Upcoming Event: Illuminating Engineering Society Mission Section

I’ll be speaking at Antioch University in Santa Barbara on February 19th at noon, in an event organized by Trish Odenthal of the Illuminating Engineering Society Mission Section. The hour and a half event includes lunch and is good for continuing education credit for AIA Health and NCQLP.  Registration is $30, or $15 with no lunch. Click through the image to register.


I Stand with Linda Sue Beck: The Attack on Science at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Linda Sue Beck. It is at her desk that Ammon Bundy, leader of the group of armed anti-government religious fanatics occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, has set up shop. As a federal biologist, like my father was for decades, she works to steward the resources that are held in common trust for all Americans. My stomach turned as the report came through the radio today — approaching a week into the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — and I heard the descriptions of the Bundys picking through her belongings and ridiculing her work.

“She’s not here working for the people,” Ammon’s brother Ryan is quoted as saying. “She’s not benefiting America. She’s part of what’s destroying America.”

The occupiers of the refuge poke fun at Beck, her research on fish, and the normal trappings of a research station, including a dried bird in a storage area. They incredulously claim that the bird is “what they’re going to kill people over.” Presumably “they” is the federal government, and they mean to convey that Nature — the birds, the fish, the land — has no use or value.

These sentiments run counter to American history of conservation and scientific land management. The wildlife refuge system was started because the visionary Teddy Roosevelt could see that the continent risked losing its iconic wildlife if every species and every place was fair game to be hunted. Malheur was one of the first wildlife refuges, established in 1908, and became part of the growing field of scientific wildlife management that came to fruition in the United States.

Cartoonist Ding Darling illustrated the need for scientific game management in the early decades of the 1900s.

Cartoonist Ding Darling illustrated the need for scientific game management in the early decades of the 1900s. (c) Ding Darling Foundation.

Science and the National Wildlife Refuges are intertwined, with an entire model of species conservation and management emerging from regulated hunting and fishing with wildlife refuges at its core. National Wildlife Refuges are places where pathbreaking scientific research has taken place that has led to the great breakthroughs of wildlife management: research on the impacts of lead shot and its replacement by steel shot, the effects of DDT and its subsequent ban, and of course the impacts of harvest on fish and game populations. I know; refuge names were etched into my adolescent vocabulary as my father’s research sites. Patuxent. Missisquoi. Moosehorn. National Wildlife Refuges are secular shrines to wildlife science and scientific management. Do politics and consensus play a role in their management? Certainly, but the National Wildlife Refuges and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are built on the bulwark of the science of wildlife and fisheries sciences.

The armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is, therefore, not just an attack on a federal property. It cuts deeper than that. It is an attack on the modern science-based approach to land management and it is an attack on the value and worth of science and scientists in the United States. This should not come as a surprise. The armed occupiers are extremist Mormons — one of them identified himself as “Captain Moroni” (a figure from the Book of Mormon) and Ammon Bundy describes his actions as the result of consultation with “the Lord.” The occupiers are photographed kneeling in prayer at the refuge. In Linda Sue Beck’s office. Attacks on science from those with extremist religious views are now an unfortunate part of the American political landscape.

Swirling around the Bundys is a maelstrom of conservative malcontents that trace their roots back to the “wise use” movement of the 1980s with its decidedly anti-intellectual and anti-scientific take on the management of public lands. Set aside the ownership of the land — Bundy and the self-styled “patriot” militias of the West fundamentally question the scientific basis for land management.

Unfortunately, the ill-informed reporters sent to cover the slow-motion catastrophe in Oregon fall into the rhetorical trap of the Bundys and their anti-scientific talk-radio enablers. When the occupiers blithely talk of putting the land “to use” again (as if scientific research, recreation, hunting, fishing, education, and all manner of public access were not “use”), the CNN reporter mindlessly repeats the trope, implying that the occupiers have a legitimate demand in wanting to work the land, as if it were some sort of de Tocquevillian tragedy that one of the most productive migratory bird stopover sites on the Pacific flyway was not being overrun with cattle by the ranchers from Utah. No, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge does not need to be worked, and CNN should have reporters that know better than to take the claim at face value.

So I stand with Linda Sue Beck and all of the federal scientists who serve to research, protect, and manage our federal lands. I stand with the scientists, who are under siege, by anti-intellectual know-nothings in the halls of Congress, by vapid inciters on talk radio, and now by armed religious extremists in their very offices. It is time for America to stand up as well.

Travis Longcore, Ph.D.
January 9, 2016

Optics and Photonics News Covers Environmental Impacts of Lighting

Optics and Photonics News Covers Environmental Impacts of Lighting

The message that lights can have environmental consequences becomes more and more mainstream. Optics and Photonics News this month has an article by freelance writer Jeff Hecht, with whom I’ve spoked for other stories before. His article is a multi-page spread and emphasizes both spectrum and intensity and their potential impacts, as well as the potential to mitigate those impacts by customizing both. Here’s my pull quote:

Longcore’s ideal would be very low blue to reduce wildlife impact, with only enough blue added to raise color temperature to 2700 K if necessary for good color rendering.

I actually think that most outdoor lighting can do without blue light and might put an “absolutely” before the “necessary” in the quote. Manufacturers are starting to deliver LEDs that cut out nearly all the blue light, have a reasonable color rendering index, and can be dimmed without an efficiency penalty.

Expert quote on exciting new light pollution research

Australian zoologist Kylie Robert and colleagues have published an exciting new paper on the disruption of breeding patterns and melatonin levels in a free-ranging native mammal. I had the chance to comment on the significance of this research for Science News and am delighted that Dr. Robert will also be presenting at the Annual General Meeting of the International Dark-Sky Association on November 15 in Phoenix. To my knowledge, this paper is one of the first showing these kinds of effects, such as lowered blood melatonin levels, in the field and joins recent work by Davide Dominoni, who showed impacts from night lighting on the physiology of wild birds.


A framework to assess evolutionary responses to anthropogenic light and sound

A framework to assess evolutionary responses to anthropogenic light and sound

John P. Swaddle*, Clinton D. Francis*, Jesse R. Barber, Caren B. Cooper, Christopher C.M. Kyba, Davide M. Dominoni, Graeme Shannon, Erik Aschehoug, Sarah E. Goodwin, Akito Y. Kawahara, David Luther, Kamiel Spoelstra, Margaret Voss, Travis Longcore


  • Anthropogenic light and sound are an important component of global change.
  • These stimuli often co-occur and may function synergistically.
  • The selection pressure of light and noise may drive the rate of evolutionary change.
  • We propose a framework to explore the ultimate consequences of noise and light exposure.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.06.009

Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Human activities have caused a near-ubiquitous and evolutionarily-unprecedented increase in environmental sound levels and artificial night lighting. These stimuli reorganize communities by interfering with species-specific perception of time-cues, habitat features, and auditory and visual signals. Rapid evolutionary changes could occur in response to light and noise, given their magnitude, geographical extent, and degree to which they represent unprecedented environmental conditions. We present a framework for investigating anthropogenic light and noise as agents of selection, and as drivers of other evolutionary processes, to influence a range of behavioral and physiological traits such as phenological characters and sensory and signaling systems. In this context, opportunities abound for understanding contemporary and rapid evolution in response to human-caused environmental change.

Cryptic Biodiversity Abounds in Los Angeles

Cryptic Biodiversity Abounds in Los Angeles

Cities are often perceived as biodiversity wastelands. Adding to that perception is the common result of research surveys of urban biodiversity, which often report limited and declining numbers of species (1). Concealed by that preconception, however, is the extraordinary undiscovered biodiversity that still exists, even in the most urban of environments. Much of this biodiversity is cryptic, defined as “invisible to the naked eye, dormant species, and other species present in such low numbers that they go undetected” (2). Urban biodiversity goes under-recognized both in these small, rare, or morphologically confusing groups and because the assumption is often that nothing is to be found.

Contradicting this perspective are new results from a unique urban biodiversity study that has yielded dozens of new species of flies in the family Phoridae from a mere three months of sampling in backyards in Los Angeles, California (3). The findings come from a project called “BioSCAN” (Biodiversity Science, City and Nature), conducted by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (4). The intent of the project is to inventory the insect biodiversity of Los Angeles. The study focuses on insects because their small size, relatively sedentary habits, and life history diversity could reasonably be expected to make them sensitive responders to varying urban conditions (5, 6).

BioSCAN is based on thirty sampling sites, each with a tent-like Malaise trap and a microclimate weather station, arrayed from the urban core of Los Angeles out to the nearby less-urbanized foothills. Each trap’s sampling bottle is changed weekly, and the study will sample for three years. The diversity data, in conjunction with physical measurements from the microclimate stations and landscape parameters (e.g. local percentage of hardscape, plant species adjacent to the trap, population density, proximity to roads and highways) will be used to develop mechanistic hypotheses about the causes of differences in biodiversity across these conditions.

Access for sampling is a major challenge in urban areas. It is logistically and bureaucratically impractical to deploy thirty sampling stations for three years in urban public or agency land with reasonable security. The solution was to situate most of BioSCAN’s thirty sampling sites in the backyards of volunteers, taking advantage of personal commitments of private property. Involving fewer than thirty families, this is not a typical crowd-sourced “citizen science” program. The intimate involvement between site hosts and researchers, however, has injected science and biodiversity appreciation into the daily life of the site hosts and grounded the researchers in the public life of their city.

Where is previously unknown diversity showing up in the urban environment? Unsurprisingly, it is in the world of small insects — what Piotr Nasrecki has termed “the smaller majority” (7). Like other current research exploring the biodiversity of human-dominated spaces, such as assessments of urban ants through the School of Ants project (8) and bees and butterflies of the Bronx and East Harlem (9), cryptic biodiversity abounds. So far, the BioSCAN survey has yielded at least eighty species in the single phorid fly genus Megaselia, of which thirty are new to science (3). Phoridae is the first taxon that the researchers have examined in depth. Even in one of the most heavily studied insect groups in the world, the drosophilid fruit flies, the survey has yielded unsuspected new finds (10). Finding such undescribed diversity strongly suggests that further exploration will yield dozens of new species across the insect taxa.

Although it would be efficient and ultimately necessary to discern the full range of insect biodiversity through genetic techniques (11), the early results rely on traditional taxonomy, with Hartop and colleagues illustrating the diagnostic differences in genitalia of the thirty new species in careful hand-drawn figures (3). The illustrations highlight the craftsman-like dedication required of traditional insect taxonomy and will be an irreplaceable educational tool in educating Los Angeles schoolchildren how 30 different kinds of flies could be so similar and yet different.

The results from Los Angeles are establishing baselines of species distribution. Not enough is known about these groups to even predict whether the species are native and continue to thrive in the urban forest of Los Angeles neighborhoods or whether they represent cosmopolitan species that might be found in other cities. Documenting and understanding patterns of seemingly inconsequential species groups is important, as shown by the utter lack of knowledge about the prior distributions of emerging pathogens such as the fungi Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which was cryptic biodiversity until it was identified as a pathogen responsible for decline and extinction of amphibians (12, 13) and Geomyces destructans, responsible for white nose syndrome and resulting collapse of bat populations in North America (14). If we know more about the nature of the surface of the moon than we do of the microbes and microscopic insects of our cities — and we do — society will remain vulnerable to the unintended consequences of global homogenization and transportation of that biota. And urban planning cannot fully incorporate biodiversity unless we actually how the full range of biodiversity is affected by urbanization.

The study of urban ecology also inevitably involves working with the people living in the research area. Rather than being seen as a challenge, that is a strongly positive benefit of urban work. People who experience nature care more about conserving it (15). Conservation of worldwide biodiversity, even outside of urban areas, depends on large numbers of people caring about it. Paradoxically, therefore, the fate of global biodiversity conservation rests on how city dwellers — now a majority group — experience urban nature (16, 17).

Literature Cited

  1. M. L. McKinney, Effects of urbanization on species richness: A review of plants and animals. Urban Ecosystems 11, 161-176 (2008).
  2. G. F. Esteban, B. J. Finlay, Conservation work is incomplete without cryptic biodiversity. Nature 463, 293 (2010).
  3. E. A. Hartop, B. V. Brown, R. H. L. Disney, Opportunity in our ignorance: urban biodiversity study reveals 30 new species and one new Nearctic record for Megaselia (Diptera: Phoridae) in Los Angeles (California, USA). Zootaxa 3941, 451–484 (2015).
  4. B. V. Brown, A. Borkent, R. Wetzer, D. Pentcheff, New types of Inventories at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Am. Entomol. 60, 231–234 (2014).
  5. C. Kremen et al., Terrestrial arthropod assemblages: their use in conservation planning. Conserv. Biol. 7, 796–808 (1993).
  6. T. Longcore, Terrestrial arthropods as indicators of ecological restoration success in coastal sage scrub (California, USA). Restor. Ecol. 11, 397–409 (2003).
  7. P. Naskrecki, The smaller majority: the hidden world of the animals that dominate the tropics. (Harvard University Press, 2005).
  8. A. Lucky et al., Ecologists, educators, and writers collaborate with the public to assess backyard diversity in The School of Ants Project. Ecosphere 5, 78 (2014).
  9. K. C. Matteson, G. A. Langellotto, Determinates of inner city butterfly and bee species richness. Urban Ecosystems 13, 333–347 (2010).
  10. D. Grimaldi et al., Strange little flies in the big city: exotic flower-breeding Drosophilidae (Diptera) in urban Los Angeles. PLoS ONE, (in press).
  11. R. Meier, W. Wong, A. Srivathsan, M. Foo, $1 DNA barcodes for reconstructing complex phenomes and finding rare species in specimen‐rich samples. Cladistics in press, (2015).
  12. J. E. Longcore, A. P. Pessier, D. K. Nichols, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis gen. et sp. nov., a chytrid pathogenic to amphibians. Mycologia 91, 219–227 (1999).
  13. M. C. Fisher, T. W. Garner, S. F. Walker, Global emergence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and amphibian chytridiomycosis in space, time, and host. Annu. Rev. Microbiol. 63, 291–310 (2009).
  14. A. Gargas, M. Trest, M. Christensen, T. J. Volk, D. Blehert, Geomyces destructans sp. nov. associated with bat white-nose syndrome. Mycotaxon 108, 147–154 (2009).
  15. J. R. Miller, Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. Trends Ecol. Evol. 20, 430–434 (2005).
  16. R. Dunn, M. Gavin, M. Sanchez, J. Solomon, The pigeon paradox: dependence of global conservation on urban nature. Conserv. Biol. 20, 1814–1816 (2006).
  17. E. W. Sanderson, A. Huron, Conservation in the city. Conserv. Biol. 25, 421-423 (2011).