Student Impressions of the State of Biodiversity Symposium

On February 20, 2018, The Nat hosted the inaugural State of Biodiversity Symposium. The event is designed to be a forum for environmentalists, land managers, and the public to explore the current status of regional conservation and research. Daylong sessions focused on emerging threats to biodiversity, genomics and conservation, biodiversity and landscape, and conservation stories of success and struggle.

Among the attendees were numerous graduate students and others in the early stages of their professional conservation careers. We were curious, so we asked several of these attendees to share their impressions after the day’s discussions.

Casey Richart, Ph.D. candidate at San Diego State University chose the genomics and conservation panel as his focus. Richart reports that by the use of genomics “we can better detect cryptic species, which are lineages that look similar to the eye, but genomic DNA gives us the insight that they are different species. For example, genomic data allowed us to perceive that there are actually four species of giraffe! It is thought that 90 percent of the Earth’s species is yet to be discovered and named. Genomics can rapidly facilitate this discovery effort.” Population genetic analyses can also be used “to assess the status of San Diego County populations of the Federally Threatened Coastal California Gnatcatcher and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Species of Concern Coastal Cactus Wren.” Both birds have “undergone dramatic population declines that commensurate with the urbanization and destruction of coastal sage habitat. Population genomic analyses suggest that the gnatcatcher is readily able to disperse across the sea of urbanization, whereas the wren is isolated within islands of remaining habitat.” Knowing these facts can allow us to make more accurate conservation plans.

Nathan Smith, Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego, attended the landscape and biodiversity talks and observed that speakers alluded to both negative and positive effects to our local flora and fauna from human impacts. “Our native mountain species are migrating north, upwards in elevation, or disappearing altogether. Recurring fires are converting native scrubland to invasive grassland… in a repeating and intensifying pattern across much of what was once a diverse set of ecosystems but is now a heavy repository of anthropogenic nitrogen deposition.” Also, “habitat fragmentation is the root cause of species diversity loss from megafauna all the way down to the smallest pollinators and annual plants.” However, on the positive side, “studies showing bee diversity loss have also revealed new undescribed species of bees.” He concludes, “In searching for an answer to the many ecological challenges that we face, we not only need to deal with the immediate problems, but search for long term solutions.”

Paul Meier, Ph.D. candidate at San Diego State University, heard presentations on the Quino checkerspot butterfly, the argentine ant, the porpoise known as the vaquita, and other stories of success and struggle in terms of regional biodiversity. “Super-colonies of argentine ants have marched across the globe and decimated native fauna by devouring and outcompeting it. In isolated habitats such as Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Santa Barbara, at least the troops can be cornered. Since their establishment in the 1990s, scientists have formulated specialized polyacrylamide beads containing toxicants that argentine ants carry back to their queens.” In his summary of impressions from the vaquita story, Meier summarizes that “the vaquita, a tiny species of porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California, has been plummeting down the vortex of extinction for decades, largely thanks to bycatch mortality from the illegal totoaba gillnet fishery.” With fewer than 30 individuals remaining, scientists have “used acoustic buoys to track and capture an adult female, with the goal of a captive breeding program. She subsequently died in captivity. Some conservation stories may need to begin before the darkest hour if they are to have a hope of success.”

Dillon Travis, Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego, discussed how “humans can directly impact the environment by introducing nitrogen to local soils via fossil fuel emissions. Increased soil nitrogen concentration has allowed exotic grasses to invade ecosystems and out-compete native flora in the region.” However, he noted that despite the speakers’ sessions he attended “identifying new threats to biodiversity, the mood was optimistic; each speaker believes that with help, many of our local ecosystems can and will recover.” For example, he states that “urbanization has also isolated poorly understood and endangered species such as the red-legged frog,” but scientists “have been working tirelessly to understand these species so we may better protect them and their habitat in the future.”

In summary, it seems that despite the main topics of some of the sessions featuring threats to our local biodiversity, the overall message was not an exclusively “doom and gloom” scenario. As scientists enlist new tools in their struggle to protect the wealth of our regional native plants and animals, we see signs of progress and hope among the facts that describe losses and setbacks. We are optimistic that these graduate students and their peers will be among our standard-bearers for the upcoming environmental challenges ahead as they continue in their professional careers.

With the success of this year’s inaugural presentations, plans are already underway for the 2019 State of Biodiversity Symposium. Stay tuned!

Posted by The Nat on March 1, 2018

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