations in their communities from neighborhoods, to parks and anywhere in the world they may go!

To help, you follow the project site’s instructions for learning how to count fireflies, then use a smartphone app or a webpage form to report what you see, when, and where. Why not collect some data while you admire the lights in the forest?

(Hat tip to Erik Runquist, on Twitter.)

An artichoke with legs: the pangolin

c026c5902911ebd8cf6c7c912cca0631Some days I just need a pick me up. While others take to the internet and fine photos of kittens telling them to hang in there, I seek the adorable face of the pangolin._80790888_cape_pangolin_spl624

Also known as the spiny anteater, it is the only mammal wholly covered in scales. They resemble artichokes on legs. Oh and they are beyond adorable.  415e1bec42a96a15e13e0323be919600

However, all 8 species of pangolins are endangered because they have one more distinction: the worlds most trafficked mammal. Their meat has become a delicacy in vietnam, which has rapidly wiped out populations of pangolins across South East Asia.

Read about their plight over at BBC, and for a little Friday pick me up, enjoy these lovely photos of my favorite mammal.


Monarch butterflies aren’t quite extinct yet!

The New York Times reports that monarch butterflies migrating from North America to central Mexico appear to be doing better than last year, when the over-wintering colony occupied just 1.7 acres. This year’s survey finds the butterflies have filled 2.8 acres, which seems like a solid improvement until you consider that the peak colony size, since record-keeping started, was 44.5 acres.

(Incidentally, 44.5 acres is more than 40 American football fields of forest covered with roosting monarch butterflies.)

The monarchs that migrate to Mexico aren’t the only population — there’s another migratory route on the U.S. Pacific coast, and there are non-migratory populations in Florida, Hawaii, and even New Zealand. But the Mexico overwintering site represents what used to be the single largest monarch population, butterflies that spend summer across most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Logging in Mexico and the loss of summer habitat to farming in the Midwest has been hitting the butterflies hard for years, and while this rebound is encouraging, it might still make sense to put the monarch on the Endangered Species List, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering.

Under selection, an endangered species runs low on evolutionary “fuel”

Atlapetes pallidiceps

A pale-headed brushfinch, Atlapetes pallidiceps. (Wikimedia Commons:Aves y Conservación/NBII Image Gallery)

The pale-headed brushfinch, Atlapetes pallidiceps, is a conservation success story, or at least the first chapter of one. The birds were thought to be extinct, until a 1998 survey [PDF] of Ecuador’s Yunguilla Valley found four nesting pairs, and observed them foraging for insects and fruit. Following that rediscovery, the Fundacion Jocotoco secured a reserve encompassing the brush finches’ known territory, and took steps to control brood-parasitic cowbirds that were threatening them. Now, the population is five times bigger, with as many as 200 of the birds living in the reserve.

Have the brush finches’ rebounded enough to secure their population for the future? Populations that decline so precipitously can lose genetic variation, and may not regain it even if their numbers increase again. With reduced genetic variation, species that have undergone such a “population bottleneck” event may be unable to respond to natural selection imposed by disease or changing environments.

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Bringing back the “king” of American forests

The American chestnut used to be one of the most common trees in North American hardwood forests, providing enormous crops of nuts that supported birds and other wildlife, and a source of robust, rot-resistant lumber for human use. But American chestnuts were nearly wiped out by the introduction of a virulent chestnut blight from Asia.

But now, after years of selective breeding and some careful genetic engineering, biologists at the State University of New York and the American Chestnut Foundation have produced blight-resistant chestnuts and they’re getting ready to start restoring the population with a crowd-funding campaign. If American chestnuts couldn’t evolve to cope with blight on their own, they may be one of the first species to get an evolutionary helping hand from humans.

Thanks, Bush and Obama!

President Obama is expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument today from the wonderful 86,888 square miles President George W. Bush set up in 2009, to about 490,000 square miles. I gotta love anything involving ocean conservation. Thanks, Bush and Obama!

“This is a great moment,” said Greg Stone, chief scientist for Conservation International. “This is some of the last real tropical ocean wilderness left on the planet, so it’s good put some of these kind of reef systems aside. On top of that there are the protections for the open ocean and I’m assuming for the sea floor from mining,” he said.

From the Guardian article: “Tarawa atoll. Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP”

To thrive in the twenty-first century, can we learn to steer evolution?

Cliff Swallow in flight

Cliff swallow in flight. (Flickr: Don DeBold)

Many of the biggest challenges humanity faces in the next hundred years are biological: dwindling wild lands and disappearing biodiversity, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and emerging new viruses, but also feeding nine billion people or more a healthy diet in a climate-changed world. As Theodosius Dobzhansky famously remarked—and as this very website’s name proclaims—nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. So are there evolutionary answers to all these biological challenges? According to a big new review article just released online ahead of print in the journal Science, the answer is emphatically yes.

The long list of authors, led by Scott P. Carroll and including Ford Denison, whose lab is just down the hall from my office at the University of Minnesota, explicitly connect evolutionary principles to global goals for sustainable development. These include the reduction of both “chronic lifestyle” diseases and infectious diseases, establishment of food and water security, clean energy, and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Carroll and his coauthors divide the applications of evolution to these problems into cases where evolution is the problem, and those where evolution may offer the solution.

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