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Black-Crowned Night Herons

August 3, 2014

A group of black-crowned night herons has long chosen DC’s National Zoo as a breeding grounds (they’ve been visiting for about one hundred years!). They set up shop in tall trees around the birdhouse, stay for a while, and then take off. This year, researchers at the zoo tagged them with radio transmitters to see where they go each year once they leave the zoo. The Post had a short article about it today. Enjoy!

Leopards in Mumbai

July 11, 2014
Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Last summer I had the pleasure of traveling to India to meet some conservation scientists who work with leopards in Sanjay Ghandi National Park, a huge greenspace in Mumbai, one of the largest urban areas in the world. At about 40 square miles, it’s one of the (if not the) largest urban parks anywhere (technically, like Washington D.C’s Rock Creek Park, it only shares a border with Mumbai on three sides; the fourth side borders the suburbs). I wrote a blog post for Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability about the trip, which I’m re-printing below.


On a high floor of an apartment building in northern Mumbai, India, Sanjay Ghandi National Park (SGNP) was laid out in front of us. My fellow-CLiGS colleague, Courtney Kimmel, and I were being shown around the area by Sunetro Ghosal, a researcher in Mumbai who is affiliated with Mumbaikars for SGNP, a group of organizations and individuals who work to protect SGNP and its resident flora and fauna. Sunetro brought us to this building to meet a couple who were actively involved with the group, and also to show us the view from their apartment. Not only could we see the verdant greenness of the park’s vegetation during the rainy season, but also several informal houses and shacks built into the park itself. In fact, even the high-rise building we were standing in was built (illegally) on parkland. That case, and others like it, has been settled in the courts, but is a great illustration of one of the major challenges the park’s management faces: encroachment.

But really we were there to talk about another, closely related issue. SGNP has a resident leopard population, and there are also leopards who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. In a city with such a high density of human residents, it’s hard to imagine that there’s room for these large cats, but these intelligent, adaptable animals are full of surprises.

While driving and walking through the park earlier that day, we glimpsed some of the ways that people use the park – everything from grabbing a bit of solitude to hanging out with friends, to providing a community for local indigenous groups, and of course as a provider of ecosystem services for Mumbai (including large reservoirs that supply some of the city’s water). Managing a park for all of these (and more) uses is hard enough, but the needs of the non-human residents and users needs to be taken into account as well.

Although by and large the local leopard population tries to steer clear of humans (most of the time people don’t even know they’re there), at times conflict has ensued, either because people simply see a leopard and grow concerned, or in some cases because a leopard attacked a person. The group is engaging both the community and the government to develop best practices to prevent such incidences. For example, when people see a leopard, a crowd often gathers, which can upset the leopard and make him feel threatened. He might then strike out against a person in an attempt to get away. At other times, people have been mistaken for prey animals (especially at night). At the end of the day, the best way people can prevent negative interactions with leopards is by modifying their own behavior and landscape (cleaning up garbage, which attracts feral dogs — a favorite prey item, playing music and/or staying with another person when you’re outside at night, etc.). That’s of course a hard sell – and something that I’ve seen with my own work with coyotes in urban and suburban parts of the US. Oftentimes people are quick to call on the government to “fix” the problem, usually by removing the animals in question (with coyotes, often through lethal control, and with leopards, often by trapping and relocating them). This, however, can actually increase conflict because of the complex ecology and behavior of these species. Behavior change, then, is key to preventing and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. I believe that one of the main challenges conservation biologists working in these urban system face is getting people to accept that nature really is a part of cities – including sometimes predators! Once people understand this, it’s much easier to make the case that these neighborhoods and parks belong to non-human animals as well, and that we need to take their needs into consideration and learn what we can do to coexist with them. In our modern world, however, many are resistant to this – people have become accustomed to believing that the world can be divided into places where humans dominate (the “built environment”) and places where wildlife dominates (“nature”). This so-called “nature/culture divide” is a false dichotomy – nature exists everywhere, even in dense urban areas, and humans have an impact on even the most remote wildernesses.

Groups like Mumbaikars for SGNP are working hard to break through this binary way of seeing the world, which serves both a practical (lessening leopard-human conflict) and (perhaps secondarily) a philosophical purpose. It was exciting to see their work in action and to be able to compare it to efforts made in the US with coyotes.

WNS Update

July 9, 2014

Not exclusively an urban wildlife issue by any stretch, but a recent Wall Street Journal article just reported that the steep population decline in little brown bats in New York State has appeared to level off. Little brown bats are one of the species hardest-hit by white-nose syndrome, so this is potentially good news! However, little brown populations (and other bat species) are still in steep decline in other parts of the country, and WNS is still spreading across the country.

For more information on WNS, check out the Save Lucy Campaign and Bat Conservation International’s WNS information page.

Night Life

June 18, 2014


I’m horrible with moth identification, but we saw this beauty, neatly camouflaged against the concrete, on the way home from dinner a couple of nights ago.

Vultures on K Street? Let the Jokes Begin!

June 5, 2014
Black Vulture, By cuatrok77 (CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Black Vulture, By cuatrok77 (CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A pair of black vultures (Coragyps stratus) have apparently taken up residence on K Street in downtown DC (K Street is the traditional home of lobbyist offices in DC, so you can imagine the jokes that are pouring in). I’ve always loved vultures (I sort of have a thing for many species that aren’t popularly liked), so this is exciting news — especially since it appears that they might be breeding. The Washington Post has a nice article about them today. It’s been quite the year for bird sightings in DC, between this pair and our snowy owl!



Slo-Mo Video of Bats Flying

May 30, 2014

Thanks to, I bring you gorgeous video of a bat flying in slow-motion. Researchers from Brown University and the University of Missouri put Jamaican fruit bats (Artibeus jamaicensis) into a wind tunnel to record what hair-thin muscles (called plagiopatagiales) embedded in the thin membrane of bats’ wings actually do when bats are in flight. The researchers found that these tiny muscles work together to help shape bats’ wings, and activate and relax during each wingbeat (exactly what they do changes depending on flight conditions — how fast the bat is flying, wind speed, etc.).

What amazing creatures! And, of course, we can find bats in our cities and suburbs (although threats such as White-Nose Syndrome are causing harm to some of our urban bats, such as little brown bats, Myotis lucifugus).

This reminds me of a video I told you about a while back — slow motion of an owl in flight.

Jamaican fruit bat, Artibeus jamaicensis, By Karin Schneeberger alias Felineora (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Jamaican fruit bat, Artibeus jamaicensis, By Karin Schneeberger alias Felineora (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Seventy-One Important Questions for the Conservation of Marine Biodiversity

May 22, 2014
Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, (c) MMD 2005

Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, (c) MMD 2005


A few years ago I teamed up with a group of colleagues to consider what important questions we still have to answer when it came to marine conservation. I don’t speak much about the marine world here, but of course many of the world’s largest cities can be found on the coast, and due to many reasons (economic, aesthetic, etc.), coastal areas are rapidly urbanizing. In fact, about 45% of the world’s population can now be found in coastal regions (Mee 2012).

We went through a list of 631 initial questions obtained from colleagues and professional associations, and eventually distilled this down to 71 questions that we as a group felt were not yet adequately addressed in the literature. We broke the questions down into eight categories: Fisheries, Climate Change, Other Anthropogenic Effects, Ecosystems, Marine Citizenship, Policy, Societal and Cultural Considerations, and Scientific Enterprise. Not all of the questions are related to urban areas (for example, ones that discuss high seas law and policy), and others only indirectly touch on cities, but I thought I’d list those I felt had the most to do with urban areas here. For those of you interested in marine conservation, or just starting out careers in the field, take a look! Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration. The full article, which has just been published, is available open access, thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology. You can find it here — it’s not very long. Conservation Magazine also did a brief write-up of the article, if you’re looking for something even shorter!

Other Anthropogenic Threats:

  • How can the formation of anoxic dead zones be forecasted and prevented and how can conditions leading to dead-zone formation be reversed if they form?
  • How can the benefits of tourism to marine ecosystems be maximized while minimizing negative impacts?
  • What effects do urbanization and changing patterns of land use have on coastal, estuarine, and marine biodiversity, and how can policy and practice be integrated to ensure that these effects are mitigated?
  • How can the provision of ecosystem services (known and unknown, quantitative and qualitative) be incorporated into marine conservation planning and management and how do we determine how much of each ecosystem service to protect?

Climate Change:

  • What are the implications of climate change for small island nations in terms of sea-level rise and their ability to meet international conservation commitments while maintaining local food security?
  • What are the possible ecological impacts of technological mitigation strategies (e.g., coastal defenses) developed to allow human communities to adapt to climate change?
  • How will human pressures on the seascape shift and change as climate change impacts affect additional areas of the ocean?

Marine Citizenship:

  • What are the best methods to encourage context- specific behavioral changes to increase conservation of the marine environment and what behaviors are most important to change?
  • What are the best methods and tools available to engage citizens in marine conservation?
  • What are the most critical messages, concepts, and skills that should be communicated to, and developed with, citizens to improve societal understanding of marine conservation problems?
  • What are the best ways to frame marine conservation messages in light of different values and perceptions of the marine environment held by different audiences?

Societal and Cultural Considerations:

  • How has humankind’s various worldviews shaped perceptions, relationships, and narratives related to the marine environment and how do these influence marine conservation?
  • How can marine conservation support food security, cultural security, and human well-being whilst acknowledging local governance and sovereignty?
  • How can marine cultural heritage, maritime historical heritage, and biological conservation be best integrated to maximize benefits for all stakeholders?
  • How are socially just and equitable marine conservation processes and outcomes (incorporating gender, intergenerational, and socioeconomic equity) best developed and delivered?
  • What lessons derived from conflict management, resolution, and avoidance in other disciplines could be beneficially applied to marine conservation?

Parsons, E.C.M., Favaro, Brett, Aguirre, A. Alsonso, Bauer, Amy L., Blight, Louise K., Cigliano, John A., Coleman, Melinda A., Cote, Isabelle M., Draheim, Megan, Fletcher, Stephen, Foley, Melissa M., Jefferson, Rebecca, Jones, Miranda C., Kelaher, Brendan P., Luncquist, Carolyn J., McCarthy, Julie-Beth, Nelson, Anne, Patterson, Katheryn, Walsh, Leslie, Wright, Andrew J., and Sutherland, William J. 2014. Seventy-one important question for the conservation of marine biodiversity. Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12303

Mee, Laurence. 2012. Between the devil and the deep blue sea: The coastal zone in an era of globilisation. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. 96: 1-8.

Off the coast of Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, (c) MMD 2005

Off the coast of Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, (c) MMD 2005



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