The great backyard lizard count

As part of our growing research program using the evolutionary-novel anolis lizard communities of MIami (one native species plus and seven formally-allopatric exotic species) to study ecological and evolutionary principles, we have partnered with the University of Rhode Island the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to start a new Citizen Science project.  This new project is part of the Garden’s Fairchild Challenge environmental education program for k-12 students and will get hundreds to potentially thousands of middle-schoolers to survey the lizards in their backyards.  Using the data, we will create yard-by-yard maps of which species occur where and how their presence/absence (and maybe abundance) relates to easily-measured variables such as percent tree cover, presence of cats, presence of dogs, etc. On Saturday, Ken Feeley and Andrew Battles (graduate student with J Kolbe at URI) introduced the challenge to >100 middle school teachers (see pictures of Ken talking below). More information about the program is available HERE under “Challenge 6. Conservation Strategies: Lizards on the Loose” and a copy of the instructions and datasheet are available HERE.




Saving the planet one frozen banana at a time – a interview of B. Machovina

The influential conservation website recently posted an interview of upwithclimate team member Brain Machovina. In the interview, Brian describes his slightly atypical career path from FIU grad student to Hollywood conservationist to healthy food entrepreneur to frozen fruit mogul and back to FIU grad student. Brian also discusses his current research on how climate change is impacting agriculture and how agriculture is impacting climate change. You can read the interview HERE.

Brian Machovina gets ready to fly (and crash) another drone as part of his graduate study aimed at increasing the efficiency and reducing the ecological footprint of Costa Rican banana plantations.

Changing conservation priorities: are we addressing the crises or are we chasing the money?

The upwithclimate team has just published a new paper entitled, “Is conservation money being spent wisely? Changing trends in conservation research priorities” in the Journal of Nature Conservation.  In this short article, we examine how conservation research priorities have changed through time by looking at the changing frequency of certain topics, or “buzzwords”, in the scientific literature.  For example, we tallied the percentage of conservation article that discuss deforestation vs. global warming – a full list of buzzwords is in the table below.  These analyses reveal several striking trends. Perhaps most notably, the percentage of studies addressing habitat fragmentation increased rapidly from 1990 to 1998, remained constant from 1998 till 2005 and then began decreasing.  Likewise, the percentage of studies addressing habitat loss and deforestation increased till 2005 and has since stabilized.  In sharp contrast, the proportion of articles looking at invasive species and climate change have increased exponentially through time.  In fact, there are now more articles looking at climate change than at deforestation and habitat loss and roughly the same number of studies looking at climate change as looking at habitat fragmentation.  We argue that these shifts in research priorities, or at least publishing priorities, are not consistent with actual conservation needs.  For example, habitat loss and fragmentation have not decreased as a problem and if anything have increased.  Instead, the research priorities appear to be driven at least in part by funding trends.  For a long time, the US NSF has awarded more grants and more money for climate change research than it does for research of habitat loss and deforestation and it now awards more grants and more money for climate change research than for studies of habitat fragmentation.  The increased spending and research on climate change is obviously not a bad thing, but we must be careful to not neglect other conservation needs that still have the potential to drive many many species to extinction.

Is conservation research money being spent wisely? Changing trends in conservation research priorities
J.T. Stroud, E. Rehm, M. Ladd, P. Olivas, K.J. Feeley
Journal for Nature Conservation
Volume 22, Issue 5, October 2014, Pages 471–473

Conservation biology is often defined as a “mission driven crisis discipline”, and as such research priorities should ideally parallel the relative importance of different conservation threats. Conservation research has increased exponentially over the last 22 years, rising from <150 articles in 1990 to >4000 articles in 2012. However, this growth has not and may not necessarily reflect changes in research needs. Consequently, it remains uncertain if growth and prioritization have been consistent between research themes, or subdisciplines. In other words, it is unknown if conservation priorities change in relation to research needs, or if instead to shifts in funding, which may or may not correspond to true research needs. Future conservation research priorities should ideally be based on conservation needs alone and must account for threats at both the immediate and long-term scales

Table 1 (not included in original article). List of topics and search terms included in the study “Is conservation money being spent wisely? Changing trends in conservation research priorities”.  The total number of articles between 1990 and 2010 including the different search terms and total NSF funding over the same period is indicated.

Topic Search term(s) No. of articles  NSF funding
Habitat fragmentation fragment*, edge effect* 5,174 $1,099,087,000
Climate change climate change*, global warming 2,166 $984,038,200
Habitat loss habitat loss, deforest* 1,985 $412,923,900
Invasive species invasi*, exotic species 1,423 $332,661,200
Fire fire* 1,402 -
Pollution pollut* 1,250 -
Hunting hunt* 1,117 -
Disease diseas* 863 -
Logging logg* 813 -

Fig 1. The percent of conservation articles published per year for selected research topics. Black, habitat fragmentation; Blue, climate change; red, deforestation/habitat loss; green, invasive species; dashed grey, disease; pink, hunting; grey, fire; brown, logging.

Fig. 2. The total number of new awards granted by the US NSF’s DEB for different conservation related research topics from 1990 to 2011. Black, habitat fragmentation; Blue, climate change; red, deforestation/habitat loss; green, invasive species.

Fig. 3. The total amount of funds granted through new awards by the NSF’s DEB (millions of $USD) for different conservation related research topics from 1990 to 2011. black, habitat fragmentation; blue, climate change; red, deforestation/habitat loss; green, invasive species.

Mating Knight anoles (Anolis equestris) at FTBG

This morning Ken and I witnessed mating Knight anoles (Anolis equestris), a non-native lizard species introduced to south Florida from Cuba, in the rainforest section of Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens. They were positioned ~2.5m from the ground.



Have you seen them yet? They are in this box somewhere…



Here is a close up – still difficult to spot!



Aside from being a pretty rare observation, this is interesting for a couple of reasons; i) relatively little is known about this species’ ecology in south Florida, so records of breeding activity and location are important, ii) this species is naturally highly arboreal – they are morphologically adapted to life at the top of the trees possessing larger toepads and shorter limbs relative to more terrestrial Anolis sp. Therefore observing an breeding pair in action, potentially representing an individual’s most vulnerable activity to either competitors or predators, outside of their preferred habitat range is interesting! Why is this occurring there?

Of course, this could just be a fluke. The majority of breeding attempts may occur in their preferred habitat location in tree crowns outside of our detection. Either way, a nice piece of lizard behaviour for a Friday morning!

bad bad bad bovines!


Upwithclimate member Brian Machovina has just published another short article highlighting the dangers of increasing meat consumption for conservation.  The article, which is entitled “Meat consumption as a key impact on tropical nature”, was published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) as a response to a previous article by Bill Laurance et al. discussing the impacts of agriculture in general on tropical conservation.  A copy of Brian’s article is included below. Interestingly, another paper was published near-simultaneously in PNAS by Eshel et al. discussing the “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States”.  This paper reinforces Brian’s ideas and shows that “…the environmental costs per consumed calorie of dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs are mutually comparable but strikingly lower than the impacts of beef. Beef production requires 28, 11, 5, and 6 times more land, irrigation water, GHG [greenhouse gas emissions], and Nr, respectively, than the average of the other livestock categories. Preliminary analysis of three staple plant foods shows two- to sixfold lower land, GHG, and Nr requirements than those of the nonbeef animal-derived calories…”  In other words, meat is bad, but beef is the food of the devil.

Meat consumption as a key impact on tropical nature: a response to Laurance et al.
By: Brian Machovina & Kenneth J. Feeley

Laurance et al.’s review “Agricultural expansion and its impacts on tropical nature” provides a valuable summary of how agricultural is affecting the diversity of tropical terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. However, we believe that a major factor driving the loss of tropical ecosystems and biodiversity was not given sufficient attention and deserves further discussion. Of the eight points discussed by Laurance et al. as “key challenges ahead,” no mention was made of the challenges posed by increasing per capita meat consumption. We argue that rising levels of meat consumption globally, and in developing tropical countries in particular, is one of the greatest threats to tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.

Although some agricultural expansion is driven by farmers growing crops for direct human consumption, livestock production accounts for up to 75% of all agricultural lands and 30% of Earth’s land surface, making it the single most expansive anthropogenic land use.  Of the seventeen megadiverse countries – a group of countries that collectively harbor the majority of the Earth’s species – fifteen are developing tropical countries and eleven of these have increasing rates of per capita meat consumption.

China, one of the megadiverse countries, will have a strong impact on human diet-driven ecosystem and biodiversity loss by causing rapid and extensive habitat destruction well beyond its borders.  China currently houses approximately 20% of all human beings and has a relatively-low but rapidly-rising rate of per capita meat consumption (10% of diet in 1989; 20% in 2009; on trajectory to reach 30% by 2030 with a projected 1.5 billion inhabitants). Much of China’s livestock production is fed on soy grown in the Brazilian Amazon. In Amazonia, at least 80% of all deforested lands have been converted to pasture, and much of the remaining deforested areas are dedicated to export feedcrop production. Feedcrop production is projected to grow in the Amazon, with Brazil predicted to increase soybean harvests from 60 to 95 million metric tons annually between 2010 and 2030.

A rise in meat consumption is not necessary nor is it inevitable. Increasing levels of meat consumption is connected with elevated incidences of many diseases. Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and plant-based protein sources are healthier than those containing a higher proportion of meat and dairy products.  Eliminating livestock and growing crops only for direct human consumption could increase the amount of calories that can be produced on extant agricultural lands by an estimated 70%.  This could feed an additional 4 billion people – significantly more than the projected global population growth of 2–3 billion. Much of the future population growth will occur in developing countries where low-cost, locally-available and environmentally-sensitive practices and technologies can improve production of plant-based food sources and provide necessary caloric, protein, and nutrient levels.

Based on a balance between the need to increase nutritional health and availability of calories with the need to decrease the land demands and ecological footprint of agriculture, we argue for a goal of significantly reducing the contribution of animal products in the human diet, ideally to a global average of 10% or less (this is roughly equivalent to limiting daily consumption of meat to a portion that is approximately the size of a deck of playing cards or smaller). Within the context of decreasing total meat consumption,  the spatial and climate change footprint of agriculture  can be further reduced by the preferential use of meat sources with higher energy conversion efficiencies (i.e. chickens > pigs > ruminants) and a switch to more-efficient production methods.

Reaching the proposed goal will require significant decreases in per capita meat consumption by developed countries and little or no increase in developing countries.  For example, animal products currently comprise approximately 48% of the average diet in the USA. Developing countries will need to resist emulating the animal-product rich diets of developed countries and stabilize meat consumption near their current levels. Reducing the total per capita consumption of meat and increasing the proportion of meat that is derived from more-efficient sources will enable developing tropical countries to feed more people on less land even if total caloric and protein intake increase, hence maintaining human wellbeing and reducing threats to biodiversity. Without a global per capita decrease in meat consumption, the successful conservation of Earth’s remaining tropical ecosystems, and the great biodiversity that they contain, is almost certain to fail.

[Literature citations have been removed to improve clarity but are available upon request]

Machovina, B. & Feeley, K.J. Meat consumption as a key impact on tropical nature: a response to Laurance et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29, 430-431. Available online

photos from latest trip to field

I just returned from a quick tour of our field sites in the Kosnipata Valley of Peru (Tres Cruces @ 3700m, Wayquecha @ 3000m, San Pedro @ 1500m, and Villa Carmen @ 700m).  I have uploaded a bunch of the pictures from the trip into an album in flickr which is available for viewing HERE.  The purpose of this trip was to show the field sites and our work to climate change photographer Gary Braasch and his partner Joan Rothlein.  I hope/plan to soon write future blog posts about the value of working with photographers and journalists to help reach a broader audience.

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