Even right now, we still need natural history stories

I don’t have time to write a blog post right now. I’ve got data analysis that’s way overdue, papers that should have been submitted a year ago, and kids whose social-emotional-educational needs are barely met these days. And yet, against all odds, I had a paper published a few weeks back that I just love, so against all odds, I’m taking the time to celebrate it.

The paper is not even a whole paper – it’s a note, Herbivory on non-native parrotfeather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) by the beetle Galerucella nymphaea”, published in Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. In it, I and my co-authors Kim Patten and Chase Metzger describe our collective observations (over more than a decade) of extensive herbivory by a native beetle on a problematic invasive aquatic plant. It’s a science story, but it’s also a story about being open to the unexpected, about adapting while remaining true to essentials, and about persistence. In fact, maybe I am forcing myself to celebrate because it feels a lot like what I and a lot of folks I know are doing to get through homeschooling, working from home, and trying to “science” during a pandemic.

My part started in 2014, when – while doing fish sampling along the Chehalis River in a little wetland that we had nicknamed “Despair” – I noticed larvae on some of the parrotfeather plants. On a whim I took some photos to send round and ask if anyone knew what the insects were. I sent the pictures to a few people, and no one recognized the insect, or had seen the interaction before.


Herbivory on non-native parrotfeather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) by larvae of G. nymphaea

But maybe six months later I found a very brief reference in a project report by Kim Patten at WSU, where nearly ten years earlier he had noticed extensive grazing by Galerucella nymphaeae on parrotfeather in drainage ditches in Longview, WA. In fact, he noted that the herbivory was so extensive that it may have interfered with uptake of the herbicides being tested. Figuring the mystery was solved, I set my photos aside.

A year later (in 2015), I visited Despair again, as part of a different project surveying and experimentally treating parrotfeather sites along the Chehalis River. I was shocked, because the entire (large) extent of parrotfeather canopy had been defoliated to the point that there would have been no point in treating it with herbicide. I mapped the canopy cover along with the other treatment and control sites, though, interested in what it would look like the following year.

The following year, there was still plenty of parrotfeather there. But the thing was, it was a hot dry summer, and only four out of 18 sites had less parrotfeather than in 2015, regardless of whether they were treated or


Fig. 1. Change in parrotfeather canopy area from 2015 to 2016 in herbicide-treated (circles), control (squares), and the site with extensive herbivory.

control sites. Not only was Despair one of the four, but when adjusted for total canopy area, the reduction in canopy cover was very dramatic (Figure 1). In other words, a site with that much parrotfeather canopy in 2015 should have increased, and by quite a bit. This suggested that extensive herbivory by G. nymphaea might be at least – and potentially more – effective than herbicide treatment.

In 2016, Despair was the only site with herbivory. However, when I got back on the river in 2018, I noticed widespread herbivory in new locations where I had never seen it before. So, I rounded up some friends with boats, and spent 4th of July holiday floating portions of the river and checking all 22 original sites. I found beetle larvae grazing the parrotfeather in almost half (48%) of the sites in 2018, and 38% of them in 2019 (Figure 2).


Fig. 2. Proportion of sites with herbivory and the extent of canopy impacted in each year. Based on survey of 22 original sites with parrotfeather.

Somewhere along the way, I convinced Kim that there was a story here, and if we combined his 10+ year old observations in Longview with mine from the Chehalis, it was a story that should be told. The first three journals disagreed (in part because we included other data that was too unrelated), but we kept revising, kept surveying, and found a home for the essential story of how a native beetle seems to have adopted a novel non-native plant as a routine food source. Whether adaptation is occurring, and G. nymphaea is broadening its niche, or if it’s just temporarily taking advantage of a locally plentiful food supply, are questions that will have to be answered by others in the future. But at least the story is out there now, ready to be grabbed hold of.

Right now, when everything is so difficult and awful, it’s hard to feel that our natural history and ecology stories matter. But they do matter. They are not only stories about bugs, plants, water, and weather, but about patience, collaboration, creativity and persistence. About the unexpected, curious world that’s out there waiting to be stumbled upon and noticed. And that’s something we can all hold to for the future.

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Tracking the Wild EA-18G: interdisciplinary research problems

Some of the most interesting research that I’ve gotten to do happens when threads of my research worlds collide. For a couple years now, I’ve had the chance to do acoustic monitoring on the Olympic Pensinula focused on detecting a new “species” on the landscape – in this case it’s a type of military aircraft, the EA-18G (aka Growlers). Since initially writing this blog post, the research findings have been peer-reviewed and published in the journal Northwest Science.

Spectrogram of 1 hour of aircraft events recorded on the Olympic peninsula. Spectrograms are visual renderings of audio data, with color indicating acoustic power at different frequencies.

The implications of increased military activity in this wilderness area have been widely reported by both local and national media, so I won’t get into that here. Beyond the conservation issue, however, for me this project exemplifies how the process of science benefits from working across disciplines and by open science: by borrowing the best concepts and methodologies, we can efficiently address new conservation problems as they emerge. Continue reading

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Mining “little data”: Ecology and conservation of Olympic mudminnow

In a time when we are deluged with big data, it is easy to forget that there are still plenty of species that we don’t know much about. A common conservation dilemma is how to monitor or protect species when information about population sizes, distribution, or habitat preferences is lacking.


Little fish with little data: Olympic mudminnow (Novumbra hubbsi), endemic to Washington

Such is the “little data” plight of many noncommercial freshwater species like Olympic mudminnow (Novumbra hubbsi), a highly endemic species found only here in Washington State. Distributed primarily in a single river drainage (the Chehalis River Basin), Olympic mudminnow by far have the smallest range of any of the five species of mudminnow worldwide. Based on this small range and some evidence of population declines, the state listed Olympic mudminnow as ‘State Sensitive’ in 1999, a designation for species likely to decline in the future without some proactive management or removal of threats. Continue reading

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Sounding out the impacts of urbanization on lakes


Recording equipment deployed on lake to capture the ‘soundscape’

If you are wondering why you seem stressed out lately, it could be the noise around you. My co-authors (Britta Padgham and Julian Olden) and I just published an article in the journal PLoS One which showed that environmental noise levels at freshwater lakes (the places we like to live, recreate, and relax) can be noisy – quite noisy, in fact – depending on the level of surrounding urbanization. Noise levels at urban lakes surpassed thresholds established by the Environmental Protection Agency for ‘outdoor annoyance and disturbance’ in over two-thirds of hourly measurements (see Figure below); noise levels decreased predictably with lower urbanization in the area surrounding the lake. Interestingly, lakes with public parks were actually noisier than lakes without, which may reflect the influence of the park, but also the fact that parks are placed more often in densely urban areas Continue reading

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If a fish could write your water bill


Would these fish approve your water bill? Photo of Rio Grande chub (Gila pandora) courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

A few months ago, I posted Why the mayor wants you to have a green lawn: The dark side of water conservation where I “exposed” the open secret of declining support for water conservation programs. Water managers call it “the conservation death spiral” when conservation – to put it bluntly – starts cutting into needed revenue generated by water consumption, and forces a rise in rates for the same water. This leads to understandably bewildered and betrayed consumers, and increasingly strapped public utilities who literally can’t afford conservation. Continue reading

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Stress increases ‘costs of living’ for juvenile salmon

Although I originally just set out to describe some of my newly published research (Costs of living for juvenile salmon in an increasingly warming and invaded world), it’s probably not an accident that I find myself part of an unintentional series on effects of interacting stressors (e.g., temperature, disease, or pollution) on organisms. With all of the global change going on – from climate to ocean acidification –

Non-native smallmouth bass ‘sitting’ on nest. John Day River, Oregon. Photo: D. Lawrence

it’s no wonder multiple environmental stressors are on our minds. Despite the stressful (pun intended) topic, I’m not one to turn down good company from other early career ecologists, like Nate Snough-hee’s post on climate stress on PNW yellow-cedar and Sarah Bisbing & Kristen Pelz’s report on stress-related decline of Colorado aspen. I’m glad to be able to offer an account from my more fishy (no pun intended) view.

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Why the mayor wants you to have a green lawn: the dark side of water conservation

What your water district would really like to say?

I recently met a new acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) that works in an agency (also nameless) that supplies water to a medium-sized metropolitan area (let’s call it “Somewhere, WA”). Over coffee, where I traded my stories in freshwater research for theirs from the convoluted hallways of freshwater management, I was surprised to learn that per capita use of water has dramatically declined in many urban areas over the last 20 years, largely a result of conservation programs telling us “No, brown lawns are in this year!”

This seemed encouraging, which is why the next remark surprised me – that city councils and other water management politicos are quietly dropping and cutting back water conservation programs.

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The Farmer & The Cowman: Whose water is it, anyway?

Water rights – then and now?

The famous team of Rogers & Hammerstein, who wrote musicals during the 1930’s-1950’s, are generally less well known for environmental law commentary as much as hummable classics like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”.  But their musicals were innovative for the time largely because they chose stories with real political or social tension. Their first musical, Oklahoma!, actually happens within a historic environmental drama of violent tension between farmers and cattlemen in America. Largely forgotten today, skirmishes and hostilities between the two groups over fences, free range, and water rights were common across the American West up until the early 1900’s.

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Fueler WordCloud is up!

Favorite species of Lakes Are Alive supporters: June 8, 2012

WordCloud of favorite species of project supporters: June 8, 2012

Twenty-seven days into #SciFund Challenge, The Lakes Are Alive With the Sound of Data project is 103% funded!  I am so grateful to everyone who has supported this research and helped us reach our goal.  The project page and video has had over 200 viewers, and I would love to see that number hit 300 by the end of the month, so please post/Tweet/FB this important and innovative research on to your peeps!  Here is the current version of our fueler WordCloud, of the animals that are important to you, the people making this research happen.

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Would you give up a latte to fund science? Crowdfunding for research

Tough choice?

At some point in the last 10 years, a latte has become the currency of self-sacrifice needed to fuel any cause (as in, “for the cost of a daily latte, you could save for retirement”).  So naturally, when I started a crowdfunding campaign for a new research project and wanted to estimate the number of people I needed to contribute a moderate amount of money, I divided my goal amount by the cost of a latte ($3).  It turns out I needed 666.66 people. I’m not especially superstitious, but even setting aside the fact that my formula demands 2/3 of a person, it did cause me to pause and think about this phenomenon of crowdfunding as a way to fund scientific research, specifically conservation research.  Is this the wave of the future, or a portent of darker things?

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