Science Talk

The Environment: birds; strategic conservation; big cats.

In this episode, Cambridge conservation scientist Andrew Balmford discusses the state of the world's birds; the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Rex Johnson talks about a new, strategic approach to conservation (both men were presenters at the recent conference "Conserving Birds in Human-Dominated Landscapes" at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City); and the Wildlife Conservation Society's Alan Rabinowitz describes his efforts to save the world's big cats. Plus, test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

Male voice: Novartis—committed to making innovative medicines for a world of patients and their families, online at

Novartis…. Think what's possible.

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 10th. I am Steve Mirsky. On this week's podcast, we're going talk about conservation. The U.S. Senate has designated May of 11th as Endangered Species Day. For a lot of senators that might mean eating them, I don't know, but in keeping with that theme, last week I attended a conference at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City, called "Conserving Birds in Human-Dominated Landscapes". I spoke with a couple of the presenters there, Andrew Balmford and Rex Johnson, and we'll hear from them. And this past week, I had a chance to talk to Alan Rabinowitz, one of the great big cat researchers and conservation specialists and we'll play that interview. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

First up, Andrew Balmford from the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge. In 2003 Scientific American magazine named Balmford one of the top 50 Science Leaders for his work studying the economics of habitat preservation. I spoke with him after his talk at the museum.

Steve: Andrew thanks so much for talking with us today.

Andrew: It's a pleasure.

Steve: Your talk was basically about the state of the world's birds. How are birds doing?

Andrew: While [Well,] in general, the news isn't good. In general birds aren't doing very well and that's evidenced in a variety of different ways. If you look at extinction rates or threat rates, those are generally on the rise. So in that sense we should be worried and we should also be worried in terms of the level of populations too. Most bird populations that are monitored around the world are in decline, but it's not a completely negative picture. There are also some species that are doing somewhat better.

Steve: Which species in particular are doing okay right now?

Andrew: So they probably fall into two main groups. One are highly threatened species, some of which should be in the subjects of intensive hands-on recovery plans, and some of those are responding quite well to active human intervention to help them out; and there are few encouraging examples of that around the world. And in the another group there are a bunch of birds which you can think of as being opportunistic and which are able of finding new ways of making a living for themselves in human-dominated landscapes all by themselves and some of those are on the increase as well.

Steve: What species specifically were you talking about there?

Andrew: A range of different species; quite often alien invasives as we call and [any] creatures from other countries or other systems that find themselves in certain human dominated landscapes here in New York—of which, the starlings and house sparrows are doing very well. Ironically, both those species aren't doing very well in the wild where they came from back in Britain. So there are some creatures like that. There is also some native species that learn new tricks and one of those for example in Britain is the wood pigeon, which up until recently, was a declining bird in our countryside, but which has learned a few new tricks in the last few years which is helping it to increase its numbers. In particular it has learned to feed on the oilseed rape which is a relatively new crop grown in Britain, so it is moving out from the woodlands into the fields and doing relatively well there.

Steve: What had it been its primary food?

Andrew: Well they fed on the fruits and so in woodlands, but it has moved out from woodlands into fields and is doing quite well on new crops; and then it is also moving into towns and cities where it's becoming as common almost as road pigeons—that traditional dove of towns and cities—where it's managed to learn the trick of feeding on the leftovers of the revelers the night before.

Steve: (laughs) Revelers the night before. Various foodstuffs left out on the street.

Andrew: That's right! Where then those would seem maybe to be only increased in certain parts of Britain.

Steve: Those foodstuffs may have been predigested.

Andrew: Yes, that could be the case. (laughs)

Steve: People who live in big cities may see thousands of birds on any given day, but they might all be the same bird, they might all be pigeons or they might all be house sparrows, or starlings. Why is it not necessarily a good thing just because you happened to see some birds in large numbers?

Andrew: That's because the variety matters and also diversity matters ecologically; and it also matters to us people, so although we might enjoy seeing large numbers of pigeons or starlings or whatever we may often ourselves enjoy seeing a variety much more and that's probably a sign that systems are in better shape as a result.

Steve: The biodiversity is itself a sign of the health of the system?

Andrew: It's not quite as simple as that. In that you can increase biodiversity artificially by having more alien invaders in a system for example, am [and end up] losing out some of the things that may be particularly special to an area; so in some ways having a diverse system by itself isn't necessarily a good thing, but it's not a bad rule of thumb perhaps. It was a point made in this meeting which was an extremely interesting one. The question was raised as to whether we should, as conservationists, be concerned always about having rich biodiverse systems or not. In wild habitats that's probably not the case; very often we should be most concerned about having the species that should be there, whether that is a rich assemblage or not. But the point was made that in urban assemblages, maybe the rich communities are good because they present people who are softer, very nice people, are with a wide variety of nature; and that's very important perhaps for increasing the enthusiasm, their interest in nature. And the fundamental point, of course, being that if people aren't enthusiastic about nature—most people live in towns; that's where they're going to encounter it—then there may be less interest in conserving it, not just in towns, but [a] bit further afield. Get out into nature, get out yourself. Go and see things, enjoy them, learn about them and the more you learn, the more you will enjoy them. And then once you are doing that, go and take a friend or a child out into nature too, because, as they say, if we don't know about things, then we won't care about [them] and then things won't improve.

Steve: How many species did you see in Central Park earlier today? I know you went out for a little while.

Andrew: (laughs) I guess we saw about 25 species. The fun thing was that seeing some species which are a real problem in the U.K., like grace girls here in their native habitat; and then some species which are in trouble—native species in the (laughs) U.K. which are in trouble—like house sparrows and starlings [that] do very well in Central Park.

Steve: Great to talk to you, thanks very much.

Andrew: Thank you very much, Steve.

Steve: The Web site of the American Museum of the Natural History is We'll be right back.

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Now it's time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: The New York Times reports that the Bush administration is seeking to develop a powerful, ground-based laser weapon that would use beams of concentrated light to destroy enemies’ satellites in orbit.

Story number 2: A cat named Sneakers was found in Sacramento ten years after it was lost in Seattle, when somebody scanned the cat and found an implanted microchip with the owner's information.

Story number 3: A Vatican astronomer says that the physical evidence convinces him that the world was created in six days.

Story number 4: King Tut has been reunited with his mummified penis, which was reported missing in 1968.

We'll be back with the answer, but first, another presenter at the bird conference was Rex Johnson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is the leader of the Habitat and Population Evaluation Team of the Services Division of Bird Habitat Conservation. We didn't get a chance to talk at the meeting, so I gave him a call later at his office in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

Steve: Dr. Johnson thanks for talking to us today.

Johnson: Steve, it's pleasure to be with you.

Steve: I heard you talked at the Museum of Natural History here in New York last week the American museum of natural history, let me get that right. You seem to be saying things I haven't heard anywhere else about a more strategic approach to habitat conservation: You actually called it a corporate approach. Can you talk about that?

Johnson: I'll be happy to, Steve. We're going to be expending more of our resources developing conservation strategies. We tell managers in any agency—not just the Fish and Wildlife Service—where they can get the biggest impact, the biggest benefit from migratory birds at the lowest cost to their management agency and to society. And we're going to be focusing on building multidisciplinary partnerships that go beyond these biologists to include all of the other disciplines that shape the landscape—world sociology, economics and hydrologists. All of those people have something to contribute to the process of conservation, because conservation first and foremost is figuring out how we can keep humans and wildlife on the landscape in a sustainable fashion.

Steve: At the talk that I heard you gave [give] last week, you specifically mentioned being more effective and more efficient. You want to talk in specifics—any cases that you can bring up that illustrate those concepts?

Johnson: When I talk about efficiency, what I am talking about is getting the biggest population response for the least amount of money or the least amount of acres of habitat; because acres translate into dollars in the conservation world. We will take models that relate a species of migratory bird to its habitat and we'll apply that to data using what's called a geographic information system. And we'll identify areas that have greater or lesser potential to affect populations. Obviously the areas that have the greatest potential to affect populations are the same areas where we would like to be doing management if we have willing landowners, people who are willing to work with us in those landscapes. The difference of conservation efficiency between a high-efficiency landscape and a low-efficiency landscape can be as much as four, six, ten to one. So we're going to be much more efficient in the way we spend taxpayer dollars if we [are]were strategic in our approach to conservation—which means identifying what those hotspots are, reaching out to the landowners that are working in those hotspots, mark in our programs for them; that's what I mean by strategic approach to conservation.

Steve: And it seems fairly straightforward. I mean if you were in advertising, you'd want to put the ads where the largest number of people can see them, and this seem[s] like the same kind of concept.

Johnson: Exactly the same concept; and in fact one of the things that we need to do a better job of is marketing our conservation programs. It's amazing to me, living here in the Midwest, been[being] surrounded by farmers, how many farmers are unaware of conservation programs that could really make their operations much more cost effective.

Steve: How could they take advantage of conservation [to] actually save money?

Johnson: Well, one of the ways that we routinely work with landowners to help them being more profitable is we help them retire their most marginal agricultural land—the land that takes a lot of input on an annual basis in terms of fertilizer and fuel and seed—and retire that to perennial cover, such as grasslands or woodlands or wetlands. The result is that they have lower input, but because there are government subsidies for the restoration of those perennial habitats, they make money off of those marginal lands anyway. What the public gets from that is we get cleaner water, we get less flood damage, we get higher wildlife populations and a whole host of other environmental functions that we don't routinely think of as legitimate business goods and services, but they are, and it's reasonable for us to think about compensating landowners for providing those goods and services.

Steve: I think a lot of people may still, when they think about the fish and wildlife services—if they do at all—they make think of it as the place you go for your hunting or fishing licenses.

Johnson: Well let's be clear right [up]at front Steve. You go to the state agencies for your hunting and fishing licenses, you come to the fish and wildlife services for a migratory bird hunting stamp, the duck stamp, that's all we sell.

Steve: Which I own by the way; I've been buying them every year for about 10 years.

Johnson: And I would encourage every one of your listeners to go out and do the same thing because that is the primary source of funding the Fish and Wildlife Service has for the conservation of habitat.

Steve: Let me talk about that for a minute. For 15 dollars everybody, you get a duck stamp, which allows you to get into every single national wildlife refuge in the country for the entire year, for free at that point. It's incredibly cost effective if you are a user of the refuges.

Johnson: And the duck stamp money which goes into a fund—we call them migratory bird conservation fund[s]—is the only really reliable source of funding that the Fish and Wildlife Service has for land acquisition through our national wildlife refuge system. So we are very interested in as many people as possible purchasing that duck stamp. It is by the way matched almost dollar for dollar for import taxes on firearms and ammunition in the past of course. Therefore, it's obvious that hunters have sponsored most of the land acquisitions in the National Wildlife Refuge System. We're all environmentalists, anybody who cares about wildlife, fish, healthy ecosystems for whatever reason, whatever their motivation—we're all environmentalists, we all have a common stake.

Steve: Dr. Johnson, thank you very much. It was a pleasure to talk to you today.

Johnson: Steve, it's been a pleasure talking to you.

Steve: For more info on buying 15 dollar duck stamps go to the Fish and Wildlife Services duck stamp site, www.fws—for Fish and Wildlife Service—.gov/duckstamps.

We'll be right back.

Male voice: Novartis—committed to making innovative medicines for a world of patients and their families, online at Novartis…. Think what's possible.

Steve: Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: The Bush administration wants to create satellite-destroying lasers.

Story number 2: A cat found after ten years through implanted microchip.

Story number 3: A Vatican astronomer says the world was made in six days.

Story number 4: King Tut's penis found.

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. The Times reports that the administration does want to create lasers to kill satellites. According to The Times, the largely secret project, [parts]hearts of which have been made public through Air Force budget documents submitted to congress in February, is part of a wide-ranging effort to develop space weapons, both defensive and offensive.

Male voice: Using these lasers we punch a hole in the protected layer around the world.

Story number 2 is true. Sneakers the cat was found ten years after she disappeared one day through her implanted microchip, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paper reports. If you want to know what she has been up to, you just have to remain curious.

Male voice: And when Dr. Evil gets angry, Mr. Bigglesworth gets upset. (cat purring)

Story number 4 is true. A CAT scan revealed that King Tut's penis, which had become separated from his body at some point, was lying loose in the sand right near to where it belonged. The British paper The Guardian headlined the story "Tut Re-Membered"

Male voice: Somebody play a prank on me. Honestly, it's not mine.

All of which means that story number 3, about the Vatican astronomer saying the world was made in six days, is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. What is true, however, is that [the] Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, was quoted in the Scottish paper, The Scotsman, as saying that the belief in a six-day creation was actually a form of superstitious paganism. The brother also said "knowledge is dangerous, but so is ignorance"—and as for papal infallibility, Brother Guy said that it doesn't mean that the Pope has "magic power"; it means that "somebody has got to be the boss, the final authority."

Male voice: And the boss needs the info.

Steve: Next up Alan Rabinowitz, one of the world's great cat experts. I ran into him last Saturday at a ceremony dedicating the John Baylor Memorial Biodiversity Reserve Area in Westchester, New York. John was the curator of the reptiles at the Bronx Zoo and a great guy. Rabinowitz is the director of the science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society and concentrates on cats. I had a small voice recorder with me, so I asked him what he was up to.

Alan: Setting up the world's largest tiger reserve in Northern Myanmar; it's called the Hukuang Valley Tiger Reserve— it's almost 9,000 square miles, the size of [the] state of Oman. It's taken me ten years to get it established. It is now established. The government is on board, the local people [are] on board. Myanmar is a very difficult country to be working in because I have to balance dictators with insurgents with completely remote tribal ethnic groups, but it's working. The other big endeavor I am working on, which is even bigger than that, is setting up a jaguar corridor from Mexico to Argentina. We have learnt recently within the last couple of years that a genetic corridor already exists. In other words, the DNA of jaguar—sampling jaguars throughout their range from Mexico to Argentina—is showing us, that contrary to what we were thinking, somehow every few generations at least one jaguar seems to be moving between what seemed to be disjunct, fragmented populations. They are getting through the human landscape, citrus groves, rubber plantations, cattle ranches, backyard vegetable gardens. They could use those areas; and all you need is one jaguar every approximately hundred years to get between populations—a young dispersing male, who's got to find his own area—and you maintain genetic stability between populations.

Steve: You get genetic mixing so that you don't have any bottle necks?

Alan: You get them off genetic mixing. The number one cause of extinction is too much inbreeding; [it']s genetic fragmentation, loss of genetic diversity that's the number [one] cause of extinction. So if we could maintain, if you could somehow maintain genetic mixing, then you're essentially doing the most you can do to save a species. And what we learnt is that this already is happening without our realizing it. We're coming into a[it] kind of backwards to where we are actually now trying to find these corridors. So through GIS and through mapping we have actually mapped out what the likely jaguar corridors are which they are using between populations from Mexico to Argentina.

Steve: Because if you can find the ones that already exist, you don't have to set new ones up to accomplish what you want these already to be doing.

Alan: Exactly! And it's a hugely powerful instrument with the governments. It's one thing saying, save that as a protected area, it's got tons of jaguars. That's easy. Well it's not easy, but it's doable. It's different now, and in some ways it's not as hard as that; actually saying, look, jaguars are moving from that big, beautiful park you got in the north to that big beautiful park you got in the south. We're not asking you to set up any new protected areas. What we're asking you to do is protect this jaguar corridor by keeping [it] intact, which will help the local people and local economists keeping intact current land-use practices. Another way is don't build in that area, don't build an industrial par[k]t, don't build the four-lane highway, don't allow a complete, huge agricultural endeavor that clear-cuts the whole area and wipes it out. Let the local people do what they're doing, let us help them. We could even help them do it better and further, but let the local populace do their current land-use practices; and now remains a jaguar corridor and they can't kill the jaguar. The tourism potential is phenomenal because then what you have is the possibility of different countries throughout a region having a kind of a jaguar [Appalachian] appellation Trail, where people can actually be walking through beautiful forests and then get out into someone's field, walk through a cattle pasture and you're on the jaguar trail. You're on the jaguar corridor. I mean, it's a neat thing.

Steve: Let me ask you one other quick question. How does a kid from Brooklyn come out as the world's big cat experts, and I mean big in both senses.

Alan: Yeah! Well I never, sort of, saw a cattle until I went to college in Maryland. I actually never saw a cow in a field.

Steve: Well, you sure know [knew] what a cow was, right?

Alan: But the reason I became attracted to animals, and I knew that this was what I wanted to be doing, was because as a young child, I studied very, very badly. So badly that at that time in the New York City School System they put me into classes for retarded children, for disturbed children. Because back at that time, they didn't know what ADD was, or dyslexia was; we were all put in those …

Steve: Right!

Alan: … classes for disturbed children. So I grew up my entire childhood through public schools, realizing that the outside world of human beings believed I was not one of them, I was not normal; but one thing a starter [stutterer]—two things a [starter stutterer can do, and not starter [stutter], one is saying …

Steve: Right!

Alan: … like not tell us, or they can talk to animals. I used to come home every single day after being in a class for disturbed children—where I just will[would] stop talking at all because I knew I wasn't disturbed—and I would talk to my little pets, chameleons, hamsters, snakes, garter snakes; and I bonded with animals; and I swore to them—I mean, they're the ones who I told them my dreams to and my hopes and they are the ones who I promised that if I have ever got my voice back—which I didn't think I would at the time—that I would try to help them get their voice, because that voice is the barrier, that was my barrier with human beings.

Steve: Oh. And then why cats specifically?

Alan: Cats specifically, not because I have some huge affinity towards them—because in fact I am allergic to cats (laughs), but they are the top predator. They are the top. If I can save, if I can—because governments will save their big cats; no government, no politician wants to be the president or administrator who lost their tigers, who lost their jaguars, lost their lions and they all feel that these are important parts of each country's culture—if I can save lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, you are saving most of the large global ecosystems of the world with everything else that goes in it. I am not trying to save cats. I am trying to save wild lands with everything inside of it; that goes with it from the ants to the butterflies and to the big cats. But you don't save it by saying you've got to protect this because it has got great diversity of ants, you save it by saying you want to save tigers in Burma, this is the place to do it; but that 9,000 square miles has elephants and clouded leopards or wild dogs and incredible butterflies and incredible orchids and new bamboo species— and newer thought it's got everything, but that's not what I use. I use the big cats.

Steve: Sounds like he found his voice. The Wildlife Conservation Society is at One of the other speakers at the dedication of the John Baylor area remembered his first meeting with John. Baylor at the time was in the field putting radio transmitters on turtles.

Male voice: I happened to be walking in the back and I saw this guy standing on the dark; and I was curious because he was putting this device on the back of a turtle and then he lets the turtle go and immediately thereafter, before the turtle could disappear, I see him pick up this device and pull up this antennae. I said, my God, he is going blow up the turtle, (laughing sounds from a crowd) and I honestly believed that (laughing sounds from a crowd). I honestly believed John is to going blow up that turtle. (laughing sounds from a crowd). I started running to him, you know (laughing sounds from a crowd) and (laughs) shortly thereafter, John gave me a full education (laughing sounds from a crowd) about what he did in this park, and I should mind my own business. (laughing sounds from a crowd)

Steve: We'll be right back.

Enjoy a free preview issue of Scientific American magazine, plus a gift. Visit today.

Well that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is; and also remember that science news is updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Male voice: I like animals, maybe I feel that

An evil bat

No may be like working a petting zoo

An evil petting zoo

You always do that

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