Protected forests, parks & marine sanctuaries are basic life support systems

From the New York Times

By Thomas Friedman

I PARTICIPATED in the World Parks Congress in Sydney last week and learned a new phrase: “a black elephant.” A black elephant, explained the London-based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan, is a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.

“Currently,” said Sweidan, “there are a herd of environmental black elephants gathering out there” — global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, mass extinction and massive fresh water pollution. “When they hit, we’ll claim they were black swans no one could have predicted, but, in fact, they are black elephants, very visible right now.” We’re just not dealing with them at the scale necessary. If they all stampede at once, watch out.

No, this is not an eco-doom column. This one has a happy ending — sort of. The International Union for Conservation of Nature holds the parks congress roughly every 10 years to draw attention to the 209,000 protected areas, which cover 15.4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and inland water areas and 3.4 percent of the oceans, according to the I.U.C.N.

I could have gone to the Brisbane G-20 summit meeting, but I thought this was more important — and interesting. A hall full of park exhibits and park rangers from America, Africa and Russia, along with a rainbow of indigenous peoples, scientists and environmentalists from across the globe — some 6,000 — focused on one goal: guarding and expanding protected areas, which are the most powerful tools we have to restrain the environmental black elephants. How so?

It starts with a simple fact: Protected forests, marine sanctuaries and national parks are not zoos, not just places to see nature. “They are the basic life support systems” that provide the clean air and water, food, fisheries, recreation, stable temperatures and natural coastal protections “that sustain us humans,” said Russ Mittermeier, one of the world’s leading primatologists who was here.

That’s why “conservation is self-preservation,” says Adrian Steirn, the South Africa-based photographer who spoke here. Every dollar we invest in protecting natural systems earns or saves multiple dollars back. Ask the people of São Paulo, Brazil. They deforested hillsides, destroyed their watersheds, and now that they’re in prolonged drought, they’re running out of water, losing thousands of jobs a month. Watch that story.

Walking around the exhibit halls here, I was hit with the reality that what we call “parks” are really the heart, lungs, and circulatory systems of the world — and they’re all endangered.

Read the complete article

McGlothlin research explores the evolution of toxin resistance in snakes

From VT News:

Snakes in evolutionary arms race with poisonous newt

Blacksburg, November 17, 2014: The rough-skinned newt is easily one of the most toxic animals on the planet, yet the common garter snake routinely eats it. How does a newt which produces enough toxin to kill several grown humans manage to become prey in the food chain?

The answer comes in the form of an evolutionary arms race that pits the toxin of the newt, tetrodotoxin or TTX, against the voltage-gated sodium channels of the snake. The newt’s toxin typically blocks sodium channels, which are found in excitable tissue including muscles, nerves, brain, and heart, but garter snakes seem immune to its effects.


Dr. Joel McGlothlin is a faculty member in the Interfaces of Global Change Program

Joel McGlothlin, assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech with a team of scientists that included his former postdoctoral advisor Edmund Brodie III of the University of Virginia, looked for clues to the evolution of TTX resistance in the DNA sequences of garter snake sodium channels.

“There are nine different sodium channels in reptiles, found in different tissues of the body,” McGlothlin said. “We knew when we started that muscle channels had evolved resistance to TTX in garter snakes, and we predicted that many of the others should have too. If you’re going to eat poison, you not only need to have muscles that work, the nerves that control them have to work too.”

McGlothlin sequenced the DNA of five previously undescribed garter snake sodium channels and examined them for signatures of TTX resistance. Of these, three are found primarily in the brain and two are found in motor and sensory nerves outside the brain. The brain channels had not evolved resistance to TTX at all.

“The brain is protected by the blood-brain barrier, so it makes sense that these channels wouldn’t have evolved resistance” he said. Many chemicals can’t cross this barrier, which separates the fluid around the brain and spinal column from the reset of the body. TTX is one of the things that can’t cross.

“The two nerve channels outside the brain, however,” McGlothlin said, “have both evolved resistance to the toxin, and they’ve done so independently. When we compared the DNA sequences to a closely related lizard, there were changes unique to the snakes that should provide resistance to the toxin.”

The paper, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, shows that at least three sodium channels contribute to resistance to TTX: NaV1.4 in muscle, NaV1.6 in rapid-firing neurons, and NaV1.7 in sensory neurons involved with smell and pain sensation.

Only garter snakes on the west coast have resistant muscle channels, where they live in proximity to the toxic rough-skinned newts. However, the team showed that resistant nerve channels are found in all garter snakes, even in areas without highly toxic prey.

“Garter snakes here in Virginia have the same resistant channels in their nerves, even though there are no rough-skinned newts around,” McGlothlin said.

Virginia’s red-spotted newts have much less TTX than their western cousins, and resistant nerves might be enough to protect garter snakes that eat them.

“The fact that all garter snake have resistant nerve channels suggests resistant nerves evolved earlier than resistant muscle,” he said, “which might have allowed garter snakes to start eating really poisonous newts in the first place.”

McGlothlin says the work shows that the molecular basis of adaptation is somewhat predictable.

“The evolution of toxin resistance was predictable based on the biology of the snake—only the channels that are vulnerable to the toxin evolved resistance. Also, we see changes in the similar regions of these three genes, which suggests they’re evolving in similar ways in response to the same selection pressure.”

The work has prompted McGlothlin to take a deeper look into evolutionary history as he suspects some of these sodium channels evolved resistance to TTX in the ancestors of garter snakes – perhaps as long as 100 million years ago.

McGlothlin is currently examining the DNA sequences of the Nav gene family across snakes, lizards, and birds – some of which also count newts as a food source. “If we look at this gene family across all of these groups, we should be able to determine whether evolving resistant sodium channels is a general response to eating toxic prey or whether it is unique to snakes,” he said.

Story by Rosaire Bushey; See the original article at VT News

Distinguished Lecture: Dr. Michael Mann/The Climate Wars

“The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: The Battle Continues”

Friday, March 20, 2015 | 4:00-5:00 p.m. | The Lyric Theatre | Blacksburg, Virginia

The Interfaces of Global Change Program at Virginia Tech is proud to host Dr. Michael Mann for a science communication workshop and public lecture on Friday, March 20, 2015. Dr. Mann is an award-winning climate scientist and central figure in the political debate over climate change. His lecture at the Lyric Theatre will be followed by a brief Q&A session and book signing.


Dr. Michael E. Mann is a Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).

Dr. Mann received his undergraduate degrees in Physics and Applied Math from the University of California at Berkeley, an M.S. degree in Physics from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in Geology & Geophysics from Yale University. His research involves the use of theoretical models and observational data to better understand Earth’s climate system.

direpredictionsDr. Mann was a Lead Author on the Observed Climate Variability and Change chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001 and was organizing committee chair for the National Academy of Sciences Frontiers of Science in 2003. He has received a number of honors and awards including NOAA’s outstanding publication award in 2002 and selection by Scientific American as one of the fifty leading visionaries in science and technology in 2002. He contributed, with other IPCC authors, to the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the Hans Oeschger Medal of the European Geosciences Union in 2012 and was awarded the National Conservation Achievement Award for science by the National Wildlife Federation in 2013. He made Bloomberg News’ list of fifty most influential people in 2013. In 2014, he was named Highly Cited Researcher by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) and received the Friend of the Planet Award from the National Center for Science Education. He is a Fellow of both the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society.

Dr. Mann is author of more than 170 peer-reviewed and edited publications, and has published two books including Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming in 2008 and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines in 2012. He is also a co-founder and avid contributor to the award-winning science website 



The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: The Battle Continues

Dr. Mann describes this lecture:

Mann_HockeyStickClimateWars“A central figure in the controversy over human-caused climate change has been “The Hockey Stick,” a simple, easy-to-understand graph my colleagues and I constructed to depict changes in Earth’s temperature back to 1000 AD. The graph was featured in the high-profile “Summary for Policy Makers” of the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it quickly became an icon in the debate over human-caused (“anthropogenic”) climate change. I tell the ongoing story behind the Hockey Stick, using it as a vehicle for exploring broader issues regarding the role of skepticism in science, the uneasy relationship between science and politics, and the dangers that arise when special economic interests and those who do their bidding attempt to skew the discourse over policy-relevant areas of science.  In short, I attempt to use the Hockey Stick to cut through the fog of disinformation that has been generated by the campaign to deny the reality of climate change. It is my intent, in so doing, to reveal the very real threat to our future that lies behind it.”


Jon Doubek is a GLEON fellow!

JDoubek_SamplingJon Doubek , a PH.D. student in Biological Sciences and a fellow in the Interfaces of Global Change Program, has been invited to be a Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON) Fellow!

The GLEON Fellowship Program trains small cohorts of graduate students from around the world to analyze large and diverse data sets, operate effectively in diverse international teams, and communicate science to researchers, the public, and managers. As a GLEON Fellow, Jon will take part in three international workshops over the next 1.5 years while completing an interdisciplinary, collaborative scientific project.

Congratulations, Jon!


More information on the GLEON Fellowship Program can be found here.


Lisa Belden receives the Innovator Award

From VT News

Lisa Belden, an associate professor of biological sciences and a faculty member in the Interfaces of Global Change IGEP, was recently recognized for her commitment to advancing the university’s research initiatives in engineering and the life sciences.

The Innovator Award, a new initiative jointly sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences and the Fralin Life Science Institute, recognizes outstanding faculty members and includes a $25,000 stipend to be used to advance innovative research projects.

Dr. Belden studies how ecological factors and environmental conditions influence disease dynamics in natural systems. Her recent work examines symbiotic microbes that live on amphibian skin, with a goal of using these microbes to battle a lethal skin fungus and contribute to the conservation of threatened amphibian species.

Belden accepts award

“ICTAS and Fralin have joined to recognize and reward some of our outstanding faculty in a way they did not anticipate,” said Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute. “We have many terrific innovators at this university and by recognizing at least several such individuals on a recurring basis, we are sending the message that this university is aware of and appreciates innovation.  A special aspect of the group recognized this year is their very visible collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches.”

“By joining hands with the Fralin Life Science Institute, we are able to reward pioneering faculty members for their innovative and transformative research,” said Roop Mahajan, director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “It is important to show our appreciation for their continued success in meeting society’s most challenging needs. The Innovator Award seeds an opportunity for these individuals to expand their research capabilities and have an even greater impact on the future.”

Read the full article at VT News.

Story by Lindsay Key.




Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues starkest warning yet

From the New York Times

“The gathering risks of climate change are so profound that they could stall or even reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger if greenhouse emissions continue at a runaway pace, according to a major new United Nations report.

Despite growing efforts in many countries to tackle the problem, the global situation is becoming more acute as developing countries join the West in burning huge amounts of fossil fuels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said here on Sunday.

Failure to reduce emissions, the group of scientists and other experts found, could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report found.

In the starkest language it has ever used, the expert panel made clear how far society remains from having any serious policy to limit global warming.”