Pandas were once a mascot for the conservation movement and zoo rehabilitation in particular. But in the last few years, they’ve become an object of disdain and symbol of what is wrong with conservation, for some. From a 2013 article:

[T]he first test of a species’ worthiness for conservation should be some instinct for self-preservation. And pandas fail objectively.

First, their breeding habits don’t suggest a species brimming with vitality. Pandas at a research center in Chengdu were so disinclined to mate that workers there subjected the poor things to Viagra and videos of other bears procreating, hoping they’d get the idea. Zoos, including in Washington, more often resort to artificial insemination. In the wild, where birthrates aren’t much better, pandas are prone to inbreeding. Females only ovulate for a few days each year, and if a mother does manage to have more than one cub, she abandons the weakling. That’s fine; nature’s mean. But don’t whine when a species with such habits falls into inexorable decline.

Second, although blessed with a bear’s predatory teeth, the lethargic beasts eat almost nothing but bamboo — a plant that’s nearly devoid of nutritional value and disappearing in the wild. Pandas consume 40 pounds of it a day, eating constantly, speeding their own demise.

“Here’s a species that of its own accord has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” Chris Packham, a British author and wildlife activist, said in 2009. He argues that “the panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half-century.”

Pandas, supporters argue, are given the attention they do only because they are undeniably adorable, which inspires even the least conservation-minded people to protect them. This has three effects: (1) informs people about the conservation movement; (2) brings people into zoos to see the pandas, which exposes them to other wildlife; and (3) protecting panda habitat also protects habitat for other species. This third idea is known as the “umbrella concept,” writes Shelby Hofstetter at the EEB and Flow:

The reality of the umbrella species concept may not be as simple however- there is some debate over how well it actually works. In some cases the large habitats required for the umbrella species do not overlap with biodiversity hotspots for other types of organisms like invertebrates, plants, amphibians or reptiles. And unfortunately, even in cases where these pieces of habitat would provide protection for additional species, safeguarding the large amount of land necessary is often unrealistic.

So how do we pick which species to protect? He presents a few examples, including one that was new to me: protecting species that have a long evolutionary history, recorded in their genes. Hofstetter:

Another response to this conservation riddle is aptly named the “Noah’s Ark Problem”, and is a framework for choosing species for conservation based on cost and likelihood of survival, but also on phylogenetic diversity. This objective focus on phylogenetic diversity, or the amount of genetic history that a species contains, has gained momentum in recent years and is aimed at saving species that encapsulate high amounts of Earth’s evolutionary life history. The hope is that phylogenetic diversity is correlated with genetic diversity in general, which could also give these species a better chance of adapting to a changing planet.

NB: Pandas do better than you might think as an umbrella species, wrote John Platt (my former co-blogger at Scientific American) earlier this fall:

The research looks at China’s endemic wildlife—species that exist nowhere else on Earth—and found that 70 percent of the country’s forest mammals, 70 percent of forest birds and 31 percent of forest amphibians all live within the panda’s geographic range and the nature reserves set aside to protect them. All told, 96 percent of this range overlaps with important conservation areas for other endemic forest species.


Pandas do protect a lot although a few species fall outside the umbrella. The research found that 14 of China’s endemic forest mammals, as well as 20 birds and 82 amphibians, are not currently protected by the giant panda’s current reserves. The paper identifies 10 locations that might be suitable for new or improved nature reserves to help expand that coverage. Many of these areas, located in Sichuan Province, which is considered the stronghold of giant pandas in the wild, are adjacent to existing reserves.


The AP Stylebook now recommends “climate change doubters” over “climate skeptics” or “climate deniers”:

We have reviewed our entry on global warming as part of our efforts to continually update the Stylebook to reflect language usage and accuracy.

We are adding a brief description of those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces:

Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.

Some background on the change: Scientists who consider themselves real skeptics – who debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience, such as those who are part of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry – complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic. They say they aren’t skeptics because “proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” That group prefers the phrase “climate change deniers” for those who reject accepted global warming data and theory. But those who reject climate science say the phrase denier has the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier so The Associated Press prefers climate change doubter or someone who rejects mainstream science.

To describe those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces, use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science. Avoid use of skeptics or deniers.

Ancient Egyptians bred birds of prey for religious sacrifice:

The revelation came after researchers at the American University in Cairo imaged a mummified kestrel and realized the bird had been force-fed a mouse prior to its untimely death. As detailed in a new paper, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the evidence suggests ancient Egyptians kept birds of prey in captivity. The captives were likely force-fed until they died from overeating, at which point they were mummified and offered to the gods.

Change can be a terrifying thing. Change isn’t always bad, but it’s unpredictable. Often we’d rather stick with what we know than venture into the uncertain and the unknown.

Lizzie Wade gets at this tension in an article about the ecological changes that will come with climate change. On a long time scale, climate change will not bring the apocalypse, she writes. It will mean the end of many lifeforms and the familiar assemblages of those lifeforms, what we call ecosystems. But it will also mean the evolution of new life that adapt to the new conditions—if we give it a million years or so.

She starts by describing an experiment by the Smithsonian’s Klaus Winter, who grew ten species of tropical tree seedlings at three temperatures: what they’re used to (79°F-85°F), uncomfortably hot, (90°F) and unbearably hot (95°F). He found that almost all of the trees not only survived but thrived. Two species died, and then only at the highest temperatures. Wade continues:

That doesn’t mean climate change won’t affect tropical forests of today. It already is. And it definitely doesn’t mean humans needn’t worry about global warming. Climate change will be the end of the world as we know it. But it also will be the beginning of another.

Mass extinctions will open ecological niches, and environmental changes will create new ones. New creatures will evolve to fill them, guided by unforeseen selection pressures. What this new world will look like, exactly, is impossible to predict, and humans aren’t guaranteed to survive in it. (And that’s if civilization somehow manages to survive the climate disasters coming its way in the meantime, from superstorms to sea level rise to agriculture-destroying droughts). Still, experiments like Winter’s offer a glimpse.

She goes on to describe more research about the potential evolution of forests under climate change, and of coral reefs under ocean acidification.

This perspective is sorely lacking in most coverage of climate change and ecology. On the one hand, we have folks waving their arms and pointing to each species threatened by climate change while ignoring those that will survive better under the new impending climate regime. (And often those that will survive better are described as unwanted or even villainous. They are just too good at surviving!) On the other hand, we have folks who readily brush aside any ecological effects, claiming that wildlife will adapt and adjust their ranges. (And then there are those who just don’t care much about the future of life, human or non-human, at all.)

They are right in some ways: humans and plants and animals and fungi and bacteria and archaea and protists will adapt and adjust their ranges to the new climate. But it will happen on a longer timescale than is meaningful for our current civilization.

Which is why protecting as many species for as long as we can really is the best bet we can make for wildlife in the foreseeable future. Climate change may very well bring on a natural selection event on a global scale, and we can’t readily predict what species will be selected. By presenting as many options as possible—many individuals of many different species—we have the highest chance for continuing to live alongside many types of happy, adapted wildlife without waiting for a million years. As Wade closes:

If rainforests are going to have a fighting chance of recovering their biodiversity and ecological complexity, those rare species and their priceless genes need to be ready and able to step into the spotlight. It might to be too late to save the world humanity knows and loves. But it still can still do its best to make sure the new one is just as good—someday.

Today in the New York Times, Michael Pollan considers recent legal attempts to define “natural.” Why ‘Natural’ Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore:

At one extreme end of the spectrum of possible meanings, there’s nothing but nature. Our species is a result of the same process — natural selection — that created every other species, meaning that we and whatever we do are natural, too. So go ahead and call your nuggets natural: It’s like saying they’re made with matter, or molecules, which is to say, it’s like saying nothing at all.

And yet at the opposite end of the spectrum of meaning, where humanity in some sense stands outside nature — as most of us still unthinkingly believe — what is left of the natural that we haven’t altered in some way? We’re mixed up with all of it now, from the chemical composition of the atmosphere to the genome of every plant or animal in the supermarket to the human body itself, which has long since evolved in response to cultural practices we invented, like agriculture and cooking. Nature, if you believe in human exceptionalism, is over. We probably ought to search elsewhere for our values.


I bet I’ll look back in 40 years and consider the Deepwater Horizon oil spill a defining event of my life. It was the first major disaster that I followed obsessively on the news as a recent college graduate. I wrote about it repeatedly on my blog Culturing Science, including one post about Normal Accident Theory that remains on point. I’ve written about it many times since, and was even invited to talk about it on Katie Couric’s Katie Show last year. I may spend the rest of my life trying to make sense of it.

I wasn’t alone in my obsession with the spill. A 2010 Pew report on media coverage of the spill found that “public interest in the saga remained extremely high throughout the first 100 days of the disaster, equaling the levels of attention to some of the grimmest moments of the recent economic crisis and exceeding the interest at the most pivotal moments of the health care debate.” From April 20 through July 28, the story remained in the top 5 stories and “accounted for 22% of the newshole, almost twice as much coverage as the No. 2 story, the economy at 12%.”

Why was this story so powerful? Pew had one idea:

One of the characteristics that made the BP saga unusual was that the event-driven news coverage—the breaking news aspect of the disaster—never went away.  That storyline, which included the ongoing efforts to cap and clean up the flow of oil and the environmental and commercial damage caused, kept evolving, requiring constant attention and effectively keeping the story from simply defaulting to a more partisan or politicized story line.

It also told many stories at once: corporate greed, government preparedness and response, human communities and wildlife impacts. That helped keep the story alive.

This also was a story that provided three major storylines emanating from three distinct locales. One was in Washington, where the federal government was trying to get on top of the situation and prevent the crisis from becoming another partisan battleground. Another was in London, the corporate headquarters of BP, the energy giant at the center of the disaster that was scrambling to protect its reputation and its bottom line.

But the dominant storyline occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, where the struggle to stop the spill and the impact on the local region were ongoing events. And that’s a major reason why the spill coverage didn’t simply become another story in which politics and commentary took over.

The sense of that evolving story gets lost in the “anniversary” news coverage that comes out every April. So I’m trying to recreate through a new Twitter environmental history project with the Smithsonian Ocean Portal (my employer):

A single day of commemoration cannot do justice to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We can’t explore research that addresses our questions from five years ago in just one day, or have time to consider the spill’s continuing impacts.

In order to better understand the experience of the spill’s timescale and give it the consideration it deserves, we’re launching a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #GulfSpillFlashback. Starting on the night of April 20, we will “live tweet” the spill as if the events of five years ago were unfolding now. (For example, we will tweet Gulf spill-related news stories from May 5, 2010 on May 5, 2015.) As we go, we will answer questions and address speculation from five years ago, if answers are yet known.

It’s only a day in and I’m already learning and remembering. As the news rolled out in 2010, it was out of order—there was no explanation for the explosion on the oil rig until May 8, for example—and I often missed explanations or details. This project will likely help me clear up some of my own ideas about the spill as we go. I hope you’ll follow along.

Climate change seems like a recent issue, but it’s been a topic of scientific research since at least the 1800s. A nice four-minute video history of climate change science by Meg Rosenburg:


Archaeologists recovered a nutcracker (top left), a teapot (top right), a tobacco box (bottom left), and a silver ring (bottom right) from a town buried under ash and debris ejected during the Tambora eruption.  Photo Credit: Dwi Oblo, National Geographic Indonesia

Archaeologists recovered a nutcracker (top left), a teapot (top right), a tobacco box (bottom left), and a silver ring (bottom right) from a town buried under ash and debris ejected during the Tambora eruption.
Photo Credit: Dwi Oblo, National Geographic Indonesia

As much as I despise the anniversary-based news cycle, it does teach me things from time to time. Like about this volcanic eruption 200 years ago:

Two hundred years ago on April 10, the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted, obliterating an entire tribe of people, cooling the Earth by several degrees, and causing famines and disease outbreaks around the world.

It remains the largest eruption on historical record: larger than the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and roughly 20 times bigger than Mount Vesuvius, which wiped the Italian town of Pompeii off the map.

Death toll estimates range from 71,000 to 121,000. Local people were killed by pyroclasic flows (hot gas & ash avalanches). Tsunamis, disease, and starvation killed many more around the world from the eruption’s climatic effects. The Economist:

The year after the eruption clothes froze to washing lines in the New England summer and glaciers surged down Alpine valleys at an alarming rate. Countless thousands starved in China’s Yunnan province and typhus spread across Europe. Grain was in such short supply in Britain that the Corn Laws were suspended and a poetic coterie succumbing to cabin fever on the shores of Lake Geneva dreamed up nightmares that would haunt the imagination for centuries to come. And no one knew that the common cause of all these things was a ruined mountain in a far-off sea.

Only 200 years ago. How soon we forget.

The history of science is a history of technology, as new tools give scientists new ways of seeing and understanding our world. When we develop new tools, it can be hard to tell whether they are good tools or not—if they provide a new way of seeing or if they obscure more than they reveal. This is a challenge of climate change models, which are frequently criticized as being incomplete and thus not providing accurate predictions of future climate. I keep returning to this essay by Frédérique Aït-Touati from February’s Histories of the Future symposium, “Seeing From Afar,” wherein she compares 17th-century distrust of the telescope to modern distrust of climate models:

Seventeenth-century astronomers were faced with the following problem: how could they make their work credible whilst claiming to refer to planets that were inaccessible? It is in this grey area of probability and hypothesis that controversy is always at its most heated. Copernicans had begun to use a new tool, the telescope, in order to defend their vision of a cosmos in which the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. Skeptics of the time mocked these instruments of magnification: in the seventeenth century, instrumental proof was too new a concept to be convincing. Galileo’s telescope and Hooke’s microscope were subject to the most virulent of criticisms.


Today, science is still trying to see into the distance, but ours is another kind of distance: rather than space, it is the future of our own planet that seems inaccessible, just like the stars of the seventeenth century. The climate model is a good analogy for Galileo’s telescope: it is a scientific instrument whose epistemological legitimacy is brought into question because it produces a new kind of proof. Climatology is a fairly new science, and it is still faced with the task of making its methods and proofs recognised and accepted: not just observation and experimentation, but complex models that allow scientists to give medium- or long-term projections. Climate models were developed relatively recently, and have tremendous potential for linking the past, present and future, and for sketching out new perspectives using our existing knowledge. They are the result of the work of thousands of researchers who collect, calibrate, compare and analyse data, then combine them to produce possible future scenarios.

The question remains, however: How can we persuade those who have not taken part in this process, and who are expecting simple, clear and unquestionable results? This drama of misunderstood climatology reminds us that the concepts of observation, proof and objectivity have their own history. Just as the instruments of natural philosophers were subject to ferocious criticism, climatologists today are working on models whose credibility is repeatedly questioned. The misunderstanding is a fundamental one. If scientists explain that they do not produce facts, but rather models, or probabilities – that they are concerned with the future, with risk, with the actions that must be taken if we are to avoid the worst possible outcomes – then they are told that their proofs are fragile and uncertain, and that their ‘facts’ are debatable: in short, that what they are doing is ‘not science’ at all.
This is just part of her essay’s larger theme about the power of fictional histories written by future historians. But this point has followed me around for some time regardless. It makes me want to look up historical reactions to DNA and DNA sequencing, to see what doubts the skeptics posed and what changed their minds—what convinced them that DNA sequencing gave us a new way of seeing. Often the proof is self-evident, as tools that expand our sight allow us to make predictions and then confirm them. Unfortunately for climate models, by the time their predictions are confirmed, we will already be digging ourselves out of a very deep hole.
Photo by David Rodriguez Martin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photo by David Rodriguez Martin, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, a new start-up promises to solve deforestation by planting 1 billion trees a year using drones. BioCarbon Engineering, founded by former NASA engineer Lauren Fletcher, will “counter industrial scale deforestation using industrial scale reforestation,” according to their website. Liz Core at Grist:

The process, which Fletcher calls “precision planting,” works like this: The machines track fauna levels on the ground, then report back on the area’s “restoration potential.” If it’s ripe for the planting, the drones shoot germinated seed pellets into the soil at a speed of about 10 seeds per minute. That should add up to about 36,000 tree seeds a day, and around 1 billion per year.

It’s an interesting idea, and it certainly can’t hurt. As Shannon Palus notes at, “Currently, humans only replant 15 billion trees each year, leaving a deficit of over 11 billion trees. So for now, the gap is bigger than either humans or an ambitious army of robots can handle alone.” But I tend to be skeptical of technological quick-fixes. 1 billion trees does not a forest make. More from Core:

Even if Fletcher and friends meet their billion seed goal, many of them won’t stand a chance at making it to full maturity. Because deforestation does major damage to soil, even carefully hand-planted seeds sometimes have low survival rates. And restoring a forest isn’t a quick fix — growing a complex ecosystem takes years and years of regeneration. That is, if it ever happens at all.

Fletcher’s robots would be a Band-Aid, not a cure, for the larger issue of industrial-scale deforestation. An example of a real panacea would be corporate no-deforestation policies, which would cut-down on the, uh, cutting-down of forests worldwide.