Wolverine outside of Truckee, California, 2008
The above photo has been making waves in the wildlife science and conservation communities, as it is the first confirmed sighting of a wolverine in the Sierra Nevada since 1922. Oregon State grad researcher Katie Moriarty set up the motion-sensor camera to track martens, another elusive and weasel-like species, but wound up capturing the first-ever photo of a wild wolverine in California.
Drawing of Wolverine by C.G. Pritchard (Hall and Keson, 1959)
No documented sightings since 1922? What kind of gentle, solitude-loving creature is this, you ask? Noted naturalist and pioneer of the Boy Scout movement Ernest Thompson Seton, writing from the mid-1920s, is here to set you straight with a sensationalistic if not outright Lovecraftian description:
Picture a weasel — and most of us can do that, for we have met that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity — picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a Wolverine.
Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, has an article in Science that builds on an idea which biologist Dan Janzen outlined several years ago in a Long Now talk entitled “It’s All Gardening.” Janzen’s talk centered on the unusefulness of the concept of wilderness as geography free of human influence and argued for more effective conservation through active management and citizen involvement. The Science paper is almost a year old, but was new to me.
Kareiva et al. drive for more sophisticated understanding of the tradeoffs we make in this management process, e.g., by choosing one set of ecosystem services (in the form of land use) over another, in “Domesticated Nature: Shaping Landscapes and Ecosystems for Human Welfare.” [PDF]
There really is no such thing as nature untainted by people. Instead, ours is a world of nature domesticated, albeit to varying degrees, from national parks to high-rise megalopolises. Facing this reality should change the scientific focus of environmental science. Instead of recounting doom-and-gloom statistics, it would be more fruitful to consider the domestication of nature as the selection of certain desirable ecosystem attributes, such as increased food production, with consequent alteration to other ecosystem attributes that may not be desirable. Under this paradigm, our challenge is to understand and thoughtfully manage the tradeoffs among ecosystem services that result from the inescapable domestication of nature.
The video of Janzen’s talk is ironically enough not preserved on the Long Now site in full, but is available on Google Video. Audio of the talk is here. It’s truly a great talk, and Janzen here introduces an idea that could revolutionize conservation in the 21st century — the idea of a handheld DNA barcode-driven species identification tool.
I love this story of a guy in Germany who mounted a cheap digital camera with a timer on his cat’s collar and has posted pictures of his cat’s adventures throughout the day.
I hope this “street use” of off-the-shelf technology for novel purposes is getting some attention in the field biology world. There are early signs of this with the multidisciplinary TOPP project (Tagging of Pacific Pelagics), which is mounting sensors and GPS tags on fish, turtles, and other ocean-going creatures. And scientists have been putting GPS collars on animals for several years now. But some very interesting options would open up once you can satellite upload GPS info and get real-time imagery (eventually video + night vision) from a small package.
I can’t wait for the megafauna versions of this idea — mountain lions, wolves, and grizzly bears roaming around while I plot their progress on Google Earth and watch their FPS-style livecams like Justin.tv! There’s definitely a business model in here somewhere — maybe pitch it as a unique conservation and safety measure for an endangered species.
Put a livecam on each of California’s 7000 mountain lions! They’re supposed to be protected from hunting, but people worry just as much about being protected from the lions — this would allow the public to keep an eye on every single animal. You could “adopt” them, get Facebook feed-style updates when they’re at rest or on the move, and create a puma version of Youtube for the best bits of footage. Seriously, imagine the thrill of tuning in to watch a mountain lion stalking its prey in real time. Unless you’re at a remote campsite in the woods watching on your laptop via satellite: “Hey, I recognize that tent…”
I’m thinking joint venture btw Google and Encyclopedia of Life. Sell ads on collar-mounted LCD screens for those lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a close viewing. Cost per impression is high, but it’ll be one hell of an impression…OK, that was terrible.
Back to reality, it really is an exciting time for information science and biology. And I hope EOL makes a difference in organizing some funding and attention around high-tech-fueled wildlife conservation. That German cat is just the beginning of all this.