Introducing a new journal – Citizen Science: Theory and Practice

Citizen scientists conduct a mountain goat survey in Glacier N.P.
Citizen scientists conduct a mountain goat survey in Glacier N.P.

Great news!  The Citizen Science Association is launching a new journal AND it’s open access- meaning you don’t have to have a subscription or access to an academic library to read it.  Way to include the citizens!  The journal will focus on the practice of citizen science, rather than the scientific results of citizen science projects.  Those results should be published in the relevant academic journals just like traditionally sourced data.  Citizen Science: Theory and Practice will “share best practices in conceiving, developing, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining projects that facilitate public participation in scientific endeavors in any discipline.”  The journal will include research papers, review and synthesis papers, case studies as well as essays. You can read the all the details on the journal’s website here: http://theoryandpractice.citizenscienceassociation.org/about/editorialPolicies#focusAndScope  And don’t forget that inaugural membership in the Citizen Science Association (http://citizenscienceassociation.org/) is still free. So go join!

Introducing a new journal – Citizen Science: Theory and Practice

Why Does the Three-toed Woodpecker Have Three Toes? (Or: Questions that distract me from things I ought to be doing)

Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis) by Luis Agassiz Fuertes
Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis) by Luis Agassiz Fuertes

Yesterday I got out for my first cross-country ski in an embarrassing number of years. The occasion was a birding field trip on the Grand Mesa organized by my local Audubon Society chapter- the Grand Valley Audubon Society. The weather was overcast with light snow falling- it made for great skiing conditions, but the birds were lying low. We heard some chickadees in the distance and got a glimpse of what might have been a junco darting into the base of a spruce. I only got a good look at one bird, but it was a great one: an American three-toed woodpecker.

This woodpecker gets its name because it has- you guessed it- three toes. Most birds have four toes- three toes pointing forward and the first toe, or hallux, pointing backward. This arrangement of toes is called anisodactyl. Most woodpeckers also have four toes but in a slightly different arrangement. Their first and fourth toes typically point backward with the second and third toe pointing forward. This arrangement is called zygodactyl. But the American three-toed woodpecker has lost the first toe over the course of evolution and has only the fourth toe pointing backward with the second and third pointing forward. Okay, but why does the three-toed woodpecker only have three-toes?

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As a former ornithology TA, I felt like I should know the answer. After all I had enjoyed torturing undergrads with just this kind of trivia. I had other, much more pressing, work that I needed to be doing today, but my obsessive little mind kept circling back to Google search and dig around through old ornithology studies to find an answer. I feel I should share the answer I pieced together with the world. I am sure, somewhere out there in the vastness of the Internet, someone else’s freaky little mind is obsessing over the same question.

According to my informal investigation, American three-toed woodpeckers are not the only woodpeckers with only three toes. There is a Eurasian three-toed woodpecker that was once thought to be the same species as the American three-toed, but is distinct (Zink et al., 2002.) There is also one other species of woodpecker in North America that has three toes, the black-backed woodpecker. Apparently the first toe has been “lost” over the course of evolution in multiple lineages of woodpecker, but why? For a bird that makes a living clinging to the side of a tree with its feet, you would think losing a toe would be a disadvantage. Not so according to an analysis by Walter J. Bock. Bock (1999) used the “Method of Free-Body Analysis” to determine all the physical forces acting on the clinging bird. According to his analysis, the first toe does not supply much support in the clinging woodpecker. Even in woodpecker species that have not lost a toe, one of the rear toes usually points sideways when the bird is climbing, not backwards. The zygodactyl arrangement of toes is ancestral and is advantageous for perching with the foot wrapped around a twig rather than clinging to the side of a trunk. For instance, parrots, old-world cuckoos and some owls all have zygodactyl feet and they do not typically cling to the sides of trees. When a bird is clinging to the side of a tree, the toes doing most of the work are those that are opposing the force of gravity- the forward facing ones (or toes two and three.)

So if over the millennia a woodpecker were to be born without a first toe, it would not be at a disadvantage. Perhaps it might even be advantageous in some way? Weight reduction perhaps? This three-toed mutation could be passed on to its offspring and eventually become the norm for the species. Losing a digit has happened many times and by various mechanisms in the evolution of vertebrates (Cooper, 2014.) Perhaps someday humans will be exploring a future version of the Internet minus a pinkie finger. Of course, in the distant future (if we haven’t driven ourselves extinct, or become enslaved by artificial intelligence) we probably won’t need fingers at all- we will control everything with our freaky little minds.

Bock, W.J. (1999) Functional and evolutionary morphology of woodpeckers. Ostrich 70 (1): 23-31.

Cooper, K.L. et al. (2014) Patterning and post-patterning modes of evolutionary digit loss in mammals. Nature 511: 41-45.

Zink, R.M. et al. (2002) Holarctic phylogeography and species limits of three- toed woodpeckers. The Condor, 104(1): 167-170.

 

Why Does the Three-toed Woodpecker Have Three Toes? (Or: Questions that distract me from things I ought to be doing)

Airports + Solar: A wise use of space, but how do birds factor in?

Solar array with airplane near Prescott AZ_WS_David Bergman
PV array near Prescott, AZ. Photo by David Bergman

Solar power may seem like an environmentalist’s dream energy source, but it is not without its caveats. Chief among them is that large photovoltaic arrays (solar farms) require space, and frequently the price of that space is a reduction in wildlife habitat. Solar engineers are coming up with creative solutions to this problem such as the solar panel bike path outside of Amsterdam or transparent solar cells (currently in development) that could be fitted over windows. In a recent paper in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, Travis DeVault and co-authors examine another idea- installing photovoltaic arrays at airports.

Airports are one place that environmentalists and industry agree is it best to keep wildlife, especially birds, away. Airplanes and birds are not a good mix. The famous “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing of a jet on the Hudson River was the result of the plane hitting a flock of geese soon after take off. According to the FAA, more than 243 aircraft have been destroyed by birds strikes since 1988, killing over 250 people. A plane may manage to land despite injuries but the bird probably never survives the encounter. Most airports employ active wildlife management programs to deter birds and other wildlife from the airport area to avoid these types of accidents.

Airports also comprise a lot of open space, usually grasslands, necessary for the safe movement of planes. DeVault and colleagues estimate that when all of the airports in the contiguous 48 states are considered together they contain a total area of grassland that is larger than the state of Rhode Island. That is a lot of space. Could that space serve a dual purpose and generate solar power? If this land is already deemed unsuitable for wildlife, why not put photovoltaic arrays here and save good habitat elsewhere?

Sounds like a good idea, but wildlife does not always respond as expected to man-made structures. There is evidence that large photovoltaic arrays might even attract birds that mistake their reflective surfaces for water. So DeVault and his co-authors examined how birds use solar installations at airports. The researchers designated 10 study sites in Ohio, Colorado and Arizona. Each site comprised a pair of locations: an airfield grassland and a nearby PV array installation, so that both the airfield and PV array could be assumed to host similar bird communities. The researchers then conducted surveys to determine bird occupancy and calculated a Bird Hazard Index (BHI). The damage that a bird strike can do to an aircraft is primarily determined by the body mass of the bird and how many birds hit the aircraft. One starling is not as dangerous to a plane as one Canada goose, so simply comparing numbers of birds at airfield grasslands vs. PV arrays would give a false picture of bird strike danger. BHI is calculated by multiplying species body mass by number of individuals observed per hectare and summing across the species for each location.

DeVault and co-authors found no significant difference in BHI between airfield grasslands and PV arrays, suggesting that installing PV arrays in airfields will not increase bird strike risk to aircraft. However the authors point out that their methods likely underestimated bird occupancy in airfield grasslands. In addition, they found that BHI at PV arrays was greatest in the summer when smaller birds used perched on the arrays in their shade. The researchers suggest that if commercial anti-perching devices were installed, they might reduce BHI at PV installations further. These factors, combined with the fact that smaller-bodied birds tended to use PV arrays suggest that PV arrays may actually reduce bird strike danger at airports. Given that airports have a lot of open space and their buildings and other infrastructure use a lot of electricity, installing more solar panels at airports seems like a wise use of space.

Airports + Solar: A wise use of space, but how do birds factor in?