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Holly MoellerRSS Feed of this column.

I'm a graduate student in Ecology and Evolution at Stanford University, where I study ecosystem metabolics and function. In particular, I'm interested in how changes to plant and animal communities... Read More »

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The news finally broke last week, months after the first anxious reports of browning and dying trees near lawns and golf courses across America.  Unlike their wild cousins in the Rockies and British Columbia, these conifers aren’t dying of pest outbreaks – they’re suffering from pesticides.

Between Easter’s religious reminders and a molecular evolution class overdose of population genetics, I shouldn’t have been surprised to wake up yesterday from an unsettling dream about taking my midterm exam on Noah’s Ark. The ocean was rising, Noah was hustling animals aboard, and I was battling asthma (thanks, furry animal allergies). But what bothered me most about all this wasn’t that I’d forgotten the formula for heterozygosity. It was that there were only two animals of every kind.

Religious beliefs aside, today’s scientific consensus is that you need more than two individuals to save a species.

I’ve got to be honest.  Graduate student life comes with awesome perks: flexible schedules, fun-loving coworkers, and amazing travel opportunities.  But the green-eyed monster occasionally peers over my shoulder.
I don’t care how long (or short) of a time you’ve spent lounging in the Stanford bubble. If you haven’t popped out yet to see a sea otter, I have an assignment for you: Drop everything and get to the coast. Charismatic fur balls await.

Today, sea otters are the poster children of cuddle appeal, but their endearing behaviors were lost on the fur hunters of the 1800s. Otter fur lined jackets (and the fur trade lined pockets), but soon otters no longer lined the Pacific Coast.

The sea otter, however, is a “keystone species” — its impact on our coastal ecosystems is disproportionately large compared to its natural abundance in the marine community — so its removal had profound effects that we only noticed recently, as the otter staged a dramatic return over the last 70 years.

Last week, the United Nations added 18 sites around the globe to its list of biosphere reserves, bringing the total number of sites so designated under its Man and the Biosphere Program to 581.

Most of us are probably more familiar with another U.N. collection: World Heritage Sites, which identify “universally” valued spots for conservation and awareness efforts. Indeed, some particularly special locales receive both designations.

But the purpose of biosphere reserves transcends basic conservation. The reserves are intended to showcase ways that humans can reconcile our needs and activities with those of native flora and fauna. They highlight unique and innovative strategies that are working — right now.

Superfund Me

Superfund Me

Jul 03 2011 | 3 comment(s)

Scattered across Santa Clara County — home during our tenure at Stanford — are 23 parcels of land so polluted that they’ve been targeted for government intervention.

These “Superfund sites,”numbering more than 1,250 across the United States and its territories,are contaminated by heavy metals, organic solvents and petroleum residues. Some are at risk of contaminating the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people; others already have. Some sites are sopolluted that their very soil must be scraped away; others will not befit for human habitation for generations.