Fire Ecology

Forest fires are almost invariably described as destructive, even catastrophic.  Yet the California forest ecosystems are adapted to recurring fires, and many species depend on fires to create the conditions in which they thrive.  What really happens to the ecosystem after a major, high-intensity wildfire?  Dr. Chad Hanson of The John Muir Project has been studying this question for years, and he advocates a new paradigm of forest health that recognizes the essential role of fire.  His research, summarized in a new book (“The Ecological Importance of Mixed-severity Fires“) challenges some longstanding assumptions about forestry, fire suppression, and post-fire land management.

Dr. Hanson walked us through the post-fire ecological succession, beginning with the beetles who sense the smoke and fly toward the fire!  Soon after that, Black-backed Woodpeckers (a rare species that thrives only in recently burned forests with many standing fire-killed snags) arrive; they excavate multiple nest cavities, but only use one, leaving the others available for numerous other species to occupy.  Then the wildflowers begin to bloom, drawing insects, which in turn attract more birds and mammals.  Meanwhile shrubs and trees germinate and begin growing, providing food for larger mammals (deer, bear) and habitat for smaller ones – which in turn provide prey for predators like Spotted Owls and Pacific Fishers.  The net effect is to greatly increase biodiversity and productivity, as compared to a mature forest.

The concept of the “snag forest” (created by fire, drought, or beetles) as a highly-productive ecosystem, on which several rare or threatened species depend, is at odds with the popular perception of the burned forest as a dead landscape – and with public policy.  It was shocking to hear that snag forest is actually rarer than old-growth in California.

Complete interview is available on the KZYX Jukebox for the next two months:

More links:

EcoWatch article: Don’t Get Burned by Misinformation About Dead Trees and Wildfire

Fireside Chat” from Geos Institute (Warning: bandwidth-heavy)




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Invasion Biology

All over the planet – including here in northern California – conservationists are fighting expensive battles against invasive species.  Are these efforts guided by science, or emotion?  On Tuesday July 12 at 7 PM, hosts Bob Spies and Tim Bray will talk with Dr. Matthew Chew, of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University.  Dr. Chew applies historical methods to identify how basic human motivations and preferences have become structural elements of scientific theories, particularly in the field of “invasion biology.”  He has co-authored several papers challenging ecological nativism, incluuding a controversial 2011 essay in Nature magazine arguing that we ought to judge species based on their environmental impacts, not their origins.  

More recently, he challenged much of the basis for the discipline of conservation biology in a 2015 paper, “Ecologists, Environmentalists, and the Invasion of the “Second Greatest Threat” (International Review of Environmental History, Volume 1, 2015).

The idea for this show came from a New York Times article addressing the growing backlash against the nativist paradigm and the use – or misuse – of science in public policy.

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What’s Happening to the Kelp?

That’s what someone asked me recently at the Farmer’s Market.  Kelp forests along the northern California coast are disappearing.  We ask two researchers who have been studying kelp for years to explain what a “kelp forest” is, how it functions in the nearshore marine ecosystem, and what is causing the disappearance.

Dr. Cynthia Catton of the Department of Fish & Wildlife and Dr. Mark Carr of the University of California – Santa Cruz are our guests.

What Can You Do?
Here are a few ways to become involved:

  • Share this blog post on your social media accounts. This is an important message. Please help spread the word!
  • Volunteer with CDFW: Volunteers are needed to help with research and data collection. You can sign up as a CDFW Natural Resource Volunteer, or contact CDFW directly (contact information below) for more information about volunteering on projects related to north coast kelp forest recovery research.

Dr. Cynthia Catton
Environmental Scientist
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Phone: 707-875-2072

  • Report Observations: If you have observed related events, and would like to share your observations and photos, please contact CDFW’s marine invertebrate team (contact information above). The most helpful Information for research will include the date, location, and depth of your observations.


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The Wreck of the Cassin’s Auklet

In the fall and winter of 2014-15, hundreds of thousands of a small grey seabird washed up on beaches from California to British Columbia, dead from starvation – a phenomenon known as a “wreck.”   Dr. Julia Parrish, executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, told us how this event was first detected, how many birds are thought to have died, and many things about the Cassin’s Auklet along the way.  We also heard about a similar event that affected Surf Scoters, but in a more restricted area and for completely different reasons!

Dr. Parrish also gave a presentation to the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society on the same topic, delving into the scientific details and concluding that the “wreck” was caused by a combination of two principal factors:  higher than normal nesting success (leading to a larger than normal population of young birds, most of which die every year) and unusual ocean conditions causing most of the population to congregate near shore – so when they died, far more than usual ended up on the beaches.  It was a riveting display of the best kind of multidisciplinary scientific investigation.

COASST Website

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Acorn Woodpeckers and more

Kate Marianchild, author of “Secrets of the Oak Woodlands” (Heyday Press, 2014) joined us again to share some of her wonderful stories of the oak woodlands.

During the show, we played some recordings of Acorn Woodpecker vocalizations.  These came from Xeno-Canto, an online database of recordings submitted by volunteers all over the world – a tremendous resource.

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Our guest on The Ecology Hour for March 8 will be marine biologist Scot Anderson, aka “Sharkman.”  We will be talking about his field research work with White Sharks on the Pacific coast. Despite being the objects of considerable popular fascination, relatively little has been known about White Sharks until recently, in part due to the difficulty and expense of studying them.  This will be an opportunity to hear from someone at the cutting edge of marine biological research.

Awesome videos of tagging White Sharks.

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Rattlesnakes and Ground Squirrels

Dr. Spies was travelling in February (doing field work in Indonesia), and fortunately we had recorded an interview with Professor Rulon Clark of San Diego Sate University.  Dr. Clark conducts field research on behavioral ecology, including the interactions and communications between predators and their prey.  Our conversation focused on his research into rattlesnakes and ground squirrels, including the amazing ways in which the squirrels communicate with the snakes, and why that communication benefits both parties.  These interactions happen infrequently, and the innovative methods Dr. Clark has developed in order to study them in the field are as fascinating as his findings.

Check out his YouTube video channel!

Temporary link to Jukebox archive – program starts at 5:10 (and ends prematurely) – I will get the correct file uploaded soon.

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