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Posts tagged ‘biodiversity’

Global warming and declining mammal diversity: new research in Nature

Pleistocene survivor, the deer mouse.  Photo by Glenn and Martha Vargas © California Academy of Sciences

Pleistocene survivor, the deer mouse. Photo by Glenn and Martha Vargas © California Academy of Sciences

Popular images of Ice Age California tend to feature enormous, extinct mammals like mammoths and saber-toothed cats.  By contrast, new research published in Nature examines populations of small mammals that survived through the end of the Ice Age and how they were affected by the climate change.

The research team of Jessica Blois (formerly at Stanford, now at University of Wisconsin, Madison), Elizabeth Hadly (formerly of UCMP, now at Stanford) and Jenny McGuire (UCMP) studied fossilized woodrat nests collected from Samwell Cave in Northern California.  Woodrats carry scat and regurgitated pellets produced by carnivores back to their nests.  These collections are filled with undigested small mammal bones, making fossilized woodrat nests treasure troves for paleontologists.

Comparing fossil data to modern small mammal populations in the same region revealed a big decrease in diversity during a period of global warming at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.  There was a decrease in both species richness (number of different species) and evenness (relative dominance of species within a community).  A few species disappeared from the area entirely.  Some species remain in the area but as a much smaller proportion of the overall small mammal community.  And the main species to increase in relative abundance was the deer mouse — an animal that can tolerate a wide variety of habitats and climates.

Research of historic periods of global warming improves our understanding of how modern, man-made global warming will affect life on Earth.  Read more about this research:

The game of prehistoric life

EOP-cover

Evolve or Perish is a new board game – not from the makers of Monopoly, but from ETE, the Evolution of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Program, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. UCMP Faculty Curators Cindy Looy and Ivo Duijnstee designed the game in collaboration with illustrator Hannah Bonner. Hannah is well-known for her cartoon paleobooks When Bugs Were Big and When Fish Got Feet. The three enjoy collaborating -- Hannah created the logo for Cindy's lab's web site, and she is currently consulting with her on a regular basis for her next book.

Evolve or Perish is similar to Chutes and Ladders. It begins 635 million years ago, with the first multi-celled organisms. Each square on the board represents 10 million years. On the path to the present, numerous fates await you: slip on an early animal and go back one square; land on the Cambrian Explosion and jump ahead; land on the largest extinction event the world has ever known and go back nine spaces. The game is populated by cute animals (the first four-legged animal wears a party hat!) and strange-looking plants (like Lycopods from the coal swamps of the Carboniferous). All of the beautifully drawn creatures represent real plants and animals, known from the fossil record; a taxa list helps you learn your Oxynoticeras from your Omeisaurus. As you move your game piece from the past to the present, Earth's major milestones appear along the way – you'll pass meteors, millipedes, and the rise of giant mammals. The first player to make it to the present day wins the game – but experiences a gross revelation about how some of Earth's first inhabitants inhabit us humans, too.

The game can be downloaded for free here.

Middle schoolers and marine biodiversity in Moorea

GK-12 students in MooreaScientists from institutions like the UCMP travel all around the world and interact with many local communities. Last year the Berkeley Natural History Museums launched a project called the GK-12 Moorea fellowship to foster collaboration between graduate students and local communities in Moorea, French Polynesia. The program sends one graduate student to Moorea, a small island about 10km from Tahiti, to teach interactive science lessons in public schools and do ecological research. As the current GK-12 Moorea fellow, I am living in French Polynesia, teaching in a local middle school, and continuing my research on the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps.
For the past five weeks, I have been teaching lessons about marine biodiversity in two special education classrooms at the middle school in Pao Pao, Moorea. We kicked off the biodiversity unit with a field trip to a local public beach, where the students collected many animals from the shallow, sandy lagoon. The kids had a great time wading in the water, looking under rocks, and using a huge “Slurp Pump” to suck up critters that live in burrows. For many of these students, the lagoon is their backyard and they have been swimming, boating, and fishing in it since they were old enough to walk. Yet, I soon realized that for most of them every crab that they saw was just a crab and every snail was just a snail. They didn’t notice the differences between different species at all!

The students now have spent several lessons learning how to identify species and measure biodiversity using the collection that we made at the public beach. To measure the biodiversity of the public beach, the students are counting the number of species of mollusks (snails, clams, and octopuses) and decapods crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters). Although the students had an intuitive knowledge about how to classify organisms into mollusks and crustaceans, they were very skeptical when I showed them the thirteen different crab species we caught — they repeatedly told me “Toutes sont les crabbes” (They are all crabs)! I finally decided to try an impromptu activity — the students drew pictures of several different species of crustaceans and listed ways in which they differed. In doing this, they convinced themselves that each species was a morphologically unique group of organisms. The funny thing is that scientists at UC Berkeley argue all the time about the definition of “species” and whether “species” really exist. Species are notoriously hard to define — as Darwin said in On the Origin of Species, “No one definition has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he? speaks of a species.”

I love doing research on a small tropical island. In addition to the staff at Gump Station, I also have made friends with several Mooreans who live near sites where I collect mantis shrimps. One of my favorite research sites, Motu Tiahura, is frequented by picnicking families. The children often ask to see my animals. It is great fun to see their eyes widen as they look at my mantis shrimps swimming around in a falcon tube. I often explain my research to their parents — I study the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps. Monogamy is rare in crustaceans, but is common in the clade of mantis shrimps that I study. One of these monogamous species, Lysiosquillina maculata, or “varo” in Tahitian, is an expensive and overfished culinary delicacy here in French Polynesia. People here are fascinated to learn that the “varo” can live together in monogamous pairs for decades! They also love to check out my SCUBA diving setup and hear about my research methods.

During the height of my fieldwork, I dive for 3 or more hours a day surveying and collecting smaller mantis shrimp species. The backreef of the Moorean lagoon is a great place to dive. It’s clear, shallow waters abound with colorful fish and large coral heads. Since arriving in Moorea, I have learned all of the common fish and coral species so that I can do environmental surveys in areas where I collect mantis shrimps. As a naturalist, I love being able to name all of the species in the waters around me. Here in French Polynesia, many locals who fish for a living feel the same way. However, as in most developed countries, the younger generations are often less connected with nature. As I work and teach here in Moorea, I hope to open the eyes of my young students to the amazing marine ecosystem that surrounds them.

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