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SESYNC
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. We support new interdisciplinary collaborations that pursue data-driven solutions to pressing socio-environmental problems. SESYNC features a range of services from project inception through results dissemination, including supporting the team science process, meeting planning and facilitation, travel and logistical support, and cyberinfrastructure resources. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

Federal Action

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently acted to protect native amphibians from a newly-described fungus that has all but wiped out some salamander populations in Europe

Salamanders at Risk: New Listing Protects from Deadly Pathogen

February 1, 2016

Above: The California newt is a salamander species endemic to California, in the Western United States. Photo courtesy John Clare via Flickr/Creative Commons.

by ELIZABETH DAUT
Postdoctoral Fellow

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acted to protect native amphibians from a newly-described and potentially lethal fungus. The culprit—called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal—has all but wiped out some salamander populations in Europe. And researchers are worried the U.S. could be next.

The movement of Bsal from overseas to the U.S. may likely be hastened by international trade, which is a well-known factor contributing to the spread of infectious diseases (Fèvre et al. 2006). For example, outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, which devastated the livestock industry in Europe, were spread by the international transport of live farm animals. In the case of Bsal, research has confirmed that Asian salamanders, which are imported primarily for the exotic pet industry, are carriers of the fungus. As carriers, these species are resistant to the disease but are able to transmit the fungus to susceptible wild salamanders.

The USFWS has good reason to worry. From 2004 to 2014, nearly 2.5 million live salamanders comprising roughly 60 species were imported into the U.S. Wild salamander populations are at high risk of being exposed to Bsal through the release of imported, infected salamanders (Yap et al. 2015). Although to date, Bsal has not been identified in the U.S. (Berger et al. 2016), a similar fungus—Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd—has devastated many amphibian species in the U.S. and worldwide, some to the point of extinction (Woodhams et al. 2011).

That’s a concern that cannot be overstated. The U.S. is a global hotspot for salamander diversity, with roughly 40 percent of the more than 650 living species. Many native salamanders are endemic to the U.S.—i.e., not found anywhere else in the world—and are already threatened (USFWS 2016). Despite being rarely seen, salamanders are considered keystone species. They are highly abundant in many terrestrial and aquatic systems and important contributors to nutrient cycling as predators of arthropods and prey for other vertebrates.

Disease surveillance and regulation in the U.S. are stringent and effective when pathogens harmful for agriculture or humans are involved. However, less attention is spent on regulating animal imports for potential pathogens harmful for native wildlife. But things are now changing.

In a bold new step to halt the spread of Bsal to the U.S., the USFWS adopted an interim rule to ban commercial importation from overseas and interstate transportation across state lines of 201 salamander species.

Under the Lacey Act, the USFWS has the authority to regulate trade in wild animals they determine as injurious to humans, agriculture, or native wildlife. Typically, the Lacey Act has been used to prevent the introduction or spread of invasive vertebrate species, such as pythons in the Everglades (USFWS 2012). This is only the second time that the USFWS has amended the Lacey Act to prevent introduction of a potential pathogen (Bsal) by regulating import and trade of its host species (salamanders). The 201 species listed as injurious under the new USFWS ruling include species from 20 genera known to be susceptible to or carriers of Bsal.

With the looming fungal threat, the USFWS opted for an interim rule that took effect on 28 January 2016, instead of a typical proposed rule, which would have allowed salamander imports to continue while providing an opportunity for public comment. Interested persons are still encouraged to submit written comments on the interim rule before mid-March. Visit the Federal eRulemaking Portal here, search for Docket No. FWS–HQ–FAC–2015–0005, and follow the instructions for submitting comments (USFWS 2016).

The interim rule is an important step toward protecting native salamander populations, but there’s still much work to be done to shield U.S. wildlife from introduced diseases spread through commercial trade. At the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), I’m working with researchers at the University of Maryland to investigate the disease risks associated with importation of exotic animals and—now that the USFWS has taken action on Bsal—to identify the next big potential threats facing native wildlife. Our hope is that this research will provide the scientific, evidence-based knowledge necessary to inform policies that best prioritize disease threat and ensure social and economic benefits from trade.

Further Reading

Berger, L., Roberts, A.A., Voyles, J., Longcore, J.E., Murray, K.A., Skerratt, L.F., 2016. History and recent progress on chytridiomycosis in amphibians. Fungal Ecology 19, 89–99.

Fèvre, E.M., Bronsvoort, B.M.d.C., Hamilton, K.A., Cleaveland, S., 2006. Animal movements and the spread of infectious diseases. Trends in Microbiology 14, 125–131.

USFWS. 2012. Salazar announces ban on importation and interstate transportation of four giant snakes that threaten everglades. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. <http://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2012/003.html> (22 December 2015).

USFWS, 2016. Injurious wildlife species: listing salamanders due to risk of salamander chytrid fungus. Federal Register, Vol. 81, No. 8  Rules and Regulations.

Woodhams, D., Bosch, J., Briggs, C., Cashins, S., Davis, L., Lauer, A., Muths, E., Puschendorf, R., Schmidt, B., Sheafor, B., Voyles, J., 2011. Mitigating amphibian disease: strategies to maintain wild populations and control chytridiomycosis. Frontiers in Zoology 8, 8.

Yap, T.A., Koo, M.S., Ambrose, R.F., Wake, D.B., Vredenburg, V.T., 2015. Averting a North American biodiversity crisis. Science 349, 481–482.

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Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Just Published

New study cross-links pollution extremes to race and socio-economic status

Science Café

The Annapolis Café Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology

Predicting Forest Recovery from Human Disturbance

December 11, 2015

How successfully can we restore the world’s degraded lands? A new global meta-analysis seeks to understand what determines forest landscape restoration success and recovery rates.

by Karen D. Holl, Paula Meli, José M. Rey Benayas, and the SESYNC/iDIV Restoration Synthesis Working Group

This blog originally appeared at IUCN.

Over the past five years there have been numerous global, regional, and national targets set for large-scale forest landscape restoration. Most notable among these are the nearly 60 million hectares of restoration commitments to the Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land worldwide by 2020—commitments arriving from nearly a dozen countries and institutions spread across three continents. Restoration ambition is high, but many unknowns still exist. We know that restoration can conserve biodiversity, provide a range of ecosystem services, and support the well-being of human communities. But, we still know very little about what makes restoration successful and, in particular, to what degree ecosystems can recover from disturbance or how long it will take them to do so. Answering these questions will help guide the decision-makers now responsible for implementing large-scale forest landscape restoration, who often have large goals but limited resources.

To this end we are conducting a meta-analysis of restoration studies to determine which factors affect the degree of forest recovery across the world. We are concerned particularly with the recovery of plant and animal populations (looking at both diversity and abundance) and nutrient cycling functions. The factors we are considering include the type of past disturbance to the land (was the area mined, logged, or used for agriculture?), the existing forest type (tropical or temperate, wet or dry), the time since the disturbance has ceased, and whether humans have actively intervened to restore the degraded land.

To be clear, there are plenty of existing scientific studies on forest regeneration, reforestation, and forest recovery rates that offer limited answers to these questions. But the results of these studies are notoriously site-specific, making it difficult to draw from them general and practical conclusions. Our meta-analysis looks across these studies to find conditions that determine restoration recovery rate and success in a way that can inform the current worldwide restoration movement.

We have compiled 166 primary studies from the peer-reviewed published literature with 1,805 ecological response variables (e.g., measurements of abundance, diversity or nutrient cycling functions). These studies include a broad range of examinations from temperate and tropical and wet and dry forests covering 41 different countries. Each study includes measurements of forest quality after degradation and after restoration, as well as measurements from nearby minimally degraded forest (so called “reference” measures). We are comparing each of these measures to determine how deeply each type of disturbance (i.e., mining, logging, or agriculture) degrades a forest’s health and, on the other hand, how well restoration returns that forest to a state similar to nearby reference forests.

Our preliminary results on degradation suggest that agricultural use typically degrades forest ecosystems more than logging. In its destruction of the land mining falls somewhere between agriculture and logging. And logging proves to be the least destructive. Regardless of the kind of disturbance, our findings suggest that all post-disturbance lands prove significantly degraded when compared to reference forests.

After disturbance most logged sites are restored naturally, we have found, and these recover generally without human intervention. In contrast, mined sites are nearly always actively restored, usually by a mixture of interventions including the reconstruction of original land topography and the replanting of vegetation. Former agricultural sites are restored by a mix of approaches, including both the simple removal of the disturbance (e.g., cattle) to allow for natural regeneration and the active planting of trees.

We are in the process of determining the extent to which different kinds of degraded land recover from disturbance and, indeed, if the type of forest and style of restoration determine the rate of recovery. We will present more of our findings in a second post, here at IUCN, when our analyses are complete later this summer. Stay tuned.

This project is part of a larger study synthesizing results of ecosystem recovery and restoration across a range of ecosystem types that is funded by the U.S. National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. This study on forest recovery is funded by the Know-For-FLR project of IUCN, made possible through support from UK Aid, by the British Government.

References

Bonner, MTL, S Schmidt & LP Shoo. 2013. A meta-analytical global comparison of aboveground biomass accumulation between tropical secondary forests and monoculture plantations. Forest Ecology and Management 291:73–86.

Rey Benayas, JM, AC Newton, A Diaz & JM Bullock. 2009. Enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services by ecological restoration: a meta-analysis. Science 325:1121–1124.

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Featured Fellow: Lisa Palmer

December 9, 2015

What does it take to reconcile the threat of global environmental change with the need to feed a growing population?

Developing countries will be the most vulnerable to changes in climate. A recent government study in India warned that the anticipated rise in global temperatures over the next three decades could reduce wheat yields in the country by as much as 23 percent. Related environmental problems—depleted groundwater, delayed monsoons, and intense rainfall—will also hurt productivity.

What this will mean for India’s food security, and especially the poor who cannot keep up with rising food prices, is the focus of Lisa Palmer’s recent reporting and writing.

Palmer, fellow for socio-environmental understanding at the National Socio-Environment Synthesis Center (SESYNC), was in India thanks to a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. There, she looked at new strategies designed to help small farmers adapt to climate change and visited several of the country’s “climate smart” villages where farmers use technologies, communications tools and renewable energy to improve their livelihoods and resilience to climatic variability.

Palmer Reports from India

“India's climate tech revolution is starting in its villages.” The Guardian, October 12.

“A River Runs Again: Reporting on India’s Natural Crisis.” New Security Beat, November 17.

“Learning from India's 'Smart' Farming Villages.” Yale Climate Connections, November 19.

“I Went to India and Saw the Future of Climate-Smart Farming.” Nautilus, December 4.

Palmer’s work on science, the environment, agriculture, and sustainability has been featured in The Guardian, Nature, Nature Climate Change, Climate Connections, Yale e360, Slate, The New York Times, Scientific American, Nautilus, and many others. She first began to report on agriculture and the food production nexus while a media fellow at the Vermont Law School, and is now working on a book, Hot, Hungry Planet, to be published in 2016. She’s on Twitter @Lisa_Palmer.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating data-intensive scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

What We're Reading

November 17, 2015

From our reading lists to yours: what National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) researchers and staff are reading.
  

An equilibrium theory signature in the island biogeography of human parasites and pathogens

Authors: Kévin Jean, William R. Burnside, Lynn Carlson, et al.
Source: Global Ecology and Biogeography
Who's reading it: Elizabeth Daut, Postdoctoral Fellow
  

Aligning restoration science and the law to sustain ecological infrastructure for the future

Authors: Margaret A Palmer and JB Ruhl
Source: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment
Who's reading it: Kelly Hondula, Quantitative Researcher
   

Time scale interactions and the coevolution of humans and water

Authors: Murugesu Sivapalan and Günter Blöschl
Source: Water Resources Research
Who's reading it: Krissy Hopkins, Postdoctoral Fellow
   

Equation-free mechanistic ecosystem forecasting using empirical dynamic modeling

Authors: Hao Ye, Richard J. Beamish, Sarah M. Glaser, et al.
Source: PNAS
Who's reading it: Kristal Jones, Food Systems Research Fellow
  

Collapse, environment, and society

Author: Karl W. Butzer
Source: PNAS
Who's reading it: Matthew LaFevor, Postdoctoral Fellow
   

50 years of Data Science

Author: David Donoho
Source: Tukey Conference, Princeton University
Who's reading it: Philippe Marchand, Scientific Support Specialist
   

Capitalism in the Web of Life: an Interview with Jason W. Moore

Authors: Jason W. Moore and Kamil Ahsan
Source: Viewpoint Magazine
Who's reading it: Jessica Marx, Research Program Manager
    

A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka

Author: Meera Subramanian
Source: PublicAffairs
Who's reading it: Lisa Palmer, Fellow for Socio-Environmental Understanding, and Mary Shelley, Associate Director of Synthesis
   

Model averaging and muddled multimodel inferences

Author: Brian S. Cade
Source: Ecology
Who's reading it: Lauren Yeager, Postdoctoral Fellow
    

Second growth: The promise of tropical forest regeneration in an age of deforestation

Author: Robin Chazdon
Source: University of Chicago Press
Who's reading it: Jenny Zambrano, Postdoctoral Fellow
    

A Venomous Fight Among Reptile Scientists

Author: Ed Yong
Source:
The Atlantic
Who's reading it: Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator

    
What We're Reading archive:

From Meta-Studies to Modeling: Synthesizing a Changing Landscape

November 11, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

Question? Research. Answer!

It may be simple and straightforward, yet it’s rarely how the scientific process actually works. Rather, scientific discovery is wrought with complexities that may lead to more questions than answers—but that’s precisely where things get interesting.

Take land change science, for example. From deforestation and irrigation to urbanization and restoration, humans are transforming the surface of the Earth, and on massive scales. The patchwork of landscapes covering the globe are as numerous as they are diverse. At the same time, they are linked: ecologically, socio-economically, culturally. The land use choices of a farmer, pastoralist, or housing developer both influence and are influenced by local contexts such as per capita income as well as broad-scale pressures such as climate change and economic globalization. As a result, landscapes breathe as much life and undergo as much change and growth as the people, plants, and animals living within them.

Land change scientists endeavor to make sense of it all: the various drivers of land use change, and how those changes feed back into people’s livelihoods and land use decisions. To accomplish this feat, they must overcome several challenges. First, traditional scientific experiments aren’t feasible in land change science. It’s neither ethical nor even logistically possible to manipulate the global food trade market in order to measure its influence on a village’s food security, for example. Second, the layers of complexity are all but endless. How can researchers possibly isolate the effect of a land use decision made in urban Chicago or rural China?

Here, land change scientists may very well agree with philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin: the key to understanding is in the identification of patterns.* Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, an assistant research professor at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), uses synthetic and modeling approaches to find patterns among land uses and changes. As a resource to the wider land change science community, he recently co-published a related series of articles outlining how synthesis, meta-studies, and agent-based modeling can help us understand how humans interact with and change the landscapes in which they live.

Local case studies inform much of what we know about how humans use land and how those practices change over time. But determining whether individual cases are merely anecdotal, or the extent to which they can be scaled up to explain regional or even global land use patterns, is a challenge. The research approach of synthesis is especially useful in this context: it draws upon and distills many sources of data, ideas, explanations, and methods to generate knowledge that is applicable across spatial and temporal scales.

In open-access papers published in Regional Environmental Change and Ambio, Magliocca and co-authors map the landscape of synthesis within land change science and identify tools to integrate diverse data sets from multiple disciplines. The papers aim to help researchers identify which synthesis methods are most appropriate for what they’re trying to do and what types of data they have—and then to actually do them. Specifically, the authors discuss meta-studies, which they define as “specific synthetic methods that distill the findings of many narrowly focused analyses (i.e., ‘cases’) to produce knowledge that is more generally applicable than may be derived from a single case.”

Cases of deforestation, restoration, and other global change phenomena are happening right now all across the world. But whether pasture cover is converting to agricultural land in Laos or Brazil, it has something in common: the conversions can be measured consistently, regardless of where they take place. Accordingly, these place-based changes can be compared to reveal both commonalities and differences in their causes and consequences.

Agent-based models—used as “virtual laboratories,” as Magliocca calls them—are a practical computational tool that help with such syntheses. They offer a powerful means of simulating the land use choices of individuals and groups in order to assess their interactions within a landscape. And although land use change has been studied mostly by researchers creating highly detailed, specialized models that apply to a single location and are highly context-dependent, there’s also much to be learned through comparative research across different sites.

In an open-access paper published in Environmental Modelling & Software, Magliocca and co-authors illustrate where and how meta-studies can inform the modeling process (e.g., when conceptualizing, coding, or implementing a model). And in another open-access paper published in Land, Magliocca puts it all to task by applying a generalized agent-based model to six different agricultural case studies. In this paper, he analyzed the relative importance of local and larger-scale influences on land use changes throughout the six sites. In a nutshell, he found that the more remote a location, the more sensitive land use decisions are to ecological factors such as soil quality; the less remote a location, the more sensitive they are to individual’s perception of risk and economic factors such as crop prices.

More importantly, says Magliocca, the “results demonstrate model-based synthesis as a promising approach to overcome many of the current challenges of synthesis in land change science” because it rigorously embraces complexity.

“And the insights you can gain from the land change perspective are almost always applicable to the larger socio-environmental context, because land change science is already so integrative. Whether you start with a question about fluctuations in land markets or valuation of a restoration project, the lessons to be learned through synthesis and modeling are broadly relevant,” he adds.

* Isaiah Berlin, “Historical Inevitability” (1954).

Above photo: Aerial view of center-fed farms in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Courtesy Doc Searls via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Further reading

Nicholas R. Magliocca, Thomas K. Rudel, Peter H. Verburg, et al. (2015). “Synthesis in land change science: methodological patterns, challenges, and guidelines” in Regional Environmental Change. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10113-014-0626-8

Jasper van Vliet, Nicholas R. Magliocca, Bianka Büchner, et al. (2015). “Meta-studies in land use science: Current coverage and prospects” in Ambio. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13280-015-0699-8

Nicholas R. Magliocca, Jasper van Vliet, Calum Brown, et al. (2015). “From meta-studies to modeling: Using synthesis knowledge to build broadly applicable process-based land change models” in Environmental Modelling & Software. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2015.06.009

Nicholas R. Magliocca. (2015). “Model-Based Synthesis of Locally Contingent Responses to Global Market Signals” in Land. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/land4030807

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating data-intensive scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

From Policy to Practice: Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making

October 22, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

Above photo: U.S. federal agencies including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs conduct a prescribed burn for prairie restoration in the fall of 2011. Prescribed burning is a management technique used to control invasive grasses on refuge lands. Prescribed fires also reduce hazard fuels to prevent wildfires and lower the risk to nearby rural residential homes, agricultural lands, and private woodlands. Courtesy George Gentry/USFWS - Pacific Region via Flickr/Creative Commons.

The Forest Service. The Bureau of Land Management. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Department of Defense. From managing the nation’s forests and rangelands to our military facilities and nuclear plants, these and other U.S. federal agencies take actions that change the physical landscape as well as the environment’s capacity to contribute to human society—and on a large scale.

Clean air and drinking water, erosion and flood control, and outdoor recreation are just a few examples of “ecosystem services,” or benefits that people receive from natural systems. And while it can be difficult to pin a specific dollar value on such services, new data, methods, and expertise are making it increasingly possible to do just that.

Yet, federal agencies have not consistently incorporated measures of ecosystem services into their decision making processes.

Which is why new policy guidance released earlier this month by the White House is welcome (and exciting!) news. The guidance directs federal agencies to begin incorporating ecosystem services into their planning and decision making. Specifically, it:

“… directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investment, and regulatory contexts. It also establishes a process for the federal government to develop a more detailed guidance on integrating ecosystem service assessments into relevant programs and projects to help maintain ecosystem and community resilience, sustainable use of natural resources, and the recreational value of the Nation’s unique landscapes.”

The new guidance isn’t a win just for the environment—it’s decisive progress for human health and economic well-being, too.

“An ecosystem services approach to decision making can help agencies link natural resource management choices to the things people care about in an understandable and analytically robust manner,” said Jim Boyd, Director of Social Science & Policy at SESYNC and Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth at Resources for the Future.

For agency staff left wondering exactly how to make this happen, the National Ecosystem Services Partnership (NESP) has worked for three years with agencies, academics, and practitioners to develop the Federal Resource Management and Ecosystem Services Guidebook, an online resource that provides a framework for incorporating ecosystem services into decision making and highlighting relevant efforts under way by federal agencies. NESP also produced a companion Best Practices for Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making report, released earlier this year.

The resources provide much-needed clarity for how to design ecosystem services assessments that meet minimum standards of scientifically-rigorous assessments even when time, resources, or capacity are limiting.

The NESP guidebook and best practices report were supported in part by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.

[1] Tamara Dickinson, Timothy Male, and Ali Zaidi: “Incorporating Natural Infrastructure and Ecosystem Services in Federal Decision-Making.” The White House Blog.

Recommended Reading

Ecosystem services and resource management: Institutional issues, challenges, and opportunities in the public sector
A 2015 study published in the journal Ecological Economics by Lynn Scarlett, The Nature Conservancy, and Jim Boyd, SESYNC and Resources for the Future.

Principles to Guide Assessments of Ecosystem Service Values
A 2013 document arising from the Ecosystem Services Valuation Workshop held July 8–9, 2013, at Portland State University, an event sponsored by Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the Cascadia Ecosystem Services Partnership, and Defenders of Wildlife.

Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy
A 2011 Report to the President from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Working Group on Biodiversity Preservation and Ecosystem Sustainability.

U.S. Federal Government Sends Agencies to Bat — For Nature and People
A 2015 blog published in Cool Green Science by Heather Tallis, The Nature Conservancy, and Lydia Olander, Duke University.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

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