August 19, 2011
If you’ve been paying attention to the goings-on at the Smithsonian Institution, you probably noticed the baby boom at the National Zoo. And one of the biggest success stories is that of the cheetah Amani, who gave birth to five cubs on May 28.
But the rest of her species isn’t doing so well. The wild cheetah population numbers only about 7,500 to 10,000 individuals (an 85 percent decline since 1900) and the captive population has had a tough time having babies. Amani’s litter will be the only captive-born cheetah litter from any North American zoo this year, and 80 percent of captive cheetahs die without producing any offspring.
Scientists are hopeful that may change, though. A new study, published in the Biology of Reproduction and led by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, examined the eggs, hormones and uteruses of 34 captive female cheetahs. They found that once the cheetahs had reached about eight years of age, they still produced normal eggs but there were problems with their uterine tracks that would prevent pregnancy.
“We were relieved to find that, unlike in other older mammals, the eggs in older cheetahs can produce viable-appearing and growing embryos, which means we may be able to transfer them to younger cheetahs and preserve genetic diversity,” says the study’s lead author, Adrienne Crosier of the SCBI. Preserving genetic diversity is a prime concern of any breeding program, because inbreeding can contribute to higher numbers of deaths among young offspring as well as lower disease resistance.
SCBI scientists may try an embryo transfer within two years, Crosier says. And other scientists are already thinking about how to use this research to include eggs from wild cheetahs in the captive breeding program.
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August 3, 2010
In 2009, the Smithsonian Institution replaced some 15,000 outdated lighting ballasts (devices that turn on fluorescent lights) in the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History in an effort to improve energy conservation. Of course, all the energy-efficient lighting ballasts in the world won’t make much difference if people keep the lights on all the time.
That’s why Eric Hollinger—an archaeologist with the National Museum of Natural History and co-chair of the museum’s Greening Task Force—devised a simple, low-tech way to remind Smithsonian staffers to flip the switch.
It’s a decal, illustrated in the Smithsonian’s trademark blue and gold, reminding people to turn off the lights when they leave. It’s placed—no surprise—near the light switches in the museum and museum offices. Is it simple? Yes. A bit silly, even? Maybe. But the Smithsonian’s greening experts have high hopes that, used in conjunction with energy-efficient lights, these decals could markedly augment energy savings throughout the institution.
After using 28,072,619 kilowatt hours of electricity at a cost of nearly $3.5 million in 2009, Hollinger’s greening task force began discussions with staff members regarding opportunities for conservation and sustainability within the museum. One recurring topic of conversation was the frequency with which staff members left the lights in their offices and hallways on when, well, nobody was home. “A lot of staff felt that people just weren’t as cognizant of it because they didn’t see the electricity bills. There wasn’t that personal connection to it,” said Hollinger.
Stickers such as those Hollinger has developed were ubiquitous in the museum during the years of the Carter administration, but due to renovations, repairs and repainted walls, they have since disappeared. So, Hollinger decided to start investigating the conservation potential in resurrecting the old stickers.
“People were saying, ‘well, it’s not worth it if I’m only leaving my office for 20 minutes,’” Hollinger said. “They were rationalizing not turning the lights off.” This laid the foundation with two preliminary points of research: first, learning exactly how much energy is spent by turning the museum’s lights on, which requires an initial surge of energy supplied by the ballasts. And second, calculating how much time lights would have to be turned off in order to make up the difference.
Hollinger discovered that thanks to the new energy-efficient lighting ballasts, turning off the lights for 5 minutes or more was more efficient than leaving them on. He also found a Canadian study in which decals similar to those he envisioned had been put up in an office space and had more than paid for themselves in energy savings within less than two months. Hollinger then started looking into the cost-efficiency of printing stickers for the museum. Enlisting the help of Chief of Exhibit Design Michael Lawrence at the National Museum of Natural History to create the design, Hollinger and Lawrence developed a sticker that would cost 12 cents apiece. According to Hollinger’s calculations, if used throughout the entire museum, the $700 investment would pay for itself in as little as two and a half weeks and would result in a 15 to 20 percent decrease in energy used in office spaces. With the endorsement of museum director Christian Samper, the stickers have been purchased and are being mounted.
While there has been a sharp dip in the electric bill since replacing the ballasts, it is difficult to tell how much energy has actually been saved due to the decals rather than the new, energy-efficient ballasts. But Nancy Bechtol, Director of the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability, thinks Hollinger is onto something; she has purchased the decals for the entire Smithsonian Institution. “I asked Eric, ‘Do you mind if we buy 25,000 of these?’” Bechtol recalled. Once the decals are put up throughout the Smithsonian museums and offices (some of which have older, less efficient ballasts), it should be possible to tell whether or not they make a difference.
In 2009, the Smithsonian Institution won a sustainability award from the U.S. General Services Administration for an energy-efficient chiller plant (a large, water-based cooling system) that provides air conditioning at a lower environmental impact (and cost) to the National Museum of American History. Part of a larger effort to increase energy savings throughout the Smithsonian, the project also included a hot water system upgrade and revamp of the chiller plant and ventilation systems at the Natural History Museum, in addition to replacing the lighting ballasts.
But while these large-scale initiatives may contribute substantially to sustainability in the Smithsonian, simple things can contribute to energy conservation—like turning off the lights.
May 25, 2010
There’s nothing that conservationists would like better than proving that protecting nature is good for people too, which is one reason why I try to remain skeptical about such claims. After all, when you fence in forests and wildlife, you’re eliminating an important source of income, food and land for locals. In addition, protected areas are often located in the most impoverished areas, where communities have little chance of opposing pressure for conservation.
But a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some powerful new evidence that protected areas in Costa Rica and Thailand have boosted livelihoods. Although people near protected areas are still less well-off than the rest of the country, researchers found this had more to do with confounding variables such as forest cover, land productivity and access to transportation, which influenced both the placement of parks and the livelihood of residents. After removing those effects, the researchers found that the presence of parks reduced poverty in Costa Rica and Thailand by 10 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
The new study isn’t the only evidence that conservation is good for the economy. In the current issue of Nature Conservancy magazine, I examined the value of mangrove forests to local communities. Off the Gulf of California in Mexico, for instance, fishermen living near the biggest mangroves reel in the most fish and crab. Specifically, each acre of mangrove brought in about $15,000 per year in seafood, a dollar amount 200 times higher than the forest’s timber value.
Mangroves also save lives. Their spidery roots can reduce the force of waves pummeling the land during severe storms. Saudamini Das, an economist with India’s Institute of Economic Growth, estimates that mangroves saved nearly 20,000 lives during the 1999 Orissa Cyclone in the Indian Ocean.
On the other hand, not every ecosystem will have as many tangible benefits as mangroves, and not every country can be Costa Rica, which has set aside a quarter of its land for conservation. As the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, puts it, “Quantifying ecosystem services will not protect all of the nature you want to protect, but it will generate public support for an awful lot of conservation.”
Brendan Borrell will be guest blogging this month. He lives in New York and writes about science and the environment; for Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian.com, he has covered the ecology of chili peppers, diamonds in Arkansas and the world’s most dangerous bird.