To combat global change, scientists must prioritize community partnerships

Guest blog post by Kennedy “Ned” Rubert-Nason, Caitlin Mandeville and Kirsten Schwarz

Global change is an immediate, accelerating threat to humanity, and its impacts are perpetuated by human activities. Changes such as climate warming, landscape alteration, pollution, resource extraction and depletion, extreme events, biodiversity loss, and spreading of invasive species including diseases, threaten the natural environment and human society. The consequences of these changes are often disproportionately borne by people who have the least political representation. Despite tremendous investment in research aimed at understanding and developing technological solutions to global change threats, implementing effective science-based solutions remains a major challenge.

Undergraduate students at the University of Maine at Fort Kent learn to study how environmental change affects the growth and physiology of Populus. Photo by Kennedy “Ned” Rubert-Nason

An article just published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology explores how translational science, or the process of putting basic research and technological development into use, can bring about the changes in human behavior that are critical to guiding humanity toward a sustainable future. The engine that drives translational science is a theory of change, or strategic plan, which identifies a global change threat, ties it to a goal (usually eliminating or adapting to the threat), and lays out specific actions needed to achieve that goal along with indicators of success. A theory of change that aims to bring about social and structural changes, as required to address global change threats, must embrace relationship-building, collaboration, engagement, commitment, communication, trust, inclusion, equity, transparency, process, and decision framing.

Researchers at Ringve Botanical Garden in Trondheim, Norway, regularly involve the local community in research and stewardship related to urban biodiversity.” Photo by Ringve Botanical Garden, Norwegian University of Science and Technology University Museum

To overcome global change threats, ecologists and other scientists need to prioritize building partnerships with communities that help bring science into practice. These partnerships are critically needed to combat misinformation, build public trust in science, bring about equitable and evidence-informed policies that are accountable to communities’ priorities, and empower people to respond effectively to challenges posed by climate change, pollution, landscape change, extreme events and pandemics.

New Hampshire Sea Grant scientists lead a community outing to survey potential erosion impacts associated with coastal storms. Photo by Caitlin Mandeville

The authors of the paper identified four priority areas for ecologists to engage in translational science:

  • forging partnerships,
  • garnering public support,
  • building strong communities,
  • and protecting natural resources.

While fundamental research remains vital, there needs to be greater emphasis on the communication, policy, education, leadership and role modeling dimensions that help bring the findings from that research into practice. Interdisciplinary scientists like ecologists are particularly well-suited to this line of work, although they can face barriers such as inadequate training, time, funding and institutional support. Lowering these barriers, and creating a culture that values science-based solutions, must be key priorities in future measures aimed at combating global change threats. Many organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America, provide training and support for ecologists to engage more deeply in translational science.

Community science is a powerful tool researchers can use to partner with communities. Here, volunteers work with the New Hampshire Sea Grant Beach Profile Monitoring program to collect regular data on beach dynamics and erosion that can be used for managing the shoreline. Photo by Caitlin Mandeville

Original source:                                                                                                             

Rubert-Nason K, Casper AMA, Jurjonas M, Mandeville C, Potter R, Schwarz K (2021) Ecologist engagement in translational science is imperative for building resilience to global change threats. Rethinking Ecology 6: 65-92. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.6.64103

Failure to respond to a coral disease epizootic in Florida: causes and consequences

By 2020, losses of corals have been observed throughout Florida and into the greater Caribbean basin in what turned out to be likely the most lethal recorded case of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. A Perspectives paper, published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology, provides an overview of how Florida ended up in a situation, where the best that could be done is rescuing genetic material from coral species at risk of regional extinction.

Guest blog post by William F. Precht

A colony of the large grooved brain coral, Colpophyllia natans, infected by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. The photo shows the progressive, rapid advance of disease, left-to-right, across the colony.
Image by William Precht.

Dredging projects conducted in association with coral reefs typically generate concern by environmental groups, resulting in careful monitoring by government agencies. Even though the aim of those dredge projects is to widen or deepen existing ship channels, while minimizing damage to coral reef resources, there are often the intuitive negative assumptions that dredging kills corals.

The recent Port Miami Dredge Project started as an uncomplicated case story. However, significant problems arose, caused by a concurrent and unprecedented coral disease epidemic that killed large numbers of corals, which was initiated following a regional thermal anomaly and coral bleaching event.

The coral disease, known as Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), was first observed in September 2014 near Virginia Key, Florida. In roughly six years, the disease has spread throughout Florida and into the greater Caribbean basin. The high prevalence of SCTLD and the resulting high mortality in coral populations, coupled with the large number of susceptible species affected, suggest that this disease outbreak is one of the most lethal ever recorded on contemporary coral reefs. The disease is still presently active and continues to ravage coral reefs throughout the region.

The initial response to this catastrophic disease by resource managers with purview over the ecosystem in Southeast Florida was slow. There is generally a noticeably short window of opportunity to intervene in disease amelioration or eradication in the marine environment. This slow response enabled the disease to spread unchecked. Why was the response to the loss of our coral reefs to a coral disease epidemic such a massive failure? This includes our failure as scientists, regulators, resource managers, local media, and policy makers alike. With this Perspectives paper, published in Rethinking Ecology, my intention was to encapsulate the numerous reasons for our failures during the first few years of the outbreak, reminiscent of the early failures in the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, the Port Miami dredging project was ongoing when the coral disease epidemic began. Some managers and local environmental groups blamed dredging, rather than SCTLD for the coral losses, reported in the project’s compliance monitoring program. Second, this blame was amplified in the media, because dredging projects are intuitively assumed to be bad for coral reefs. Third, during this same time, the State of Florida prohibited government employees from acknowledging global warming in their work. This was problematic because ocean warming is a proximal cause of many coral diseases.

As a result, some managers ignored the well-known links between warming and coral disease. A consequence of this policy was that the dredging project provided an easy target to blame for the coral mortality noted in the monitoring program, despite convincing data that suggested otherwise. 

Specifically, the intensive compliance monitoring program, conducted by trained scientific divers, was statistically significant. SCTLD that was killing massive numbers of corals throughout the region was also killing corals at the dredge site. Further, this was happening in the same proportions and among the same suite of species. 

Finally, when the agencies responded to the outbreak, their efforts were too little and much too late to make a meaningful difference. While eradication of the disease was never a possibility, early control measures may have slowed its spread, or allowed for the rescue of significant numbers of large colonies of iconic species. Because of the languid management response to this outbreak, we are now sadly faced with a situation where much of our management efforts are focused on the rescue of genetic material from coral species already at risk of regional extinction.

The delayed response to this SCTLD outbreak in Southeast Florida has many similarities to the COVID-19 pandemic response in the United States and there are lessons learned from both that will improve disease response outcomes in the future, to the benefit of coral reefs and human populations.

Publication:

Precht W (2021) Failure to respond to a coral disease epizootic in Florida: causes and consequences. Rethinking Ecology 6: 1-47. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.6.56285

Living room conservation: Gaming & virtual reality for insect and ecosystem conservation

Gaming and virtual reality could bridge the gap between urban societies and nature, thereby paving the way to insect conservation by the means of education and participation. This is what an interdisciplinary team at Florida International University strive to achieve by developing a virtual reality game (desktop version also available) dedicated to insect and plant species. Focused on imperiled butterflies, their innovative idea: Butterfly World 1.0, is described in the open-access journal Rethinking Ecology.

Participant playing the virtual reality version of Butterfly World 1.0.
Photo by Jaeson Clayborn.

Players explore and search for butterflies using knowledge gained through gameplay

Gaming and virtual reality (VR) could bridge the gap between urban societies and nature, thereby paving the way to insect conservation by the means of education, curiosity and life-like participation.

This is what Florida International University‘s team of computer scientist Alban Delamarre and biologist Dr Jaeson Clayborn strive to achieve by developing a VR game (desktop version also available) dedicated to insect and plant species. Focused on imperiled butterflies, their innovative idea: Butterfly World 1.0, is described in the open-access journal Rethinking Ecology.


When playing, information about each butterfly species is accessed on the player’s game tablet. Image by
Alban Delamarre and Dr Jaeson Clayborn.

Butterfly World 1.0 is an adventure game designed to engage its users in simulated exploration and education. Set in the subtropical dry forest of the Florida Keys (an archipelago situated off the southern coast of Florida, USA), Butterfly World draws the players into an immersive virtual environment where they learn about relationships between butterflies, plants, and invasive species. While exploring the set, they interact with and learn about the federally endangered Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly, the invasive graceful twig ant, native and exotic plants, and several other butterflies inhabiting the dry forest ecosystem. Other nature-related VR experiences, including conservation awareness and educational programs, rely on passive observations with minimal direct interactions between participants and the virtual environment.

According to the authors, virtual reality and serious gaming are “the new frontiers in environmental education” and “present a unique opportunity to interact with and learn about different species and ecosystems”.


In the real world, Spanish needles (Bidens alba) is considered a weed in South Florida. However, it is an excellent nectar source for butterflies.
Photo by Alban Delamarre.

The major advantage is that this type of interactive, computer-generated experience allows for people to observe phenomena otherwise impossible or difficult to witness, such as forest succession over long periods of time, rare butterflies in tropical dry forests, or the effects of invasive species against native wildlife.

“Imagine if, instead of opening a textbook, students could open their eyes to a virtual world. We live in a time where experiential learning and stories about different species matter, because how we feel about and connect with these species will determine their continued existence in the present and future. While technology cannot replace actual exposure to the environment, it can provide similar, near-realistic experiences when appropriately implemented,” say the scientists.

In conclusion, Delamarre and Clayborn note that the purpose of Butterfly World is to build knowledge, reawaken latent curiosity, and cultivate empathy for insect and ecosystem conservation.

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The game is accessible online at: http://ocelot.aul.fiu.edu/~adela177/ButterflyWorld/.

Original source:

Clayborn J, Delamarre A (2019) Living room conservation: a virtual way to engage participants in insect conservation. Rethinking Ecology 4: 31-43. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.4.32763

New commentary on the famous ‘Warning to Humanity’ paper brings up global inequalities

Dubbed as ‘the most talked about paper’, the cautionary publication is suggested to have omitted a non-western view on inequality that impedes global sustainability

By pointing out the western lifestyle is not “the norm and end goal of societal evolution”, the research team of Dr Mohsen Kayal (University of Perpignan, France) contributes to the debate on the urgency of achieving sustainability, as ignited by the largely publicised article “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” published in BioScience in 2017. Their Response paper in the open-access journal Rethinking Ecology emphasizes that societies in developing countries are often more dependent on natural resources, while least responsible for the ecological crisis.

While expressing explicit support and endorsement for the call made in the original paper, the team argue that several of its recommendations “address symptoms rather than root causes”, while steering away from historical patterns and underlying drivers of the global socio-economic system, namely those relating to wealth inequality, human demography, and food production.

According to the researchers, the desired universal sustainability cannot be achieved in a situation of inequitable wealth distribution. They highlight the link between the consumerism and neocolonialism in the western society and the environmental declines. Meanwhile, communities in the developing world are much more vulnerable to ecological disasters and their homelands are being overexploited and compromised for the production of a major part of the commodities sold around the world.

Inequitable distribution is also evident in the ecological footprint of the western world as opposed to poorer regions. The team of Dr Mohsen Kayal question the appeal made in the Warning to Humanity paper that restricting birth rates is of primary concern when it comes to mitigating the anthropogenic effect on the planet. Rather, they argue that it is the excessive resource consumption and ecosystem-destructive practices observed in the western lifestyle that need to be prioritized.

Citing the 2017 data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the authors note that there is indeed enough food being produced to meet the needs of even more people on Earth than there currently are. However, it is again the unequal distribution of resources that results in both hunger and obesity. In the meantime, the replacement of the current industrial model of agriculture with a suite of environmentally friendly practices (e.g. cover crops, diverse crop rotations), the adoption of ecologically-based farming and well-managed grazing could preserve soils and their properties, while also increasing yields, resilience to climate change and socio-economic development.

“Sustainability can only be achieved through prioritizing global ethics, including universal equality and respect for all forms of life,” conclude the authors of the Response paper. “Sustainable solutions to Earth’s socio-ecological crisis already exist, however humanity still needs to realize that pursuing the same practices that created these problems is not going to solve them.”

Global Resource Trade

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Original source:

Kayal M, Lewis H, Ballard J, Kayal E (2019) Humanity and the 21st century’s resource gauntlet: a commentary on Ripple et al.’s article “World scientists’ warning to humanity: a second notice”. Rethinking Ecology 4: 21-30. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.4.32116

‘Insectageddon’ is ‘alarmist by bad design’: Scientists point out the study’s major flaws

Many insects species require pristine environments, including old-growth forests. Photo by Atte Komonen.

Earlier this year, a research article triggered a media frenzy by predicting that as a result of an ongoing rapid decline, nearly half of the world’s insects will be no more pretty soon

Amidst worldwide publicity and talks about ‘Insectageddon’: the extinction of 40% of the world’s insects, as estimated in a recent scientific reviewa critical response was published in the open-access journal Rethinking Ecology.

Query- and geographically-biased summaries; mismatch between objectives and cited literature; and misuse of existing conservation data have all been identified in the alarming study, according to Drs Atte Komonen, Panu Halme and Janne Kotiaho of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). Despite the claims of the review paper’s authors that their work serves as a wake-up call for the wider community, the Finnish team explain that it could rather compromise the credibility of conservation science.

The first problem about the paper, titled “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers” and published in the journal Biological Conservation, is that its authors have queried the Web of Science database specifically using the keywords “insect”, “decline” and “survey”.

“If you search for declines, you will find declines. We are not questioning the conclusion that insects are declining,” Komonen and his team point out, “but we do question the rate and extent of declines.”

Many butterflies have declined globally. Scolitantides orion, for example, is an endangered species in Finland. Photo by Atte Komonen.

The Finnish research team also note that there are mismatches between methods and literature, and misuse of IUCN Red List categories. The review is criticised for grouping together species, whose conservation status according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is Data Deficient with those deemed Vulnerable. By definition, there are no data for Data Deficient species to assess their declines.

In addition, the review paper is seen to use “unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper,” as the Finnish researchers quote a recent news story published in The Guardian. Having given the words dramatic, compelling, extensive, shocking, drastic, dreadful, devastating as examples, they add that that such strong intensifiers “should not be acceptable” in research articles.

“As actively popularising conservation scientists, we are concerned that such development is eroding the importance of the biodiversity crisis, making the work of conservationists harder, and undermining the credibility of conservation science,” the researchers explain the motivation behind their response.

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Original source:

Komonen A, Halme P, Kotiaho JS (2019) Alarmist by bad design: Strongly popularized unsubstantiated claims undermine credibility of conservation science. Rethinking Ecology 4: 17-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.4.34440

New light on the controversial question of species abundance and population density

Inspired by the negative results in the recently published largest-scale analysis of the relation between population density and positions in geographic ranges and environmental niches, Drs Jorge Soberon and Andrew Townsend Peterson of the University of Kansas, USA, teamed up with Luis Osorio-Olvera, National University of Mexico (UNAM), and identified several issues in the methodology used, able to turn the tables in the ongoing debate. Their findings are published in the innovative open access journal Rethinking Ecology.

Both empirical work and theoretical arguments published and cited over the last several years suggest that if someone was to take the distributional range of a species – be it animal or plant – and draw lines starting at the edges of the space inwards, they would find the species’ populations densest at the intersection of those lines. However, when the team of Tad Dallas, University of Helsinki, Finland, analysed a large dataset of 118,000 populations, equating to over 1,400 species of birds, mammals, and trees, they found no such relationship.

Having analysed the analysis, the American-Mexican team concluded that despite being based on an unprecedented volume of data, the earlier study was missing out some important points.

Firstly, the largest dataset used by Tad and his team comprises observational data which had not required a certain sampling protocol or a plan. Without any standard in use, it is easy to imagine that the observations would be predominantly coming from people around and near cities, hence strongly biased.

Additionally, the scientists note that the analysis largely disregards parts of species’ geographic distributions for which there were no abundant data. As a result, the range of a species could be narrowed down significantly and its centroid – misplaced. Meanwhile, the population would appear denser on what appears to be the periphery of the area.

Similar issue is identified in the localisation of populations in the environmental space, where once again their range turned out to have been represented as significantly smaller, when compared to data available from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Further, a closer look into the supplementary materials provided revealed that the precision of the population-density data was not scalable with the climate data. As a result, it is likely that multiple abundance data falls within a single climate pixel.

In conclusion, the authors note that in order to comprehensively study the abundance of a species’ populations, one needs to take into consideration a number of factors lying beyond the scope of either of the papers, including human impact.

“We suggest that this important question remains far from settled,” they say.

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Original source:

Soberón J, Peterson TA, Osorio-Olvera L (2018) A comment on “Species are not most abundant in the centre of their geographic range or climatic niche”. Rethinking Ecology 3: 13-18. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.3.24827

New open access journal Rethinking Ecology publishes novel ideas under Pensoft’s imprint

Needless to say, it is through sharing new ideas and hypotheses that critical issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss can be addressed. However, few scientists are currently in a position to do so, because publishing bold ideas in peer-reviewed journals is very difficult, especially for those who are not world-renowned scientists in their field. At the same time, scientists sharing novel ideas that have not been published yet, carry the risk of being ‘scooped’. This is probably a scientist’s worst nightmare: seeing someone else publish the idea they have been working on. In this context, many innovative ideas are kept secret and it can take years before they are made available to the scientific community.

This is the niche that the novel open access peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology aims to fill by providing a platform for forward thinking and publication of novel ideas in all aspects of ecology, evolution and environmental science.

Adding to its innovative nature, Rethinking Ecology joins the modern technologically advanced Pensoft journals published on next-generation platform ARPHA (abbreviation standing for Authoring, Reviewing, Publishing, Hosting and Archiving). Not only is the platform to provide fast-track and convenient publishing for the authors, reviewers and editors in Rethinking Ecology, as it takes care of a manuscript through all stages from authoring and reviewing to dissemination and archiving, but it is user-friendly to the readers as well, who enjoy publications in three formats (PDF, XML, HTML) and full of semantic enhancements.

The innovative journal aims to encourage all scientists, regardless of their seniority, publication track record, gender, or country of origin, to publish perspective papers, so that they are put in the open for peers to discuss and build on, while credit is given where credit is due. Publishing these ideas early also draws attention from the scientific community, potential collaborators and potential funders. To further avoid potential bias, Rethinking Ecology implements double-blind peer review, with the journal supporting the notion that it is the content of a manuscript that matters. Moreover, reviewers will not be asked for a formal recommendation. Instead, they will comment and evaluate the work against a set of specific questions. Thus, each paper ends up with a score on Novelty, Feasibility, Scholarship and Literacy, so that only perspective papers with an emphasis on novel hypotheses and bold ideas are accepted for publication.

Another innovative feature applied in the new journal is an Author Contribution Index (ACI), meaning that each publication will include a pie chart pointing to the contribution of each of the authors, estimated in percentage. This is the editors’ answer to the so-called ‘guest authorship’ (i.e. inclusion of authors who did not significantly contribute to the work).

logoIt is no coincidence that Rethinking Ecology has a spiral-shaped unfurling fern leaf as a logo. Called Koru in the language of the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand – Māori, it symbolises novelty, new life and new beginning, as well as perpetual movement.

“Each publication in Rethinking Ecology can be seen as the beginning of life for a new idea and its metaphorical unfurling as it reaches out to the scientific community,” explain the journal editors in their very first Editorial at Rethinking Ecology.

“We see Rethinking Ecology as an incubator for novel ideas, and a catalyst for new thinking,” says the journal’s Editor-in-Chief Dr Stephane Boyer, Unitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand.

“In a world where scientific publications are increasingly open source and immediately available, it makes no sense to keep our most innovative ideas hidden from the world for years while we secretly test them,” he elaborates. “Bold ideas and new hypotheses need to be shared, they may or may not turn into world-changing paradigm shifts, but they all have the potential to contribute to new thinking.”

“I am pleased to welcome a groundbreaking journal such as Rethinking Ecology to the Pensoft family, which has already built a nice and extensive portfolio of innovations in scholarly publishing,” says Pensoft’s founder and CEO Prof. Lyubomir Penev. “Seeing genuine ideas and hypotheses yet to be tested, and possibly, yet to revolutionise the ecological science is certainly a thing worthy of eager anticipation.”

 

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About ARPHA:

ARPHA is the first end-to-end journal publishing solution that supports the full life cycle of a manuscript, from authoring through submission, peer review, publication and dissemination. With ARPHA, journals and publishers enjoy a complete set of services, which enable tailored, technologically advanced publishing solutions. The platform enables a variety of publishing models through a number of options for branding, production and revenue models to choose from.