Posts Tagged ‘science’

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Champlain Watershed Educators Opportunities

Since 1992, the Champlain Basin Education Initiative (CBEI) has provided professional development opportunities for educators who wish to teach their students about the Lake Champlain watershed. More than 700 educators have participated in workshops and graduate courses offered through the CBEI partners. A new web resource, WatershED Matters, has now been developed to compile the knowledge and teaching strategies used by recent course participants. WatershED Matters is housed within the Lake Champlain Basin Program’s website on behalf of the CBEI partners.

WatershED Matters features curriculum units and community projects currently being implemented by New York, Vermont and Québec educators. The CBEI partners expect the site to grow as educators suggest links to their favorite field trips and classroom resources for teaching about the Champlain basin.

“This resource tool has been in demand for several years by both teachers and the CBEI partners,” says Colleen Hickey, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Lake Champlain Basin Program. “In recent years, nearly 40 educators have completed our eleven day watershed course and it’s great to be able to share what they’ve learned about the Lake, its tributaries and nearby resources.”

Champlain Basin Education Initiative partners currently include: the Lake Champlain Basin Program, Shelburne Farms, Lake Champlain Sea Grant-UVM Extension, ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, the Lake Champlain Committee, and curriculum coach Amy Demarest. Several New York groups have also assisted with educator outreach in the past year by implementing workshops about specific watershed topics.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Philosophy: Considering Diversity and Equality

A while back I asked why it matters whether women are represented in science? I was interested to know if we care about whether a variety of communities show up in fields, professions and pastimes, why do we care? Is it simply a matter of increasing the number of loyalists to our mission, or does it come from an openness to change the very system that stands resolute like Uncle Sam declaring “I want you!” » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Phil Brown: USGS Streamgages Under Threat

One of the more amazing statistics to emerge from Tropical Storm Irene was that the East Branch of the Ausable crested at 18.43 feet in Ausable Forks—three feet higher than the previous record and more than eleven feet above flood stage. The river’s flow peaked at fifty thousand cubic feet per second, a hundred times greater than normal.

Just a few months after the record storm, the U.S. Geological Survey is warning that it will be forced to discontinue most of the streamgages in the Lake Champlain basin on March 1 unless funding can be found to keep them going.

Throughout New York State, the USGS plans to discontinue thirty-one gages, including nine in or near the Adirondack Park. (The USGS uses the spelling “gages” rather than “gauges.”)

The gage that measured the record crest on the East Branch of the Ausable is not on the chopping block, not yet anyway. However, one nearby that is at risk has been in operation for more than eighty years, longer than any of other gages scheduled to be discontinued.

“We’ve got eighty-two years of records at this site. It is important for determining how flows are changing over time,” said Ward Freeman, director of the USGS New York Water Science Center in Troy. The center’s website contains real-time data from rivers throughout the state.

Streamgages measure the height and flow of rivers. Data are used to predict floods, calculate nutrient pollution, assess conditions for paddling, and determine when it’s appropriate to put lampricide in tributaries of Lake Champlain.

John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, warned that without stream data, riverside communities will find it more difficult to protect themselves. “We won’t know what the changes in a river’s height and volume are, and as a result we can’t plan for flooding events,” he said.

In the past, many gages were funded through congressional earmarks, but lawmakers eliminated the earmarks a few years ago to save money, Freeman said. He added that the USGS needs $134,000 to keep the nine North Country gauges operational. (Each gage costs about $15,000 a year to operate and maintain.)

Eight of the gages are on rivers that feed Lake Champlain. Besides the Ausable, they are the Great Chazy, Little Ausable, Salmon, Boquet, Mettawee, and Putnam Creek. The ninth is on a narrow part of Lake Champlain itself near Whitehall.

Gages on another dozen rivers in Vermont that feed Lake Champlain also are scheduled to be shut down. Four others were discontinued in October.

This year, USGS was able to keep the gages on Lake Champlain tributaries running only after obtaining financial assistance from the Lake Champlain Basin Program. Freeman said he hopes the Lake Champlain organization and other interested parties can come up with money again.

“We’re going to do all we can to save these gages,” Freeman said.

Eric Howe, a technical coordinator for the basin program, said the non-profit organization will do everything it can to keep the gages operational, but it’s too early to tell if the group will have enough funds. Last year it spent about $150,000 to keep the gages running.

“The gages were extremely important during Tropical Storm Irene,” Howe said. “They helped us see what the tributaries were doing in the flooding.”

Thanks to a gage on the Winooski River, he said, farmers were able to round up volunteers to harvest crops in advance of floods.

Freeman is asking those willing to contribute funding for the gages to call him or Rob Breault at 518-285-5658 or email [email protected]

Click here to read the Adirondack Explorer’s comprehensive coverage of Tropical Storm Irene.

Photo by Ken Aaron: a high-water line near Ausable Forks.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Philosophy: Teaching Across Disciplines

Here is a recent exchange between me and a colleague:

Colleague: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a philosopher, much of my work involves teaching.

Colleague: (Amused) like what, the philosophy of green?

Here’s another:

Colleague: So you’re here to do philosophy with the students.

Me: Yes, environmental philosophy.

Colleague: I think that’s great, because students come to me for content and they come to you for this kind of (gesturing as if wafting an unwelcome scent) experience.

Both of these exchanges, and rest assured I have enough of these for a night at the Improv, were with colleagues in environmental science. In fact, most of my interactions are not with other professional philosophers but with scientists and students of science in the Adirondacks. I consider this unusual situation a privilege and one that most of my colleagues in the humanities, philosophy in particular, don’t enjoy and therefore don’t benefit from intellectually – mindfully.

Though from time to time I wonder, when did intellectual curiosity stop at the shore of empiricism? When did it become frivolous or worse, vacuous, to engage in thoughtful discourse about patently irresolvable and fundamentally human notions of ethics, values, personhood, identity, agency, responsibility and so on?

Another colleague that I work with closely precisely because he has never wavered in his certainty that (as I often remind students) this is not nothing, related a conversation to me in which he had explained to a third party “Marianne’s work hasn’t always been taken seriously, so she’s particularly committed to a high standard of academic and scholarly integrity.” The former is true and the latter is kind and yet, ouch!

I spent a little while turning this over in my mind until another colleague came by. I shared with her this bit about being taken seriously and we agreed that this work is bound to have a different contour here among scientists, and that the utility of philosophy outside the silo of the humanities is at once harder to understand and deeply important once it is.

Later that evening I gave a talk to a group of incoming freshmen and returning undergraduates about the critical need for us to interrogate the social/sexual/political “positionality” (as in view point and bias) of established institutions and comfortable habits of scholarship and politics, to name a few. We talked about how “decentering” or removing the privilege of accepted truths and norms that are often the product of a dominant and sometimes oppressive majority is the first step in liberating marginalized communities whose truths and traditions have been relegated to “alternative” status in the process of sanctifying one type of worldview. We talked about “rupturing” (as in creating an opening) in the often codified boundaries that surround disciplines in order to make way for so-called other knowledges to participate in and enrich the discourse.

After the lecture a former student and I stood together quietly until she looked over at me and smiled, “troublemaker” she said. Well, somebody’s got to do it.

They were young, these students, and for some the hour may have been late and some others might have had their minds on the bonfire to follow, but most (most) were enlivened. Emerson called teaching a drawing out of the soul and the Greeks understood happiness as harmony between one’s soul and the good; this is my work.

Photo: Illustration by Johannes van Loon.

Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondacks


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Something Slimy: Adirondack Algae

Have you ever wondered what that slimy green/ brown stuff covering rocks or floating in the water was? What you were looking at was algae. Algae, like plants, use the sun to make energy (photosynthetic organisms), and are food for a variety of animals including fish, bugs, and birds. Algae differ from plants by not having true roots and leaves.

Also like plants, algae need light and a food source to grow. Algae loves phosphorus and nitrogen that enter the water. If these nutrients enter the water excessively, algae can bloom and become a nuisance and potential health hazard. When algae blooms it can become toxic, clog intake pipes and discourage swimming and other recreational activities.

Algal blooms have been found in bodies of water throughout the Adirondacks, some of the most noted in Lake Champlain where blue/green algae or cyanobacteria can be found. These algae can form toxic blooms that can harm humans, pets and wildlife. Not all algae produces toxins, in fact most algae does not.

Lake George has been also been experiencing algal blooms. Algae there is found in the littoral zone, or near shore and is mostly green algae with very little blue/green. Generally algal blooms within Lake George are caused by lawn fertilizers washing into the lake, faulty septic systems, and storm water.

Excessive amounts of algae can also cause a dead-zone within a lake, an area of the water that has no oxygen and thus no fish. If you see an algal bloom in Lake Champlain contact the Lake Champlain Committee at (802) 658-1414 and report time of day, location and a description. Algal bloom in Lake George should be reported to the Lake George Waterkeeper.

While excessive amounts of algae are bad, it is a natural part of the aquatic environment. Algae can also be used by a trained scientist to determine if a body of water is healthy.

There are a variety of types of algae that can be seen in almost any body of water, including your fish tank. One of the more interesting types, looks like a ribbon twisting in a glass bottle. This form is often found in Lake George.

Photos: Above, spirogyra; Middle, cladophora; Below, mixed diatoms. Courtesy of Corrina Parnapy.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Astronomy: Adirondack Observatory Lectures

The Adirondack Public Observatory (APO) will return to The Wild Center for three free public lectures in July and August.

On Monday, July 11th at 7:30 pm is Sunspots and Moonshots with Gordie Duval and Marc Staves. The Sun is a seemingly never ending source of energy for us here on Earth. Now, near the peak of its 11 year sunspot cycle, we must be mindful of its awesome power. The Moon governs the tides and eclipses. It has been the subject of many tales, both fact and fiction. It is our closest celestial neighbor and is the farthest humans have ventured from Earth. Join Gordie Duval and Marc Staves of the Adirondack Public Observatory on a tour of our Sun and Moon. Weather permitting, there will be solar observing during the afternoon before the lecture and lunar observations after the lecture.

Gordie Duval and Marc Staves are trustees of the Adirondack Public Observatory. Marc is one of the founders of the APO and Chairman of the Board. Gordie is a physics and astronomy teacher at Tupper Lake High School. Both are lifelong residents of Tupper Lake and amateur astronomers each with their own domed observatory in their backyard.

On Monday, August 1st at 7 pm is Comets, Meteors and More with David Levy. David H. Levy began his telescopic comet search, called CN3, on December 17, 1965. It has resulted in 22 comet discoveries that tie David for third place in history for the largest number of comet finds by an individual. Join David for a fascinating discussion on comets, meteorites and more in the Flammer Theater. Celestial observing in the parking lot after the presentation, weather permitting. There will also be a book signing.

David Levy appears regularly on television and radio programs devoted to astronomy, and is probably best known as a comet discoverer. Perhaps the most famous of which is the co-discovery of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that impacted Jupiter in July 1994. He is an Emmy winner, having received the award in 1998 as part of a writing team for the Discovery Channel documentary “Three Minutes to Impact,” and his work has been featured in 35 publications.

On Monday, August 15th at 7:30 pm is Exoplanets and Aliens with Jeff Miller. There have been hundreds of worlds discovered orbiting stars many light years away. Most of them are inhospitable to life as we know it but there are a few that are a little more than interesting. Finding planets around other stars that have conditions suitable for life would be fantastic. Join Jeffrey Miller from St. Lawrence University in an exploration of “exoplanets” and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Celestial observing in the parking lot after the presentation, weather permitting.

Jeff Miller is one of the astronomers in the Physics department at St. Lawrence University, and teaches Introduction to Astronomy (Phys 101). He is also involved in the ALFALFA Project, a consortium of 16 universities led by Cornell University and funded by the NSF, that uses the 1000-ft. antenna of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center’s Arecibo Observatory to measure extragalactic abundance of neutral Hydrogen (HI). As part of this group, he has had the opportunity to observe at the Arecibo Observatory, and on several occasions bring students to an annual workshop at the observatory. Jeff serves on the board of directors of the APO, gives many public astronomy lectures and maintains the web site for the APO.

These events are free and open to the public.


Monday, June 20, 2011

The Unlikely History of Pigeons in the Adirondacks

Unlike eagles, hawks, and others, pigeons are an Adirondack bird surrounded by neither lore nor legend. Yet for more than a century, they were players in a remarkable system of interaction between strangers, birds, and their owners. Others were tied to noted historical events, and a few were undisputed participants in major criminal activity.

The bird referred to here is the homing pigeon. According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, the Rock Dove is “commonly known as the domestic or homing pigeon,” and is a non-native, having been introduced from Europe in the early 1600s.

They are often mistakenly called carrier pigeons, and the confusion is understandable. There are carrier pigeons, and there are pigeons that carry things, but they’re not the same bird. Homing pigeon are the ones used to carry messages and for pigeon racing.

Racing them has proven very popular. Regionally, there is the Schenectady Homing Pigeon Club (more than 60 years old), which in the 1930s competed with the Albany Flying Club and the Amsterdam Pigeon Club.

The existence of those clubs, the carrying of messages, and other related activities are all based on a long-studied phenomenon that is still debated: how the heck do homing pigeons do what they do? Basically, if taken to a faraway location and released, they usually return to their home, and in a fairly straight line.

Flocks have been released and tracked by airplanes, and transmitters have been attached to the birds, confirming their direct routes. They use a variety of navigation methods, the most important and least understood of which involves the earth’s magnetic orientation.

In recent decades, Cornell University’s famed ornithology unit summarized their findings after extreme testing: “Homing pigeons can return from distant, unfamiliar release points.” And what did these scientists do to challenge the birds’ abilities? Plenty.

According to the study, “Older pigeons were transported to the release site inside sealed metal containers, supplied with bottled air, anesthetized, and placed on rotating turntables, all of which should make it hard for them to keep track of their outward journey.” The birds still homed effectively.

This unusual ability has been enjoyed and exploited for centuries. In 1898, in order to keep up with European military powers, the US Navy established the Homing Pigeon Service. One use was ship-to-shore communication in any conditions—when pigeons sent aboard the ship were released with a message attached, they flew directly back to their home loft.

Their use during World Wars I and II is legendary, and many were decorated with medals. In 1918, pigeon racing was temporarily banned in the United States to ensure that all birds were available for the use of the military.

In peacetime, homing pigeons were treated with near-universal respect and were weekly visitors to the North Country. Whenever one with a metal band or a message tube attached to it was found, standard protocol was followed by all citizens. The birds were immediately given water and food. If they appeared injured, the information from the leg band was given to local police, who tried to contact the owner.

Caring for the birds, whether ill or healthy, was automatic, and it continued until the journey was resumed. For more than 130 years, Adirondack weekly newspaper columns mentioned the landing of homing pigeons (but usually called them carrier pigeons). If a bird somehow appeared to be off course, the leg band information might appear in a short article or in an advertisement.

That informal system was widely used and religiously followed. To further protect the birds (and the system itself) and to confirm their importance, New York State’s Forest, Fish, and Game Commission made it law: “No person shall take or interfere with any… homing pigeon if it have the name of its owner stamped upon its wing or tail, or wear a ring or seamless leg band with its registered number stamped thereon, or have any other distinguishing mark.”

“Homers” were often used for races from 100 to 500 miles. They didn’t always alight where the owner intended, usually due to stormy weather. Many of the birds that landed in the North Country came from Montreal, where their use for racing and message carrying was common.

In 1912, one Canadian visitor settled inside the walls of Clinton Prison at Dannemora. The warden dutifully cared for the bird and attempted to contact its owner.

In 1898, little Miss Gertrude Hough of Lowville received a letter by US Mail from the Los Angeles post office. It had arrived in LA attached to a pigeon that had been released by Gertrude’s father from Catalina Island, more than 20 miles offshore.

And in 1936, a homing pigeon landed on the window sill of a Malone home, where it was treated to the proper care. Well beyond the norm, the bird’s journey had begun in Montana.

Invariably, efficient systems like bank accounts, credit cards, the internet, and homing pigeons are usurped for other purposes. In recent years, pigeons have been used by ingenious crooks to smuggle drugs from Colombia and diamonds from African mines.

In both cases, the North Country was light-years ahead of them. In 1881, an elaborate case of diamond smuggling from Canada into St. Lawrence County was uncovered. A Rensselaer Falls farmer brought to customs authorities a dead “carrier pigeon” with part of a turkey feather, filled with diamonds, attached to the bird’s leg.

During the investigation, two more diamond-carrying birds were shot. It was discovered that baskets of birds were being mailed to locations in Canada, and other flocks were located south of the border, awaiting duty. Shipments of pigeons had originated at DeKalb Junction, Heuvelton, Rensselaer Falls, and Richville, and the value of diamonds successfully smuggled was estimated at $800,000 (equal to about $17 million today).

During Prohibition, both booze and drug smuggling were rampant. In 1930, US officials were tipped off that a number of homing pigeons were routinely being shipped north into Quebec. Upon release, they crossed back into northern New York.

Authorities at Ogdensburg were put on the case when it was found that each pigeon bore a payload of about one ounce of cocaine. At times it was literally a fly-by-night operation—some of the birds had been trained to fly under cover of darkness.

Homing pigeons also played a role in regional historical events. In 1920, a military balloon launched from Rockaway Point in New York City sailed across the Adirondacks. Last sighted above Wells in Hamilton County, it then vanished. Extended high-profile searches turned up nothing, and three men aboard the balloon were lost.

Such missions routinely carried homing pigeons for air-to-ground communication. It was believed that an injured pigeon (broken leg) found on a Parishville (St. Lawrence County) farm had been launched from the balloon, and that its message had been lost during the accident that broke the bird’s leg. It was suspected that the balloon had finally gone down over Lake Ontario.

One of the most famous kidnapping cases in American history occurred in 1932 when the Lindbergh baby disappeared. When the body was found, nearly every newspaper in the land covered the story the next day with multiple articles.

Among the first stories was one emanating from Lowville, New York, where a homing pigeon had landed at the home of Arthur Jones. The bird’s leg had a non-traditional attachment—a piece of twine holding a paper tag bearing the inscription, “William Allen, New Jersey.” It was William Allen of New Jersey who found the Lindbergh child’s corpse.

Lead investigator Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf (Stormin’ Norman’s father) followed up on the information and then issued a statement: “Reports from Lowville show that no registry tag was found on the carrier pigeon. This practically precludes the possibility of further tracing the pigeon unless the owner of the same voluntarily reports its absence.”

In June, 1936, before more than two dozen reporters and celebrities, former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and his wife released a homing pigeon from the tower of the Empire State Building at 11:20 am. Less than five hours later it arrived at Scaroon Manor on Schroon Lake, bearing the first honeymoon reservation of the season.

It wasn’t for Dempsey’s honeymoon—it was just a publicity stunt to keep his name active in the media, and certainly raised the manor’s profile as well.

Photo Top: Homing pigeon with message in tube.

Photo Middle: WW I military troops in trench, sending messages by pigeon.

Photo Bottom: Winged members of the military.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New State Museum Study on Wolves, Coyotes, Dogs

A State Museum scientist has co-authored a new research article, representing the most detailed genomic study of its kind, which shows that wolves and coyotes in the eastern United States are hybrids between gray wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs.

Dr. Roland Kays, the Museum’s curator of mammals, was one of 15 other national and international scientists who collaborated on the study that used unprecedented genetic technology, developed from the dog genome, to survey the global genetic diversity in dogs, wolves and coyotes. The study used over 48,000 genetic markers, making it the most detailed genomic study of any wild vertebrate species. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Almanack’s New Astronomy Contributor

Please join me in welcoming our newest contributor to the Adirondack Almanack, amateur astronomer Michael Rector. Like many folks, I’m terrible at discerning the objects in the night sky so I asked Michael to help teach us what to look for, and how to identify what we see in the heavens above. He writes about astronomy on his own blog Adirondack Astronomy and will be contributing here occasionally about all things astronomy.

Michael told me “The field of astronomy is extremely interesting, and one great thing is you don’t need to understand physics or the highly detailed science behind astronomy to enjoy the night sky with your naked eye, binoculars or with a telescope.” Although he now lives in Clinton County, Micheal has fond memories of spending time at Great Sacandaga and West Canada Lake where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is bright.

Michael is interested in getting together with other star-gazers around the region. If you are interested in getting together for an occasional star party feel free to contact him at [email protected]

Michael Rector joins the Almanack‘s other regular natural history contributors Tom Kalinowski and Corrina Parnapy, and occasional contributor Larry Master.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Lake George Water Tests Reduced Over Funding

The Darrin Fresh Water Institute’s (DFWI) annual program of testing waters near municipal beaches and town shorelines for coliform contamination will be less extensive this summer than in years past, according to Larry Eichler, a DFWI Research Scientist.

According to Eichler, The Fund for Lake George has withdrawn its financial support for the program.

While some municipalities may assume the costs of sampling waters near beaches, no organization has stepped forward to fund the monitoring of shorelines, Eichler said.

“The FUND for Lake George has contributed more than $300,000 in cost sharing for this program over the past 25 years,” said Eichler. “But while still supporting the efforts of this program, The Fund is unable to fund this program due to other committments.”

Those other commitments, explained Peter Bauer, the executive director of The Fund for Lake George, include exterminating invasive species like the Asian clam and financing the West Brook Conservation Initiative, which will protect the lake’s south basin from urban runoff.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to continue funding the program,” said Bauer. “While it’s time for The Fund to transition out of the program, the importance of monitoring public beaches should motivate local governments to adopt at least that part of the program.”

Bolton, Lake George Village, the Town of Lake George and Hague have agreed to consider adopting monitoring programs, said Eichler.

“Evaluation of bathing beach water quality provides a reminder that water quality is not guaranteed and that proper maintenance and surveillance of swimming areas remain critical,” said Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, the executive director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute.

According Larry Eichler, DFWI can test sampled waters for Total Coliform (TC), Fecal Coliform (FC), and Fecal Streptococcus (FS) for as little as $30 per week. The Towns would be responsible for the costs of collecting the water samples.

New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has tested the waters near state-owned beaches since the late 1980s, after the Million Dollar Beach was closed for three days in 1988 because of an excessive fecal coliform count.

The Darrin Fresh Water Institute has tested waters near municpal beaches every summer since 2002.

“The program was a low cost mechanism to provide assurances that the public beaches on Lake George posed no threats to the public,” said Larry Eichler.

“We continue to believe that this program provides a valuable service to the Lake George community through assurance of water quality at our public bathing beaches.”

Even before it began testing municipal beaches for coliform contamination, DWFI was sampling sites around Lake George for coliform bacteria, which are generally viewed as indicators of sewage leaks or other sources for nutrients, such as storm water.

“The Lake George Coliform Monitoring Program was designed to be a proactive water quality program,” said Eichler. “Prompt identification and remediation of wastewaters entering Lake George is one of the most efficient ways to protect water quality.”

Waters were evaluated at sites with chronically high levels of coliform bacteria or in areas where algae appeared, Eichler explained.

“We’re disappointed that The Fund could not continue to support the program, but we understand fiscal realities,” said Eichler.

Eichler said grants may permit the Darrin Fresh Water Institute to re-establish the colliform monitoring program in the future.

Photo: Darrin Fresh Water Institute

For more news from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror or visit Lake George Mirror Magazine.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New Study: Most Larger Mammals Killed by Humans

Medium and large-sized wild mammals in North America are more likely to be killed by humans than by predation, starvation or disease, according to research conducted at the New York State Museum.

The study was conducted by Christopher Collins, a graduate student from the State University at Albany and Dr. Roland Kays, the State Museum’s curator of mammals and has been published online in the journal Animal Conservation. The research shows the extent to which humans are affecting the evolution of mammals today and will be used to predict the conservation threats that mammals face.

Although studies of mortality causes have been conducted for many mammal species, this is the first to gather this data together and examine trends across species. Collins and Kays reviewed data for 2209 individual animal deaths in 69 North American mammal populations across 27 species. They only considered studies that used radio tracking
collars to monitor animals because they are the least biased in finding recently deceased animals.

Of the 1874 deaths that had known causes, 51.8 percent were caused by humans. Hunters killed 35.3 percent of the animals studied — 29.9 percent legally and 5.4 percent illegally through poaching. Vehicle collisions caused 9.2 percent of the deaths and 7.2 percent resulted from other human causes. Predation by other animals caused 35.2 percent of the deaths, disease accounted for 3.8 percent, starvation for 3.2 percent and other natural causes for 6.1 percent.

Data included animals that lived in a variety of habitats throughout North America including urban, rural and wilderness areas. Animals in urban areas were more
likely to die from vehicle collisions, while animals in rural and wilderness areas were more likely to die from hunting. Animals living in protected areas had a 44 percent lower level of human-caused mortality.

Kays noted that “this shows that legal protection has a direct impact on the survival and evolutionary pressures faced by animals.” Larger species, especially carnivores, are more likely to be killed by humans, with smaller species, particularly herbivores, dying more from predator attacks.

Although the deaths attributable to hunting by humans were very high, none of these hunted populations were endangered. “These results may be more important when considering the forces driving modern evolution of species, than their conservation status,” said Collins.

The study suggests that animals with traits that allow them to escape these prominent mortality causes for longer will have a selective advantage. However, the scientists conclude in the study that the pace of “human activity may exceed species’ ability to adapt, particularly in the face of habitat loss and climate change.”

The research also noted a scarcity of knowledge about smaller species, and Collins and Kays have since initiated new field research on the cause of mortality in small mammals in New York State.

Photo: A fisher is shown wearing a tracking collar. Collars like these allow field biologists to track the movement and ultimate fate of an animal, finding them regardless of their ultimate cause of death, and providing the most accurate data on what actually kills wild animals. (Photo courtesy of NYS Museum).


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Philosophy: Women, Science and Truth in Nature

Her name was Hypatia and she lived, taught and published in Alexandria at the Platonist school from approximately AD 370 – 415. If the practice of western philosophy (φιλοσοφία) as we know it is from the Greek philo meaning lover and sophia meaning wisdom, then Hypatia might have been Sophia herself. One of her contemporaries wrote, “There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”

I had Hypatia on my mind this past weekend as I prepared for a Young Women and Girls in Science event sponsored by SUNY ESF’s Northern Forest Institute. I was asked to talk about the intersection of science and the humanities and more specifically, why the study of science is incomplete without the study of philosophy. Not least among the reasons why, is that the western scientific tradition comes from the western philosophical tradition and before knowledge splintered into specializations and narrow silos of information, there was unbounded curiosity and conversation. This style of conversation became the dialectic or discussion model that some of us are trying to move back towards as a method of inquiry, interdisciplinary learning and teaching.

So I thought I’d begin to introduce young women and girls who might be thinking about a career in the sciences, to this question of why scientists should care what philosophers think. It seemed that the best way to do this would be by talking about a philosopher who happens to be a woman and who is as often cited as a mathematician and an astronomer as for her progressive attitudes on sex, or what currently falls within the realm of identity politics. So if taking on the question of what philosophy could possibly have to do with science wasn’t enough, I’d planned to head straight towards what identity politics has to do with science.

Talking with young women and girls about why philosophy matters to science made me think about why women and girls matter to science. In other words, why should we care that women and girls enter into the sciences? Why, for that matter, should we care that any particular group is represented in any public/professional area? In the case of science the answer is somewhat heretical (and I’m mindful here that Hypatia met her unspeakable demise for such acts…). Science is not objective; in its entirety it is not the pure and objective pursuit of extracting truth from the physical world.

As the philosopher Cornel West puts it truth “is a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world.” Well, that’s all well and good for the humanities but science isn’t subject to the complicated dynamics of culture, perspective, subjectivity and the human condition generally – or is it? As philosopher and scientist Hypatia cautioned “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth — even more so, since a superstition is intangible, you can’t get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”

The scientific method is bookended by the philosophical method. Empirical data collection doesn’t emerge in a vacuum but first a mind (not exhumed from, but as one part of the sensual human condition) has to be drawn to an inquiry, has to draw the parameters of that inquiry based on the desire to discover one thing or another about the physical world. These elements of drawing towards and of desire have no relationship to the type of objectivity that science is premised upon. (I’ll leave politics and capitalism as drivers of science for another post…) Even the most basic scientific discovery has to be interpreted, given meaning and brought about in language and often through metaphor.

All of which brings us again into the philosophical domain including ethics, emphasis, coercion, manipulation, bias and on and on. Every discipline including science, which in contrast with West’s earlier assertion, understands truth and fact as discoverable aspects of the world through its method, is a discipline brought about in the context of the human condition and the human condition is the concern of philosophers.

I understand truth to be something that is emergent and as the philosopher Richard Rorty suggested, it is created in the swamp of the human condition or in the lifework of a people rather than discovered whole in an objective state. Moreover, as soon as we begin pointing out truth with certainty and locating it within particular disciplinary or societal boundaries, then we invoke a universal style of truth that can’t be extracted from dynamics of power and ultimately (at least ultimately as history shows us) hegemony.

Philosophy (or at least some of its more recent work) has become about recognizing the amorphous nature of nature and navigating it for – as a conservation biologist colleague of mine so beautifully states, for “meaning and purpose” rather than mining it for truth and certainty. This leaves us on very unstable ground wherein all of these issues (including scientific issues) seem endlessly unstable. It is not, I believe, a matter of firming up that ground but rather of entering the landscape differently, recognizing that stability is (as Foucault would say) a chimera and the only truth that we can hope to achieve is subject to culture, identity and perspective.

If these ideas are useful at all I hope it is because they bring us closer to answering the question of why philosophy and women matter a great deal to science and why science as our most exacting tool of understanding the physical world, should be important to all of us. I hope it also seeds the ground for more conversation around these topics …

Portrait of Hypatia by Elbert Hubbard, 1908

Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondacks.


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Curt Stager’s Fresh Look at Climate Change

Paul Smiths College Professor Curt Stager’s new book, Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) is a fresh look at global climate change. Stager’s approach is that of the paleoecologist, a discipline that has traditionally been focused on reconstructing the paleoenvironment using the fossil record to clarify the relationship that plants, animals, and humans have to their environment in the past.

Typically, paleoecological researchers have aimed their attentions on the Quaternary period (the last two million years), particularity with studies of the Holocene epoch (the last 11,000 years), or the Pleistocene glaciation period (50,000 to 10,000 years ago). Stager’s Deep Future looks in the other direction, 100,000 years into the future.

Stager is quick to point out that no, humans won’t go extinct; some species will win, some lose, because after temperatures rise, they’ll fall (at a slower rate). Deep Future is built around the Anthropocene, the first epoch in which humans have come to influence the Earth’s ecosystems.

Scientists are somewhat divided over when the Anthropocene begins. Some suggest 8,000 years ago, when we began clearing forests to raise animals and grow crops during the Neolithic Revolution, others establish a date as late as the Industrial Revolution of the 1750s. Both agree that what’s significant is that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is increasing at a faster rate, and to a much greater extent, that previous glacial-interglacial cycles of the past million years, and that humans are the cause.

Deep Future illuminates the changes of the coming 100,000 years, among them the effect we’ve already had in delaying the next ice age. Describing himself as a “converted climate skeptic” thanks in part to research at Paul Smiths into weather and lake ice records in the Adirondacks, Stager explores the idea that our distant descendants may well applaud us for the changes we cause, but many of the earth’s species will suffer dramatic transformations. Acidification of our oceans will impact sea species, shifting micro climates will force great species migrations to adapt, which on land may be blocked by human development.

The bottom line of Deep Future is that what we decide to do now about controlling our carbon emissions will have tremendous impacts on our future descendants. Putting it into an even larger context, Stager offers this unique perspective: “If we burn through all our fossil fuels now, we will leave nothing for the people of the future to burn to stave off future ice ages and prevent the crushing devastation of migrating ice sheets.”

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Adirondack Amphibian Inventory Volunteers Sought

Amphibians in the Adirondacks face a wide range of challenges — but a new project aimed at citizens and scientists alike could help ease some of those threats, says David Patrick, a Paul Smith’s College professor who is director of the Adirondack All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI).

The ATBI is organizing a series of hour-long, family-friendly workshops to show people how to monitor amphibians and their habitats. Researchers will use the data collected by observers in order to help with amphibian conservation efforts.

Habitat destruction, invasive species and diseases, climate change, and deaths caused by vehicles have led to declines in many of the 32 species of amphibians — 14 frogs and toads and 18 salamanders — found in New York State.

“One of the best ways to help in conserving these animals is to learn more about where they are currently found, and the types of habitats they are using,” Patrick said. “These workshops will show where you can learn more about these animals, how to identify them, where to find them, and the information that can be collected to aid in their conservation.”

The ATBI is a coalition of several academic institutions, state agencies, not-for-profit organizations and other groups.

Workshops are free and open to the public. They are scheduled for 6:30-7:30 p.m. on the following dates:

* Thursday, March 31. SUNY-Potsdam, Stowell Hall, Room 211.

* Wednesday, April 13. Adirondack Interpretive Center, Newcomb.

Prof. Glenn Johnson of SUNY-Potsdam, co-author of “The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State,” will host the events at Paul Smith’s and SUNY-Potsdam; Stacy McNulty, an ecologist with SUNY-ESF, will host the event in Newcomb with Patrick, who is also director of Paul Smith’s Center for Adirondack Biodiversity.

For more information, contact David Patrick at (518) 327-6174 or [email protected], or visit www.paulsmiths.edu/ATBI.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Phil Brown: Questions About Adirondack Cougars

Does the eastern cougar still exist? A few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that it does not—a finding that’s unlikely to end the debate over whether cougars live in the Adirondacks.

Here’s another question: did the eastern cougar ever exist?

No one disputes that cougars once roamed the Adirondacks and the rest of the East. Indeed, the Fish and Wildlife Service report describes the cougar as “the most widely distributed land mammal in the New World.” The cats have adapted to a variety of habitats, including forests, swamps, deserts, and high mountains. » Continue Reading.



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