Tag Archives: Ecology

Computer model brings better understanding of complex ecosystems

The spheres and colors represent the various species and trophic levels respectively, in Nevada Lakes, USA. (Picture Credits: Harper et al. 2005).

Numbers are numbing and data are messy. “Visualization tools can help untangle complexity,” says Eric Berlow—ecologist at Sierra Nevada Research Institute in California.  Good visualizations can bring out the details, organize information, and allow scientists to see data in a different way. A computer model called “Niche Model” emerged in the year 2000. It was developed by researchers of the applied mathematics department at Cornell University, Williams and Martinez. Before the model, many ecologists base their theories on “sharply focused” ecosystems with less species, to avoid “clutters” in their study.  However, this was problematic since it risks oversimplifying real-world phenomena.

Since 2000, Niche Model injected a healthy dose of complexity into the field of ecology and conservation biology research. By embracing the complexity, ecologists can now generate more accurate predictions that mimic real ecosystems.

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BC killer whales can’t hear each other!

I spent much of 2010/2011 working on a research project so thought that I would use this ultimate SCIE300 blog post to tell you all about it.

Last September, myself and four others in UBC Environmental Science were put on team and instructed to research whatever environmental science topic we wanted. We were all broadly interested in researching some sort of ecological impact of the Gateway Program, BC’s massive plan for highway and port expansions. We spent first semester narrowing in on a more specific area. Eventually, we landed our focus on the impacts of increasing commercial shipping traffic on the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW). This population is designated as endangered by the Species at Risk Act and has been in decline over the past several decades.

Photo: Minette Layne on Flickr

This semester, we went into a research paper-reading frenzy on everything and anything to do with killer whales, ships, and killer whales and ships in order to find a manageable gap in the understanding of commercial ship impacts on the SRKW we could work to fill. We soon found that the influence of commercial shipping sound in the SRKW critical habitat — area identified as especially important for the well-being of this species — is little understood.

Also at around this time, a lawsuit led by several environmental groups against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was in the midst of unfolding. Team Enviro had taken DFO to court for failing to protect the SRKW critical habitat (which DFO is legally obliged to protect), and in December 2010, the court ruled against DFO. Noise pollution — along with food availability and toxic pollution — were among the key areas DFO was found to be failing to address. So, knowing that DFO might be considering doing a better job of safe-gaurding the critical habitat, we wanted to conduct research that could inform recommendations to lessen noise impacts on the SRKW.

We got to work using GIS analysis to map out areas of sound influence in the SRKW habitat, identifying spots where the killer whales’ ability to communicate was compromised. In addition, we mapped out noise pollution scenarios under different ship speed limits to see whether the noise level decreased significantly.

In the end, we found that noise pollution is omnipresent in the SRKW critical habitat; the whales are almost never freed from some sort of interference in their communication calls. Additionally, we found that no realistic speed limit reduces noise significantly. What does this mean for the SRKW? Mostly, our research reiterates that DFO has done a poor job in protecting the home of this endangered species. However, we believe that future research into alternate shipping routes and identification of specific months or times of day for shipping that avoid critical killer whale feeding and breeding times and areas could lead to successful SRKW protection.

Our poster we presented to the EOSC faculty. You should be able to read it by clicking on it.

See our blog for more info on our project:-)

The Gulf of Mexico Still Far From Recovery

A video of the BP Spill Explained: YouTube Preview Image

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, also known as the BP Spill occurred on April 20, 2010 is known as the largest accidental marine oil spill in history[1]. The cleanup was done by burning the oil, and using chemical dispersant as well as oil-eating microbes. Microbes are small unicellular organisms. Alcanivorax borkumensis use oil as food[2]. By August 2010, most of the oil on the surface of the ocean was dissipated[3], but about 79% of the oil was still under the surface[4]. The BP (British Petroleum) compensation czar claimed that the Gulf would be recovered by 2012, however, research conducted by marine biologist Dr. Joye demonstrated that the oil is not degrading fast enough[5].

Joye’s research included 5 expeditions using deep-dives into the Gulf of Mexico near the oil spill to collect 250 samples from the ocean-floor and water columns. Her study found that much of the oil spill on the ocean floor and the water columns were from the BP spill. This was done by chemically fingerprinting the oil, and testing the samples in labs.

According to Joye’s findings, the oil-eating microbes that were thought to degrade most of the oil spill consumed about 10% of the oil spill. The rest are dispersed throughout the Gulf as small droplets, which can’t be seen on the surface, but a large amount of the oil droplets sank to the ocean-floor. Moreover, the mucous secretion from the oil-eating microbes which also contain oil sank to the bottom, on top of many bottom-dwelling sea creatures, such as starfish and crabs. Joye’s estimate of the total amount of oil leaked into the ocean is equivalent to 1.5 and 3 million barrels, and she thinks that the recovery will be much slower than what the BP czar claimed.

Oil on Floor

A wall of methane ice on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico - Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The damage done by this accident propose a much long-term effect on the fragile marine ecosystem as well as the marsh in Louisiana. Before reading about Joye’s research, I used to believe that the oil spill was recovering fast, mostly by the oil-munching microbes. However, the pictures and the data collected from the bottom of the ocean by Joye changed my opinion, that under the turquoise-blue surface of the ocean, the sea-floor is still struggling to recover.

The long-term public health implications from this spill is unknown, and still needs to be studied.

An Interview with Dr. Samantha Joye at the UGA Oil Spill Symposium on 26th of January 2011:

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[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=scientists-break-down-oil

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/us/28spill.html?_r=2&hp

[4] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-08-17/scientists-say-79-of-spilled-oil-may-remain-challenging-administration.html

[5] http://ca.news.yahoo.com/gulf-mexico-bottom-shows-little-sign-recovery-bp-20110219-152454-973.html

A Deadly Plague Endangers Bats

We’re all familiar with our furry flying mammalian friends, the bats. You can hear their distinct chirps at night, even here at UBC, as they fly around in search for food. However, on the other coast of North America they’re not doing so well.

A new plague is devastating bats in 14 different states and 2 Canadian provinces in the North-eastern part of the continent. It has already killed more than a million bats across 9 different species since it was first discovered in 2006. The disease is a fungal infection caused by Geomyces destructans, commonly referred to as “white-nose syndrome” (WNS), because bats develop white patches on their muzzles and ears.

Photo by Alan Hicks

When the bats go into a state of hibernation for the winter, they lower their body temperature and subsequently reduce the power of their immune system, making them easy targets. The disease  seems to disrupt the normal hibernation patterns of the bats, often causing them to awaken too early. Many of the infected bats appear underweight because they go out in search for food in the winter where there isn’t any. Eventually, the infected bats end up starving to death. Research suggests that the disease is being spread from cave to cave by the bats themselves, since most have been closed down to humans and WNS continues to spread. The mortality rate is very high: about 85% of the bats in an infected cave will die from the disease.

A Boston University ecologist, Winifred Frick, suggests that little brown bats may be entirely wiped out in north-eastern United States in the next 16 years. For all the bat lovers out there, this news can come as a bit of shock, but there are also other repercussions to consider. A colony of bats can consume thousands of pounds of insects in a season. Imagine how many more mosquitoes and crop damaging insects there would be if WNS continues to spread unhindered?

There does seem to be a ray of hope; a bat with WNS was discovered in France last year, but it appeared to be of normal weight. Scientists have speculated that Geomyces destructans must be native to Europe and that bats there have resistances to it.

Hopefully more research in the future will provide a means to protect the bats from infection.

The original article can be found here:  http://discovermagazine.com/2011/jan-feb/13

For more general information on the disease, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_nose_syndrome

Corals Are Moving North

Flickr: Martin-Klein

As the average temperature of the Earth rises due to climate change, the temperature of the oceans rises as well. These drastic rise in ocean temperatures, affect marine organisms of all shapes and sizes. However, the most prominent effects have been observed on corals. Corals, which are home to thousands of marine creatures, are considered to be some of the most fascinating and eye pleasing marine organisms in the oceans. Unfortunately, they are also highly sensitive to environmental changes.

In a recent article published in Science News (which can be found here), coral migration was studied and tracked by a group of scientists off the coasts of Japan. When they compared current results to data collected from different time periods starting in the 1930’s, they found out that various common coral species have retreated northward, and some have even gone as far as temperate waters. Furthermore, the abundance of coral has decreased proportionately with northward migration.

Mila Zinkova/Wikimedia Commons

If this trend were to continue and not be altered, the population of corals in the oceans will continue to decline. This decline is very unfortunate and it shows how deadly climate change can be. Corals are home to thousands of different marine organisms. Hence, the lost of corals, also causes the direct loss of other marine organisms. Ultimately this can lead to an overall reduction in biodiversity. Furthermore, the decline in coral also jeopardizes recreational activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling.

Although this article, provides excellent evidence to support the fact that corals are moving north and their abundance is decreasing. It does not provide us with ways to prevent or slow down this process. Most of us are already aware of the drastic effects climate change has on marine organisms, but very few of us know how to directly prevent such events from occurring. Hopefully we’ll see more media coverage on prevention methods in the future, so that such events can be prevented or subdued in the future.