Lessons in Listening

For the first time in its 59-year history, the Australian Science Teachers Association’s (STAWA) Secondary School of the Year award, an annual prize handed out in Western Australia, went to a school outside of Perth. That kind of anomaly deserves a second look.

The school that won the award for science research is the Christian Aboriginal Parent-directed (CAPS) school in Coolgardie, an independent school established by Aboriginal parents who felt the quality of education in their region was lacking.  This was also the first time the STAWA award went to a school with a mainly Aboriginal student population.

The students at CAPS were under the tutelage of a young science teacher from the United States, Allan Alipio, who wanted to inspire students with the passion he himself felt for science. He allows the students to come up with some of their own ideas, and this is where I think the story starts to get really interesting.

Eucalyptus saligna (Blue Gum)’ (1887)
Artist/Source: Agard Hagman/MAAS

The projects that won the award were mostly based on the application of native plants and indigenous knowledge to energy and medical experiments. One group of teens investigated the antimicrobial potential of traditional medicine plants maroon and crimson turkey bushes as well as sweet potato leaves for potential use as an anti-diarrhoea medication, while another group used local plants like wheel cactus and gum leaves to make ethanol.

This award speaks to the profound impact that good teaching can have – not just on passing along the facts and passing tests, but on inspiration and passion. I think it’s important to stress that, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum, Mr. Alipio listened to his students.

There’s a lot that could be discussed here about the all-too-common lack of education funding for indigenous populations. This gets at a larger issue of the side-lining (or worse) of indigenous populations around the world, and the extent to which their deep local knowledge has been suppressed, disdained, ignored, or (as with many medicinal applications) commercially exploited. And as we slog through this new era of climate change, that knowledge is more relevant than ever – as is the necessity to start listening.

Wheel cactus (Opuntia robusta)
Artist/Source: M.E. Eaton/Crow & Raven

People who identify as indigenous number an estimated 370 people worldwide, made up of around 5000 groups across 70 countries. They make up approximately 5% of the global population – but traditional lands and territories contain an estimated 80% of Earth’s biodiversity.

Gleb Raygorodetsky put it well in this excellent article: “With collective knowledge of the land, sky and sea, these peoples are excellent observers and interpreters of change in the environment. The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data with chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is critical for verifying climate models and evaluating climate change scenarios developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scale. Moreover, indigenous knowledge provides a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions…

The difference in world views can be as fundamental as the botanical illustrations of plants above done through Western eyes, the illustration of bush plants below done by Aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre.

Bush medicine leaves
Artist: Gloria Petyarre

I will get into huge topic around the overlap of human rights issues, indigenous peoples and environment another time, but for the moment, I would say this: As long as that deep knowledge stays on a parallel but separate track from Western-based science, policy, legislation and education, we are missing out on critical opportunities to learn and adapt to the changes we have created over a relatively short period of time. At the same time, learning to listen and to cooperate puts people back in the loop when it comes to determining the fate of the land on which they live – and might just help us weather the approaching storm.

Hopefully, students like the award-winning teens at CAPS will be able to leverage knowledge from both worlds to help chart a path ahead.

A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.


A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.


Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

Portrait of Living Wind

Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon.  Photo: Scientific American

Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon.
Photo: Scientific American

A century ago this month, the world’s last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) died in the Cincinnati Zoo, long after the last passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild. The passenger pigeon, once populous beyond imagining, took only a century to disappear.

It seems that more than one factor was responsible for the population decline and how well the passenger pigeon thrived, from breeding habits (they bred communally in large flocks, and didn’t breed in captivity) to human influence (hunting, habitat loss and deforestation).

To a 19th-century European hunter sitting in the middle of a vast colony of the birds, though, it must have seemed like endless flocks of passenger pigeons were just the way of the world. When the first alarms were raised, including an 1857 bill in Ohio to control hunting and protect the birds, the overall response was simple disbelief.



“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” (Wikipedia) Subsequent efforts over the next 40 years were fruitless.

And so to the declines in the shorebirds of the Eastern Hemisphere, epic migrations that take place between Australia and the Arctic along the eastern coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and along the Yellow Sea. An estimated 36 bird species, their populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have used the flyway for most of human memory. Their numbers are dwindling. Very quickly.

Some species, including the curlew sandpiper, have seen their numbers collapse by up to 95% over the past few years alone. The culprits? Hunting, habitat loss, deforestation. And yes, there are several international agreements in place meant to protect migratory birds and their habitats.

It would seem the people doing the agreeing and the people doing the hunting and developing don’t share common goals.

Or maybe the hunters and developers and those who support their right to action just don’t believe in extinction.

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900. Source: Wikipedia

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900.
Source: Wikipedia

In 1947, Aldo Leopold said of the passenger pigeon, “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

When will we, then the marshes, and finally the shores, begin to forget the last shorebird?

Or have we already begun?


The Right Tree

According to this article, the word ‘tree hugger’ was coined in 1730 to describe a hundreds of Bishnoi villagers in India who clung to the trees of their home to prevent them from being cut down for the construction of a palace. The non-violent form of protest was adopted in the 1970s by the Chipko women of northeast India, who clung to trees to stop them from being clear cut.

There are those who hug trees to protect them, those who hug trees because they feel it helps ease the mind, and those who are called tree huggers not so much because they actually hug trees, but because they embrace the idea that the environment is worth protecting.

I would count myself among the third group.

Acacia tree Source: GalleryHip

Acacia tree
Source: GalleryHip

Koalas hug trees for their own marsupial reasons. Picture a koala in your mind – is it sitting in a tree with its little arms wrapped around a tree trunk? My imaginary dozy koala is. I never gave it much thought, but a couple of researchers in Australia did. And in a new study published in Biology Letters, ‘Tree-hugging koalas demonstrate a novel thermoregulatory mechanism for arboreal mammals, they show that the trees koalas most like to hug are not the eucalyptus trees (which provide their main food source), but acacia trees. Why?

When the researchers studied the trees, they found that the acacia trees had trunk temperatures that were up to 5° C (9° F) lower than the surrounding air, and cooler than the other tree trunks. Koalas are using tree trunks to cool themselves in a hot climate where panting – the usual method of koala body temperature regulation – would cause the animals to lose precious water. Tree-clinging koalas lost half as much water through evaporation compared to other koalas.

The research team is working on models to predict how animals like the koala adapt to climate change. In the case of the marsupials, it might be that they will survive by changing their habitat range and find other cooling trees to cling to as the air grows hotter around them.

As a tree hugger in a changing world, it’s important to find the right tree.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point readers in the direction of another koala-related cooling device, the Hot Koala cocktail.



Spawn Skimming

Coral spawning, Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Tusa Dive / Australian Geographic

Coral spawning, Great Barrier Reef.
Photo: Tusa Dive / Australian Geographic

Coral reefs spawn beneath a springtime full moon, sending up a synchronized release of countless coral eggs and sperm to mingle in the sea, sometimes across great distances. These form planulae, coral larvae, which first float to the water’s surface, then swim back down to the reef or seabed, and form new coral.

And yet, what if they don’t? What if some coral reefs are too damaged to effectively reproduce?

Spawning mountainous star coral off Grand Cayman Island. Photo: Alex Mustard

Spawning mountainous star coral off Grand Cayman Island.
Photo: Alex Mustard

A project was launched last year in Australia to apply the knowledge gained from human fertilization to coral reproduction. Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science retrieved reproductive material during the spawning season of the Great Barrier Reef in order to cryogenically freeze it far from the ocean’s shores in the Western Plains Zoo, in the New South Wales outback.

The goal is to be able to seed out endangered coral reefs in the future, perhaps even hundreds of years from now.

The project reminds me a bit of the Svalbard global seed vault, a human undertaking to harvest as much of the world’s valuable genetic material as possible, even as genetic diversity is rapidly dwindling.

Will it work? No one knows yet. Is it worth trying? I think the answer has to be yes, absolutely, even as we need to work harder against the various human-caused factors that are destroying the world’s largest single structure made by living beings in the first place.

A lovely video, Coral Sea Dreaming, shows the coral reef spawning process:

The Hot Koala

Last week, the image of a heat-struck koala in parched Australia inspired a tweet:

Original photo: Peter Lorimer/Rex Features

Original photo: Peter Lorimer/Rex Features

And @Curt_Ames noted that ‘hot koala’ sounded like a good name for a cocktail.

I agree. So I made a Hot Koala. My first version, without the Tabasco sauce or fresh mint, suffered from both a lack of heat and cool.

But I’m happy with this second attempt. It’s got heat, it’s got soft brown-grey colors, it gets doused, and I hope it refreshes.

The Hot Koala

2 parts tequila 1 part Kahlua
1 part single malt whisky (I used Glenfarclas Heritage, because I just would – but bourbon would be fine, too)
1 part cream
Several dashes Tabasco sauce (the heat, obviously)

Shake all above ingredients together with ice, strain into glasses over ice.

Ground cayenne (again, heat)
A sprig of fresh mint to garnish (the douse)
Ground black chocolate on top (the koala nose)

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It turned out pretty well – sweet, with heat and a bite (because I’ve heard that koalas aren’t really as cuddly as they look, especially when they are suffering from the heat).

And voila – my first invented cocktail.

Have a great weekend, and stay cool, or warm, as the case may be.

And apologies for this ridiculous song, but not only is this a koala post, but I’m a Paula, and my family really is from Walla Walla. I couldn’t resist.

Mud Pie

Map of Australia & World Source: Flourish.org

Map of Australia & World
Source: Flourish.org

There was an encouraging study released in early January that describes how denuded reefs off the coast of Sydney Australia have been partially restored through seaweed transplants. Crayweed (Phyllospora comosa) is an ecosystem cornerstone in some reef system, providing a habitat for fish and crustaceans.

In 2008, researchers found it had disappeared from a 70 km (43 mile) stretch of coastline, likely due to the direct dumping of Sydney’s sewage into the water over the course of decades. Although the sewage lines were moved into deeper waters in the 1990s, the damage had been done. (On a side note, Sydney’s water treatment seems not only to have a troubled past regarding pollution, but a troubled present as well. A story for another day.)

Crayweed transplants Photo: UNSW

Crayweed transplants
Photo: UNSW

Once the seaweed-free reefs had been identified, scientists undertook a project of transplanting crayweed to two barren areas in the hope of re-establishing the seaweed itself as well as the damaged marine environment. The good news is, it seems to be working, the seaweed is taking hold, and with time, other marine life might be back as well.

Enjoy the glow of this feel-good story for a moment before reading on to something happening up the coast from Sydney in Queensland.

I could try and be balanced about the following news, and to present it in an objective light, looking at the history of the area and the arguments for and against. But in this particular case, I just can’t.

The Great Barrier Reef is the longest coral reef on the planet, and is the largest single structure made by living creatures. Source: New7Wonders

The Great Barrier Reef is the longest coral reef on the planet, and is the largest single structure made by living creatures.
Source: WorldNew7Wonders

The new Australian government under Tony Abbott has approved a dredging and dumping project that would allow 3.5 million cubic meters of sludge to be deposited on underwater areas within the Great Barrier Reef protected zone.  The dredging is to facilitate expansion of coal export operations into one of the largest coal ports in the world, shipping Australian coal to China and India.

I guess it’s been determined that waiting around for the Great Barrier Reef to just give up and die due to the effects of greenhouse gases, climate change, industrial and agricultural pollution and shipping would take too long.

Having the fossil-fuel extraction industry just make direct attacks on the World Heritage site will get the job done quicker.

The flooding and flow of sediment into the Coral Sea at Gladstone, Australia, blamed by many on dredging. Dredging at Gladstone Harbour is under investigation for causing mass marine life death. Image: Cmd. Chris Hadfield  via Twitter

The flooding and flow of sediment into the Coral Sea at Gladstone, Australia, blamed by many on dredging. Dredging at Gladstone Harbour is under investigation for causing mass marine life death.
Image: Cmd. Chris Hadfield via Twitter

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has final approval rights. Their decision is due by 31 January 2014. You can add comment on the GBRMPA website, or if so inclined, sign an online petition against this project to turn parts of the reef into mud pie here, or e-mail the Australian Environment Minister’s office here. Or, perhaps more effective, give the GBRMPA a call.

Study: Towards Restoration of Missing Underwater Forests (PLOS ONE Jan. 2014) – AH Campbell, EM Marzinelli, A. Vergés, MA Coleman, PD Steinberg