Badlands National Park

20180610_091043Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? The striated mounds and formations of Badlands National Park will take you there—75 million years ago, to be exact. The Badlands are a rugged landscape formed through deposition and erosion. Deposition began 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. As time passed, the landscape and climate in western South Dakota changed, dictating the types of sediments that were deposited in the area. Over the years, the place we know as Badlands National Park transformed from ocean to rainforest to swamp to open grassland.

Today, the differing sediment types that accumulated across millions of years are visible thanks to erosion. Beginning around 500,000 years ago, the Cheyenne River flowing out of the Black Hills, a mountainous region to the west of the Park, began to wash away all of those deposited sediments, forming the incredible landscape we call the Badlands. The Badlands are eroding at an astonishing rate of one inch per year, exposing fossils that offer insights from an earlier time. The lowest portions of the Park are the oldest, while the highest peaks are more recent. By and large, the most common fossil found in Badlands National Park is the oreodont, a deer-like herbivore, but rhinoceros, alligator, and ancient sea creatures are also uncovered annually.

I spent two nights in Badlands National Park in June 2018 as part of a longer trip through western South Dakota. We made the most of our time there by attending two ranger-lead programs, embarking on a long loop hike, and stopping at the many overlooks to enjoy the scenic landscape. Along the way, we spotted bighorn sheep and bison and there was no shortage of prairie dogs; we even saw a coyote in camp one morning. We were also reminded by one of the park rangers that half of the Park is after dark! We saw Jupiter and its Galilean moons through a telescope while the ranger explained that when we look up at the stars, we are peering back in time. It can take light thousands of years to travel from a star to earth, so what we see in the night sky reflects a previous time. The lack of city lights in the Badlands makes for ideal star-gazing.

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The best part about Badlands National Park? It is a giant playground! The staff know that human disturbance can’t cause more damage to this quickly eroding landscape than a heavy rainfall. That means you are free to run, jump, and climb off the beaten path, weaving your way through the park any which way you like. In the grand scheme of earth’s existence, the Badlands will only be around for about one million years. You don’t want to miss this vanishing geological treasure!


I’m knocking all 60 National Parks off my bucket list. Be sure to follow Summer, Scientifically for some behind the scenes science and fun from my trips.

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Finding the elusive eastern spotted skunk

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Documentation of the mid-century eastern spotted skunk population decline by Gompper and Hackett (2005).

The eastern spotted skunk is an elusive, potentially rare and endangered species of skunk native to much of the eastern US between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains. The species was common throughout its range at the beginning of the twentieth century and people often saw eastern spotted skunks on family farms. During the 1940s and 1950s however, eastern spotted skunk populations crashed. The population decline is well documented, but reasons for the crash remain unclear. Hypotheses for the decline range from the expansion and modernization of agriculture to overharvest to disease. Likely, a combination of several concurrent factors lead to the decline. Eastern spotted skunk populations never recovered, remaining at low levels across much of their historic range.

Today, researchers are working with state wildlife agencies to identify where eastern spotted skunks are and determine which resources they need to maintain healthy populations. In some states, large-scale surveys for eastern spotted skunks resulted in no sightings, suggesting the species is locally extinct in parts of its historic range. Other states have identified populations and are working to understand whether the populations are at a healthy level.

In Arkansas, eastern spotted skunks were historically present across the entire state and recent surveys have revealed the species still has strongholds in the Ouachitas, or the western region of the state. It was with this knowledge the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission funded my research to determine whether eastern spotted skunks are present in the Ozarks, and if so, which resources they’re using. I conducted a large-scale camera trap survey in north-central Arkansas to answer these important questions. Although I recorded eastern spotted skunks at some camera trap sites, preliminary results suggest the species occurs at extremely low population levels in this part of the state.

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An eastern spotted skunk visits a camera trap site in north-central Arkansas.

Using the information gathered from my camera survey, I decided to produce a species distribution model. This type of model uses presence-only data to evaluate where a species is most likely to be present based on characteristics of locations where we know eastern spotted skunks spend time. Using presence-only data means that I will only use camera trap locations where eastern spotted skunks were recorded. For example, from approximately 75 camera trap locations, eastern spotted skunks were photographed at only 4 sites. Failure to record an eastern spotted skunk at a camera trap site doesn’t necessarily mean the species is absent at that site; it simply means we don’t know for sure that eastern spotted skunks use that area. Thus, the locations where I recorded eastern spotted skunks on camera traps are “known locations.” I will use the 4 known locations where eastern spotted skunks were confirmed and exclude the remaining 71 camera trap locations for my species distribution model.

In addition to the 4 known locations from my camera trap survey, the eastern spotted skunk species distribution model will use an additional 72 known locations from eastern spotted skunk surveys by other researchers in Arkansas and southern Missouri. I will determine what the environment was like at the known locations, including how close they are to roads and other infrastructure, how close they are to water sources, and how dense the forest is at each location. Using this information, the species distribution model will predict where eastern spotted skunks are most likely to be across all of Arkansas and southern Missouri. For example, if most of the known locations are in areas where the forest is thick and dense, the model will predict that eastern spotted skunks are most likely to be in other thickly forested parts of the state and less likely to be in open fields.

Although the large-scale camera trapping survey I conducted resulted in limited eastern spotted skunk photographs, the species distribution model approach allows me to use these data. The final product will be a heat map of Arkansas and southern Missouri, with warm tones suggestive of eastern spotted skunk populations and cool tones meaning eastern spotted skunks are not likely to occur in those areas. The map will be useful for state wildlife agencies as they continue to determine where the species is and create management plans to prevent further population decline of this unique mammal.

 

Will you be at The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting in October 2018? Come to my talk on Tuesday, October 9 to see the results of the species distribution model.

A Weekend in Rio

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A marvelous view awaits those who travel to the top of Sugarloaf mountain on the sky trams.

In Rio de Janeiro, mountains come straight out of the ocean. My flight flew in over the ocean with mountains and city views on both sides and before I even landed, I was sold on the incredible natural scenery, which instantly became, and stayed, my favorite part of the city. The mountains in Rio are part of the Serra Do Mar mountain range, which stretches along the southern and southeastern coasts of Brazil. The range initially rose when the South American and African continents split, and continued to rise and shift during two major magmatic, or volcanic, events. Today, the drastically-shaped formations rising from the ocean in Rio are a result of constant erosion from wind and ocean waves.

These incredible formations form the basis for many tourist activities in Rio. I happily jumped at the opportunity to ride a train to the top of Corcovado, where the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue resides. As one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” the statue is a can’t-miss in Rio. It was cloaked in fog when we arrived, but the large restaurant and gift shops at the top of the mountain kept us occupied until the sun exposed the statue’s true height and the sprawling city below. After riding the train back down the mountain, we traveled to the base of another famous, rocky formation: Sugarloaf. A series of sky trams will take passengers to the top of Sugarloaf, but we decided to hike to the first station along a rugged and steep, yet well-maintained trail that winds through classic Atlantic forest vegetation, complete with furry, squirrel-like marmosets. Visitors can purchase snacks and souvenirs at both sky tram stations. Atop Sugarloaf, we watched the sun set beyond Christ the Redeemer and the Serra Do Mar mountains.

Alongside the mountains of Rio are the classic beaches. On a tip from a friend, I stayed in Ipanema and it was there I rented a bike to explore the sandy shore. I biked north the length of Ipanema Beach and continued on to the end of Copacabana. Even in winter, beach-goers are plenty. Between the surfing, swimming, innumerable food and drink stands, and crafters selling products, anyone can kill a day at the beach in Rio. After my bike ride, I took a dip in the Atlantic, the same ocean I grew up visiting some 4000+ miles (~7000+km) south of my childhood vacation spots. The water was warm, but turbulent, a characteristic attributable to Rio’s foundation; parts of the city were built directly on top of marshy, wet areas, placing it exceptionally close to open ocean. This proximity means the waves are great for surfing, but can be quite strong for swimming. A walk along the Ipanema shoreline at dusk concluded my beach day.

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The Candelária Church is the site of several historic events, including the movement to give citizens the right to elect a president through popular vote and the site of the 1993 massacre of eight children by police, which shone a light on police brutality globally.

As the outdoorsy type, it is hard for a metropolis to beat out a natural area when it comes to vacation spots for me. But, I had to do my trip to Rio justice by exploring the city center. Rio was founded in the 1500s and its first city square sits near a port along the coast. In this area, it is easy to catch an Uber, street train (originally built for the 2016 Olympic Games), taxi, or metro to major landmarks in and around the Santa Teresa and Lapa neighborhoods, including the Selaron Steps, Candelária Church, and the newer Museum of Tomorrow. Running through the center of Lapa are its famed arches, which once served as an aqueduct. Today, visitors can ride a trolley on top of the arches for an excellent view of Lapa; the trolley stops in Santa Teresa where several restaurants serve up the city’s most popular dish: feijoada. A stew made with black beans and pork, feijoada is a deliciously rich and filling dish best known in Rio. This area of the city is also well-known for its colorful night life, with live music around every corner.

With its rich culture in dance and art, charming architecture, and sprawling beaches with mountain views, Rio de Janeiro has a little something for everyone. There’s a reason it lives on every travel junkie’s to-visit list; it’s utterly beautiful and simply impossible to get bored in the Marvelous City.

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Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais, Brazil

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Pampas deer graze in a Cerrado landscape.

The Brazilian Cerrado is a globally unique and quickly vanishing savannah that is home to incredible plant and animal biodiversity. Considered a wooded savannah, the Cerrado is a vast, open landscape interspersed with clumps of dense, woody vegetation. Threatened by over-exploitation through primarily agricultural development, the disappearing Cerrado could take with it charismatic fauna like the maned wolf along with hundreds of plants found only in this region. With over 71,000 hectares, Serra da Canastra National Park is one of the largest tracts of federal land protecting this ecologically special landscape.

In Brazil, federal land is classified into one of many land-use types, ranging from exploitative use of timber and other products to preservation without recreation. The objective of the national park classification is to primarily preserve biodiversity and secondarily provide environmental education and recreational opportunities for citizens and tourists. In Serra da Canastra National Park, visitors can drive a long and winding road through a typically open, rolling Cerrado landscape. Lucky guests will witness giant anteaters toppling over the large termite mounds for a snack; crested caracara and a pair of pampas deer defined the wildlife experience during our drive down the dirt road.

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The Casca D’Anta waterfall in Serra da Canastra National Park.

At the end of the road, we were met with a natural swimming hole and a trailhead. The approximately 2-mile (3.5km) trail wound down a steep mountain, through grassy and woody vegetation. The trail terminated at the base of a 610ft (186m) waterfall. The Casca D’Anta waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region and it was there we took the opportunity to dip our toes into the frigid São Francisco river. Flowing 1,811 miles (2,914km) across Brazil, the São Francisco is the longest river in the country, bringing water, hydroelectric power, and habitat for hundreds of riverine fishes to five states before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Serra da Canastra National Park was initially established to protect the spring where the São Francisco is born as well as the first several miles of the river. The water in the park is remarkably clean and refreshing, and at around 43°F (6°C), taking a dip at the base of the falls is not for the faint of heart. Just bordering the park is a privately-owned swath of land that is protected under a conservation easement. We took the time to hike the short loop trail on the easement, which winds through a forested area past three waterfalls and two large natural swimming holes along the São Francisco.

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Cheese is matured for up to two years in this room at a farm in Minas Gerais.

Outside of the opportunities to explore the natural beauty of the Cerrado, any trip to Minas Gerais would be lacking without exploration into the local culture of cheese-making. Originating during Portuguese exploration of the Brazilian interior, cheese-making has become a tradition passed on through generations. The traditional cheeses are made with raw cow milk and have a mild, salty flavor. Slight differences in taste throughout the region are a result of the differing vegetation that makes up the dairy cow diets. Despite the rich culture surrounding cheese-making in Minas Gerais, few people outside of Brazil have ever heard of this tradition. Changing national laws that regulate where the cheese can be sold within the country helped amplify the product nationally and recently, Minas Gerais cheese is increasingly recognized at an international scale. We visited two cheese makers in the area, one of which offered a small tour of their facilities and both of which offered incredible cheese sampling platters. My favorite had to be a purple cheese that was matured in wine and by the time we left Minas Gerais, there were at least six rounds of expertly-matured cheeses tucked alongside our luggage.

Like all trips to somewhere incredible, the Serra da Canastra National Park weekend was too short. Personally, I call that feeling a good excuse to come back; the cheese and the trails will certainly be waiting!

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The Tayra in a Changing Brazilian Landscape

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Illustration of the Mustelidae Family from Handbook of the Mammals of the World: Volume 1 by Toni Llobet.

While many mammalian species found across Central and South America are declining due to habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and agricultural development, the tayra is trying something different: persistence. The tayra is a medium-sized omnivorous mammal that looks like a mix between a cute teddy bear and a giant weasel. In fact, it is a member of the weasel family (Mustelidae), which includes weasels, otters, wolverines, and a diverse range of other noodle-shaped mammals. It’s this fun-to-look-at species that brought me to Brazil this summer (or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re reading from). With support from the Brown Graduate Research Fellowship Program through the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources at Mizzou, I partnered with Assistant Professor Rita Bianchi and her lab to analyze data they collected on the tayra.

The Bianchi Lab Group works extensively on mammalian ecology in Brazil. To achieve their varying objectives, many students use camera trap data. Camera traps are a remote-sensing technology that allow researchers to gather information on exactly where mammals are at specific dates and times. Over the past several years, the Bianchi Lab Group has methodically scattered camera traps throughout state parks and other natural areas in São Paulo State. These camera traps captured images of several mammalian species, including giant anteater, puma, agouti, and of course, tayra! Pairing the date and time stamp from the camera trap images with the camera trap location and species present in the photo, researchers can answer a breadth of questions about when and where animals spend time. Answers to these questions can help scientists and land managers understand the resources needed for species to thrive.

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Two tayra are captured on a camera trap in São Paulo State, Brazil.

Despite a growing shift from natural forest to agriculture throughout Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, tayra seem to be handling increasingly fragmented forests just fine. Why bother looking at data for an animal that we aren’t too concerned about? First, we must understand what a species needs if we are to keep it on the landscape. For example, what type of forests do tayra live in? When are they most active and what foods do they rely on? Can tayra survive in small forest fragments? Answers to these questions allow land managers to ensure tayra needs are met and prevent a future decline. Secondly, other species of mesocarnivore (medium-sized carnivorous and omnivorous mammals) are not faring as well as the tayra. Understanding the specific tayra traits that have allowed it to persist longer in this changing landscape could offer insights on why other species are declining.

Using camera trap data collected by the Bianchi Lab Group, we are working on two objectives: 1) Determine tayra habitat selection and 2) Evaluate tayra activity patterns. The first objective will help us understand where tayra are choosing to spend time, including which type, size, and structure of forest. We can also determine whether the presence of other species, like large predators or potential prey species, dictate where the tayra are on the landscape. The second objective will provide insight on when tayra move around the landscape and whether this activity changes by season. We anticipate this research will provide a much-needed update on tayra ecology in the current Brazilian landscape. Stay tuned to this blog for more insights on life in Brazil, tayra ecology, and other wildlife research.

Leaving room for cream and conservation: Can coffee and wildlife co-exist?

Grown in the tropics worldwide and shipped to markets internationally, coffee is truly a global product. The coffee bush originates in Ethiopia where its leaves, fruits, and seeds were first consumed by African aborigines. Over the centuries, coffee, and the act of drinking it, made its way from Ethiopia to the Middle East and into Europe. As it gained popularity, European countries tried unsuccessfully to cultivate the plant. Those countries with colonies in tropical regions capitalized on the opportunity to produce coffee in those warmer climates beginning in the eighteenth century.

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Coffee grows successfully in a variety of management schemes. This diagram from a 1999 research article illustrates the five structural categories for growing coffee.

Today, coffee is a staple crop in tropical countries worldwide. It can be grown under a variety of management schemes, ranging from a monoculture in full sun to shading the understory in a diverse system. Although these systems exist along a spectrum, researchers defined five major categories most coffee plantations fall under: unshaded monoculture, shaded monoculture, commercial polyculture, traditional polyculture, and rustic. The unshaded monoculture consists of coffee bushes grown in full sun with no other bush or tree species present, while a shaded monoculture includes one additional species of tree. In a shaded monoculture, the additional tree species is typically nitrogen-fixing (meaning it returns nitrogen to the soil) and has market value. The commercial polyculture and traditional polyculture systems include coffee bushes with a diverse mix of trees in the canopy. The commercial polyculture only uses additional species that hold market value, while the traditional polyculture maintains useful native and non-native species in the understory and a native forest canopy. On the far end of the spectrum, the rustic system completely removes the native understory and replaces it with coffee, while maintaining the native forest canopy.

Research suggests that coffee bushes grown under a shaded canopy can offer higher quality, better tasting, and more coffee beans, but the global demand for coffee prompted growers to shift to the unshaded monoculture system. These farms use special varieties of coffee bushes that are more successful without shade, but they frequently require more inputs, including pesticides. In addition, sun grown coffee offers little to no environmental benefit, as many species of wildlife cannot thrive among a monoculture system and other plants that could provide diversity on the landscape are discouraged in these systems. Research shows that even shaded monoculture plantations do not provide enough structural and species diversity for wildlife to thrive. Despite global recognition that biodiversity in the tropics is worth saving, deforestation as a means to create agricultural land remains the top threat for wildlife in this region of the world.

smithsonian sealrainforest alliance sealLuckily, coffee- and nature-loving consumers have options to demand coffee from farms and plantations that actively work to support biodiversity while producing coffee. Programs including the Rainforest Alliance ECO-O.K. Program and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird-Friendly Coffee Initiative offer certification programs for farmers that are implementing eco-friendly practices. The programs seek to provide consumers with information on shade-grown coffee and its environmental benefits, create specific production standards for coffee farms and plantations to encourage environmentally-friendly production practices, and sell coffee from certified farms and plantations at a premium price to environmentally-conscious consumers. Studies have shown that certification standards are successful in identifying farms that truly conserve biodiversity.

There are still major hurdles to shifting certified coffee from a specialty market to the mainstream. Certified farms and plantations enjoy long-term benefits ranging from improved soil health to additional marketable products, but certification costs can make reaching this achievement impossible for poor farmers. Additionally, many conservation-oriented certification programs do not consider social equity issues in certification standards. Finally, consumers are often confused about the meanings behind special certification labels, leading to variable success in markets globally. Partnerships between groups working toward biodiversity conservation in the face of agricultural expansion and social equity in rural agrarian communities could help bridge the gap between these major global concerns.

With an unfailing global demand, producers worldwide, and innumerable groups actively working on biodiversity conservation and social equity in the industry, coffee is well situated to serve as an example of harmony between agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. Have you considered leaving room for conservation in your cup?

 

This post was developed based on a review paper on coffee, biodiversity, social equity, and eco-friendly certification standards I wrote as a class assignment. Find a list of sources I used here.

A Turtle on a Tall Mountain

A couple of summers ago, I was trapping flying squirrels in the North Carolina mountains.  It was a normal day at work and I was mostly concerned with the squirrel trapping grid we had laid out atop Roan Mountain.  That was until we found a turtle.

The unassuming box turtle found atop Roan Mountain.

Box turtles are docile, adorable, and make for great photo ops, but rather than gather it up for some Instagram-worthy pics, we only looked at it, confused.  This turtle was hanging out in the middle of a spruce-fir forest 1,875 meters above sea level.

Let me put this in perspective.  Roan Mountain is one of the tallest mountains in North Carolina.  It reaches so high that many wildlife species common across North Carolina don’t dare venture to the peaks of the Roan Highlands.  Ticks are unheard of there, a unique scenario for anyone working summer months outside in the southeastern U.S.  When North Carolina experienced a massive heat wave that summer, the squirrel team switched from long-sleeved t-shirts to short-sleeved for a couple of weeks.  The temperatures are cooler and the forests different on a peak as tall as Roan’s.

When we found this turtle on Roan Mountain, we were simply stupefied.  We didn’t think box turtles as a species existed at such heights, but there it was—a turtle, on a tall mountain.  It offered no apology or explanation, so like any good scientist, we did some digging later that day and discovered what we already suspected—box turtles had never been recorded at such a high elevation in the southern Appalachians.  This turtle was a maximum elevation record.  This turtle was noteworthy.

This morning I am preparing to step into a highly-publicized movement and declare my love for science to the world.  I am participating in the March for Science in Columbia, Missouri.  This public space is not commonly occupied by scientists.  It is true that science has had its moments, but we largely stay out of sight, fueled by our own curiosity.  We sit in our labs and offices running experiments, recording data, and writing papers.  But, this movement has been brewing for months and unlike a quiet turtle on a tall mountain, we are stampeding into this unexpected space, unified and loud.

I anticipate today will be easy.  I am marching with friends and fellow scientists and we will be surrounded by smiling faces who support the work we do.  After the march, we will discuss our research with the science-loving public at a local festival.  But then what?  Are the ears on Capitol Hill listening?  Are climate change deniers opening their minds to real scientific evidence?  Are we really making strides in how the public perceives science?

Today is not a challenge.  Today we collectively throw ourselves into the public eye, a space where we aren’t expected.  Where we go from there is the challenge.  Perhaps we scientists belong in everyday life the way a box turtle belongs in a spruce-fir forest on top of a mountain.  It’s unexpected, not wrong.  So here’s my suggestion: don’t leave this public space we’ve come crashing into.  Stay visible.  Keep talking about your work, keep putting it out there in a way that anybody can digest.  And don’t apologize about being in that space.  Don’t offer an explanation.  Be present in that space until it’s expected.  Be noteworthy.  Be a turtle on a tall mountain.

You.

Read the turtle note here.