Conservation Biology

Since our last blog prompt is designed to let us share what we know and care about in the realm of science, I chose to bring in my passion for conservation. Conservation biology has been my dream career since childhood, and while I have slightly altered my career trajectory multiple times, conservation and care for the Earth and all its organisms still remains a core component of my being.  When I first told my undergraduate conservation biology professor that I wanted to be a conservationist, he replied, “Be prepared to never feel like you’ve accomplished enough. If you aren’t ok with everyone attacking you from every direction, you should pick a different career path.” I hope to incorporate some interesting information on the cellular side in conjunction with ecological data to tie the whole semester together.

TOP 25 QUOTES BY E. O. WILSON (of 271) | A-Z Quotes
E.O. Wilson on Biodiversity

What exactly is “conservation”?

I know it seems like a simplistic place to start, but what really is conservation? Merriam-Webster states that conservation is  “a careful preservation and protection of something”. National Geographic defines natural conservation more specifically as the “act of protecting Earth’s natural resources for current and future generations”. While both these definitions are accurate, they don’t truly paint a picture of what conservation really is to me.

Conservation science is an interdisciplinary science. I was shown a figure similar to the one shown here in a Conservation Biology class. First take a look at the expanded circle of “Conservation Biology”. It encompasses everything including natural resources, ecology, genetics, and even paleobiology. Even as someone passionate in this field, I was surprised by the diversity present here. That isn’t the main takeaway I want people to see though. If you take a look at the circle on the right, you’ll notice that conservation biology is just one of fourteen aspects of conservation science. Conservation scientists must be able to do more than work in a lab. They must be able to pay attention to economics, public policy, agriculture and more. Because of this fact, conservation acts as the bridge between the scientific, political, and general communities.

“The expanding domain of conservation science”. An explanation of all that conservation science and biology encompasses. Figure from Dietl, 2016.

I would define conservation science as “a collaboration between all fields of science and the general public that works to protect and monitor natural ecosystems for their sustainable preservation throughout generations”. That being said, conservationists need to be able to explain concepts that might be tricky in terms that the general public finds interesting and understandable, while at the same time providing legal and monetary justification for the projects they propose. It is a fine line to walk, when the end goal is simply the protection of our natural resources and the world we live on.

Who decides what is conserved?

As I alluded to in the previous section, there are many perspectives and goals for conservation. An individual in the logging industry may drastically oppose the viewpoint of someone looking to conserve unique forest habitats. What conservation comes down to is funding. In the northeastern United States, I was exposed to a somewhat twisted example of this. Hunters have contributed more than $14 billion dollars to conservation since the 1930s. Theoretically, they have a vested interest in conserving the natural world.

White Tailed Deer Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures
White-Tailed Deer (Licensed under Creative Commons) are devastating many forests.

This is true through the historical efforts of sportsmen. They organized hunting seasons, and in turn a number of deer that could be hunted each “season”, a practice which helped dwindling deer populations. Unfortunately, White-tailed deer can also be detrimental to many forests when their populations increase. This species aggressively forages on all the young growth in forests, particularly in the North-Eastern United States. In this region, White-tailed Deer populations are drastically increasing, shifting entire forest compositions, affecting songbird populations, and even changing the landscape.

In our opinion, no other threat to forested habitats is greater at this point in time — not lack of fire, not habitat conversion, not climate change.”

Allen Pursell, Troy Weldy, and Mark White on the effects of White-Tailed Deer population increases.

The issue here arises with convincing hunters (and in turn conservation funding) that lower deer populations are actually better for the forest as a whole. Traditional conservation efforts generally look to increase population numbers, and a larger population of deer provides hunters with an easier “take” each year. This is just one example of how interest groups can drastically affect conservation efforts, both positively and negatively.

Despite this, there are leaders in these decisions. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is a diagnostic tool that ranks the threats species face, as well as providing information on each of those threats in depth. The IUCN partners with governments and scientists alike around the world to provide policy makers with the information they need to make appropriate conservation choices. Groups like the IUCN and its partners are essential for conservation efforts.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species | IUCN
The IUCN Red List ranking for Conservation efforts.

Conservation Physiology: A Diagnostic Tool

Through all of this, criteria is needed to provide those rankings and inform the correct choice in conservation. One relatively newer field in conservation I found incorporates conservation physiology. This encompasses everything from the cellular and biochemical level to the overall animal or plants physiology. Developed in 2006, the goal of conservation physiology is to be a “decision-support tool”. I found this article really interesting, as it provides information on all of the techniques available in a conservation physiologist’s toolbox. While I couldn’t include the full toolbox listed in this paper, If you are interested check out Table 1 here. These researchers provide data showing how diverse and useful this toolbox could be. For instance, blood samples could provide immediate information on the state of the organism, while long term tissue sampling could help measure hormone production in the organism.

To highlight a piece I found the most interesting, researchers are developing tools to analyze stress levels in both plants and animals. They suggest that monitoring thermal tolerance, telomeres, glucocorticoids, and more could provide a better measure of conservation success. Monitoring stress levels could also provide conservationists with more effective captive breeding strategies. In addition to all of this, most of the techniques are non-invasive and the organism is left unharmed. One of the craziest examples I found in this paper was a group who utilized gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to quantify the cortisol levels in the skin of harbor porpoises!

While I have always strayed from the idea of the cellular level of biology, it is clear that collaboration and interaction with conservation physiology could help to expand our understanding of the natural world. Additionally, we live in a world with limited funding and interest in conservation. Toolboxes like this can help conservationists optimize the effect they can have on a species or ecosystem’s preservation.

Final Thoughts

Earlier I mentioned what my undergraduate professor said to me. After a few years out of school, working in education myslef, and continuing my education at the University of Northern Colorado, I see how right he was. To be a conservationist, one has to be able to look past science. They have to have a passion for it, but also be able to remove themselves from the mind of a scientist to explain and advocate for a world that can’t advocate for itself. It takes someone who can take a step back and reconsider the detials, while maintaining a strong sense of what is right for the natural world.

This cellular physiology class was one aspect of my growth in the direction of being a more well-rounded scientist. You might have guessed by now that my professor’s words didn’t deter me from pursuing this career. I still have a long way to go, and a lot of things I want to do in the meantime. However, all I could think of as a response to him (and still my response today) was

“If I don’t, who is going to?”

The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.

E.O Wilson

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