What really killed the passenger pigeon?

Passenger pigeonJessica Stanton is a detective investigating a trail that’s been cold for over 100 years. She wants to know what really killed the passenger pigeon—and she’s not taking anyone else’s word for it.

Stanton, a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University, presented last week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, USA. Her research focuses on questions like how long it takes a species to go extinct, and how, and how much, we can help it once it’s on that path. Stanton wanted to look at a case study where we knew the outcome, so she could model the phases of decline and extinction. The passenger pigeon was especially fascinating because it was abundant and wide-ranging, which usually means a species isn’t at much risk for extinction. Yet its numbers went from billions to zero in less than 100 years.

She used a standard, matrix-based mathematical population model. She had to put in some baseline variables: fecundity (number of chicks per pigeon per year), survival (number of chicks that survive to breed), and

In science, small choices => big shifts

Mark Neff is a scientist who studies scientists, and he says #ESA2012 is his field season. He presented this morning in a session called “Translational Ecology: Forging Effective Links Between Knowledge and Action.” Neff, an assistant professor at Allegheny College, wants to understand how scientists make the choices to study what they study.

This may seem like an odd question to some: scientists study what they’re into, what they think is important, and what funders will pay for—right? Well, Neff says there’s a lot more to it than that. He says scientists make subtle choices all the time. Individuals make choices like the systems they study and the methods they use, the advisors they choose as students, the skills they focus on devleoping. Institutional choices also define science: publication policies and the length of funding cycles influence the kinds of research people can do, for example. And then there’s the scientific community itself, wherein personal values assert themselves through things like peer review, the way students are trained, and even subtle pressures exerted during conferences like this one.

These little choices all add up to big direction changes, ultimately defining what a science is, and they all tie back

Extreme citizen science at PPSR2012

I’m at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting (Twitter hashtag #ESA2012) all week, in Portland, Oregon, USA, hearing lots of amazing stories and getting incredibly excited about science (and scientists). I want to share my favourite thing so far, from the pre-conference meeting on public participation in scientific research (a.k.a. citizen science, #PPSR2012). It’s a way to charge a smart phone in the middle of the jungle using a cookpot over a fire.

Hatsuden Nabe

The story here comes from Muki Haklay, professor of geographical information science at University College London, where he directs the Extreme Citizen Science group. These guys are doing all kinds of way cool things to get people who are normally shut out of science—poor people, illiterate people, people in remote areas—involved in scientific research. Haklay began his talk by asking, “Imagine if anyone could take part in scientific research, regardless of literacy or education.”

The photo is from Cameroon, where local communities have been using Android phones (with a specially designed pictographic app) to collect data on illegal logging and poaching. The problem? How to charge those