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Sinking & Shipwrecked

July 27, 2011

Today I finished the first draft of Shipwrecked on Dry Land! So that’s why I haven’t been writing here much; I’ve been buckling down to work on the documentary itself.

Meanwhile, here’s a story I just did for the Oakland Standard, which is a project from the Oakland Museum of California. It’s about Drawbridge, a ghost town that’s sinking into the San Francisco Bay.



Mice Make Trouble in the Farallones

May 16, 2011

The Farallon Islands have been crawling with house mice for years. They may have stowed away on boats and ridden out to the islands as early as the 1800s. Mice can be annoying or — if they’re your pets — cute, but in the Farallones they’re causing problems on a life-and-death scale.

“People on the island talk about how the ground moves because there’s so many mice,” explains Brad Keitt, the Director of Conservation for Island Conservation. The non-native mice attract burrowing owls, which would normally stop by the island for a meal, then head out. But the mouse bounty has caused them to extend their stay. And when the mouse population falls in the winter, the owls switch to eating birds, including the ashy storm-petrel, an endangered species that only nests on islands off the coast of California.

I wrote this for KQED’s news blog, News Fix, so read the rest there.

But before you go, let me take a moment to link to two excellent blogs by people who actually get to spend time on the islands (the Farallons are closed to the public): Los Farallones and Farallon Photo a Day.

Search for ET life goes into hibernation

May 13, 2011

The California Report had a good story this afternoon about SETI losing funding. It comes complete with references and sound from the movie Contact. SETI is based in Mountain View, CA, and its Allen Telescope Array, which it co-manages with Cal is up near Lassen. But the Allen Array has been shut off as of last month because of state and federal budget cuts.

I’d never thought much about the search for alien life–I kind of categorized it with UFOs and Area 51–until reading Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll. It’s about the scientists who discovered evolution and human origins and the adventures they took to make those discoveries, from Darwin to Svante Pääbo. I love that book!

I hope I won’t give anything away by quoting from the part that changed my mind about extraterrestrial life.

…it is worth asking, now that we have a solid grasp of evolution and our origins, are there other open questions of a similar magnitude to those that have occupied the last 150 years?

I submit that the outstanding issue, and perhaps the greatest mystery of mysteries and question of questions, is the ultimate matter of origins–the origin of life in the universe and on Earth.

Are there other worlds that could carry life?

I don’t know if this is a very mainstream opinion. I assume it’s not, based on there not being, for instance, many university departments dedicated to it. But for now, the search for the answer to the question, “Are there other worlds that could carry life?” has been made more difficult with the “hibernation” of SETI’s Allen Telescope Array.

Island biogeography’s strange moment in the spotlight

May 5, 2011

Probability model of bin Laden;s current location based on distance-decay theory at a global spatial scale. MIT International Review

This blog so rarely crosses paths with major global political events. Imagine my confusion and bewilderment when I got an email from a colleague that said something like, “this made me think of you,” and then had a link to a Fox news article. Actually, I thought her email account had been hacked, but I clicked the link anyway. I’m such a gullible sucker! (Thanks/hi Julia S.!)

Anyway, the news was that UCLA geography undergrads had written a paper in 2009 attempting to predict where bin Laden was hiding. And they used the theory of island biogeography to do it. They ended up not being right. But they were close enough for people to remember the paper and start writing about it again this week. Different outlets did this with varying degrees of breathlessness and accuracy.

What I’m curious about is, has island biogeography been used that way before? Has it ever effectively been used that way?

And lo, there is a place to ask those questions. The World’s science forum is taking questions for one of the UCLA professors, Thomas Gillespie.

If you want to read more,


May 1, 2011

Jonathan Franzen, in the April 18 New Yorker–the “journeys” issue–has a long essay (sorry, you have to buy it or visit a library) about boredom, Robinson Crusoe, David Foster Wallace, and a visit to Alejandro Selkirk Island, a remote island off the coast of Chile, also known as Masafuera, home to the endemic Masafuera rayadito. He’s trying to battle his own boredom and come to grips with Wallace’s suicide. And he’s trying to see the rare rayadito.

Simply knowing that the bird was on the island made the island interesting to me. When I go looking for new bird species, I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduring transcendent delight.

I won’t tell you what happens next! It’s an adventure!

Addendum (May 3): I thought about adding some other thoughts the night I wrote this, then decided not to. But I’ve changed my mind. So:

I still won’t tell you exactly what happens next. But there is one thing that bugged me. After searching for the rayadito, Franzen goes back to Robinson Crusoe Island, another island in the same archipelago, but a little less remote. He’s feeling, basically, cranky about being there.

Before leaving for Masafuera, I’d already seen Robinson’s two endemic land-bird species, and the prospect of another week there, with no chance of seeing something new, seemed suffocatingly boring–an exercise in deprivation from the very busyness that I’d been intent on fleeing, a busyness whose pleasurability I appreciated only now.

The essay is partially about boredom. So I get that here he’s really describing the feeling, and how it can affect how you see the world. But it’s just so petulant, and it puts the first quote in a less-pleasant light. He’s saying the delight in seeing these species can only be had once. And that’s just a shame. Compare that to the delight John Muir feels upon encountering everything in nature, like this line, which I love, from My First Summer in the Sierra:

Saw a common house fly and a grasshopper and a brown bear.

Muir’s out in the Sierra seeing Yosemite and giant sequoias, but to him the house fly is worth noting, too.

Just to get totally over the top here, I’ll end with Emily Dickinson:

In the name of the Bee— And of the Butterfly— And of the Breeze— Amen!

What a Galapagos island sounds like

April 14, 2011

Earlier this week I got to interview Peter and Rosemary Grant, the biologists who have spent the last 39 years studying Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands. On the tiny island of Daphne Major, they’ve watched evolution in action.

Daphne Major by Flickr user sataylor pix.

One of the things I asked them was what the island sounds like. Here’s their answer.

Notes from the Real Thing

February 28, 2011

I love the New York TimesScientist at Work blog, which hosts reports from scientists in far flung parts of the world. Chris Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History just wrapped up a series of posts about evolution on the Solomon Islands, and there’s a slide show from the trip up on the site now.

This is from the introduction to the slide show.

For biologists, islands have always been illuminating places. In part, this reflects both the relative simplicity of island ecosystems and also the richly unique, and sometimes bizarre, turns that life takes on islands – think parrots behaving like big rodents, massive dragonlike lizards and miniature hippos, giant flightless dodo birds and tiny ground-foraging bats.

It’s so cool to read about work like this as it’s happening, on the ground. The scientific adventure is definitely my favorite genre.