44% of Earth’s land surface must receive conservation attention to stop the biodiversity crisis

The minimum land area requiring conservation attention to safeguard biodiversity

James R. Allan, Hugh P. Possingham, Scott C. Atkinson, Anthony Waldron, Moreno Di Marco, Stuart H.M. Butchart, Vanessa M. Adams, W. Daniel Kissling, Thomas Worsdell, Chris Sandbrook, Gwill Gibbon, Kundan Kumar, Piyush Mehta, Martine Maron, Brooke A. Williams, Kendall R. Jones, Brendan A. Wintle, April E. Reside, James E. M. Watson. 

Summarized by Michael Hallinan

What data were used? No new data was generated for this study, instead already existing data from different sources was combined in a new way. Spatial data about existing protected areas, key biodiversity areas, and ecologically intact areas was taken from the World Database on Protected Areas from February 2020 and 2017. In addition, data from the September 2019 version of the World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas was used, as well as animal distribution data from IUCN Red List and the BirdLife International Handbook. All this data was then merged to create an existing guide to important conservation areas as well as biodiversity. This is necessary to determine the existing species health and eventually predict future species health.

Methods: Using the animal distribution data, targets were set for what percentage needs to be conserved based on the range and quantity of each of the groups such as freshwater crabs, terrestrial mammals, and birds. Following this, an analysis on each species range and the determined important conservation areas was performed to identify what additional range may be needed as well as a potential lack of species in those areas. Then, a series of optimization analyses was performed on 30 x 30 km land units to determine which land would need to be conserved to reach those targets. Factors like cost, historical inquiry, human development, and the inability to perform agriculture as a result of conservation were also estimated. Finally, after all these considerations, potential areas for future conservation efforts were identified and outlined as different components. There are four components: Protected areas, which are areas outlined for general conservation; Key Biodiverse areas, which is land labeled for conservation of specific biodiversity; Ecologically Intact communities are ecological land which contain all the expected species within the ecosystem; and Conservation Priorities, which is land that requires conservation attention.

Results: Ultimately, the study estimates that the minimum land area that needs conservation attention to safeguard biodiversity is 64.7 million square kilometers (~24.9 million square miles), or roughly 44% of Earth’s terrestrial area. This 64.7 million comprises 35.1 million km of ecologically intact areas, 20.5 million of already existing protected areas, 11.6 million of key biodiversity areas, and 12.4 million km of additional land needed to promote species wellness in the smallest range possible. As for specific regions, this means 64% of the land in North America, and at least 33.1% of Europe’s land needs to be protected.

In addition to these spatial statistics, it’s also found that currently 1.87 billion people live on land that needs conservation attention, or approximately 24% of the world’s population with Africa, Asia, and Central America being the most affected due to high population density.  Approximately 55% of this land is located in developed economies such as Canada or Germany. As for the animal targets themselves, amphibians, reptiles, and freshwater animals were found to be below even half the target population . On the other hand, birds and mammals were found to be between 50 and 75% of the target population.

A map of the world, where terrestrial land is marked with protected areas, key biodiversity areas, ecologically intact areas, and additional conservation priorities identified. North America features many areas of key biodiversity with much of the United States being labeled as additional conservation priorities, specifically along the coast and the south-east. Canada is overwhelmingly labeled as ecologically intact with some already protected areas and some key biodiversity areas. Central America is heavily labeled as in need of conservation priorities with a relatively-high quantity of key biodiversity areas. South America consists of heavily protected areas in the Amazonas with many areas of additional conservation priorities along the coasts, and some key biodiversity areas. Large parts of identified areas in Europe are already protected, with some new conservation priorities near coastal regions and eastern Europe such as Belarus. Africa is mainly ecologically intact with the Sahara desert in the north, anda diverse mixture of protected areas, additional conservation priority areas, and key biodiversity areas across the whole continent. Next, Oceania has a large quantity comprising mostly protected areas and ecologically intact areas in central Australia with additional conservation priorities identified around the coast and neighboring island nations. Lastly, Asia is heavily ecologically intact towards the northern part of Russia, and becomes a mixture of protected areas, ecologically intact, and a heavy quantity of conservation priority areas as you go from the southern part of Russia through the rest of the continent. It’s also notable that China contains a large amount of the protected areas in the Himalayas.
This graph shows the protected areas (light blue), Key Biodiversity Areas (purple), and ecologically intact areas (dark blue), as well as new conservation priorities (green). The Venn Diagram to the left shows proportional overlap between features, showing that the majority of both the ecologically intact areas as well as the key biodiversity areas are currently not yet protected.

Why is this study important?: Land loss and conversion is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. As climate change increases and human development expands, plants and animals become increasingly threatened and infringed upon leading to potential permanent damage, loss of life, and possibly even extinction. By performing studies like these, we can identify what areas are especially valuable, create action plans to remediate damage and support existing animal biodiversity.

This study identifies not only the amount of land needed, but also suggests where specific conservation attention needs to be focussed, as well as economic and social considerations that should be taken into account. In addition it needs to be kept in mind that historically, some conservation actions have adversely affected Indigienous people, Afro-descendants, and other local communities such as forcible removal of native populations off land in the name of conservation. By considering all of the social, economic, scientific, and historical factors that affect this issue, we can support the world around us better. 

The Big Picture: To safeguard biodiversity throughout future years, conservation attention needs to be given to an estimated minimum of 64.7 million square kilometers or roughly 44% of the Earth’s terrestrial land. This was estimated through mapping and data analysis of existing protected areas and existing species distribution data, which was then viewed on a global scale. Amphibians, reptiles, and freshwater animals are the furthest from the targets they need to meet to survive in the long run.The majority of the land which needs the most conservation efforts appears in developed nations. 

Citation: Allan, J.R., Possingham, H.P., Atkinson, S.C., Waldron, A., Di Marco, M., Butchart, S.H., Adams, V.M., Kissling, W.D., Worsdell, T., Sandbrook, C. and Gibbon, G., 2022. The minimum land area requiring conservation attention to safeguard biodiversity. Science376(6597), pp.1094-1101.

Elizabeth Rohlicek, Podcast host and Paleobiologist

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Living on Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest, I’m so lucky to be in such a great environment. I love packing up my car and going for hikes, camping, island hopping, and paddling on the ocean. My summer days are spent reading and camping, and my winter (rainy) months are spent playing board games on my couch in front of the fire after a day of skiing. One of my passions outside of my research is my podcast Below the Tide. I get to chat with scientists about their marine research, and make it accessible to the public.

Elizabeth stands in a museum exhibit at the Royal BC Museum with an image of an Orca Whale behind her. She is wearing a striped shirt while she holds large vertebra fossils in her hands.
© Kristina Blanchflower with Hakai Magazine (photo is from the article Whales in the Cliff Face https://hakaimagazine.com/features/whales-in-the-cliff-face/)

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I started my research as an undergraduate project, for course credit. The curator of paleontology at the Royal British Columbia Museum is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, where I was completing my degree. I had been volunteering with Dr. Arbour for a couple of weeks before March 2020. In September of 2020 she offered me a project that involved looking through some cabinets of cetacean fossils from Vancouver Island that had been collected over the last few decades. The fossils had never been evaluated nor published on. So I jumped in, and learned about fossils as I went. The fossils are from the Oligocene period, which is a geological time period that defines the time of about 23-33 million years ago. This is such an important time in whale evolution; it is the time where we see toothed whales and baleen whales diverging. Before this time, all whales were toothed, and hunted their food. But something happened in this time period where whales started to grow baleen plates in their mouth, and the fun part is that nobody is completely sure why! A really thrilling part of this work is that the fossils were found on Vancouver Island, where I live. My research is helping to contribute to the fossil record of the North Pacific, and putting Vancouver Island on the map to prove the importance of the fossil record here. Oligocene-aged whale fossils are not found everywhere in the world; there are only select geographic areas where fossils from this time period can be found easily, and it just so happens that one of my favourite beaches on the island is a prime fossil hunting location!

Through this project I did some outreach work through the museum; creating accessible learning material in different media types and presenting my research at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in 2021!

I discovered this immense passion for public outreach and making science accessible, through this research project. That was what pushed me to start my podcast: Below the Tide. The goal of Below the Tide is to create a space in which marine scientists can share their research and stories in an accessible way to the public. We break down their research and chat about what their path and fieldwork looks like. I love the idea of bringing attention to so many realms of marine science, but also showing that scientists lead such remarkable lives.

Elizabeth sits at a table with her computer open, and three vertebrae fossils in front of her. She is wearing a mask, and has an open notebook in front of her with sketches of the fossils on her desk.
© Victoria Arbour

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? I’ve always been into science, since I was a kid. My parents were in the science field, but they always encouraged me to follow my own path. My interest in science was different from theirs – I was really intrigued in the inner workings of ecosystems, and marine science. I moved across Canada from Montreal to Victoria to study marine science at the University of Victoria, and completed a bachelor’s degree in biology and earth and ocean sciences. Through my degree I got really interested in paleobiology, specifically cetacean evolution. My other interest in the scientific field really is science communication. I’m excited to see where my podcast takes me, and I hope making science accessible is something I can continue in.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? Paleobiology in general is really important for understanding ecosystem and organism evolution, and their responses to changes in the environment. Even looking at cetacean evolution; we can see there was an immense amount of diversity in cetacean populations about 33 million years ago. Today’s cetacean populations are commonly struggling in the face of climate change, and other anthropogenic influences.  We can use the past millions of years of changing climate to assess how populations today may face the current issues. The field of anything paleo related isn’t all about fossils; it also includes ancient climates, ecosystems, influences, changes, and so much more. I love how the realm of paleo is so collaborative and is just one big puzzle.

Five fossils sit on foam on top of a table. There is a large canon camera mounted on a tripod, facing them. Rulers and calipers are also on the table next to Liz’s computer.
© Elizabeth Rohlicek

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Take opportunities as they are presented to you, and reach out to people. I’m a believer in no opportunity is a waste of time, it definitely is a growing opportunity. If you start a volunteer position in a lab and realize you aren’t keen on lab work; you’ve learned something about yourself! Congrats! It means that you now know that a career or position in a lab may not be your cup of tea. And on the second point; reach out to people if you want to learn about their research. Ask questions, ask for potential volunteer positions, ask for career advice. The worst that will happen is that they will say no. So if you are interested in a certain field, find someone who is in that field and ask to connect. They are your most valuable resource. That way you can ask all the questions, ask for advice, and network.

Follow Liz’s updates on Twitter (hyperlink) and her podcast on Twitter (hyperlink) and Instagram (hyperlink)!

Climate Change Very Likely to Slow Plant Growth in Northern Hemisphere

Future reversal of warming-enhanced vegetation productivity in the Northern Hemisphere

By: Yichen Zhang, Shillong Piao, Yan Sun, Brendan M. Rogers, Xiangyi Li, Xu Lian, Zhihua Liu, Anping Chen, Josep Peñuelas

Summarized by: Michael Hallinan

What data were used? No new data was generated for this study, instead existing data from different sources was used and combined. The majority of the data used in this study comes from FLUXCOM, an initiative that uses satellite remote sensing, meteorological data, and site level observations at a global scale. In addition, data was also sourced from the World Climate Research Program, including from a variety of contributors such as the Canadian Center for Climate Modeling and Analysis and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Information on temperature, precipitation, surface downwelling shortwave radiation, maximum near-surface air temperature, and total influx of carbon into an ecosystem were used.

Methods: An earth climate model was created using the relationship between surface air temperature, summer carbon influx, precipitation, and surface downwelling radiation for the Northern Hemisphere. This model featured a moving 20-year window from 2001-2020 all the way to 2081-2100. Then using this model, analysis on carbon influx and surface air temperature was performed to generate a predictive model for temperature. From here, bias corrections were applied using observed data from 2001 to 2013 to help correct the model. Finally, projected temperatures were then compared to the historically observed optimal temperature for vegetation productivity. 

Results: Through this study it was discovered that there is a positive correlation between carbon fixation during summer and temperatures, although the correlation becomes negative at lower latitudes, specifically less than 45 degrees North, which could be a result of water deficits. Furthermore, it was also seen that about 48% of Northern vegetative land will see a significant decrease in the quantity of carbon fixed as a result of warming by 2060. Most regions will also experience a reduction in vegetative productivity as early as 2030-2070. This development will likely not reach the northern regions prior to the end of the modeled time frame (2100). However, in the worst case scenario most latitudes south of 50 degrees north such as much of the temperate United States, Asia, and the equatorial regions of Africa and South America were affected. It is important to note that study does not account for any of the southern hemisphere. 

A model of the earth, showing when temperature increase will begin to have a net negative effect on vegetative growth. Much of the northern hemisphere below 50 degrees north experiences this in 2030 or earlier. Slightly north of those regions the estimate is closer to 2070, with regions near the Artic and Tibetan Plateau not experiencing this till the end of the modeled time frame of 2100.
Map identifying the worst case scenarios climate model, showing timing of when temperature increase will begin to have a net negative effect on vegetative growth.

Why is the study important?: Climate change includes an increase in temperatures, which has caused an increase in vegetation productivity in the extratropical Northern Hemisphere since 1980. However, as climate change has begun to speed up, the positive benefits are estimated to change into a net negative effect on growth as temperature increases further. This study delves further into this idea and creates estimates based on different regions of when that will occur. This in turn can allow for preparedness, such as advancement of remediation plans to help us offset the negative effects of extreme temperatures on plant growth. 

The Big Picture: Vegetation is essential for agriculture, ecosystem balance, and general quality of life, so understanding the potential threat this aspect of climate change holds is essential for long-term sustainability and survival. Climate change has had a positive influence on plant growth in the extratropical Northern Hemisphere as early as 1980. However, this study has shown a shift in this to being a net negative influence as early as 2030 especially in regions below 50 degrees North. Regions closer to the Arctic and Tibetan Plateau are much less (or much slower) affected though, with a worst-case scenario not showing a tipping point prior to 2100 when net negative effects occur. Using these estimates, we can plan for this decrease in vegetative productivity as well as try to adapt and mitigate to minimize future negative impacts induced by the temperature increase.

Citation: Zhang, Y., Piao, S., Sun, Y. et al. Future reversal of warming-enhanced vegetation productivity in the Northern Hemisphere. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 581–586 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01374-w

Identifying new-found Complexities in Chimpanzee Communication

Chimpanzees produce diverse vocal sequences with ordered and recombinatorial properties

Cédric Girard-Buttoz, Emiliano Zaccarella, Tatiana Bortolato, Angela D. Friederici, Roman M. Wittig, and Catherine Crockford

Summarized by Michael Hallinan

What data were used? This study uses 4826 recordings of 46 wild adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) from Tai National Park located in Ivory Coast, West Africa. The chimpanzees recorded were fully accustomed to human observers, and comprised three different chimpanzee communities. These observations were performed by focusing on each of the 46 chimpanzees individually and continuously recording throughout January and February of 2019 as well as December 2019 to March 2020.

Methods: These recordings were classified by trained listeners into Grunts, Hoos, Barks, and Screams with variation on the sounds being panted or unpanted, meaning that they were either emitted singly (unpanted) or released as a string of sounds with audible breaths in between (panted). In addition to type classification, other information such as frequency level, noisiness, and occurrence were also collected. Each call was examined to identify which sounds occurred in association with other sounds or by itself. The data was analyzed to answer the following research questions: First, is there flexibility, can most sounds or calls used be combined with most others? (Can A, B, C, be AB, CB, BA, etc.?) Second, is there a specific ordering? (Does AB mean the same as BA?) Lastly, can short sequences be combined  into longer sequences? (Can AB occur as ABC, or can AB and CD occur as ABCD?)

Results: Initially, there were slightly over 400 sound units identified suggesting nearly 400 “words” within their vocabulary. It was found that chimpanzees could flexibly combine as well as recombine single units across those identified, with 11 out of the 12 single unit sounds also appearing in sequences together with 4-9 other sounds. Many of the single-unit calls could be emitted within two-unit calls and two-unit calls could be added to another unit to produce three-unit calls. Additionally, 52.6% of all two unit calls were produced reversed and forwards at least once (BA and AB) with 57% of the tested two unit calls showing bias for appearing in a certain order. Although some of the single units could appear at the beginning or end of calls, there generally was bias suggesting a more complex grammatical structure and ordering pattern. That being said though, to identify a more complex grammar structure and how that could be used to understand meaning, more research needs to be done. 

A bar chart with length of speech units displayed across the x-axis and number of recordings the units appeared in on the y-axis in a log scale. The frequency of sounds recorded decreases as the unit length of the sounds increases, with the exception of single-unit panted sounds, which appears slightly less frequent then two-unit sounds. Once the units reach a length of 7 units, only females are recorded making sounds of these lengths up till 10 units. Generally, 1 through 4 unit length sounds appear very frequently with over 40 appearing, until it drops off to 32 at 5 units, 20 at 6 units, 10 at 7 units, and finally 4 at 8 units, and 2 for 9 and 10 units.
This bar graph shows the number of different utterances, with the number of units in each utterance displayed across the x axis, while the y axis shows the number of recordings on a log scale. The number of individuals using the unit at each length appears on top of each individual bar. The dark blue bars represent male and female generated sounds and the light blue bars represent only female-generated sounds. Last, the red box indicates the data used for two-unit analysis and the yellow box for three-unit analysis.

Why is this study important? Language is one of the biggest challenges in evolutionary science. Although different species such as certain types of birds, non-human primates and bats have been identified to have specific sound sets used to communicate, there is a huge limitation to our understanding of its development since what we know as language can not be fossilized. Comparative studies like this are therefore our main resource for understanding language and how it has evolved throughout time. This study reveals that primate language is more complex than we previously thought it was, showing more complex structures, and therefore has the potential to convey more meaning and more intricate speech. 

The Big Picture: Chimpanzees have been identified to produce and order sounds using a more complex grammatical structure than previously thought. This was observed through multiple sound units being combined together in patterns beyond random chance, in multiple fashions with bias towards certain structures. Although we don’t understand the content of their sounds, this reveals a more complex nature to their communication and with more research we might be able to potentially decipher their meaning. 

Citation: Girard-Buttoz, C., Zaccarella, E., Bortolato, T. et al. Chimpanzees produce diverse vocal sequences with ordered and recombinatorial properties. Commun Biol 5, 410 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-022-03350-8

A data-driven evaluation of lichen climate change indicators in Central Europe

Matthew P. Nelson and H. Thorsten Lumbsch

Summarized by Anna Geldert

What data were used? For this study, researchers obtained collection data on 35 of the 45 lichen species designated as climate change indicators from the Global Biodiversity and Information Facility (GBIF). Data for this study focused on patterns found in Central Europe, and most specifically, Germany.

Methods: GBIF data on the lichen species were categorized into two age groups: before 1970, and 1970 to present. 1970 marked the year where reductions in the use of sulfur dioxide pollutants was implemented in Europe. Because pollution levels also play a role in the survival of lichen populations, it was important to create this distinction to separate this variable from other population changes due to climate change. Lichen species with fewer than 10 historical records were deemed unreliable and excluded from further analysis, leaving only 17 out of the 35 species. To determine the lichen’s preferred habitat, researchers combined historical distribution records of where the different species of lichen were found over time with a map of climate variables (temperature, humidity, soil composition, etc.). Using a computer model, they were able to predict the lichens’ preferred habitats with 95% accuracy, and generate a map to represent these predictions spatially. The map was compared to modern data to evaluate potential changes due to climate change.

Results: The results of this study revealed that approximately half of the 17 primary species studied were found in significant numbers outside their historical range, while the other half still resides primarily in the same regions as they did prior to 1970. Species other than the primary 17 did not have sufficient historical data to recognize specific trends in geographic distribution. However, researchers noted that only one third of these additional species saw an increase in abundance in recent years, while the other two thirds saw equal or reduced numbers compared to the limited historical records.

The map shows the distribution of Opergrapha vermicellifera over time. The map spans 10° of latitude, from 45° North to 55° North, and 20° of longitude, from 5° East to 25° East. The map is divided into suitable and unsuitable habitat for Opegrapha vermicellifera, which are shaded in dark green and light green respectively. The suitable habitat makes up only about 10% of the image, and is composed of a narrow, uneven band running from 46° North, 5° East to 55° North, 14° East. Approximately 11 historical (before 1970s) records of lichen distribution are marked by yellow triangles on the map, and all are contained within or along the border of the area denoted as “suitable” habitat. Approximately 30 modern (1970 to present) records of lichen distribution are shown, and are marked with purple circles. While some modern lichen records lie within the “suitable” habitat, approximately two thirds lie in the “unsuitable” area; the majority of these points lie 5° to 10° East and a few degrees South of the “suitable” range.
Fig 1. Distribution of Opegrapha vermicellifera is shown as an example of one of the maps created to analyze changes in lichen distribution over time. The map compares historical records from prior to 1970 (orange triangles) and modern records from after 1970 (purple circles). Habitat deemed suitable/unsuitable was determined using a computer model of climate variables based on pre-1970 habitat. For Opegrapha vermicellifera, over 30% of modern records lie outside historically suitable habitat.

Why is this study important? This study calls into question the usefulness of lichen as climate change indicator species. For one, the study found that there is very little data, especially historical data, on these species and the habitat they lived in originally. Therefore, it is somewhat difficult to draw conclusions regarding the degree of the lichen’s response to climate change. The study also found that, even among species with sufficient data, only about half were found outside their historical range. If climate change was truly impacting lichen populations as much as was originally thought, researchers would expect to find all populations outside of this range because they would have migrated to better suit their traditional habitat. These results pose the question as to whether other factors may be impacting the distribution of lichen even more so than climate change. For example, the rise and fall of sulfur dioxide pollutants before and after 1970 may be more significant.

The big picture: This study serves as a warning for climate change scientists, who may tend to jump to conclusions regarding migration, geographic distribution, and local extinction of many species of lichen in recent years. For many species of lichen, there is not enough data to determine whether the geographic distribution of lichen has changed, as well as whether these changes were due to climate change instead of other factors. More research and collection of historical data is needed in order to confirm the usefulness of these species as climate change indicators in future studies.

Citation: Nelsen, M. P., & Lumbsch, H. T. (2020). A data-driven evaluation of lichen climate change indicators in Central Europe. Biodiversity and Conservation, 29(14), 3959–3971. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-020-02057-8

2022 Virtual Internship Program in Science Communication

The 2022 Virtual Internship Program in Science Communication was spearheaded by Committee Chair, Sarah Sheffield. The Committee included Linda K. Dämmer, Sam Ocon, Alex Favaro, Kristina Barclay, Adriane Lam, and Jen Bauer. The program was intended to be approximately 5 weeks long and the interns were expected to produce 10 blog posts each.

Funding for this year’s program was provided by the Paleontological Society, Geological Society of America, and the Western Interior Paleontological Society. This funding was mainly used to pay the interns and to provide an honorarium for the guest speakers, with none of the funding going to the committee, the mentors, or the Time Scavengers organization.

We had five guest speakers who specialize in different aspects of science communication, with each talking about different aspects of science communication:

  1. Riley Black is a self described fossil-fanatic and the author of a number of very popular paleontology- focused scicomm books such as “My Beloved Brontosaurus” and “Written In Stone”. Riley talked about her experience with navigating the popular science publishing world and gave the interns very insightful tips on finding and identifying exciting stories to write about. Learn more about Riley on her website.
  2. Liz Hare is a quantitative geneticist who focuses much of her work on learning more about dog genetics. Liz is an expert on using alt-text for scientific images since she is blind. Therefore she taught the interns what is required to describe images efficiently to make scientists’ work more accessible to people with visual impairments or other people who use a screen reader. Learn more about Liz on her website.
  3. Priya Shukla, a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Davis, is studying how climate change affects shellfish aquaculture operations within the coastal ocean. Priya spent a lot of time discussing with the interns the importance of thinking about your own identity and including bits and pieces of it in your science communication efforts. Bringing in your identity to scicomm makes it easier for the readers to form a personal connection to you and the topic, making it more likely for them to get excited about the content. Learn more about Priya on her website.
  4. Kelsey Leonard is a water scientist, legal scholar, policy expert, writer, and enrolled citizen of the Shinnecock Nation. Kelsey’s work focuses on Indigenous water justice and its climatic, territorial, and governance underpinnings for our shared sustainable future. She discussed getting involved with informing political and governmental agencies about relevant research results, but also about the importance of making sure local people are aware of research concerning their environment. Learn more about Kesley on her website.
  5. Edith Carolina Rojas is a professor at College of the Desert. She discussed how to efficiently break down complicated concepts and showed us which of her classroom teaching strategies can be applied to other forms of science communication. She also focussed on how to make science communication more accessible to non-native English speakers.

The committee received 24 applications and we had enough funding to support 4 interns, with an additional intern auditing the program and writing posts. Applications were ranked based on: lack of previous opportunities, interest, and values that aligned with the Time Scavengers mission. If you would like to see the rubric we used to rank the applicants, please reach out! Over the next few weeks you will be seeing all of the intern posts from the internship program released here on the website using the tag #VIPSciComm. The five 2022 VIPSciComm interns are listed below. Click on their image or caption to read all of their posts!

Habiba Rabiu
Makayla Palm
Anna Geldert



Michael Hallinan
Blair Stuhlmuller

Examining the types of Devonian trilobites in North Africa

Trilobite biodiversity trends in the Devonian of North Africa

Bault, V., Crônier, C., Allaire, N., & Monnet, C.

Summarized by Tom Shea, a fourth-year geology major at the University of South Florida. After completing his degree, he plans on going to graduate school to study seismology. Outside of class, Tom likes to go to USF games and spend time at the beach. 

What data were used?  1,171 trilobite fossils of 556 different species found in 168 locations throughout Northern Africa.

Methods:  This study ranked the trilobite samples by taxonomic rank (i.e., species, genus, family, etc.) to find ranks which were unique to Northern Africa and then used that information, called taxonomic richness, to show the biodiversity trends over the course of the early Paleozoic. This experiment focused heavily on trilobite genera (plural of genus).

Results: The data show that the biodiversity of trilobites varied significantly from the late Silurian Period through the Devonian Period. During the late Silurian, specifically during the Ludfordian and Přídolí Epochs (~427-423 MA and ~423-419 MA, respectively), biodiversity of trilobites declined steeply until there were eventually zero trilobites in the entire region (figure 1; also refer to figure 1 for the geologic time scale terminology used throughout this summary). The biodiversity of trilobites started rising again once the Devonian Period began.

Figure: A graph showing the biodiversity of trilobite genera in the late Silurian Period and the entire Devonian Period. The x-axis represents time, running from the Ludfordian Epoch to the end of the Devonian Period. The y-axis represents the number of genera, running from 0 to 60. Four lines are plotted on the graph: one for shareholder quorum sampling for 70 samples, one for sampled in bin index, one for range-through diversity, and one for boundary-crosser diversity. Each of the four plots show that the population of trilobites in this area started at nearly none at the end of the Silurian, but then exploded during the first few epochs of the Devonian before crashing back down near zero once again in the mid to late Devonian.
Figure 1: This graph shows that the number of different trilobite genera peaked in the Emsian Epoch of the Devonian Period after a few million years of rapid growth, followed by the population crashing right back down to near zero. The different curves indicate different measures of diversity, but all follow the same overall trends of the highs and lows of diversity.

During the early to mid-Devonian, and particularly in the mid to late Pragian Epoch within the mid-Devonian (~410-407 MA), trilobite diversity rose rapidly, from around 10 different genera in an interval to around 40 in only 1.5 million years. Once the Pragian gave way to the Emsian Epoch (~407-393 MA) though, the trilobite numbers in North Africa began sharply decreasing once again. This decrease continued until around halfway through the epoch, when the trilobite biodiversity suddenly and rapidly rose once again. The trilobites in North Africa eventually peaked with roughly 60 different genera sampled in a single interval near the end of the Emsian. After the peak, the number of genera began rapidly falling, a fall which became even steeper when the Emsian became the Eifelian Epoch. The event became known as the Choteč Event, which was relatively minor to most creatures for an extinction event but was absolutely devastating to trilobites in North Africa; this was caused by water becoming much deeper and causing extinction in shallower water trilobites. Trilobite numbers continued falling until there was not a single genus of trilobite living in this part of North Africa, which happened shortly after the Frasnian Epoch of the Devonian (~383-372 MA) began. Some genera of trilobites would return to North Africa later in the Frasnian, and these trilobites in the area fared better than many other creatures would in the Kellwasser mass extinction (~372 MA, the boundary of the Frasnian and Fammenian epochs of the late Devonian), which was one of the largest mass extinction events in history. Three of the five remaining orders of trilobites went extinct due to the Kellwasser event, severely limiting the chance of trilobite biodiversity in North Africa being anywhere near what existed prior to the Choteč Event.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it revealed a lot about the history of the past ocean, now part of Morocco, and the chronostratigraphy of that area, meaning the types of rocks in relation to the time period. This study ties sea level change and hypoxia (i.e., low levels of oxygen) to biodiversity in trilobites. For example, the sea level rise of the Choteč Event caused extinctions in shallow water trilobites; since trilobites were unusually hard-hit during the Choteč, this allowed scientists to see a different view of this geologic event. The Kellwasser extinction showed increasing hypoxia that led to extinction as well. With such a great fossil record like the trilobites seen here, we can get extremely detailed pictures of how certain groups responded to extinction events.

The big picture:  This study shows that by looking at the fossil record, you can tell a lot about the geologic history of an area. It is also important to note that this study helps us understand more about extinction events and biodiversity trends in the Paleozoic of Africa, as most paleontological studies have focused on data collection from Europe and North America that tend to bias our understanding of global events. 

Citation: Bault, V., Crônier, C., Allaire, N., & Monnet, C. (2021). Trilobite biodiversity trends in the Devonian of North Africa. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 565, 110208–. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2020.110208

Anna Geldert (she/her), Geobiology Undergraduate Student

background: greenery with trees and leaves and grassy area. foreground: Anna hugging a tree trunk and smiling. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hi! My name is Anna Geldert (she/her). I’m from Minnesota, but I’ve spent the past year living in Vermont where I’m working toward my undergraduate degree at Middlebury College. In my free time, I enjoy reading, writing, practicing music, and playing volleyball on my college’s club team. I’m also a huge outdoor enthusiast, and I always look forward to camping, hiking, canoeing, or skiing with friends and family. Spending so much time outdoors as a kid is one of the factors that sparked my interest in the natural sciences in the first place, and the main reason I am so passionate about sustainability today. 

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? Currently, I’m working toward a joint undergraduate degree in Biology and Geology. I’m fascinated by the way Earth’s natural systems function, and how they’ve evolved around the world and across geologic time. While I’m not totally sure what direction I want to go in this field, I’m ultimately hoping to pursue a career doing field research in relation to ecosystem response to climate and other anthropogenic change. 

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? In many ways, my interest in science developed long before I took any classes or considered a career in the field. One of my biggest supporters is my dad, who is a physics teacher. Growing up, he always encouraged me to stay curious and frequently used me as a guinea pig for demonstrations he planned to do in class the following day. I also spent a lot of time camping and hiking as a kid, which sparked my interest in the natural sciences. My favorite part about science is that it allows me to spend time outside with lots of hands-on experiences. Seeing first-hand how something we learned in class presents itself in the real world is really gratifying and reminds me why I wanted to study science in the first place.

background: light blue sky with clouds and darker tree line. Foreground: Anna rowing a canoe on a calm lake

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? I hope my work will be used to help human societies coexist with the Earth in a way that makes sense for both parties. For example, last year I studied the potential of using fungal mycelium as a sustainable option for treating acid mine drainage. I think Earth’s natural systems have a lot to offer, and studying them can help us better understand how to act sustainably in our own life. 

background: trail in a forest with bright green leaves and a brown trail. foreground: Anna dressed in hiking gear with binoculars.What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Science can be whatever you want to make of it. It is such a broad field, and there are so many opportunities to tailor your education and research to something you’re passionate about. Personally, I wasn’t super interested in science until I was able to do more hands-on experiments and independent research.. That was when I realized I could apply interests I already had – such as sustainability and the outdoors – to actual scientific study in Geo-Biology. I would encourage future scientists to keep an open mind and use science as a means to explore whatever sparks their curiosity.

From Lichen Trees to Woody Trees

Ordovician-Devonian lichen canopies before evolution of woody trees

Gregory J. Retallack

Summarized by Saraiyh Newton, an undergraduate geology student at University of South Florida.

What data were used? Nematophyte fossil data was collected from the Silurian-age Bloomsburg and Ordovician-age Juniata formation (in Pennsylvania and Tennessee, USA respectively); ancient layers of soil called paleosols, that encases the fossil nematophytes, were also used in this study. Nematophytes are a loosely defined grouping of organisms such as algae and lichen found in the Silurian to the Devonian period that were able to form large canopy- like structures (similar to tall trees in modern forests); in this study, the nematophytes are the lichen canopies the title alludes to. The researcher used various data from modern plants to calculate estimated heights of the fossil lichen canopies. 

Methods: This study illustrates the presence of these nematophytes that created canopies, which has components that could have nurtured early land plants that grew under it, which would eventually allow woody trees to thrive. First, the study identifies where the nematophytes are through various methods, like visual surveys of the paleosols for features such as extensive fungi-like root traces.

Brownish bedrock with white, clay cracks lines covering the bedrock (these lines are root traces) on this bedrock is a rock hammer on the right of the picture for scaling and multiple arrows along the top of the image to indicate where the root traces are purposes. Total image is about 2 hammers high.
Evidence of nematophyte root structures (white arrows) in paleosols of the late Silurian Bloomsburg Formation. Hammer for scale.

After finding the nematophyte remnants, the study author calculated the possible height that the nematophytes might have grown to when they were alive. Plant height is calculated by using an allometric growth equation, which is the relative change in proportion of a part compared to its body, based on 670 modern species of trees. This equation uses the trunk’s diameter at about 1.4 meters above the trunk’s base, or breast height, to calculate the height of the tree. With the calculated height, Retallack calculated the possible density of plants per square meter to create a picture of what forests may have look like with these nematophytes. 

Results: The calculated density and spacing between the trees (which is also found within the paleosols) illustrates a dense cluster of the nematophytes within ancient forests. Since these nematophytes were most likely densely clustered all over forest during the time, these organisms might have nurtured and created an environment where vascular plants, like woody trees, would be able to thrive in the future (later Devonian to present, when trees became extremely widespread). This could have happened because the nematophyte fungi-like roots had an extensive reach in the soil and this fungi network could have nourished environments to the point where plants would have thrived.

Why is this study important? This topic is quite interesting because when we look at modern lichen, they are mostly flat, low growing organisms. They usually do not grow very tall, but they can spread over different surfaces in the forest. So, knowing this about modern lichen species and learning that there was once lichen species that were big enough to have canopies could show how forest ecosystem and species changes over time. 

The big picture: These nematophytes can illustrate how a dominating species in a region can create an environment that allows newer species to thrive in the future. These nematophytes made a good environment for woody trees to thrive in and woody trees eventually became a dominate plant grouping, so we may be able to study how woody trees might be facilitating the evolution of other organisms, too. Learning about how species affect the world around them can improve our knowledge on how ecosystems can change over time. 

Citation: Retallack, G., 2022. Ordovician-Devonian lichen canopies before evolution of woody trees. Gondwana Research, 106, pp.211-223.

Ancient saber-tooth cats may have been more social than we thought

Computed tomography reveals hip dysplasia in the extinct Pleistocene saber-tooth cat Smilodon

Mairin Balisi, Abhinav Sharma, Carrie Howard, Christopher Shaw, Robert Klapper, Emily Lindsey

Summarized by Nicole Christensen, a senior geology major at the University of South Florida. She went to community college for her Associates’ degree, and initially started working on a degree in Environmental Engineering before pursuing geology instead. She likes many different fields in geology and isn’t yet sure what she would like to specialize in, but she knows she’d like to get her Master’s degree someday. In her spare time, she likes to play music, draw, and knit.

What data were used? The pelvis (hip) and right femur (upper leg bone) of a saber-tooth cat were found in the Rancho La Brea asphalt seeps in California. The pelvis was an unusual find, as it is asymmetrical, with a build-up of bony growth on the right side. The disfigured right hip socket is shallow and oval-shaped, rather than the circular shape of a healthy socket. This disfigurement was originally thought to be due to an infection when the animal was alive; however, further disfigurement is seen on the later-found matching right femur, which bears a flat head instead of a typical rounded one, to fit the shallow hip socket.

Methods: All fossils were collected from the same deposit to limit the range of time represented in the study. Dr. Balisi and her team then observed the surface of the pelvis and femur, comparing their characteristics to other deformed bones from different specimens of the same species. A 3D scan was taken using an Artex Space Spider, which is a type of 3D scanner that produces high-resolution color scans. They then used CT scans to capture images of the internal structure of the bones and allow the 3D models to be cross-sectioned. The cross-sections allowed them to determine cause of the deformations. Since the bone lacked fractures, calluses, or healing markings and the bones did have the presence of arthritic degeneration, researchers were able to narrow down the causes, explained in the results. In order to estimate body size, they measured the pelvis length and femur circumference in question, as well as other deformed and non-deformed femurs and pelvises of other specimen from the same location as a comparison. 

Four different angles of the deformed pelvis on white background, each to show off the extent of the deformation clearly. The right hip socket where the femur would fit is much shallower and larger than the non-deformed left hip socket. The left hip socket has a ridge to keep the femur in place, which the right hip socket is missing. The pelvis is asymmetrical; the right side is smaller with thick bony growths, while the right side is smooth.
Figure 1: The recovered deformed pelvis of a saber-tooth cat. A) The right-side view, showing deformation of the hip socket. B) The left-side view, showing a non-deformed hip socket, but with extra bone growth around the edge. C) The top view and D) bottom view, showing that the pelvis is asymmetric.

Results: The deformations seen in the femur and pelvis, shown in Figure 1, are consistent with hip dysplasia, a condition that the Smilodon in question was born with, rather than due to an injury later in life. The femur wasn’t fully developed, and so it didn’t properly fit into place against the pelvis. This would have led to pain when walking, causing the cat to not bear weight on its right leg. Researchers ruled out possibilities that the cat could have had an injury, infection, or degeneration over time. If the cause was injury or infection, the femur and pelvis would have been fully developed before the degeneration began, and so the top of the femur would not have been affected. However, the femur of this study has a deformed head, indicating the hip socket was not properly developed. In the same area that the studied pelvis and femur were found, there were several other pelvises that showed signs of deformation similar to the pelvis of this study.

Why is this study important? Saber-tooth cats are ambush predators. They wait until the right moment to leap at their prey and then drag it to the ground. It would have been very difficult for one to reach adulthood without being able to use one of its hind legs effectively. Based on the size of the pelvis and femur, the studied Smilodon lived to adulthood. Hip dysplasia begins to affect animals from a young age. This means it is likely that saber-tooth cats lived in communities, which provided both food and protection from predators to those who could not take care of themselves.

The big picture: Evaluations of bones and their markings can lead to discoveries about the lifestyle and behavior of extinct animals, even ones as well-known as Smilodon. Many living species of cats do not show social behavior, making this an advancement in understanding the behavior of Smilodon. Modern technology, such as CT scans, can bring about new methods of evaluating bones past their surface appearance. In this study, CT scans showed evidence of degenerative arthritis in the right hip socket, as well as markings on the top of the femur. Both of these indicate the deformation results from hip dysplasia. CT scans could also build a paleopathology dataset for reference in future studies. 

Citation: Balisi, M. A., Sharma, A. K., Howard, C. M., Shaw, C. A., Klapper, R., & Lindsey, E. L. (2021). Computed tomography reveals hip dysplasia in the extinct Pleistocene saber-tooth cat Smilodon. Scientific reports11(1), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-99853-1