coho restoration

Salmon all along the west coast have had a rough time for many years. Since the gold rush, salmon populations have been steadily declining due a combination of historical and current factors, including stream diversion, damming, mining, timber harvesting, agricultural runoff, and overfishing in addition to natural predation, drought, and climate change. Salmon numbers have gotten so low that California and Oregon had to completely shut down the 2008 and 2009 salmon fishing seasons. Coho salmon have had a particularly rough time, to the point that the Central California Evolutionarily Significant Unit is now on the Endangered Species List. In central California, the only remaining viable population is in Lagunitas Creek in western Marin county, and even there, the annual return is but a small fraction of historic runs. A little farther north, in the Russian River watershed that spans Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the return has been so small that restoration efforts have expanded to the artificial stocking of local creeks with juvenile Coho salmon.

The Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program (we'll call it the Coho program) is working to supplement the wild Russian River Coho population in the hope of restoring it to a sustainable size. Since 2001, NOAA, CDFG, and the US Army Corps of Engineers has been breeding Coho salmon at Warms Springs Hatchery just below Lake Sonoma and releasing them as juveniles into local creeks that feed the Russian River. The young fish, released as parr, grow up in the creeks for about a year before they turn into smolts, when they head out into the ocean to get a lot bigger. After 2-3 years in the ocean, some adults return to their natal creeks to spawn and create the new generation of fish.

Lil' baby Coho

I recently started a one-year volunteer position with Conservation Corps North Bay working at University of California Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County. The mission of UCCE is to establish working relationships between UC researchers and farmers, natural resource managers, and the community to apply the resources of a world-class university to real-world problems. UCCE's role in the Coho program is to evaluate the efficacy of the program and apply advances in scientific knowledge to its management.

One of the ways we're evaluating whether the program is working is by monitoring the development of the young parr, how many fish are going out to the ocean, and who's coming back. There are a number of neat ways we're doing this.

Since 2004, the Coho program has been releasing increasing numbers of fish into the watershed, starting with 6,160 in 2004. This year, we'll end up releasing about 81,000 baby Coho into a variety of creeks in the watershed, with about 29,000 going into Mill Creek, west of Healdsburg (If that sounds like a lot, consider that historic statewide Coho populations used to number in the hundreds of thousands, and each spawning female produces hundreds of eggs). All of these fish have coded wires implanted in their noses. When they return as adults, spawn and die, we can retrieve the wire, read the code, and figure out where they were put in. But what if we want to find out who's going where while they're still alive and swimming around?

Stocking a creek with a backpack full of fish

For that, we insert little tags called Passively Integrated Transponders, which are just like the microchips we put in dogs and cats and old people. When the juvenile fish swim downstream or the adults swim back up and the tags pass through the sensory field of an antenna, they broadcast an individually identifiable number, which the antenna records along with date and time. Of the 81,000 fish we're letting go, 4,000 of them have these PIT tags, acting as a representative sample of the overall population. When we learn about a PIT-tagged fish leaving or returning, we can make assumptions about the rest of the overall population.

So what do our antennae look like? We use two main kinds: hand-held ones that look and act like metal detectors, and large stationary ones that span the creeks and detect any fish swimming through them.

A stationary antenna

We also monitor for fish by walking the creeks looking for juveniles, adults, and redds (fish nests), snorkeling in the frigid water, and by trapping them on their ways in or out.

As a research assistant, I get to do all sorts of cool things, and my job pretty much requires me to walk around in waders all day, every day. Some days I'm measuring stream flows and changing batteries on the antennae, other days I'm working on setting up traps or scanning for fish, and other days, as I have been for the past week and a half, I don backpacks full of fish and help release them into the creeks. As the year progresses and the rains fill the creeks, I'll be doing a lot more walking spawner surveys, snorkeling, and measuring the fish.

At work

This year I'll be working on a video of my experiences with the Coho program, but in the mean time, you can check out this great video by KQED's Quest on the restoration program:

QUEST on KQED Public Media.

I get to work with Ben White at the hatchery, and there are also some special cameos by my friends Andrew and Julie measuring and PIT-tagging at 8:47, and Louise, who helped start the monitoring project, at 9:18. At 9:38 you can see our trap on lower Mill Creek.

(Incidentally, the scenic waterfall you see at 9:48/9:58 is actually a privately-owned man-made concrete waterfall that creates a major barrier to upstream migration, preventing many salmon from returning to the streams whence they came. It's pretty though, isn't it?)

In good news, University of Washington researchers have said that this year should be a good one for Coho salmon, based on a strong coastal upwelling, cold water, and plenty of yummy copepods. Fingers crossed that we get a good return!



bird class

On May 30th, our Field Methods in Conservation Biology class went out to UC Davis' Russell Ranch to learn about catching, measuring, and banding birds. The majority of this film is the two Ash-throated Flycatchers stuck in our mist net... they make a rather annoying high-pitched squeak, so you my want your headphones on if you have neighbors. =)

No animals were physically harmed on this trip, though they will have some stories for their grandchicks. The Tree Swallow at the end was banded as a chick several years ago.

Tagging and Bagging from Patrick Hilton on Vimeo.

Side note: My first HD video on my new camera and computer. =)

For more pictures of this trip, see a series of young birds in compromising positions.



we are sequential 'ermaphrodites!

I was worried for a while that my posts were getting too crude, too full of inuendo, too.... graphic. Thanks to Isabella Rossellini, I don't feel so bad about using sex to educate.

Rossellini has produced a new series on the Sundance Channel, entitled "Green Porn."
Using marvelous costumes and props and her own special weird Sweditalianess, she explores the many ways that animals mate, from the lowly earthworm to the great whale. It is at once informative, entertaining, and slightly disturbing. I heartily encourage you to check it out.




vavelta is people!

For years, an epic battle has raged between old people with too much money and the incessant plague of wrinkles in their skin. Not satisfied to appear older than 30, these puckered spendthrifts have employed various tactics to flatten their faces, including everything from lasers to silicone fillers to deadly neurotoxins. One solution, Botox, is short for botulinum toxin, a protein produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, the spores of which produce a paralyzing compound that is lethal in doses of 1 nanogram/kg.

Wary of sticking the deadliest natural substance known to man into the saggy skin around your eyes? Have no fear, science comes to the rescue! Vavelta is a new wrinkle-relief technology on the market in the UK. Vavelta is a solution containing millions of little fibroblasts, cells found in human connective tissue that create collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid, three proteins that promote strong, elastic, and moist skin. But whence do these fibroblasts come?

Well, let's see. Fibroblasts occur naturally all over the human body, but as people age, the quality and abundance of their tissues decline, and the loss of cells means that their skin loses its elasticity, giving them wrinkles. In that case, we'd want to find a source of human skin that is relatively young and healthy, full of fibroblasts, but that nobody would miss...

I know! How about the discarded foreskins of circumcised boys?!

Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen, the latest victim of the ongoing wrinkle war is the leftover former tips of little Jewish and Muslim boys all over the world.

A British company, Intercytex, takes the former foreskins of circumcised penises, isolates the fibroblasts, allows them to grow over the course of a few months in cellular incubators, and then ships them off to select physicians in the UK. Each treatment, which is good for about 4 sq. cm. of your old face, contains about 20 million fibroblasts. The cost? An absolute steal of 750 GBP, or $1,000 USD, much less than a pound of flesh, an arm and a leg, or your first born child (not all of him, anyway).

It's not FDA approved for use in the US, so you'll have to fly to the UK to get it done. But you can rest comfortably on the flight home thinking of all the little boys' penises that went into taking away those pesky crow's feet.


From sciam


happy birthday chahlie!

Okay, so I'm a couple days early, but I just found something I'm really excited about.

Charles Robert Darwin (known as "Chahlie Dahwin" to his friends) was born on February 12, 1809. He grew up, went to medical school, didn't pay attention, did some other stuff, then died. (Truthfully, I hope you know a little bit more about him than that... if you don't you can always look him up on the omniscient Wikipedia.)

On his famous trip around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin served as the resident naturalist/geologist and man-companion to the captain, kinda like Paul Bettany in Master and Commander (booby shot at 1:42!). On that trip, he catalogued those wonders of the natural world he encountered, including many of them in his subsequent publications, including numerous parts of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.

The entirety of Darwin's writings, including all of his drawings, are now available online for free, at http://darwin-online.org.uk. Feel free to read the text of his works (the first edition of Origin of Species is the least watered-down), but don't miss the numerous plates of everything from bones to fossils to live animals he encountered, all in high resolution, perfect for printing and framing, if I do say so myself).


And here's a great example of old-school science:
"In doubling the point, two of the officers landed to take a round of angles with the theodolite. A fox, of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is an undescribed species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching their manœuvres, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society."

-- From Darwin, C. R. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Journal and remarks. 1832-1836. London: Henry Colburn.


beartrek (not the large, hairy, gay men version)

Last year I met a guy named Chris Morgan, a wildlife biologist in Alaska making a movie about the bears of the world. He's a great guy, and I dream of one day doing the things he is now (If only I can get my girlfriend as interested in cinematography as I am... I may have to go the Les Stroud route). Here's a few clips from his film, stil in production:

Six minutes, no narration:

Twenty minutes, narration:




from the Department of Scientific Words that Sound Dirty

I’d like to speak with you about your mother’s albedo. That’s right, her albedo.

No, I’m not referring to her insatiable drive for reproduction, her creative energy, how wet she is (well, not entirely), or those places where the sun don’t shine, I’m talking about how all her exposed parts just seem to glisten.

And by your mother, of course, I mean Gaia. Mother Earth.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

So what, exactly, am I talking about?

Your mom’s--okay, the Earth’s--albedo is the amount of sunlight that hits the surface and reflects; that which isn’t absorbed. Usually albedo is more of an astronomical term for the general amount of sunlight that a planet or other celestial body reflects, but since we have a planet covered in all sorts of different solids, liquids, gasses, plants, animals, and fungi, we can break the surface of the planet down and look at how much each thing reflects.

So how does it work? Simply measure the amount of incident light striking a surface, and the amount of light that reflects off of it. The ratio of reflected light to incident light is the albedo, sometimes read as a percentage.

So why is this a cool thing? (Haha!...ah, you’ll get it in a bit)

First, let’s talk space. When the sun shines electromagnetic radiation (some of it in the form of visible light) on objects in our solar system, they reflect these waves back at us, and from those reflections we can get an idea of what those objects are composed of, or “how the weather is out there.” In the case of planets and moons, we can tell how much ice cover they have, or what the surface might look like. Our own moon has an albedo of around 7%, which is enough to light up the landscape on a good night like last weekend’s. One of Saturn’s moons, the ice-encrusted Enceladus, has an albedo of 99%, meaning that it reflects almost all the sunlight that hits it. From the albedo of other space rocks like asteroids, we can figure out their metallic properties from how they reflect waves outside the visible spectrum.

But let’s get back to your mom, er, the Earth. You may have noticed that this planet is covered in all sorts of different surfaces, from oceans, deserts and tropical forests to the ice caps, huge buildings and cherry pies. Each of these surfaces has its own individual albedo, and conversely, absorbs a different amount of light.

So what does all of this matter to you? One thing to consider is that water, which covers about 70% of the Earth's surface, has a pretty low albedo, making it a good way to absorb the Sun's radiation and warm up the planet, supporting things like, y'know, life. Soaking up warmth in the day and maintaining it through the night is a good way to keep the temperature stable enough for us to survive, unlike on waterless orbs like the moon, where the temperature difference between day and night is about 356˚C. Our atmosphere is a big help, too, because it helps store this saved heat.

On the flip side, the sandy deserts near the equator and the snowy ice sheets near the poles have a higher albedo, up to 90% in the case of fresh snow. When these regions reflect a lot of light, they tend to stay a little bit cooler.

Most of the planet is somewhere between these extremes, however, with the majority of land covered in different kinds of plant cover, soil, and pies. Through local and satellite measurements, we can determine the albedo of these different surfaces, and also see a inverse correlation with the local temperature. The trees in tropical rain forests have a pretty low albedo, absorbing much of the incident sunlight (of which they get a lot), which in turn makes for higher local temperatures. However, if you're a farmer wise enough to cut down the rain forest for the excellent topsoil underneath, the decrease in albedo from green trees to dark brown soil will cause the temperature to go up on your new plot of land, making it even harder to grow anything while contributing to global warming.

Speaking of global warming, what happens if we're not reflecting as much light as we should? What if the highly reflective surfaces like the polar ice caps start shrinking, or if we create more dark surfaces, like giant parking lots and buildings and millions of miles of paved roads?

For the former, this presents a big problem, in that the melting of the ice caps initiates a positive feedback loop. Smaller ice sheet means smaller area of high albedo, which means less reflection and more absorption, which means higher temperature, which melts more ice, which means less area of high albedo... you get the picture. It's this positive feedback loop that has climatologists worried, because as it progresses, the ice at our poles will be melting at faster rates, and global temperatures will rise even faster. As far as rising ocean levels go, melting of the floating ice wouldn't drown us, but as soon as the ice on top of Antarctica and Greenland starts melting, we might start sailing on the Sacramento Bay.

So what about all the blacktop on our buildings and roads? In some places (like Maine), it's been common knowledge that having a black rooftop keeps your heating bill down and helps keep snow from piling up. However, urban planners are starting to figure out that all of this tar on our Walmarts and freeways is contributing to global warming, and is part of the reason why it gets so damn hot on the ubiquitously paved New York City (where everyone's wearing black, oddly) on an otherwise mild day. A new solution: paint everything white. Cool roof technology is a new engineering movement to paint the roofs of buildings white, increasing their albedo and consequently decreasing local and global temperatures. Other projects underway involve cloud seeding, where the creation of more cloud cover will reflect more of the sun's light, and spraying reflective aerosols into the stratosphere to keep some light from coming anywhere near the planet. While still in the infant stages, they may be part of the solution to combating global warming.