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Personifying Predators

Why Getting To Know Your Local Great White Shark Is Good For Conservation

As you read this sentence, there is a sixteen foot, three thousand four hundred and fifty six pound shark swimming off the coast of New England. Her name is Mary Lee and she’s a great white.

Mary Lee was first caught and tagged on September 17th of last year. Ever since she’s been leaving a digital trail of bread crumbs, allowing us to follow her every move from Jacksonville Beach Florida to just off Cape Cod. Her travels have awed viewers and surprised scientists, never before has the behavior and migratory pattern of a great white shark been so closely monitored. This data will provide policy makers with the necessary information to protect great whites, a step which will ideally help move them from their current ‘threatened’ status.

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Mary Lee ≈ 10 miles off Long Island – Credit OCEARCH

Chris Fischer and his team at Ocearch lead the research on MaryLee. A diverse group of marine scientists and professional fisherman, they began catching great whites along the East Coast this fall. Their previous work focused on tagging sharks of the same species off the cape of South Africa, where they followed more than 15 individuals with names ranging from Oprah to Louis Antonio. The publicity their research has received recently, from CBS television interviews to NYTimes write-ups, is quite astonishing, but has it truly benefited the conservation of great whites? Critics of Mr. Fischer’s work would say no, especially those who view their methods as overly invasive and unnecessary given the effectiveness of harpoon tagging devices. While these concerns are valid, the value of this research comes from its overwhelming ability to inspire and educate hundreds of thousands of viewers. Influential tracking projects like the alpha-female wolf 832F of Yellowstone Park have shown similar results – people earn to connect with and understand the lives of these iconic predators. This investment is crucial as it not only builds the funds, but also the public knowledge necessary to protect the livelihoods of these threatened species.

Mary Lee's tagging. Credit Ocearch
Mary Lee’s tagging. Credit Ocearch

The story of Mary Lee is unique in its ability to spark widespread public interest. If properly guided, similar ‘outreach’ centered projects can have enormous impacts on raising awareness and support for the protection of threatened species like the great white. As Emily Anthes wrote this week in her Op-Ed piece Tracking the Pack, “Learning about the personalities and life histories of individual animals can prompt affection for these creatures, even if we never meet them.” This affection builds investment and engages citizens in research, moving us all to better understand and connect with the species we live so, often unknowingly, close to.

Interested in more Mary Lee? Find some extra resources linked here.

Cape Cod Tagging Video of capture & tagging of sharks like Mary Lee.
East Cost RoadTrip. See Mary Lee’s path and current location.
“Blowing our minds” Mr. Fischer discusses the data their gatheing from US great whites Mary Lee and Genie.
Tagging Slideshow. Photos of Ocearch’s most recent trip off Nantucket.
#GreatWhites. Follow Mary Lee (unofficially) on Twitter.

Science in Sepia

How Scientists Can Use Instagram To Engage The Public and Promote Their Research

Instagram is the mecca of fast, effortless social media consumption. See a picture, like it, move to the next all with the flick of the thumb. Instagram’s simple picture sharing and color altering filters are truly endearing, yet like all widely used and successful social media tools it’s capabilities extend further than that. Instagram offers a way for its users, whether they be writers, airlines, designers or professional sports teams, to interact with their viewers frequently and effectively at no cost. As the world of citizen science grows and  the power of science communication becomes more apparent, how can we in the science community take advantage of social media tools to share research with the general public? Here are three points on how Instagram can improve your work and why you should start using it today. 

A set of Law's pinned specimens.
A set of Jeremy Law’s pinned specimens, in ‘Rise’ filter.

1. Funding
All research projects have costs – whether it be plane tickets, a fancy new soil corer or an over zealous undergraduate field assistant, securing funds for these expenses is a necessary step in moving a project forward. For most graduate students, funding (or rather significant funding) can be particularly hard to come by. Instagram offers a quick and easy way to promote your project and more importantly, connect with your audience throughout the entire research process. Raise interest by posting photos of your study organism or field locations, photos which can then be connected to popular and science friendly crowd funding sites like RocketHub and Petridish. During your field research, you can continue to connect with donors and reach out to potential donors by regularly posting photos of your work. Elsa Ordway, an E3B masters student, funded her field work in Rwanda this last summer by creating an Indiegogo project. Regularly uploading pictures of you preforming research in the field can be a rewarding perk for donors and can continue to build interest as well as funding for your research even after you have left the lab.

Chelsea Recreation Center green roof - 25th st & 10th ave Manhattan.
Chelsea Recreation Center green roof – 25th st & 10th ave Manhattan.

2. Publicity
As a graduate student, all publicity is good publicity … except for maybe the arsenic kind. Actively building interest in your research can be an important aspect of a project design, your personal career and/or the goals of the lab and institution with which you work. For citizen science projects in particular, gaining interest is crucial to recruiting and developing a solid base of participants. As we struggle to maintain long-term engagement in citizen science, Instagram offers a way to share results with participants and more importantly, allows participants to share their photos with the researchers and with one another. Community building is essential to improving citizen science work. If participants are able to share their involvement, we can effectively increase investment in the project. For those not involved in citizen science, Instagram can still help you connect with your audience and build interest in your work. Joshua Drew, the director of the MA program at Columbia, has actively used twitter to promote his field work on coral reef fishes in Fiji. He and his collaborators were able connect with donors while in the field, gaining funds for individual dives and sharing daily results with the public. Instagram allows for picture sharing that can update and inform viewers of important conservation issues. This type of direct interaction, whether for education or funding, allows your followers to immediately see the impacts of their support and builds their investment in the research for the long run.

3. Outreach & Education
Despite my first two points focusing on fortune and fame, there are enormous benefits for the general public when you promote your research through social media tools like Instagram. Before I elaborate on this point, I want to note on a problem issue with science communication as it stands today – one that I’m reminded of when I interact with NYC public school students and 20-something friends. Science ‘communication’ often occurs as scientists, science writers and science enthusiast communicating with one another and only with one another. A lot of the time we’re just speaking to ourselves – confirming our shared opinions and praising each others outreach abilities. I believe we are are not truly reaching the general public, at least not as well as we could be.
For students, increasing science literacy means communicating science effectively in the classroom, on a daily basis. Informing the public on issues like pollution, overfishing and global climate change means making science and our exposure to it a daily activity. The majority of the U.S population I would argue, certainly most of my friends, family, and former students, wouldn’t just pick up a Discover Magazine or click through a few Scientists At Work blog posts. Instagram offers a way for us to increase the daily exposure factor, to communicate critical conservation and environmental issues frequently and effectively. Informing is easy, changing attitudes is the challenge. It’s a process that needs long term investment, one that allows ‘science’ to become an integral part of our daily decision making process. I believe we need to both rethink and add to the ways we can help engage people in science.
Jeremy Law, an E3B masters student, recently completed his field research here in New York City – looking at bee, wasp, and surphid fly diversity on green roofs and urban meadows. While sampling this summer he took photos on roofs and from meadows and now while in the lab he also shares photos of his specimens and pinning procedures. These photos were and continue to be viewed, liked, and commented on by his followers. Although it may seem insignificant, I believe these are the types of daily, frequent exposure, and easily accessible outreach activities that truly drive science communication. A photo can bring viewers into the scientific inquiry process, exposing them to conservation issues and improving their understanding of their own world. Who knew there was a green roof in the heart of Chelsea and more so, that it was supporting biodiversity essential to the resilience our city? These are the sorts of thoughts and realizations that need to take place. Instagram, along with other social media tools, provides the public an opportunity to engage with science in a unique and unprecedented way. Incorporating these tools into your research can help us as scientists push the door a bit further, or at least push it in a different manner, in order to make the ‘world of science’ more accessible to all.

An example of comments & likes on Law's research.
Comments & likes from followers of Law’s research.

An Ant Essay

After a full day of drudging through thick vegetation, battling mosquitos and stinging hair caterpillars, and working hours beneath the blazing summer sun, our team finally exited the research plot. Walking through an open patch leading to our temporary base, sharp thorns from the invasive Mile-A-Minute vine still clung to my pants like unwanted mementos from a rough day in the field. We all met below the shade of a large black gum tree, finally taking the time to gather both our thoughts and data sheets. “Anyone else want a cold drink from the bodega?” our team leader Sanpisa asked. Twenty minutes later we were driving across the Brooklyn Bridge, A/C cooling our faces, Michael Jackson’s Thriller playing on the radio, enjoying some well-deserved frozen ices we picked up on Flatbush Ave. Just a typical day in the life of an urban ecologist.

Our research team has found our way to this plot in Marine Park Brooklyn as a result of the MillionTreesNYC initiative to plant new multi-layered forests in the five city boroughs. In each research plot, we are sampling invasive herbs and measuring planted tree growth since last season. My work focuses on sampling ant communities within these urban forest fragments. Do ants inhabit transitioning urban landscapes? If so, what species are most abundant? Although we understand that urbanization threatens biodiversity, very little is known about insect and particularly ant diversity in cities. These questions I hoped to investigate during my time in the field, through careful measurements and recording of data. Despite these focused intentions, I often stumbled upon more unique and surprising examples of how species interact, interactions occurring daily and unbeknownst to most of us.

While taking the measurement of a small oak tree at Marine Park, I knelt below the vegetation to catch a quick drink of water. As I tipped my hat and raised my Nalgene, a dark glob hidden beneath a single oak leaf flickered past my peripheral vision. I quickly removed my sunglasses for a closer look, squinting to get a better look at this odd biological feature. A cache of small, brown, antennaed insects sat there, huddled together and surrounded by a small band of ants raising their heads and brushing their jaws. Had these ants stumbled upon the ultimate insect-meal jackpot and are now literally licking their chops with anticipation? As it turns out, this was not the case. Their hunger was not for the insects themselves, but for the drops of honeydew about to release from their abdomens. These tiny plant parasites are known as aphids and the ants surrounding them are their protectors, keeping a close eye on them like a shepherd to his herd. Despite what some may understand of natural selection, nature does not occur as just a battle of the fittest, to eat or be eaten, and this mutualistic relationship between ants and aphids pleasantly highlights this fact.

Ants tend to their aphids on the leaf of a newly planted tree at Marine Park.
Ants tend to their aphids on the leaf of a newly planted tree at Marine Park.

As a student of urban ecology, it is often difficult to explain why someone would study the natural environment of a city. The title itself may even seem paradoxical: How exactly do you study nature in a place so void of it? Yet as our world grows the value of studying ecology in the urban environment is becoming more and more apparent. New York City may not be the Peruvian Amazon or Great Barrier Reef of Australia, but the information we can gather here is equally valuable to our understanding of not only the natural world, but more importantly, of our own interactions with our urban neighbors. Observing this relationship between ants and aphids highlights the types of interactions taking place in our backyards and in our homes. As humans we are interacting with our natural world in a similar manner, even though our relationships with other species are not always as apparent to us. The more we come to understand these interactions, the better we will come to understand ourselves and our need to live sustainably with the many other species that inhabit our world.

Camp at the Marine Park site.
Camp at the Marine Park site.