Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dubious headlines

From the Tundra Drums:
Troopers: Villages grateful for recent crime-sweep

Published on December 29th, 2010 12:20 pm

In other news, the IRS says that tax payers love them, and are grateful for audits.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't have law enforcement, but you can't have an objective story on police action if the story is written by the police. Objectivity doesn't work like that. 

Shame on Tundra Drums.


Monday, 27 December 2010

A little bit of history on UAF campus

I had skied out to the outdoor rifle range on Rifle Range Road at UAF, as a group I'm with has been using it for some competitions. I'd asked one of them I was with what this blue building - decrepit, boarded and chained up, and littered with sheds and ATCOs.  It seemed like a strange building for the University to keep around.

After a while, I finally got around to asking some of the other people if they had any idea what it was, and one of the people who had been around Fairbanks a little longer said, "Oh, that's where they first heard Sputnik." Well, that's too interesting for me to just leave alone! I got what few details I could out of him at the time, and went home. After which, I did some digging around online. It turns out not only was Fairbanks the first place to hear Sputnik... but the first person to see it, to boot. And where and how did that person see them? Where else but on the outhouse:
As Davis reports in his book "Alaska Science Nuggets," Dexter Stegemeyer was the first Fairbanksan known to have seen Sputnik just clearing the western horizon, which was where it entered the view through his open outhouse doorway. Stegemeyer knew he'd seen something unusual, but only realized what it was after he heard a description of the satellite.)
That's from the GI's write up about hearing Sputnik, an Alaskan first. It's a great read, and barely tops a page. Definitely worth the read!

Thursday, 23 December 2010


If you don't work with them, you'll be thwarted at all turns in your quest to pet a muskox. At the farm and at LARS, you're not allowed to pet them (for obvious reasons), and even once one's dead...

There's no winning!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Happy Solstice!

Don't worry everyone, we'll be right back to this in no time flat:

Happy solstice!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Does conservation have an impact?

ResearchBlogging.orgFor good or for ill, humans massively modify the world around them. From the perspective of other species, the majority of our modifications are "for ill." Some individuals realized that humans might irrevocably alter their favourite places, and thus was born the conservation movement out of local concerns. It wasn't until the 20th century that conservation of entire species really took off as a movement, and not until much later that the concept of protecting ecosystems and ecosystem services emerged. Biodiversity has continued to decline, however, leading to a period of mass-extinction that is unseen since the K-Pg extinction event (extinction event formerly known as prince. Er, K-T). Conservation biologists have truly emerged in the last 60 years to attempt to preserve some of this threatened biodiversity, but their over-all impact has been generally unevaluated.

In the latest issue of Science, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has published a systematic review of the current conservation status of vertebrates (verts), and whether conservation has had an impact on the status of those species. Before I get much further, this paper does two things I hate. The first is it has an insanely long list of authors. There's no way that 100+ list of individuals all contributed written material to the paper, and the list of author affiliations literally takes up over a page. That's just ridiculous. Secondly, much of the paper is in the supplementary material - which is seriously abusing the definition of "supplementary."

Now that I've got that off of my chest, the consortium of authors compiled the conservation for 25,780 species of verts -  this comprises all described mammals, birds, cartilaginous fish and amphibians, and a sample of reptiles (herps) and bon fish. Why they didn't do a complete enumeration of herps is beyond me. They only used ~ 19% of modern species (by my off-the-cuff estimation), and adding about 6500 more species doesn't seem like it would have been a huge amount of work. Perhaps there's a good reason that I'm missing. Broadly, the IUCN uses three major categories, which are broken down into sub-categories. Threatened species can be either Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN) or Vulnerable (VU). They found that around 1 in 5 vert is classified as threatened, with a gradually increasing trend in risk since the 1980s. Amphibians are far and away the most threatened taxa, with over 600 species of them moving a category closer to extinction (e.g., changing from VU to EN). Generally, this was all known though it's nice to see it reiterated.

Next, the consortium of authors evaluated the impact of conservation efforts on this decline. They argue that of all the 'status' changes, 7% were improvements in status (e.g., CR to EN), and only 4 of these were not due to conservation efforts. Taking a digression here, the consortium do not really define what they mean by conservation. Conservation can be everything from highly intensive captive breeding to mostly laissez-faire restrictions on hunting or killing. It can describe setting aside habitat, or re-introducing a species actively. In short, it covers an awful lot of ground from "doing nothing" to "doing a whole lot." So when they say 64 of 68 improvements is due to conservation, it doesn't say anything about conservation effort. Indeed, some of that improvement could be due to factors not related to the conservation effort at all.

This is not a trivial point. The very title of the paper is "The impact of conservation on the status of the world's vertebrates." This merely confuses correlation of conservation activities with a causal agent in species improvement. When they next compare species status to what they would be, they implicitly bias the equation by assuming that absent conservation, species status would remain unchanged. While it is true that in most instances, threatened species would deteriorate without some degree of conservation, the only way they couldn't find that conservation leads to species improvement is if every species showed a decline. It precludes a species improving due non-conservation related reasons.

There's good reason think that a species wouldn't continuously diminish if left to its own. As species become rare, it becomes difficult for predators to effectively target them. Disease doesn't have as many hosts, so absolute rates can often drop. And species with small home ranges are difficult to stamp out from habitat loss. In rare cases, there have been evidence that some threatened populations have evolved to resist threats posed by invasives. They would be vulnerable to extinction from purely stochastic events (such as the odd harsh winter), but the time frame we're talking about (30 years) is not long enough to really capture that in its entirety.

I would argue that the proof that our current conservation is not as effective as we'd hope it would be is in the universally worsening Red List Index. To the right, there's a map of the net-change, and it's almost universally bad. By congratulating conservation for the cases of conservation, it ignores the cases where conservation has been applied and no improvement has resulted. I wouldn't argue that conservation has no impact. However, if I stated that my method of healing a bleeding patient caused individuals to improve 7% of the time, no one in their right mind would let me treat so much as a papercut. Conservation effort needs to improve, and seriously, if we're going to stem the global declines in biodiversity. But talk and criticism is cheap; I offer no plausible way through which we can do better. I just hope it isn't status quo.

Hoffmann, M., Hilton-Taylor, C., Angulo, A., Bohm, M., Brooks, T., Butchart, S., Carpenter, K., Chanson, J., Collen, B., Cox, N., Darwall, W., Dulvy, N., Harrison, L., Katariya, V., Pollock, C., Quader, S., Richman, N., Rodrigues, A., Tognelli, M., Vie, J., Aguiar, J., Allen, D., Allen, G., Amori, G., Ananjeva, N., Andreone, F., Andrew, P., Ortiz, A., Baillie, J., Baldi, R., Bell, B., Biju, S., Bird, J., Black-Decima, P., Blanc, J., Bolanos, F., Bolivar-G., W., Burfield, I., Burton, J., Capper, D., Castro, F., Catullo, G., Cavanagh, R., Channing, A., Chao, N., Chenery, A., Chiozza, F., Clausnitzer, V., Collar, N., Collett, L., Collette, B., Fernandez, C., Craig, M., Crosby, M., Cumberlidge, N., Cuttelod, A., Derocher, A., Diesmos, A., Donaldson, J., Duckworth, J., Dutson, G., Dutta, S., Emslie, R., Farjon, A., Fowler, S., Freyhof, J., Garshelis, D., Gerlach, J., Gower, D., Grant, T., Hammerson, G., Harris, R., Heaney, L., Hedges, S., Hero, J., Hughes, B., Hussain, S., Icochea M., J., Inger, R., Ishii, N., Iskandar, D., Jenkins, R., Kaneko, Y., Kottelat, M., Kovacs, K., Kuzmin, S., La Marca, E., Lamoreux, J., Lau, M., Lavilla, E., Leus, K., Lewison, R., Lichtenstein, G., Livingstone, S., Lukoschek, V., Mallon, D., McGowan, P., McIvor, A., Moehlman, P., Molur, S., Alonso, A., Musick, J., Nowell, K., Nussbaum, R., Olech, W., Orlov, N., Papenfuss, T., Parra-Olea, G., Perrin, W., Polidoro, B., Pourkazemi, M., Racey, P., Ragle, J., Ram, M., Rathbun, G., Reynolds, R., Rhodin, A., Richards, S., Rodriguez, L., Ron, S., Rondinini, C., Rylands, A., Sadovy de Mitcheson, Y., Sanciangco, J., Sanders, K., Santos-Barrera, G., Schipper, J., Self-Sullivan, C., Shi, Y., Shoemaker, A., Short, F., Sillero-Zubiri, C., Silvano, D., Smith, K., Smith, A., Snoeks, J., Stattersfield, A., Symes, A., Taber, A., Talukdar, B., Temple, H., Timmins, R., Tobias, J., Tsytsulina, K., Tweddle, D., Ubeda, C., Valenti, S., Paul van Dijk, P., Veiga, L., Veloso, A., Wege, D., Wilkinson, M., Williamson, E., Xie, F., Young, B., Akcakaya, H., Bennun, L., Blackburn, T., Boitani, L., Dublin, H., da Fonseca, G., Gascon, C., Lacher, T., Mace, G., Mainka, S., McNeely, J., Mittermeier, R., Reid, G., Rodriguez, J., Rosenberg, A., Samways, M., Smart, J., Stein, B., & Stuart, S. (2010). The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World's Vertebrates Science, 330 (6010), 1503-1509 DOI: 10.1126/science.1194442

Figure reproduced from the paper under fair use rationale.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The snowshoe hare-coyote-Dall's sheep cycle?

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen we teach our students predator-prey relationships, we tend to tell them a very basic story that have come from a few very good studies. It's not that all we have are simple models, but but we like to build up the basics before we dive into the complexities. Because when you get down to the complexities, a lot of counter-intuitive things happen which don't follow "common-sense" relationships.

At the last Alaska chapter of the Wildlife Society meeting, Steve Arthur presented one such study, which I had previously mentioned here by flinging out the abstract. Now the full paper by him and Laura Prugh is out in the Journal of Wildlife Management, and so I want to spend a little more time on the study.

They studied snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) and Dall's sheep (Ovis dalli) in the central portion of the Alaska Range, illustrated by the figure to the right. It's worth noting that though both species are in the Alaska range, they have differing habitat requirements. Whereas hares are happy in the lower foresty areas, the sheep decidedly prefer the rocky hills where they can can try to avoid predators. However, while adult survival among sheep is fairly high, lamb survival is generally lower, as predators (lynx, coyotes, eagles, wolverines) can still prey on them.

They used road-side counts to index hare abundance, which they double checked against pellet count data - it's little things like that which make a good paper. For the sheep end, they collared a variety of ewes and fitted them with collars, as well as lambs. They re-located them about 3-5 times a week, and the collars were fitted with mortality sensors. On death, they went and determined cause of death of the individuals. One nit-pick here - scavenging is probably represented somewhat in the mortality data, but the two authors admit that. Still, you wouldn't expect scavanging and predation to vary independently of mortality, and survival is what they wanted to get at. Finally, they used surveys to index the total population of Dall's sheep through the period.

When they analysed the adult data, they found that the year really didn't have a major effect on their survival, and that survival was either modeled best as age-specific, or just constant. However, for lambs, the best explanations for the changes in survival were either a three year time lag in hare abundance, positively, or a negative relationship between survival and hare abundance with a one year time lag. The mechanism for changing survival appears to be changes in predation - primarily coyote and golden eagle predation. Accidents and disease seem to remain at a constant low-level throughout all years, whereas predation seems to vary among years. Eagles are best predators early on, whereas coyotes appeared to kill several months after ewes dropped their lambs. As I mentioned before, snowshoe hares and sheep share those predators.

This seems to suggest that although there's a positive relationship between abundance of hares and sheep, it is not, in fact, a mutualistic relationship. If they had just limited their study to abundance, they would have never seen the change in lamb survival. At that point, we would be led to incorrectly believe that snowshoe hares and sheep benefit from each-other's presence. It doesn't appear to be mediated by a functional response in predation - first, a previous study found that coyotes don't switch to sheep when they're low, but secondly, it would mean there would be a positive relationship between hare abundance and sheep survival, not negative.

It's a messy story, one that depends on the sort of data you gather, and, this simplified version I'm presenting here is leaving out further complications itself. The effects of predation can be complex, leading to strange results when all is said and done. Here, the population dynamics of Dall's sheep seem at first blush to be driven by a species that isn't even in the same habitat as them. It's only though diligent data collection the true picture comes out.

Arthur, S., & Prugh, L. (2010). Predator-Mediated Indirect Effects of Snowshoe Hares on Dall's Sheep in Alaska Journal of Wildlife Management, 74 (8), 1709-1721 DOI: 10.2193/2009-322

All figures from Arthur & Prugh 2010, used under fair-use rationale. 

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Dragon has flown!

As much as I prefer NASA to own its own orbital fleet of rockets, this is really, really great news - the Dragon, a privately built rocket and space capsule built by SpaceX, has successfully achieved orbit and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean! This marks the first private craft that successfully achieved this feat. This is fantastic news, because it means that the day that I can take a vacation on Saturn's moons is a little bit closer. And, more practically, it means the ISS will probably have a little more life left in it.

Go to the link and check out the videos! It's neat!

Photocredit: NASA TV


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

One good move

In a move welcomed by educated people the world-over, Google plans on eliminating the capslock from their keyboards. I, for one, welcome this wholeheartedly. While I like having the option of having a capslock on my keyboard, I know that most people out there aren't ready for the awesome power that the capslock brings. I've lost count of the number of office emails I have got that SHOUT AT EVERYONE THROUGHTOUT THE MESSAGE BECAUSE SOMEONE DOESN'T REALIZE THAT TYPING IN ALL CAPS IS NOT COOL.

Next up, we need to invent a keyboard that forces people to use punctuation and capitalization. im really tired of all lowercase emails that dont have any punctuation people seem to think you can tell where sentences begin and end well theyre right but i have better things to do with my time why they think its appropriate is beyond me

The other thing I'd like to see go (mentioned in the article) is getting rid of excessive punctuation. I'm really????????? tired of all of this!!!!!!! Yes, I get you're excited, but is there really a need for 15 of these ??????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm not claiming my grammar is perfect. But it seems like some people don't even make an effort.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Vik'ipitiyamun igarluten!

There's now a yup'ik language wikipedia over at It's still in the early stages, and is in need of content - most of what's up there are single lines with a picture or two. Alngaksaitua im'umun mernurama.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Complexity and evolution

Here's a neat little video that explains how complexity can come about in through evolution. The animations on this are very well done! I enjoyed the bit about the sundew.