Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone. And in the coming year, just remember ... the possibilities are endless if we just keep our eyes open.

copyright 1995, Bill Watterson

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The web of life ... and of our meddling with it

Kirk Johnson has a story in Friday's New York Times that is about exotic trees, the Dust Bowl, willow flycatchers, radiation, economic stimuli, citizen-based ecosystem restoration, beetles, drought, and Superfund. Seriously.

Check it out.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Anniversary today

On this day in 1831, a voyage began that would ultimately rock our understanding of how the natural world came to have the form that it has. Charles Darwin, born into a middle-upper class British family in 1809, developed an early love for the natural world but apparently little ambition for any of the traditional career paths open to a person of his social standing in the early 1800s. Following his graduation from Cambridge University in 1831, he accepted a position as ...

... naturalist and companion to the captain of the British ship HMS Beagle, whose mission was to chart the coast of South America. The voyage of the Beagle lasted five years, circumnavigated the globe, and provided young Darwin with the opportunity to explore the diversity of the natural world from a global perspective. While he was certainly not the first explorer to have done so, he was among the wave of 19th century explorers who were ultimately provide a framework for understanding the processes that are responsible for shaping the patterns we see in the natural world today.

Many years after Darwin's return from the voyage in 1836, he developed a logical argument for how lineages of organisms could change over time in response to differential selection -- with respect to both survival and reproductive success -- caused by the environment. Dubbed natural selection, Darwin eventually (in 1859) fully laid out his argument in the book On the Origin of Species, which drew heavily on the observations he made while traveling on the Beagle; and the world has never been the same since.

Part of the attraction for me of Darwin's life story has always been its example of the power of observation. At the risk of understating the hardships of the voyage itself, Darwin in fact did little more on the voyage than collect, observe, and take meticulous notes. That, coupled with his brilliant ability to patiently ask (and answer) how one could make the most sense of his field observations, was all it took to shake human understanding of the world to its core.

The seismic tremors that began with the voyage of the Beagle have still not ended, since an acceptance of evolution by means of natural selection remains one of the primary touchstones in the global religio-culture wars. But regardless of where one stands with respect to those wars, one has to acknowledge the significance of a small ship that sailed out of Plymouth harbor on December 27, 1831.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Species at risk from climate change

A recent article from the New Scientist reports on a new study released by the World Conservation Union on species susceptible to climate change impacts. The highlights are not pleasant.

Of 17,000 assessed species, over 7000 could become threatened with extinction because of climate change.

Ninety "life history traits" - essential elements of a species' behaviour or lifestyle - were identified that were likely to be affected by a change in a species' local climate. These included:

* Requirements for a specialised habitat: some amphibians depend on a stream or pond, so if that dries out there is no way they can survive;
* Specific environmental tolerances: many corals cannot survive if the water temperature or pH exceeds a certain threshold;
* Dependence on environmental cues: many species depend on changes in day length or rainfall to start breeding;
* Dependence on interactions with other species: without prey a specialised predator cannot survive; lichen depend on trees, and many plants on their pollinators;
* Ability to disperse: as their historical habitats become increasingly hostile, species will need to move to new territories but may not be able to do so if there is something - a body of water, perhaps - in their way.

Half of all amphibians, one-third of all birds and over two-thirds of assessed corals are susceptible to climate change.

Within each group, some species are more likely to suffer. Among the birds, all albatross and penguin species were deemed susceptible. Herons, egrets, ospreys, kites, hawks and eagles, on the other hand, are less so.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Myth 2: Big-picture philosophy is more important than practical advice

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Wrong. Big-picture philosophy is great, of course. It’s what provides a pedagogical grounding for what we do, and the field of education is rife with big-picture philosophies: people learn more by doing than by seeing; children benefit by spending time outdoors; collaborative learning is good; and so on. But picture yourself as a novice educator, armed with only these philosophies. What will they actually empower you to do with your students on Monday morning? How can you translate them into a lesson plan? A field-trip itinerary? A wish list for equipment and supplies to put together a new exercise or museum display? For philosophies to translate into anything useful, they have to be followed up with practical, detailed advice on what to do and how to do it. The truth is that the details of your experiences translating philosophical truisms into educational activities are a critical part of educational theory. Without practical advice, philosophies will never come to life and bear fruit, and your detailed stories are precisely the kind of practical advice that others need.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Five myths about writing about teaching natural history: Myth 1

Yes, the title of this post is a mouthful. Yet it makes an important point. A year and a half ago the Natural History Network launched the Journal of Natural History Education, and since that time, as editor, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with numerous people about developing articles for the journal. Some of them contacted me at the suggestion of an NHN board member or colleague; some simply came across the journal on the web and thought they had an idea for an article.

Without exception, all of them had interesting and important stories to tell about teaching natural history. But also without exception, my conversations with them, both initial discussions about how a story could be developed into a manuscript as well as follow-up conversations about how manuscripts could be improved, revealed that teachers are enormously intimidated by and uncertain about telling their stories.

Five key myths emerge repeatedly. I call them myths because they are fundamentally incorrect, but I could just as easily call them barriers because these myths stand in the way of telling our stories in ways that share knowledge and experience, as well as empower other teachers to participate in the natural history renaissance (Trombulak and Fleischner 2007). Over a series of posts, I'd like to describe each of these myths. First up, Myth 1 ...

Myth 1: Nobody really wants to know about what I do with my students.

Wrong. Imagine that you come across an article that talks about teaching natural history to the same kinds of students you teach and with the same kind of emphasis you make. What is your reaction to that article? Do you say, “No, I don’t want to read it because it is too relevant to my life as a teacher”? Of course not. As teachers, we are always looking for better ways to communicate, educate, and evaluate. We are well aware that there are a thousand different ways to construct an exercise or activity, most of which we know we would not develop on our own. So we are always talking to our colleagues about what they do and how well they think it works.

Your colleagues are no different than you. Just as you want to learn from them, so too do they want to learn from you. Maybe they will listen to your story and adopt your approach in their own class, and maybe they will decide that they prefer what they are currently doing. But that’s not the point. What matters is that you are giving them the opportunity to consider alternatives and improvements. The truth is that they want to know what you are doing with your students because it gives them the opportunity to improve as educators, whether or not they agree with you.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The mind of mice

Natural History magazine reports on a recent study published by Karen Mabry and Judy Stamps in the journal American Naturalist about how juvenile brush mice (Peromyscus boylii) select new nest sites. This species is native and broadly distributed throughout western North America. Rather than simply selecting the first acceptible nest site they encounter, they spend a week or more searching for and revisiting sites until eventually settling down.

What I find interesting about the report is that it further exemplifies the cognitive complexity of non-human animals. Sure, they are just mice, but they are actually comparison "shopping," a cognitive skill that involves the ability to compare items encountered at different times and different locations as well as the willingness to forego an acceptible resource in current possession (the potential nest site the mouse is presently at) for a better resource that was encountered in the past.

When I was a graduate student, Don Griffin had just published the first edition of his book Animal Thinking. I remember it being highly controversial because it argued (quite persuasively, in my opinion) that animals were conscious creatures. Prior to the 1980s, most behaviorists seemed comfortable thinking of animals as if they were non-conscious automatons. Griffin argued otherwise, and the avalanche of studies that have been done otherwise seems to support his position.

Comparison shopping for homes by mice seems to me to fit quite nicely into this view. The natural world is not only alive, but much of it is conscious and aware!

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's that time of year

No, not the holidays. Final exams and papers. I'm up to my eyeballs with papers about exotic species, ecological reserves, and conservation initiatives. While most are generally well written (I am blessed with being able to teach a fairly high caliber of student), some make mistakes that are downright embarrassing.

"The range of the American chestnut once stretched from Main to Georgia."

"Zebra muscles were introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1980s."

and my personal favorite so far ...

"The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park led to a reduction in the size of the elf population."

What these (and many other examples) all have in common is, I think, an over-reliance on spell-checkers and a lack of careful proofreading. No great sin, I suppose. But when I see these kinds of mistakes I am always reminded of Taylor Mali's poem, "The The Impotence of Proofreading."

And the memory of it always makes me smile.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Quote of the day

How Strange that Nature does not knock, and yet does not intrude!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), in Letter to Mrs. J.S. Cooper

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Birthday celebration

Today is the birthday of C. Hart Merriam, one of the natural history pioneers in North America in the 1800s. Born on this day in 1855, probably Merriam's most lasting contribution to the field of natural history was his introduction of what we call today "Merriam's life zones," an early attempt to describe regions based on their plant and animal communities. When I was a kid, Merriam's system of life zones (e.g., Sonoran, Hudsonian) was the primary method my little brain used to organize a vast amount of natural history information, making it possible for me to make sense of what I was seeing around me as I began to travel more widely, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although we now have far more sophisticated ways of subdividing the landscape, Merriam set the stage for subsequent generations of natural historians and geographers.

From Wikipedia ...

Clinton Hart Merriam (December 5, 1855-March 19, 1942) was an American zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist and ethnographer.

He was born in New York City in 1855. His father, Clinton Levi Merriam, was a U.S. congressman. He studied biology and anatomy at Yale University and went on to obtain an M.D. from the School of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1879.

In 1886, he became the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, predecessor to the National Wildlife Research Center and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society in 1888. He developed the "life zones" concept to classify biomes found in North America. In mammalogy, he is known as an excessive splitter, proposing, for example, tens of different species of North American brown bears in several genera.

In 1899, he helped railroad magnate E. H. Harriman to organize an exploratory voyage along the Alaska coastline.

Some species of animals that bear his name are Merriam's Wild Turkey Meliagris gallopavo meriami, the now extinct Merriam's Elk Cervus elaphus merriami, and Merriam's Chipmunk Tamias merriami. Much of his detail-oriented taxonomy continues to be influential within mammalogical and ornithological circles.

Later in life, funded by the Harriman family, Merriam's focus shifted to studying and assisting the Native American tribes in the western United States. His contributions on the myths of central California and on ethnogeography were particularly noteworthy.

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