Originally posted on The Waterthrush Blog: I spend a lot of time bragging about the 15 graduate students who’ve worked in my lab but this post is inspired by the 28 undergraduates I’ve had the good fortune to mentor in…
Anyone familiar with prairies has likely seen drawings and photographs showing the incredibly deep root systems of prairie grasses and other grassland plants. The prairie ecologist J.E. Weaver, in particular, is well known for his illustrations of long roots extending below prairie plants. That root depth is frequently held up as a major factor that influences the resilience of prairies in the face of summer drought. After all, deep roots allow those plants to draw water from far down in the soil profile when rainfall becomes scarce. It’s one of the defining components of prairie ecosystems.
There’s just one problem.
Prairies don’t actually work that way.
Yes, prairie grasses and wildflowers have very deep roots, but research over the last decade or so has built a strong case against the idea that those plants use their deep roots to find moisture during times of scarcity. In fact, they might not…
Joan Stenger sent me an email recently about an unusual waterfowl observation. On a recent Saturday, she visited downtown Bristol where the creek widens a bit near the fire station and beside the park. Joan wrote that she saw a flock of ducks and Canada geese and enjoyed watching them.
Photo by Bryan Stevens Muscovy ducks seen outside of Texas are domesticated versions of the wild waterfowl. Male Muscovy ducks sport red carbuncles around their bills.
“One fellow stood on the opposite bank and had bright red marks on his face,” she added. “My daughter and I went over the bridge and into the park to get closer and hopefully get a better view.”
Originally posted on The Waterthrush Blog: You’ve heard the story before, and it’s sobering: Once perhaps the most abundant vertebrate on the planet, a combination of unremitting exploitation and habitat loss reduced the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) from billions to…
There’s CDC or other institutional guidance, and there’s “what this person does” guidance. Both can be informative for how individuals manage their behavior during a deadly, global pandemic. Judging from a recent conversation I’ve had elsewhere, there might be some value in sharing a bit more of the latter.
First some demographics: white male in his “extremely early mid-50s” (nod to Martin Short) with no known co-morbidities, no immediate family members immunocompromised, my entire family was able to be fully vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 as soon as vaccines became available (team Moderna.) We are very lucky in these regards.
I am a scientist and educator whose life goal is to help people better understand the natural world and their place within it. I’m also a long-time student of and advocate for evidence-based critical thinking – not contrarianism – but real and scholarly critical thinking. If there’s an opinion I’m sharing on some important matter, there’s a good chance I’ve done a fairly deep dive on the peer-reviewed literature associated with that subject and have looked for specific examples that might weaken the strength of evidence in one way or another.
So how have I personally managed my behavior during the COVID19 pandemic?
My objective is to not get COVID19. I don’t want seasonal influenza either and this is why I seek vaccination against it every year – who wants to lose a week of productivity feeling like you’ve been run over by a dump truck? So I don’t want COVID19. I’m confident that if I did I would survive the ordeal (although plenty of folks ostensibly healthier than I am have not), but I am loathe to serve as a potential vector for this virus. This is where emotion seeps into the equation for me: I refuse to be the source of an infection to someone else who might not be as robust in immunity and I refuse to help this $%&# virus spread death and destruction where it goes. Sorry pal, but I’m not enabling you.
Okay, but literally what am I doing? What are the benchmarks I’m looking for to adjust my behavior? Often on social media I’ll encounter people asking questions like “Is anyone still masking in public?” People are seeking guidance on day-to-day behaviors of others. So here’s what I, at least, do.
Personally, I want to know how much SARS-CoV-2 virus might be circulating in my community. That’s a combination of three things: What’s my “community”? Am I confident that we’re testing enough? How many active cases do we have right now?
My community includes the people with whom my family and are I likely to be interacting. In our university town of Stillwater, OK that’s likely a mixture of folks from 5 or 6 counties. So my city and my county might make sense as my community, but it’s a bigger pool of people than that. I also don’t want the hassle of aggregating data from multiple sources – assuming such data even are available. So to me it makes the most sense to simply look at data compiled for our state.
Are we testing enough? No way, and it’s not even close. Here on campus at Oklahoma State University, testing has never been compulsory, randomized, or regular. Those are the data I would want to have confidence we were tracking outbreaks well. As a result, there’s a huge bias in people seeking tests when they think they either have or have been exposed to a COVID19 infection. This means that our “percent positive” skews very high compared to other states and to where we need to be for assurance that the general infection rate among our population is low. All I can look to, therefore, is a level of testing that is outpacing the percent positives data. “Are we testing more people per 100,000 in population than we have active cases of COVID19 per 100,000 in population?” This is a horribly obtuse metric as a guide to behavior, but it’s the best we have available in our state.
The actual benchmark I’m looking for is a confident estimate that we’ve got <100 infections statewide/100,000 people. That would work out to a bit less than 4000 total, active infections statewide, in our state of just under 4 million in population. 1 in 100 with COVID = too risky. 1 in 10,000 = feeling confident playing those odds. 1 in 1000? That’s confidence eroded to the point at which I’m masking again.
[Note that if you don’t have such metrics readily compiled for you the formula is simple to calculate yourself: (number of cases/population) * 100,000. For example, the current number of active cases for the state of Oklahoma is 20,093. Our state’s population (2019 estimate) is 3,957,000: 20,093/3,957,000 = 0.00507784. That’s 508 cases per 100,000 people. Our current testing rate is 188/100,000 and 19.9% of those tests are positive for SARS-CoV-2.]
So how many cases? Okay so statewide, if we are testing at a higher rate than people are suffering infection… that’s only happened in 6 months out of the 19 since March 2020. Four of those 6 months were April–July 2020, during which time I was maximizing my isolation from any people outside our immediate family bubble and donning a cloth mask any time I went out in public. Cases were steadily growing during this time too, and by August 2020 the infection rate increased beyond the testing rate and did not fall below the testing rate until May 2021.
My family was vaccinated by April 2021, and by May 2021 we finally had data in keeping with my criterion of testing > infections. Our testing rate had dropped very low, down below 100 tests/100k people for the first time since April of 2020. But cases were lower still: 37/100k by the end of May 2021 and 50/100k by the end of June. By the end of June case counts were increasing again and by the end of July the trend had reversed as delta variant COVID19 swept through our majority unvaccinated state: July closed with 250 cases/100k while testing at just 74/100k.
When did I change my behavior? After 14 months of masking and avoiding people, May and June 2021 were glorious. We simply didn’t have much virus circulating in our state and, though testing rate was so low, cases were low enough that I had confidence that we could detect a new outbreak. I returned to my office for daily work, I started going to restaurants again, etc. I did these things mask-free. I usually kept a mask handy, but was out and about without wearing one.
When did my behavior change again? July 2021. By the beginning of July it was already clear that cases were steadily increasing and that delta COVID19 had been unleashed in Oklahoma. At some point in July, I started masking in public again. I’ll keep doing that until testing outpaces cases and I’ve got confidence that we’re consistently lower than 100 cases per 100,000.
by Sierra Williams, PhD and Mangum student program participant- SICB 2021
“Do you wish you had never gotten sick?” my mother asked me.
The question made me hesitate. My illness had destroyed my childhood and robbed me of my peace of mind. However, I wasn’t sure if I would be the same person sans illness. Would I have made the same choices? Would I still be studying immunology? Would I be in the STEM field at all? My disease had been a part of me for so long, trying to remember a time without it was like trying to remember a dream.
“Tribulation builds character,” I told her. I wasn’t sure if I believed it. “If I was offered a cure now, I would take it.” Taking a cure now wouldn’t erase the past ten years as a student with disabilities.
WordPress prompts one to “Add you thoughts here” when reblogging another post. My thoughts are that those tears are still flowing along that trail and we need to remove all honorifics from English common names of North American birds, as we should have done long ago.
When people say they are used to the current bird names that honor people of the past, that they like their historic or nostalgic value, or that the names don’t mean anything to them other than the bird, I get that. On a typical morning walk from my home in the Pacific Northwest, I tally Steller’s Jay, Hutton’s Vireo, and Bewick’s Wren on my smart phone eBird app without much thought. If you were to say to me “Lewis’s Woodpecker”, only that glorious glossy green and rose woodpecker with the handsome gray collar pops into my mind.
But there is one bird’s name that hits me in the gut, takes my breath away, because it’s personal: Scott’s Oriole.
By now, we’re all familiar with this image: Velociraptors running at high speed toward a big lumbering dinosaur that the little demons subdue with an onslaught of murderous slashes from an outsized claw on their second toe. Mark Stevenson’s reproduction below is a vivid attempt to bring one of these battles to life.
This model by artist Charlie McGrady illustrates the unique foot structure of this group of dinosaurs. The first toe has moved back, and toes 2, 3, and 4 point forward. It’s that second digit (the “inside toe”) that has been greatly enlarged to support that famous sickle-shaped claw that we’re now so used to seeing elevated when the animal runs and swiped down to cut a huge slash in attack mode.
That basic toe structure is represented in modern birds. In a perching bird’s anisodactyl foot, digit 1 is moved to the rear, while digits 2–4 face…
In the life sciences and especially in ecology, conservation, wildlife management, etc., your success in this field is dictated by the same things that apply in just about any other field. You need to be intelligent, nimble, a good critical thinker, an excellent communicator, a team player, etc. You need to be the kind of person who other people will enjoy seeing every day at work. You need to be honest and trustworthy and capable with a passion for the work you do and a work ethic to see that it gets done. These might be qualities rooted in your family upbringing, your early education, and/or the general education courses you might take as an undergraduate.
You also need competency. Mostly this will come from courses within your major that you will take as an undergraduate. You absolutely need to demonstrate how proficient you are at finding new information, but it remains valuable to know things you don’t have to look up. Instant recall of information and working knowledge of method in our field might not be as rigorous as that demanded for something like the MCAT, but there is still an expectation that you know something about your intended career. You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to be successful in this field, but As and Bs in the most relevant courses in your major will serve you well.
You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to be successful in this field, but As and Bs in the most relevant courses in your major will serve you well.
Lastly, there’s experience. The thing that is likely to separate you from the pack of recent graduates with similar soft skills and technical education is what you really know how to do. That’s not just what you’ve been taught in class, it’s what you’ve practiced and proven you know how to do through repetition. There should be at least one thing, one skill, that you have honed to a professional degree before you complete your undergraduate education. It could be data analysis, GIS, electrofishing, prescribed fire, landowner incentive program implementation, small mammal trapping, plant/bird/insect/etc. identification and inventory… something.
Students who develop and cultivate at least one special skill might do so as part of an undergraduate research scholarship, a capstone project, involvement in relevant student clubs, or formal internships with wildlife agencies, NGOs, or consulting firms. Most, however, will gain that vital experience by working as a field technician on someone else’s (usually) seasonal research project. Graduate students will hire you to help them collect the data they need for their research projects. These positions will provide money, working experience to help you develop one or more crucial skills, networking, and the chance to decide over 2–3 months if field work is something you want to be doing for the rest of your career.
How do you land one of these important opportunities to work as a field technician, field assistant, or whatever a suitable position might be called? The first step is luck. But luck is little more than being prepared to take advantage of opportunity. So the real first step is to identify and cultivate some relevant skill that appeals to you before you ever apply for that technician position. Although there are plenty of opportunities for people to learn on the job, developing some basic skills you can claim before you apply would be even better.
Luck is… being prepared to take advantage of opportunity.
The next thing to recognize is that opportunities at your own university or within striking distance of your apartment will be a fraction of those available. Careers in wildlife ecology simply don’t occur in every community. This is not banking or health care or primary education where maybe you can have some say in where you might end up. If you’re serious about working in this field, then your chances of success increase dramatically if you’re able to relocate then if you’re not.
So, how does one find such positions? I recommend that as early as possible in your undergraduate career, you consult relevant job boards and make a habit of checking them perhaps monthly. Even a year or two before you might be ready to apply, it’s a great idea to have been reading job announcements to gain a sense for specific skills that seem to be in demand, the compensation offered, and important ancillary details such as how expenses for food and lodging in the field will be covered. There are multiple sites where such positions might be posted (including the following) and at time of writing (November) many people are already advertising positions for field work to begin next May.
For students considering graduate school, these same job boards also post opportunities usually under some separate heading like graduate assistantships. The best time to read through such announcements to gain a sense of what folks are looking for in new graduate students is about two years before graduation. The second best time is right now. Good luck!
You find a job announcement for a position that could be a great fit for you, but it’s due tomorrow! To apply, send CV (okay), a cover letter (yeah!), and three letters of recommendation from people who coul — (ugh, forget it! There’s no way I’m going to bug my references to drop everything and send letters on my behalf.) Result: You never even apply for what might have been a fantastic job.
Here in the USA, every week presents us with a new normal in our ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many in this country seem to think that this is just how it has to be or, at the very least, they are woefully ignorant of how much better citizens in other countries have fared than we. Inspired by a question from a friend, it was time to revisit comparisons among the USA, South Korea, and China.
Much has changed since news of the emerging pandemic was filtering to us in January. China’s first death from COVID-19 seems to have occurred on 10 or 11 January. The Hubei lockdowns began with the 11 million people in Wuhan on 23 January. This dramatic move coincided with cancellation of Chinese New Year celebrations. Personally, this was the date (23 Jan.) that I knew that this was going to be a pandemic on a scale I’d not experienced in my lifetime. Why? Because even in China…
That news on January 23rd hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve remained aghast at people elsewhere seemingly caught unawares. For example, I started suggesting by early March that students would not return to campus after Spring Break and people thought I’d lost my mind. But the writing was on the wall: it was a new virus for which most humans would have no immunity, it was highly virulent with a long and even asymptomatic infectious period, and it seemed to be more deadly than influenza.
There was one obvious strategy for dealing with coronavirus: keep people away from other people, develop tests and test *everyone*, and quarantine folks who tested positive or had contact with an infected person. This is what China and South Korea rapidly implemented in their public health response. The USA, not so much.
By early March, all three countries had buried their first COVID-19 victims, but folks in the US still weren’t taking it seriously, largely because our President was lying to the American people.
Since early March, the story has been decidedly different. Our early outbreak in New York City rapidly propelled the death rate upwards in the USA, and we haven’t adequately addressed it even 8–9 months into the pandemic.
So that’s the answer: Here in the USA we’ve accumulated a death rate of ~618 people/million, while in China and South Korea the comparable death rate is single digits. This public health nightmare in the United States was completely avoidable. It should have been a subject of caution and care, and it might even have changed the way we do some things. But it did not have to result in 200,000 (and steadily climbing) American deaths. That’s all due to mismanagement.
When white people hear “black lives matter”, many are distracted by the word black, and it leads them down the path of “Hey, ALL lives matter! Why are you singling out black people to receive special treatment?”
If this is what you think when you hear that phrase, then you have misunderstood the intent. The intent – and the part that resonates with most black people – is not the word black, but the word matter. “Black lives matter.”
Don’t feel bad. So much misunderstanding since the movement took hold could have been avoided had the message been better conveyed by simply adding the word too: “Black lives matter too.”
Also. As well. In addition to the lives of white people. As much as the lives of any other people.
The point is not to seek special treatment. The point is simply…
Writing for Resilience, Rob Brooks re-imagines a national defense grounded in Wendell Berry’s observation that “Earth is what we all have in common.”
“We need to pay as much attention to conserving and restoring the connectivity of the natural infrastructure (agricultural landscapes, river corridors, working waterfronts, land corridors through diverse ecosystems) as we do for the built infrastructure (regional electrical grids, water systems, roadways).” ~Robert Brooks, 2020
Sgt. 1st Class Shelman Spencer photo. Joint training of military and civilian personnel for disaster preparedness, 2016. We already do this. Let’s do more!
I bet rarely would people respond that they feel well-represented in government. I know I’m not well-represented when I long for a revolution in renewable energy but one of my senators is the guy who thinks snowballs in winter refute anthropogenic global warming. I can’t count on that guy to represent my world view in Washington. That’s okay (well, not really), but he’s my senator not my puppet. It would be weird if he was in lockstep with me.
I’m into even wackier stuff, too. I want to see aggressive campaigns to help slow human population growth. While I’m a fan of economic strength, I’m not a fan of economic growth – I’d prefer a steady-state economy that operates within the confines of renewable natural resource availability.
These are some seriously fringe ideas and, even though they are grounded in science, I don’t expect these mantles to be…
As we have now left March 2020 in the rear-view mirror, I thought it might be a good idea to adjust my semi-weekly interpretation of national comparisons on #COVID-19 deaths and drill drown into some data from US states. Apropos of, well, everything to our current state of residence, I’ve focused here on our adopted home of Oklahoma.
See how Oklahoma’s red dot is not only small, it’s close in size to the gray dot containing it. This means that we’re not testing many people, and the ones we are testing are the most gravely ill. Of 1159 positive tests, 316 were sick enough to require hospitalization (that’s 27%!) and 42 died (3.6% case fatality rate).
To avoid some of that uncertainty, I prefer to examine those data for which we have the greatest confidence: confirmed deaths from COVID-19. These are undercounted too, but much less-so that the undercounted number of total cases. We can track the number of deaths over time to examine the doubling rate, i.e., the number of days it takes for the death toll to double as an indication of the speed of spread through a population. Note that if our observed data indicate any kind of predictable pattern, the number of deaths will be ~13% of the number of people requiring hospitalization to recover, and that helps us examine and predict overload capacity at our hospitals. For example, when we hit 100 deaths in Oklahoma, we will have have needed to accommodate 769 people in hospital.
…when we hit 100 deaths in Oklahoma, we will have have needed to accommodate 769 people in hospital.
So here are some data on deaths in Oklahoma:
Our first confirmed death from COVID-19 was on 19 March. As of 4 April, 42 Oklahomans have died from coronavirus.
Because raw data can jump around so much from day to day, here I’ve plotted deaths and a rolling average number of deaths. The rolling average was taken from the day listed plus the number of deaths on the previous two days. This 3-day average smooths the variability a bit, revealing a fairly steady increase in deaths.
Doubling time is the number of days it takes to double the number of deaths. Early on in an epidemic there is a lot of variability. The US doubling rate is currently 4 days; global deaths are doubling every 7 days. So far we started at about 5 days, got down to 1–2 days (very rapid increase) and are maybe stabilizing now at 2–3 days. Our overall number of deaths is not comparatively large just yet, but the rate at which they are accumulating is fast.
So how early are we in this fight? Just for my own edification, I’ve considered the day each country hit double-digit deaths as the real start of the epidemic in those countries. This is just to trim off some of the first data points to help see patterns a little better.
I see two interesting things in these data. First, the 9 days it took for Oklahoma to register double-digit deaths is more similar to the 11 days for China than for the 3–4 days for the other countries (and Washington State). This tells me that we’re about as in the dark on our outbreak now as China was way back in mid-January. Next, we are just beginning here in Oklahoma. It was just March 28th that we hit double digits – just 8 days prior to today that I’m writing this (5 April).
That last point bears repeating. Here in Oklahoma we hit double-digit deaths on 28 March, 8 days ago. We are currently under the Safer At Home ordinance in Oklahoma, and will be until 30 April. This is not nearly as stringent a requirement nor as clear a message to citizens as the Shelter in Place order that most other states have adopted. China has fared much better than we have in the US or in Italy or Spain, precisely because they rapidly moved to confine people to their homes and enforced that social isolation. For example, the Wuhan (a city of 11 million people) lockdown began on 23 January – a mere 1 day after China’s double-digit death occurred. In contrast, it is EIGHT DAYS past our double-digit date in Oklahoma, we are still nowhere near as tightly confined to our homes as were the people of Wuhan.
The longer we put off serious social distancing, the longer we will have to do it. It is not enough for those of us voluntarily sheltering in place in Oklahoma when so many still are not. I call on Governor Kevin Stitt to immediately issue a shelter in place order for the Sooner State. Every day we delay will result in needless deaths for our state.
It’s taken me one year for the 2nd installment of this series on species of birds new to me, and perhaps to you too. I want to resist the temptation to only present the most colorful species when I do this, but as I perused about 400 species of tanagers today, I found that I could not resist this one. I am as much enamored with its name as I am its unwordly countenance. I present to you, the Glistening-green Tanager (Chlorochrysa phoenicotis, a.k.a., the green and golden bird with the ear of flame).
Francesco Veronesi photo, 30 August 2013, Colombia
These birds offer a window into the extraordinary adaptive radiation of the family of birds we call tanagers. Exclusively Western Hemisphere and primarily Neotropical, hundreds of species comprise this group that includes insectivores, canopy frugivores, aerial salliers, nuthatch-like probers, nectar-feeders, etc. Evolutionary plasticity being what it is, the boundaries of what makes a tanager or a warbler or a sparrow are shifting all the time. Darwin’s “finches”, seedeaters, and flowerpiercers are currently considered to be tanagers; oddly the North American breeding species (Scarlet, Hepatic, Summer, and Western) aren’t tanagers at all – they are Cardinals!
The Glistening-green Tanager is suitably bright and tropical-looking as befits the wet, mossy forests it calls home. It occupies a narrow band of cloud forest, roughly 1000–2000m on the Pacific slopes of the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador, where it is apparently resident. Arthropods make up the bulk of the diet, though fruits are taken as well. The nest is evidently a small cup of moss.
These birds are not listed as a conservation priority according to the International Union on the Conservation of Nature. Given the limited distribution, however, that rosy outlook could change fairly quickly.
So there you have it: a brilliant little bird I learned about today, and would love to visit at home in the clouds someday.
Year-round distribution of Glistening-green Tanager
I’ve been thinking of writing a post about my experiences with recording lectures in Intro Bio for a while, and, with coronavirus spreading, now seems like a good time to finally write it up. Overall, I think there have been a lot of different benefits — well beyond what I initially anticipated. And, at a time […]