The Science of Sustainability

Picturing Biodiversity: Cultivating an Eye for Conservation

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heerman's gull

Ninety percent of the Heermann`s gull (Larus heermanni) population lives on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California. The biggest threat to its survival is the yellow-footed gull, which feeds on its eggs and chicks. (Photo: © Hans Christoph Kappel /naturepl.com)

Ever since the Sierra Club’s David Brower first brought pristine wilderness into the living rooms of armchair hikers in the 1960s with the Exhibit Format series, conservationists have enlisted the power of photography to argue their cause. From the beginning, the books struck a chord. The Club made $10 million in just nine years from the series. As John McPhee reported in his classic portrait of Brower, Encounters with the Archdruid, even Brower was “surprised to find that people were willing to pay that much for beauty.”

Brower, who died in 2000, believed that if you wanted people to support wilderness conservation, you had to show them what it was like. ARKive, a digital multimedia repository initiative launched in 2003 by the nonprofit charity Wildscreen, applies the same rationale to wildlife conservation with a goal that would have impressed even David Brower: create a multimedia record of all life on Earth.

Using audio, photos, and film, the project brings species iconic and obscure to the public eye, and includes details about habitat, biology, range, threats, and more based on recent research. Their mission–to use the power of wildlife imagery to promote conservation of the world's threatened species–takes on even more urgency, as most scientists agree we've entered the Sixth Great Extinction. In keeping with their mission, curators started with species most at risk of extinction. Unfortunately, that’s a depressingly long list: close to 20,000 species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Curators hope their digital archive will help educators, researchers, and anyone who cares about biodiversity raise awareness about the nature and value of conserving threatened plants and animals and the habitat they need to survive. Most any of these materials can be used without restriction in classrooms or at home, though copyright and licensing restrictions limit broader use. (Contact ARKive for more information.)

You can find a number of species that live in the Bay Area, as well as farther afield in California in the ARKive database. Here’s a brief roundup:

The California Condor

california condor

The critically endangered Californian condor (Gymnogyps californianus) flies high in Arizona. Researchers worry that North America's largest bird may not recover in the face of ongoing poisoning from eating carcasses killed with lead bullets. (Photo: © John Cancalosi/naturepl.com)

A new study released last month found that the recovery of the critically endangered California condor, long thought to be one of the West’s greatest conservation successes, may be at far greater risk from lead poisoning than previously thought. North America’s largest bird hovered at extinction’s door in 1982, when just 22 birds survived. As of 2010, the population numbered 400, but ongoing poisoning from lead ammunition raises serious questions about the species’ ability to survive in a landscape strewn with lead-tainted carcasses. As the authors noted in the study, “by any measure, the lead poisoning rates in condors are of epidemic proportions and require substantial effort to mitigate.”

Western Pond Turtle

Western Pond turtle

Western pond turtle (Clemmys marmorata) hatching out of its egg in the Columbia River Gorge, Washington. The species, once collected for the pet trade, now faces the biggest threat from habitat loss. (Photo: © Michael Durham/naturepl.com)

Also known as the Pacific Pond Turtle, this medium-sized terrapin can live up to 40 years and ranges from Baja California to Washington State, where it’s listed as endangered. The species is most abundant between southern Oregon and Northern California. As the name implies, these turtles are found in ponds, as well as in rivers, streams, creeks, and marshes. I often see some basking on a log in Tilden’s Jewel Lake. Once poached for the pet trade, turtles now struggle to maintain viable populations in dwindling habitat as agriculture claims their wetlands and diverts water.

California Tiger Salamander

tiger salamander

A California tiger salamander, now threatened and endangered in its remaining California habitat, in larval stage in a pond. (Photo: © Doug Wechsler /naturepl.com)

A large, stocky salamander with a built-in smile, the California tiger salamander once lived throughout the San Francisco Peninsula, but now appears restricted to a small population on the Stanford University campus. Distinct populations of the species are listed as threatened in Santa Barbara and Central California and endangered in Sonoma. Juveniles live in vegetation around seasonal pools in savannah and grasslands while adults, not known for their digging skills, take advantage of burrows excavated by ground squirrels and the Bota’s pocket gopher.

California Horn Shark

horn shark

The California hornshark ({Heterodontus francisci}, known as a "sluggish species" has pronounced ridges above its eyes and an unusual snout. This hornshark rests on a sandy seabed in the Channel Islands, California. (Photo: © Jeff Rotman/naturepl.com)

This slow-moving, cave-loving shark lives among rocky reefs and kelp forests off the shore of California, from Monterey south to Baja. Some say its oddly shaped muzzle looks like a pig’s snout (my husband thinks it looks like Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent) but I think it looks more like a deformed cow’s nose. Horn sharks aren’t targeted by commercial fisheries but can end up in nets as incidental bycatch. Not enough data exists for the IUCN to evaluate their conservation status.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Blog, Environment

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.