Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants!

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to live-stream an interactive session with 125 students across the US and Canada through the organization Exploring by the Seat of your Pants! This is a great nonprofit that brings science, conservation, and adventure right to the classroom through Google Hangout sessions where experts talk with students right in their own classroom. It was the best! I spent close to an hour with students in 4th and 12th grade talking about what wildlife biologists do as well as the research I focus on. We talked bobcats, snow leopards, tips on becoming a wildlife biologist, frog metamorphosis, making discoveries... you name it! This program is a really great way to help scientists engage with the public, especially the next generation. Students were able to ask me questions, too, and it was so fun to hear what they had to say and see firsthand their curiosity for wildlife. The cool thing about EBTSOYP is that you can either participate in a livestream, like my classrooms, or watch the experience on YouTube! If you're a teacher who is interested in having me, or someone like me "visit" their classroom, check out the link above for EBTSOYP. To watch my session on being a wildlife biologist, check this out:

 

 

Wild Black Cats- Halloween Edition

It's October 31st, arguably one of the greatest days of the year (*maybe* second to the winter holiday...which reminds me, as a child I really, really loved the film "The Nightmare Before Christmas" because it combines BOTH EVENTS). Lots of traditions and superstitions are alive and well on All Hallow's Eve, including a staunch appreciation for, or rigid avoidance of, the ever impressive black cat.

Salem, the OG black cat of Halloween from Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Salem, the OG black cat of Halloween from Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Having a black (indoor) cat myself, I'm pro-melanistic-feline, and so are many other people. So much so, in fact, that they spend a lot of time talking about wild black cats! However, there are several species for which there is zero evidence of melanism occurring in the wild (see this guest post by ecologist t Dr. Michelle LaRue on why melanistic cougars are not a thing). This is primarily owed to genetics and evolution. For example, in species like the rock pocket mouse, a light-colored mouse living on light-colored lava rock in the southwestern US, some populations exhibit mutations in a pigmentation gene called Mc1r, and these changes are responsible for the black phenotype. The role of genetics in adaptive evolution- the selection of beneficial alleles given the environment- is traceable in several taxa, including the pepper moth, a European species that exhibited near-total population melanism in under 10 generations in response to industrial pollution (ash, sulfur on trees) in the UK. In most cases, melanism is a recessive trait, meaning both parents must carry the mutation on a pigmentation gene in order for offspring to inherit and exhibit the phenotype of a recessive genotpye (think big A and little a from genetics: AA, Aa, and aa, where an animal must have the aa genotype to be melanistic). For wild cats (your terror of a housecat not included), melanism can occur, but in which species?

Of the 38 species of wild cats, 11 exhibit melanistic coat coloration polymorphism. Surprisingly, there are at least 4 independent genetic origins of melanism in Felidae! Natural selection mediates coat melanism in these species: the jaguar, leopard, jaguarundi, bobcat, serval, Geoffroy's cat, Oncilla, Pampas cat, kodkod, jungle cat, and Asiatic golden cat. While some of these species are not widely known, the term "black panther" (which is actually not a term for a specific species!) is most notably used in reference to a black jaguar or black leopard. Other than National Black Cat Day, I see no better day than Halloween to introduce a few of our world's melanistic wild cats:

Melanistic jaguar. In the right light, you can still see the rosette-shaped spots! Photo by Ron Singer.

Melanistic jaguar. In the right light, you can still see the rosette-shaped spots! Photo by Ron Singer.

Pictured above, the jaguar is the largest of South America's big cats, and black individuals are common in zoos and the pet trade. However, the frequency of occurrence of this color polymorphism is not well understood in wild populations. This cool study successfully used fecal DNA to map wild melanistic jaguars in Brazil using the amino acid deletions in the Mc1r gene.

A melanistic leopard stands in stark contrast to the normal phenotype. Taken at the Kali Tiger Reserve in India by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

A melanistic leopard stands in stark contrast to the normal phenotype. Taken at the Kali Tiger Reserve in India by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Like the jaguar, the leopard exhibits melanism as a recessive trait. For many wild populations, the frequency of occurrence for melanism can become prominent, but this trait is not expected to be fixed within populations due to its Mendelian inheritance (ie, its recessive nature). However, this study found near-fixation (meaning that melanism is the only variant of the pigmentation allele) on the Malay Peninsula. Cool!

This melanistic bobcat was legally trapped in 2016 in New Brunswick, Canada.

This melanistic bobcat was legally trapped in 2016 in New Brunswick, Canada.

Bobcats, one of my favorite species, also exhibit melanism. Few records exist in the continental US, most of which are in southern Florida. Black bobcats have been recorded by fur trappers in New Brunswick, Canada since at least 1983. This is cool, because it means that the polymorphism has persisted across several generations in this area! 

A black serval seen in Kenya. Photo by Sergio Pitamitz

A black serval seen in Kenya. Photo by Sergio Pitamitz

The serval is a medium-sized wild cat distributed across much of southern Africa. These cats share a phylogenetic history with caracals, Bay cats, and Asiatic golden cats (another species that exhibits melanism). I worked with captive servals many years ago at Carolina Tiger Rescue- these cats can jump over ten feet in the air! Melanism is rare in this species, and two white servals exist in captivity in Florida. 

A fellow graduate student in my lab, Hariyo Wibisono, and one of my mentors, Dr. Jennifer McCarthy, documented a melanistic marbled cat in Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2010. The 12th cat! Check this out:

Camera trap image of a melanistic marbled cat in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Hariyo Wibisono and Dr. Jennifer McCarthy.

Camera trap image of a melanistic marbled cat in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Hariyo Wibisono and Dr. Jennifer McCarthy.

Melanistic cat alongside a normal phenotype marbled cat in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Indonesia. Photo by Hariyo Wibisono and Dr. Jennifer McCarthy. 

Melanistic cat alongside a normal phenotype marbled cat in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Indonesia. Photo by Hariyo Wibisono and Dr. Jennifer McCarthy. 

Humans are fascinated with black color morphs. Wild cats are elusive and rare, which makes melanistic individuals all the more exciting. Melanistic cats are  great examples of the diversity and impact of genetics and the role polymorphism plays in natural selection and evolution. The next time you hear someone talk about a "black panther," you can now tell them which one they likely saw (your terror of a housecat included)!

Disclaimer 1: Like any wild cat, never approach a melanistic cat on Halloween, or on any other day for that matter, because wild cats are not pets, and because you could bleed a lot.

Disclaimer 2: If you have a black cat, consider keeping him or her inside tonight (and every day, because this), as some people are unkind to black cats on Halloween. 

References:
Clarke, C. A., Mani, G. S., Wynne, G. 1985. Evolution in reverse: Clean air and the peppered moth. BioI. J. Linn. Soc. 26:1 89-99.


Hedges L., Lam W. Y., Campos-Arceiz A.M., Campos-Arceiz R.D., Laurance W., Latham C. J., Saaban S., and R.C. Gopalasamy. 2014. Melanistic leopards reveal their spots: Infrared camera traps provide a population density estimate of leopards in Malaysia. The Journal of Wildlife Management 79:846–853.


Johnson, W. E., Eizirik, E., Pecon-Slattery, J., Murphy, W. J., Antunes, A., Teeling, E., and S.J. O'Brien. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science 311: 73–77.


Kawanishi K, Sunquist ME, Eizirik E, Lynam AJ, Ngoprasert D, et al. .2010. Near fixation of melanism in leopards of the Malay Peninsula. Journal of Zoology 282: 201–206.


Nachman, M., Hoekstra, H., and S. D'Agostino. 2003. The Genetic Basis of Adaptive Melanism in Pocket Mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100: 5268-5273.


Tischendorf, J. W., and D. F. McAlpine. 1995. A melanistic bobcat from outside of Florida. Florida Field Naturalist 23:13-14.

 

 

 

To Selfie or Not to Selfie- How Can Scientists Foster Public Trust on Instagram?

A few months ago I was contacted by Dr. Paige Jarreau, a science communication specialist at Louisiana State University, to discuss how scientists use Instagram to positively engage with the public. My Instagram is a source for daily wildlife facts and information on how to become a wildlife biologist. I post cool facts about the critters in your back yard and around the world as well as highlight the importance of science and conservation research. Why do I do this? Well, for starters, it's fun! Posting on Instragram is a great way to combine my passions with down time, and I really enjoy talking to so many outdoor and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) enthusiasts! However, social media is also a great way to showcase diversity and trustiworthiness in science, and here is how we're going to test it:

Scientists are often perceived as smart, but stiff. Warmth, friendliness, and receptiveness are not always associated with people in STEM. Recent research testing these concepts found that Americans perceive scientists as competent, but not necessarily warm- and warmth is a key component of trust. Experts in all fields must work to disseminate their research, but also earn (and maintain) the trust of those listening. Sometimes, we fail at one, or both.  Simply put, we've got a public image problem. Fortunately, I, along with many others, are interested in whether we can change the way the public views and trusts scientists.

I was super pumped when Paige reached out to me because she wants to test whether using Instagram can generate trust between scientists and non-scientists. Does showing that we are regular people make the public more likely to perceive us as warm, friendly, and therefore trustworthy? Is information online more believable when accompanied by a friendly face? Do selfies make scientific content more dynamic and trustworthy?

Do #ScientistsWhoSelfie foster a better public image?

These are just a few questions being asked by my team on a project where we are empirically testing whether personalization in online presence fosters a better public image. Using Instagram, our team is going to measure how public perception changes when presented with curated and informative posts on social media. Specifically, do selfies help scientists? Measuring this empirically means we can provide scientists with ways to be more effective disseminators of science and research. While many see science communication as a frivolous pastime, we want to generate information to show that online STEM presence is worth scientists' time. We want to learn how to best earn public trust in order to make science more accessible and useful for all. 

If you're visiting my website, there's a good chance you first found me on Instagram or Twitter. If you enjoy my content, or if you're here because you follow other awesome scientists on social media, this post is for you! To make this project successful, we need your help. We are jumpstarting this research with a crowdfunding campaign. With professional endorsements, a bare-bones budget, and a detailed timeline, our project includes dozens of scientists and STEM enthusiasts who are already generating content that the public will evaluate. If you like my work, or science in general, please consider visiting our experiment's campaign webpage to learn more about the research and how you can contribute: To Selfie or Not to Selfie?

Starting tomorrow, you can also join our #ScientistSelfie challenge! Check out my Instagram tomorrow morning (link at the top of this post) for instructions on how to add to this much-needed experiment! Your attention and assistance can help us be better at our jobs, better describe our fields, and be more likely to encourage others to pursue a career as a trusted scientist. 

Check us out at experiment.com/scientistselfies to get involved and help our experiment!

Conservation Giving- What to Get The Person who Loves Nature and Wildlife

It's the end of the first semester of my PhD, and let me tell you: it happened too fast! I'm back in student mode once again submitting finals and papers and finishing what I think is the last formal statistic class I'll ever have to take (wooo!). FYI, biologists use lots of statistics. All that's left is for me to finish grading mammalogy papers, and then it's time to search for wildlife in Texas- I mean go see my family ;).

It's December 15th, which means a lot of humans are frantically trying to sort out those holiday gifts. We always try to buy local, ecologically-conscious or educational gifts that are useful in the long term, so I thought now might be a good time to promote some conservation and nature-centric options for your gift-giving needs. Conservation is cool year round, of course, and in 2017 our efforts in conservation will be more important than ever (more on that later). If you're looking for unique gifts from reputable organizations, look no further. These are great options for biologists of all ages and skill levels, and these supplies and organizations are trusted by biologists every single day.

Make a conservation donation in someone's name.

1. The Nature Conservancy

2. The Ocean Conservancy

3. The Xerces Society

4. The Orianne Society

5. Panthera

6.  Turtle Survival Alliance 

7. Working Dogs for Conservation 

Get some field guides:

1. SIbley Guide to Birds

2. Peterson's Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians

3. Peterson's Field Guide to Mammals

4. Mammal Tracks & SIgn

5. Peterson's Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North American North of Mexico

Buy some cool books:

1. Wild Mammals of North America; Biology, Management and Conservation. Fedlhamer et al.

2. The Wildlife Techniques Manual; Research (Vol I); Management (Vol II). Nova Silvy.

3. Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians; Kentwood D. Wells.

4. Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species. Michael Lannoo

5. Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles. Vitt and Caldwell.

6. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Petranka.

7. Handbook of The Mammals of the World (Vol 1: Carnivores). Wilson and Mittermeier.

8. Snow Leopards- Biodiversity of the World: Conservation from Genes to Landscapes. McCarthy.

9. Animal Skulls- Guide to North American Species. Elbroch.

Gift a state or national park membership

Help them help nature with gear:

1. Binoculars

2. Headlamp

3. GPS Unit

4. Infrared camera trap

This is only a partial list of the great things you can do to help and promote stewardship for wildlife conservation! What did I leave out? Let me know! Happy holidays!

 

 

Snow Leopards at the University of Delaware (wait a second...)

If you follow me on social media, you likely already know what the post title is about. For those just dropping in, I'm excited to clarify what it means: I'm doing snow leopard research. I recently accepted a PhD position in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware investigating landscape genetics/genomics of snow leopards. I'm working with Panthera, one of the world's premier wild cat conservation organizations. I'm collaborating with some really excellent scientists in both genetics and quantitative ecology, and our efforts will address range-wide questions about what structures populations of snow leopards and how this could change in the future. To say that I am excited for this project, and to complete my PhD, is a gross understatement.

A curious snow leopard. Photo by Panthera.

A curious snow leopard. Photo by Panthera.

Over the next four years I'll be extracting DNA from individual snow leopard scat (that's poop) to process their genotypes- think of this as unique puzzle pieces of DNA- and comparing them with other snow leopards. Identifying genetically distinct populations can be very informative for wildlife conservation and management, and is much needed for snow leopards. If you don't think this sounds too exciting (and I have no idea why you wouldn't- I mean come on, science!), don't worry- I'll be traveling overseas as well. I'll be doing lab work in at least one country and field work in another. I'm excited to traverse the high elevation mountains of Asia, and hopefully spot these elusive cats. 

Getting excited about coyote scat!

Getting excited about coyote scat!

I've been in Delaware for just under a month, and things are going really well. I'm a teaching assistant for mammalogy, which is a class that focuses on the natural history, anatomy, physiology, and evolution of mammalia. Being a student again is actually quite exciting, as I enjoy the fast pace of academia and being part of an environment so saturated with scientific minds. I am actually getting ready to proctor my student's first big exam on bats, shrews and moles, and bones, so be sure to check back soon for more posts on snow leopards, and a recap of my summer with Pacific martens. 

Snow leopards are habitat specialists in that they require areas of high elevation and low temperature. This makes them sensitive to issues like climate change. Photo by Panthera.

Snow leopards are habitat specialists in that they require areas of high elevation and low temperature. This makes them sensitive to issues like climate change. Photo by Panthera.

For those of you interested in learning more about the natural history, conservation needs, and current research efforts worldwide with snow leopards, check out the fantastic text "Snow Leopards: Biodiversity of the World: From Genes to Landscapes."

The Yellowstone Bison Incident

The Outbound Collective invited me to write a response to the Yellowstone bison incident that occurred last month. I've extracted it below from their website. Learn more about The Outbound Collective here.

A Response To The Yellowstone Bison Incident From An Actual Wildlife Biologist

I’ve been following the social media frenzy surrounding a bison calf in Yellowstone National Park. As a wildlife biologist, learning about the unfortunate event in which a man picked up a bison calf and placed it into his car elicited an array of responses, from anger to exasperation to defense, and, when combined, merits a much-needed discussion concerning perceptions of wildlife management. As a society, we need to do better regarding why we think it’s okay to interfere with wildlife. As a biologist, I can tell you why it’s not.

Based on press releases, we know that the tourist in question encountered a newborn bison in the park, physically put it in his vehicle, and transported it to a park ranger facility because he thought it was cold (for more details, see here). The man was cited for disturbing wildlife. However, after a two-day attempt by park rangers to reunite the calf with its herd, park officials made the difficult decision to euthanize the animal. These events paint a sad but all too common picture in which humans tampering with wildlife results in detrimental, and often fatal, outcomes for the animal.

The United States is home to 59 protected areas known as national parks, one of which is the iconic Yellowstone National Park. For these places, the National Park Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior, is charged with managing publicly owned natural resources (which include wildlife). The great gift of the national park system, and for any wild place in general, is that the wellbeing of wildlife and wild places depends on visitors exercising good judgement. When put plainly, this means following the rules.

While many of us recognize the good intentions of the tourist, he did not follow Yellowstone’s rules regarding safely viewing wildlife. The signage is everywhere, and the words are clear: do not approach wildlife. As a compassionate human being, I admire his concern for animal welfare, but this does not justify a blatant disregard for park rules. From a human safety standpoint, this was astronomically stupid, as bisonare extremely aggressive when protecting their young. From a wildlife standpoint, this caused the unnecessary death of a wild animal.

But, why exactly are people angry?

This depends on who you ask. All I had to do was hop on Twitter to see the public outrage against the tourist, the park rangers, and even the mother bison. People are upset that someone ignored park rules and potentially caused a bison to abandon her calf. People are upset with the mother bison for rejecting her baby. People are also extremely angry that park officials euthanized the animal instead of sending it to a sanctuary. While I, too, am exasperated that negative human-wildlife interactions are increasing, many of these responses very clearly illustrate a gross misunderstanding of wildlife behavior, ecology, and management.

Foremost, it should be pointed out that the bison calf may have already been abandoned by its mother prior to being picked up by the tourist. Allegedly, the animal was unattended by an adult. In nature, parents do sometimes abandon their young - sometimes unprovoked - even in national parks. When it does happen, as wildlife biologists and managers we aim to not interfere with natural processes. Yes, nature can be cruel, but unknown animals die without our knowing it all the time. This is part of the circle of life - when something dies, other things get to live as a result. However, human interference with wildlife can cause mothers to reject their offspring, and with (valiant) ranger efforts to reintroduce the calf to the herd failing, park officials thought it kinder to euthanize the animal than to watch it starve or get hit by a vehicle. To answer the question of why the calf wasn’t sent to a sanctuary: because the space and finances do not exist. The approved quarantine facility needed to ensure that the calf didn’t transmit diseases like brucellosis to captive bison herds was/is not in place, and there are laws regulating the transport of wild animals into private ownership. These alternatives were not possible, which means that the abandoned calf would have been left to starve or become prey. While these are natural events, the human involvement and therefore cause was not, and the animal was euthanized. There is no doubt that this decision weighed heavy on park officials. I am sad that they had to make this decision, but I support the park.

Wildlife biologists are stuck between a rock and a hard place on this, and many other human-wildlife interaction issues. This situation demonstrates why we should always leave wildlife alone. I spend a lot of time as a biologist talking about how wildlife don’t actually need our help. They don’t need to be saved from nature, and even when they do, it’s not our job to save them. That may seem counterintuitive, harsh even, but wildlife conservation is about populations, not individuals. Yellowstone National Park is not a zoo, or a sanctuary, or a wildlife rehabilitation center. The goal of wildlife managers is to maintain ecological processes, and this does not include pulling wildlife out of populations and throwing them into captivity for the sake of keeping them alive. However, this doesn’t mean that wildlife managers are callous about wildlife - just the opposite. I am a wildlife biologist because I am in awe of, in love with, and constantly seek to conserve wildlife and wild places. Natural ecosystems are complex machines where birth and death play key roles in the perseverance of that community, and no amount of emotion or opinion can override these facts. When we assume that experts are wrong simply because we disagree with their actions or their advice, we make it more difficult to accomplish common goals. Our current social environment dictates that experts are not allowed to disagree with emotions. In the case of the bison calf, and many human-wildlife issues, do-gooders are at odds with wildlife experts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if the tourist had good intentions, as it was misguided, against park rules, and resulted in the death of the animal.

By thinking that we are allowed to interfere with wildlife if our intentions are good, or that it’s okay to break the rules in certain circumstances, we hurt wildlife. As a wildlife biologist, I spend very little time interacting with animals, and that is because human-wildlife interactions are never good for the animal. For these situations, it is always best to trust the experts. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be involved with YOUR wildlife. In the United States, wildlife are publicly owned, and you should enjoy them and develop opinions and affinities and appreciations. However, it is important to recognize that there are those who have dedicated their lives, educations, and careers to learning how to properly manage our resources, and that good intentions do not equate with expertise. Just like going to the doctor for a medical diagnosis, leaving wildlife to wildlife experts is the best way to ensure that you as well as the animals we love are safe.

Because our community is full of wonderful people willing to respect wildlife and safety regulations (unlike these guys), I thank you for being part of our team effort to conserve our wild places - conservation is truly a grassroots effort, and your support is paramount. It’s easy to be an animal hero and wildlife advocate without “helping” wildlife - if you see an animal you think is hurt, abandoned, or sick, please don’t take matters into your own hands. Depending on where you are, calling a park ranger or local biologist is the best way to ensure that wildlife do not meet an unnecessary end. Hopefully this bison calf’s death can generate a paradigm shift in how we want to influence wildlife - when this happens, the death will no longer be in vain.