Ant Exploration Comic

I haven’t written about our newest and biggest science education, conservation engagement project for students. If you follow me on twitter or facebook though you may have heard about it a bit.

Our Ant Exploration Comic anthology will be used to teach students scientific inquiry skills and build thier understanding of how species interact with their environments. By using ants as a ‘model organism’ we hope to introduce other topics relating to ecology, climate and conservation.


Once printed, this comic will be used to reach over 240 students at three New York City public schools. This is in collaberation with the School of Ants project and all resources, including the digital copy of the comic, will be available free for teachers & educators on the Your Wild Life lab website.

Our project funding through Indiegogo finished last week – with a total of $2,854 raised! We’re overwhelmed by the support and look forward to sharing the comic with you once we finish!

UPDATE: The digital version of our comic is now online!


Citizen Science in Formal Education

Citizen science is a powerful and emerging discipline focused on improving research outcomes and engaging the public in scientific inquiry. Projects like BudBurst have allowed us to better observe and compare weather variations surrounding the ‘sprung’ in Spring, Journey North has improved our understanding of the Monarch butterfly’s great migration, and WhaleFM has allowed citizens of all ages to experience the sounds just beneath the ocean waves. Participants in citizen science have the opportunity to add to truly cutting-edge research and help bring forth findings that will help solve some of our greatest environmental issues.

© Scientific American
© Scientific American

Citizen science is inherently engaging, reaching out to the curious nature we all share as humans and inspiring us to explore the natural world around us. Most importantly though, citizen science is beginning to democratize the practice of science – tearing down ivory towers and replacing them with public centers where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to science research.

This ‘opening’ of the science world brings both transparency and increased accessibility to science research. It allows for better management and implementation of policies by allowing a more diverse set of stakeholders to be involved in not only the design of research, but also in collection of data and assessment of findings. Citizen science can in then allow for more robust research outcomes while also meeting essential educational objectives. As we in the scientific community work to improve science literacy and public engagement in science research, citizen science should be more fully incorporated into our research & daily activities.

This is particularly true for research that can involve student participants. Integrating relevant and authentic science research into K-12 education can improve science education and inspire the next generation of science researchers.

School of Ants is citizen-science driven project that works with schools in formal education to help students gain a better understanding local biodiversity. My research in collaboration with this project focuses on ways to improve student engagement in science and conservation. In this case, the science research goals and learning objectives are not mutually exclusive – students are adding directly to valuable ecological research while also developing fundamental science skills.

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In order to design and successfully implement other citizen science projects that focus on formal classroom education, effective learning resources must be developed. The main argument by teachers for not including science research in their classroom is that it does not align with required standards. Scientists can work to meet these by promoting inquiry and place-based learning objectives within their research methods.

The future of citizen science will be positively affected by encouraging the participation of younger members of the public. In order to achieve this, scientists must work with educators to align their goals in collaboration. Despite traditional attitudes and understandings, there is an enormous potential for citizen science in formal education.

SONYC Social Media Slant

Last Thursday I traveled up to Rockefeller University to speak at SpotOn NYC’s 2nd birthday. The other presenters and I were there to explain how we use social media for our science outreach projects. These case studies would help share how scientists and educators can use tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts or even Instagram to communicate science.

I had 10 minutes to tell my story to the audience and all those watching on the livestream…

I first touched on the basics.
1) Using my Twitter to connect with other teachers and scientists to share ideas on how to improve science education and engage students in research.
2) Running a Facebook Page called “Your Wild Earth” that I use to post pictures and videos of engaging science facts, current events and conservation issues.
3) This blog NYC Ecology to write posts and discuss Urban Ecology & Science Education.

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Yet the main social media tool I was there to speak about was my “Graduates at Work” sections on this blog. I use this page to profile graduate students in the E3B Department at Columbia University with the goal of highlighting effective conservation research. I also spoke about the need for students to read stories about young scientists – to see where they work in the field, what questions they are investigating and most importantly, what their results mean for conservation efforts.

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You can read more about the event – with a summary & Storify here. Look forward to sharing the video of my talk once it’s up!

Eat them, hunt them or embrace them…

How exactly do we deal with invasive species?

If you know where to look, there’s a delicious beer-battered lionfish recipe out there just waiting for you to try. In fact, there are a couple hundred marine biologists who’d love for you to try it as well. This Indo-Pacific marine fish is venomous, highly territorial and dangerously prolific. It represents one of the most threatening modern exotic introductions, displacing native fish across Florida waters and more recently, Caribbean coral reef environments at a disturbingly rapid pace. If we know lionfish and other invasive species are causing enormous ecological damage  … well … what the hell are we going to do about it?

Mature Lionfish © Flickr user Alkok
Mature Lionfish © Flickr/Alkok

To Hunt
Last Sunday night a competition between over a thousand hunters ended in the Everglades. $1,500 to the person who bagged the most and $1,000 for the longest. This competition was organized to address the impact of another equally threatening invasive predator, the Burmese Python. Like the lionfish, this introduced reptile has altered the ecological structure of extremely valuable Florida environments. Can similar eradication projects be organized to target lionfish? In fact they’ve already begun (see Lionfish Derby) and most state governments actively encourage divers to spear and kill lionfish found in local waters. While these programs certainly raise awareness, hunting practices must be able to significantly reduce populations in order for us to make headway.

To Eat
There’s a reason the 12ft 500 pound Moa went extinct after the first humans arrived to New Zealand in 1400 AD. This massive bird was tasty, defenseless and easy to kill in large numbers. Many of the invasives we are dealing with today are by their very nature, however, quite different. The Asian shore crab is a good example. This two inch opportunistic crustacean is rapidly outcompeting native crab, fish and shellfish species along the entire Eastern Coast. Is it a good strategy to try and reduce this invasive population through consumption? Eat the Invaders believes so, an organization dedicated to providing recipes for common North American invasive flora & fauna. Even with our cooking instructions in hand though, a market for these invaders must first exist.

Lionfish Spearing © Flickr user SKennelly
Lionfish Spearing © Flickr/SKennelly

To Embrace
In the case of the lionfish, studies have shown that hunting is not a feasible option for controlling the population – divers simply can’t collect enough to halt their expansion. At least 27% of the invasive adult populations would have to be killed monthly, a task that could only be achieved by bringing in a trained ‘lionfish’ hunting corps. Commercial catch for consumption has similar complications, all pointing to the end fact that lionfish collection just isn’t economically viable. So knowing what we now know …. if we do choose to embrace, are we damning native diversity by accepting the permanent presence of invasive species?

A Solution…
As citizens and scientists approaching the lionfish invasion, we must decide on achievable conservation goals. If we agree to restore Florida and Caribbean ecosystems to their natural state, what exactly do we mean? Is it possible to return all flora & fauna to their pre-lionfish condition? The question of defining baselines for restoration remains a hotly debated topic, one that is changing ever more rapidly as we realize the ecological implications of future climate change. In the design of programs to address lionfish, we can accept their presence without ‘giving up’ on the health & diversity of these valuable ecosystems. I believe our response to all invasive species should include three major goals: avoid future introductions, mitigate current ones and set effective conservation management that promotes the functioning and resilience of altered ecosystems. We must move our focus from restoring to some historical baseline to protecting these ecosystems as they currently exist and more importantly, as they continue to change in future. As Matt Palmer, a community ecologist at Columbia University, wrote in a recent post on exotic species, “language about fighting to put things back the way they were is probably less useful than language about adapting to a changed environment.” The ecological history of our planet has been defined by change, alterations in climate that have brought new environments and new species to inhabit them. As we realize our role in introducing damaging invasives and in hastening global climate change, we must focus on what is possible – adapting for the future.

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.

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.