OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

environment and natural resources

“Narco-deforestation” study links loss of Central American tropical forests to cocaine

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Central American tropical forests are beginning to disappear at an alarming rate, threatening the livelihood of indigenous peoples there and endangering some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America.

The culprit? Cocaine.

The problem is not the cultivation of the coca plant – which is processed into cocaine – that is causing this “narco-deforestation.” It results from people throughout the spectrum of the drug trade purchasing enormous amounts of land to launder their illegal profits, researchers say.

Results of the study, which was funded by the Open Society Foundations and supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, have just been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“Starting in the early 2000s, the United States-led drug enforcement in the Caribbean and Mexico pushed drug traffickers into places that were harder to patrol, like the large, forested areas of central America,” said David Wrathall, an Oregon State University geographer and co-author on the study. “A flood of illegal drug money entered these places and these drug traffickers needed a way that they could spend it.

“It turns out that one of the best ways to launder illegal drug money is to fence off huge parcels of forest, cut down the trees, and build yourself a cattle ranch. It is a major, unrecognized driver of tropical deforestation in Central America.”

Using data from the Global Forest Change program estimating deforestation, the research team identified irregular or abnormal deforestation from 2001-2014 that did not fit previously identified spatial or temporal patterns caused by more typical forms of land settlement or frontier colonization. The team then estimated the degree to which narcotics trafficking contributes to forest loss, using a set of 15 metrics developed from the data to determine the rate, timing and extent of deforestation.

Strongly outlying or anomalous patches and deforestation rates were then compared to data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy – considered the best source for estimating cocaine flow through the Central American corridor, Wrathall pointed out.

“The comparisons helped confirm relationships between deforestation and activities including cattle ranching, illegal logging, and land speculation, which traffickers use to launder drug trafficking profits in remote forest areas of Central America,” Wrathall said.

They estimate that cocaine trafficking may account for up to 30 percent of the total forest loss in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua over the past decade. A total of 30 to 60 percent of the forest losses occurred within nationally and internationally designated protected areas, threatening conservation efforts to maintain forest carbon sinks, ecological services, and rural and indigenous livelihoods.

“Imagine the cloud of carbon dioxide from all of that burning forest,” Wrathall said. “The most explosive change in land use happened in areas where land ownership isn’t clear – in forested, remote areas of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, where the question of who owns the land is murky.”

“In Panama, the financial system is built to launder cocaine money so they don’t need to cut down trees to build ranches for money laundering. In Honduras, land is the bank.”

Farming and cattle ranching aren’t the only money laundering methods threatening tropical forests, the researchers say. Mining, tourism ventures and industrial agriculture are other ways drug money is funneled into legitimate businesses.

Wrathall said the impact affects both people and ecosystems.

“The indigenous people who have lived sustainably in these environments are being displaced as the stewards of the land,” he said. “These are very important ecological areas with tremendous biodiversity that may be lost.”

The authors says the solutions include de-escalating and demilitarizing the war on drugs; strengthening the position of indigenous peoples and traditional forest communities to be stewards of the remaining forest lands; and developing regional awareness of the issue.

“We are cruising through the last of our wild spaces in Central America,” Wrathall said. “Obviously, ending the illegal drug trade would be the best solution, but that isn’t going to happen. In fact, when drug enforcement efforts are successful, they often push the activity into remote areas that haven’t had issues before, such as remote biodiversity hotspots.”

Wrathall is an assistant professor in Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. He specializes in the impact of climate change on the distribution of the human population and other factors that affect human migration.

“The surge of violence in Central America that has accompanied drug trafficking is recognized as a major driver of migration in the region.”

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David Wrathall, 541-737-8051, david.wrathall@coas.oregonstate.edu

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DSCN0297
Central American forests are giving way to pasture land for cattle ranches.

Study provides detailed glimpse of predators’ effects on complex, subtidal food web

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Research using time-lapse photography in the Galapagos Marine Reserve suggests the presence of a key multilevel “trophic cascade” involving top- and mid-level predators as well as urchins and algae.

The findings are important because they include detailed information about interactions in a complex food web. Such information is crucial to knowing how to cause, prevent or reverse population changes within the web.

In the rocky, species-rich subtidal area off the Galapagos Islands, scientists from Oregon State University and Brown University examined the relationships among predatory fishes, urchins, the algae that the urchins graze on, and how the interactions among them were influenced by sea lions and sharks at the top of the food chain.

The key question: Do predators high up in the chain affect the abundance of the “primary producers” at the bottom – in this case algae – thus causing a trophic cascade?

Trophic level refers to a species’ position in the chain, and the cascade describes the series of effects that can occur.

Using GoPro cameras, the researchers made a number of key findings regarding triggerfish, Spanish hogfish, pencil urchins, the larger green urchins and algae, including:

  • Among a diverse guild of predatory fishes, triggerfish can control the abundance of pencil urchins and thus also the abundance of algae the urchins eat; the experiments showed grazing on algae was eliminated when the pencil urchins were exposed to triggerfish predation, meaning triggerfish are a candidate for protection because of their strong effects on ecosystem function.
  • Green urchins eat more algae than pencil urchins yet are not the urchin prey of choice for predatory fish. That suggests those fish aren’t controlling green urchin populations and thus that green-urchin barrens in the Galapagos – areas where the urchins have stripped the sea floor of algae – are not the result of the overfishing of predatory fish.
  • Spanish hogfish are not major predators of urchins as earlier, survey-based research had suggested. Hogfish mainly eat the smaller pencil urchins and also interfere with triggerfish feeding on large pencil urchins; the hassling hogfish cause triggerfish to spend more time to eat an urchin and in some cases force a fumble.
  • Statistical modeling of predation on pencil urchins indicates that two types of interference behavior – the hogfish harassing the triggerfish, and sea lions and sharks startling the triggerfish – could slow the rate of triggerfish predation on pencil urchins.

The researcher who did the modeling, Mark Novak of the College of Science at Oregon State, noted that historically, ecologists believed complex food webs typical of the tropics were more immune to trophic cascades than the simpler food webs of higher latitudes; the Galapagos straddle the equator.

Studies such as this one now suggest that is not the case, and that the dynamics of complex food webs can be as predictable as simpler ones provided you understand who the relevant players are.

“When the backbone of the system is strong, you can connect the top of the food chain to the bottom despite all of the indirect effects and the complexities of the system,” said Novak, assistant professor of integrative biology.

“It’s important to know individual species identity when you’ve got a suite of consumers,” Novak said. “The hogfish, the triggerfish, they all feed on very similar things, yet one of the two is most important, the one that drove that first link. And an urchin isn’t just an urchin – one was more immune to consumption from triggerfish, the other more susceptible. And one urchin was important for grazing, and another was not.”

Merely lumping species together at trophic levels would have caused researchers to miss a lot of the subtleties that the photographic study uncovered.

“If you just put urchins out and see how quickly they disappear, you can’t attribute that to any given predator,” Novak said. “We were able to identify those species that were responsible for transmitting the cascade.”

Findings were recently published in PLOS One. The National Science Foundation supported this research.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Galapagos fish

Triggerfish, top, and hogfish

OSU to discuss Elliott State Forest with State Land Board

CORVALLIS, OR – Oregon State University has been asked by state Treasurer Tobias Read to engage in discussions with the State Land Board regarding options to retain public ownership of the Elliott State Forest.

“OSU and its College of Forestry have long advocated for investments in comprehensive, sustained research and data collection to better inform the relationship between forest management and conservation of listed species,” said OSU President Ed Ray. “With the right management structure, the Elliott State Forest could offer a great opportunity for research and education that would have long-term benefits for our state.”

Ray said that three principles have guided the university’s consideration of options involving the forest.

“First, the university has no interest in contributing to the disruption of a sale of the forest that previously received a majority of support by the State Land Board,” Ray said. “The university became actively involved in discussions regarding alternative plans only after it became clear that the governor and state treasurer would not support the sale of the forest.

“Second, since options involving the Elliott State Forest may involve the use of state bonding capacity, OSU’s potential involvement regarding the forest can not detract from our long-standing priority to secure bonding to finance the full expansion of the OSU-Cascades campus in Bend.

“Third, there must be a funding structure created by the state to support the research and education within the Elliott State Forest that is contemplated by the land board going forward.”

In an effort to ensure that the assets of the forest contribute to the state’s Common School Fund, the State Land Board over the past year has sought to sell the forest for a minimum of $220.8 million – an amount determined by appraisal.

Last year, the Lone Rock Timber Company and the Cow Creek Tribe made a joint bid of $220.8 million to purchase the Elliott State Forest. In February, over Gov. Kate Brown’s objections, the State Land Board voted 2-1 to accept that bid. Subsequently, Brown and Read undertook efforts to retain the public ownership of the forest and determine a financial instrument to contribute to the state’s Common School Fund, with the possibility of ultimately divesting the forest from the Common School Fund altogether.

On Thursday, Read issued a statement supporting involvement of OSU’s College of Forestry in research within the Elliott. In addition, he said he supported providing OSU a possible option to purchase the forest at some future date. The option to purchase would be at OSU’s discretion and would be partially based on the outcome of efforts to establish a Habitat Conservation Plan for the forest under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Working with OSU’s College of Forestry provides the state of Oregon an opportunity to engage in comprehensive and sustained research to better inform the relationship between active forest management and conservation of listed species,” Ray said.

“OSU research could provide a scientific basis to help guide the development of a Habitat Conservation Plan and future management of the forest. This plan would provide greater certainty regarding the forest’s management and would need to support a well-defined and financially sustainable business plan.”

A purchase of the forest would be subject to review and approval by the OSU Board of Trustees.

Ray and Thomas Maness, dean of the College of Forestry, will provide testimony on OSU’s engagement in discussions about the Elliott State Forest during a May 9 meeting of the State Land Board.

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Steve Clark, 541-737-3808; steve.clark@oregonstate.edu

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Steve Clark, 541-737-3808; steve.clark@oregonstate.edu

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OSU President Ed Ray

OSU President Ed Ray

Maness
Forestry Dean Thomas Maness

Researchers identify evidence of oldest orchid fossil on record

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The orchid family has some 28,000 species – more than double the number of bird species and quadruple the mammal species. As it turns out, they’ve also been around for a while.

A newly published study documents evidence of an orchid fossil trapped in Baltic amber that dates back some 45 million years to 55 million years ago, shattering the previous record for an orchid fossil found in Dominican amber some 20-30 million years old.

Results of the discovery have just been published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

“It wasn’t until a few years ago that we even had evidence of ancient orchids because there wasn’t anything preserved in the fossil record,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus of entomology in the College of Science at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “But now we’re beginning to locate pollen evidence associated with insects trapped in amber, opening the door to some new discoveries.”

Orchids have their pollen in small sac-like structures called pollinia, which are attached by supports to viscidia, or adhesive pads, that can stick to the various body parts of pollinating insects, including bees, beetles, flies and gnats. The entire pollination unit is known as a pollinarium.

In this study, a small female fungus gnat was carrying the pollinaria of an extinct species of orchid when it became trapped in amber more than 45 million years ago. The pollinaria was attached to the base of the gnat’s hind leg. Amber preserves fossils so well that the researchers could identify a droplet of congealed blood at the tip of the gnat’s leg, which had been broken off shortly before it was entombed in amber.

At the time, all of the continents hadn’t even yet drifted apart.

The fossil shows that orchids were well-established in the Eocene and it is likely that lineages extended back into the Cretaceous period. Until such forms are discovered, the present specimen provides a minimum date that can be used in future studies determining the evolutionary history and phylogeny of the orchids.

How the orchid pollen in this study ended up attached to the fungus gnat and eventually entombed in amber from near the Baltic Sea in northern Europe is a matter of speculation. But, Poinar says, orchids have evolved a surprisingly sophisticated system to draw in pollinating insects, which may have led to the gnat’s demise.

“We probably shouldn’t say this about a plant,” Poinar said with a laugh, “but orchids are very smart. They’ve developed ways to attract little flies and most of the rewards they offer are based on deception.”

Orchids use color, odor and the allure of nectar to draw in potential pollinating insects. Orchids will emit a scent that suggests to hungry insects the promise of food, but after entering the flower they will learn that the promise of nourishment was false.

Likewise, female gnats may pick up a mushroom-like odor from many orchids, which attracts them as a place to lay their eggs because the decaying fungal tissue is a source of future nutrition. Alas, again it is a ruse. In frustration, they may go ahead and lay their eggs, dooming their offspring to a likely death from a lack of food.

Finally, male insects are attracted by the ersatz scent of female flies and they actually will attempt to copulate with a part of the orchid they think is a potential mate.

All three of these processes are based on deception, Poinar said, and they all have the same end result.

“Though the deception works in different ways, the bottom line is that the orchid is able to draw in pollinating insects, which unwittingly gather pollen that becomes attached to their legs and other body parts, and then pass it on to the next orchid flowers that lure them in,” he said.

“Orchids are, indeed, pretty smart.”

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George Poinar, Jr., poinarg@science.oregonstate.edu

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Fig. 1

A fungus gnat trapped in amber some 45-55 million years ago is carrying on the upper portion of its severed leg a pollen sac from an orchid – the oldest evidence of the flower ever discovered.


Fig. 4 insert

This microscopic view shows pollinarium – a cluster of pollen found in orchids – that will stick to the legs and body of pollinating insects.

Research aims to protect eagles from wind turbines

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New research from Oregon State University will aim to make eagles less likely to collide with wind-turbine blades.

The U.S. Department of Energy Wind Technology Office has awarded Roberto Albertani of the OSU College of Engineering a 27-month, $625,000 grant to develop technology for detecting and deterring approaching eagles and for determining if a blade strike has occurred.

A growing energy source in the U.S., wind power uses towers up to 300 feet tall typically equipped with three blades with wingspans double that of a Boeing 747. At their tips, the blades are moving close to 200 miles per hour.

Wind power is generally regarded as green energy, but danger to birds – particularly bald eagles and golden eagles – is a concern.

Albertani’s team will work on a three-part system for protecting the eagles. “We’re the only team in the world doing this kind of work,” said Albertani, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

The team includes Sinisa Todorovic, associate professor of computer science, and Matthew Johnston, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

If successful, Albertani said, the system that he and his colleagues develop will be a major breakthrough in a safer-for-wildlife expansion of wind energy worldwide.

The system will feature a tower-mounted, computer-connected camera able to determine if an approaching bird is an eagle and whether it’s flying toward the blades. If both those answers are yes, the computer triggers a ground-level deterrent: randomly moving, brightly colored facsimiles of people, designed to play into eagles’ apparent aversion to humans.

“There’s no research available, but hopefully those will deter the eagles from coming closer to the turbines,” Albertani said. “We want the deterrent to be simple and affordable.”

At the root of each turbine blade will be a vibration sensor able to detect the kind of thump produced by a bird hitting a blade. Whenever such a thump is detected, recorded video data from a blade-mounted micro-camera can be examined to tell if the impact was caused by an eagle or something else.

“If we strike a generic bird, sad as that is, it’s not as critical as striking a protected golden eagle, which would cause the shutdown of a wind farm for a period of time, a fine to the operator, big losses in revenue, and most important the loss of a member of a protected species,” Albertani said.

Albertani’s team includes two collaborators from the U.S. Geological Survey, biological statistician Manuela Huso and wildlife biologist and eagle expert Todd Katzner. An external advisory board includes Siemens Wind Power and Avangrid Renewables.

Primary field testing will take place at the North American Wind Research and Training Center in Tucumcari, N.M., and the NREL National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colo. Field work will also be done in Oregon and California.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are roughly 143,000 bald eagles and 40,000 golden eagles in the United States.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Wind energy

Wind turbines

Engagement with natural environment a significant contributor to life satisfaction

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Looking to improve your overall life satisfaction? Try regularly hiking in a forest or otherwise engaging with the natural environment.

And then, for good measure, look for ways to build your trust in the scientists and policymakers involved in managing the forest where you like to hike.

New research at Oregon State University empirically demonstrates that a variety of mechanisms for engaging nature significantly contribute to a person’s overall well-being.

Chief among those, the study found, was whether people believed their surrounding environments were being managed well – for the earning of income and the underpinning of cultural practices as well as for the pursuit of recreation.

“Whether people feel like things are fair and they have a voice in process of making decisions and whether governance is transparent – those are the foundations of why people even can interact with nature,” said lead author Kelly Biedenweg of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Biedenweg, an assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and collaborators from Colorado State University and the University of Georgia analyzed results from more than 4,400 respondents to an online survey conducted in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

The researchers used 13 different metrics to illustrate the relationship between overall life satisfaction and engaging with the natural environment. Among those metrics were community activities, access to wild resources, stress eased by time outdoors, and trust in policymakers.

“Eleven of the 13 had a positive correlation to overall life satisfaction,” said Biedenweg, a social scientist who studies both how humans benefit from the natural environment and the impact human actions have on it. “The links between ecological conditions, like drinking water and air quality, and objective well-being have been studied quite a bit, but the connection between various aspects of engaging the natural environment and overall subjective well-being have rarely been looked at.”

“We wanted to identify the relative importance of diverse, nature-oriented experiences on a person’s overall life satisfaction assessment and statistically prove the relationship between happiness/life satisfaction and engaging with nature in many different ways.”

The researchers quantified the relationship between well-being and six common mechanisms by which nature has effects on well-being: social and cultural events; trust in governance; access to local wild resources; sense of place; outdoor recreation; and psychological benefits from time outdoors.

“Controlling for demographics, all were significantly related to life satisfaction,” Biedenweg said. “The fact that trust in governance was a significant predictor of life satisfaction – in fact, the most statistically significant predictor of the ones we looked at – it was nice to see that come out of the research. The way we manage is the gateway to people being able to get livelihoods and satisfaction from nature.”

Findings were recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. The National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency supported this research.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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70

Surf fisherman

New video shows how blue whales employ strategy before feeding

NEWPORT, Ore. – Blue whales didn’t become the largest animals ever to live on Earth by being dainty eaters and new video captured by scientists at Oregon State University shows just how they pick and choose their meals.

There is a reason for their discretion, researchers say. The whales are so massive – sometimes growing to the length of three school buses – that they must carefully balance the energy gained through their food intake with the energetic costs of feeding.

“Modeling studies of blue whales ‘lunge-feeding’ theorize that they will not put energy into feeding on low-reward prey patches,” said Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State, who led the expedition studying the blue whales. “Our footage shows this theory in action. We can see the whale making choices, which is really extraordinary because aerial observations of blue whales feeding on krill are rare.”

“The whale bypasses certain krill patches – presumably because the nutritional payoff isn’t sufficient – and targets other krill patches that are more lucrative. We think this is because blue whales are so big, and stopping to lunge-feed and then speeding up again is so energy-intensive, that they try to maximize their effort.”

The video, captured in the Southern Ocean off New Zealand, shows a blue whale cruising toward a large mass of krill – roughly the size of the whale itself. The animal then turns on its side, orients toward the beginning of the krill swarm, and proceeds along its axis through the entire patch, devouring nearly the entire krill mass.

In another vignette, the same whale approaches a smaller mass of krill, which lies more perpendicular to its approach, and blasts through it without feeding.

“We had theorized that blue whales make choices like this and the video makes it clear that they do use such a strategy,” explained Torres, who works out of Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “It certainly appears that the whale determined that amount of krill to be gained, and the effort it would take to consume the meal wasn’t worth the effort of slowing down.

“It would be like me driving a car and braking every 100 yards, then accelerating again. Whales need to be choosy about when to apply the brakes to feed on a patch of krill.”

The researchers analyzed the whale’s lunge-feeding and found that it approached the krill patch at about 6.7 miles per hour. The act of opening its enormous mouth to feed slowed the whale down to 1.1 mph – and getting that big body back up to cruising speed again requires a lot of energy.

The rare footage was possible through the use of small drones. The OSU team is trained to fly them over whales and was able to view blue whales from a unique perspective.

“It’s hard to get good footage from a ship,” Torres said, “and planes or helicopters can be invasive because of their noise. The drone allows us to get new angles on the whales without bothering them.”

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Leigh Torres, 541-867-0895, leigh.torres@oregonstate.edu

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Photo at left: Blue whale feeding on a krill patch.

 

Launching Drone
Launching of the drone.

Even short-duration heat waves could lead to failure of coffee crops

CORVALLIS – “Hot coffee” is not a good thing for java enthusiasts when it refers to plants beset by the high-temperature stress that this century is likely to bring, research at Oregon State University suggests.

A study by OSU’s College of Forestry showed that when Coffea arabica plants were subjected to short-duration heat waves, they became unable to produce flowers and fruit.

That means no coffee beans, and no coffee to drink.

C. arabica is the globe’s dominant coffee-plant species, accounting for 65 percent of the commercial production of the nearly 20 billion pounds of coffee consumed globally each year.

Continually producing new flushes of leaves year-round, C. arabica grows on 80 countries in four continents in the tropics.

The OSU research investigated how leaf age and heat duration affected C. arabica’s recovery from heat stress during greenhouse testing. A major finding was that the younger, “expanding” leaves were particularly slow to recover compared to mature leaves, and that none of the plants that endured the simulated heat waves produced any flowers or fruit.

“This emphasizes how sensitive Coffea arabica is to temperature,” said lead author Danielle Marias, a plant physiologist with OSU’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “No flowering means no reproduction which means no beans, and that could be devastating for a coffee farmer facing crop failure.

“Heat is very stressful to the plants and is often associated with drought. However, in regions where coffee is grown, it may not just be hotter and drier, it could be hotter and wetter, so in this research we wanted to isolate the effects of heat.”

In the OSU study, C. arabica plants were exposed to heat that produced leaf temperatures of a little over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, for either 45 or 90 minutes. That leaf temperature, Marias emphasizes, is a realistic result of global climate change and also more than the surrounding air temperature – think of how hot, for example, asphalt gets in the sunshine on a 90-degree day.

Expanding leaves subjected to the 90-minute treatment took the longest to recover physiologically as measured by photosynthesis; chlorophyll fluorescence, an indicator of photosynthetic energy conversion; and the presence of nonstructural carbohydrates, which include starch and free sugars involved in growth, reproduction and other functions.

“In both treatments, photosynthesis of expanding leaves recovered more slowly than in mature leaves, and stomatal conductance of expanding leaves was reduced in both heat treatments,” Marias said. “Based on the leaf energy balance model, the inhibited stomatal conductance reduces evaporative cooling of leaves, which could further increase leaf temperatures, exacerbating the aftereffects of heat stress under both full and partial sunlight conditions, where C. arabica is often grown.”

Regardless of leaf age, the longer heat treatment resulted in decreased water-use efficiency, which could also worsen the effects of heat stress, particularly during drought.

Results of the research were recently published in Ecology and Evolution. The National Science Foundation supported the study, co-authors of which were Frederick Meinzer of the U.S. Forest Service and Christopher Still of the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society.

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By Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Coffea arabica

Coffea arabica

OSU to expand sediment core collection to one of largest in the world

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the nation’s most important repositories of oceanic sediment cores, located at Oregon State University, will more than double in size later this year when the university assumes stewardship of a collection of sediment cores taken from the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

OSU has received a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation to assume the curatorial stewardship of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean National Collection of Rock and Sediment Cores, housed at Florida State University since the mid-1960s. Oregon State will house the expanded collection in a sophisticated new facility located just off-campus.

NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, whose logistical support and awards to researchers allowed many of the cores to be obtained.

The OSU Marine and Geology Repository will be available to scientists around the world to study the sediment cores, which provide evidence of the Earth’s climate over the past millions of years, oceanic conditions, the history of the magnetic field, plate tectonics, seismic and volcanic events, ice ages and interglacial periods, and even the origin of life.

“These cores are time capsules, allowing scientists today to compare the conditions on the Earth we live in with the way it was eons ago,” said Thom Wilch, Earth Sciences program manager at NSF. “This collection of cores and samples is an incredible resources that has yielded many important scientific findings about the past. Preservation and curation by OSU ensures that the cores are available for future research by the national and international scientific communities.”

Oregon State has operated a sediment core lab since the 1970s, but its origins were rather modest, according to Joseph Stoner, a geologist in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-director of the OSU Marine and Geology Repository. Lacking a storage facility, the first cores were kept in a cooler at a Chinese restaurant in Corvallis.

From those humble beginnings, the repository has grown into a treasure trove for scientists, storing thousands of cores – mostly from the Pacific Ocean, with a few from the Arctic, Bering Sea, and many terrestrial lakes. The collection also includes dry terrestrial cores and dredged rocks from submarine volcanoes and the ocean floor.

“The expanded collection will include some 35 kilometers, or about 22 miles, of sediment cores, more than doubling the size of our current repository at Oregon State,” Stoner said. “OSU already shares on average 5,000 subsamples of the cores with scientists each year – a number that will more than double with the expansion.”

When completed over the next two years, the expanded repository will give Oregon State the premier collection of sediment cores from the Pacific and Southern oceans. It is difficult to put a dollar value on the cores, OSU researchers say, though their worth can be calculated in a different way.

“If we had to replace the cores in our current OSU repository, it would cost roughly a half billion dollars just in ship time to go collect them,” Stoner said. “That doesn’t include the cost of the people involved. To replace the Antarctic collection would easily cost more than $1 billion, since the Southern Ocean is so remote, travel is difficult, and you can only work two or three months out of the year.”

The real worth, though, is the cores’ scientific value, noted Anthony Koppers, co-director of the OSU repository and also a faculty member in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. The OSU collection includes cores that have sediments as old as 50 million years, and from as deep as a kilometer below the Earth’s surface.

The new Antarctic collection has the most complete set of cores from the Southern Ocean in the world and those cores provide an important look into the Earth’s climate history over the last few million years. The Southern Ocean collection also includes numerous cores gathered under the NSF-funded international Antarctic DRILLing Project (ANDRILL) program and provides clues to the history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet over the past 17 million years.

“This will bring a lot of researchers from around the world to Oregon State,” Koppers said. “The Antarctic research community is very active, very enthusiastic, and very diverse. With our new facility, we will have the capacity to work with researchers in numerous disciplines studying a variety of scientific questions.”

Oregon State will spend the next several months preparing the new facility, which will be unlike almost every other repository in the world. It will have a refrigerated industrial storage space of 18,000 square feet, the researchers note, providing plenty of room for the collection to grow over the next five decades.

The size of the facility likely will lead to other collections moving to Oregon State, Koppers predicted.

“Most core repositories are starving for space,” he said. “We anticipate hearing from them as word about the transfer and our new facility gets out.”

The new repository facility will occupy much of the former Nypro Building in Corvallis. In addition to the enormous refrigerated storage area, which has 28-foot-high ceilings for both cold and dry storage, it will include:

  • Up to 11 laboratory areas, including facilities for core splitters, imagery, microscopy, rock analysis, sediment analysis CT scanning and other scanning techniques;
  • Freezer storage for frozen ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica;
  • A laboratory where researchers can work on eight different cores at once while using digital imaging and data from the individual cores displayed on large-screen computer monitors;
  • A seminar room for 35 people, where cores can be brought in for classes and presentations;
  • Office space for resident scientists, staff, and visiting scientists.

Florida State University made the decision in 2015 not to compete for renewal as its Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science program was moving in a different academic direction. Koppers and Stoner submitted a bid for Oregon State to acquire the collection and were awarded two grants from NSF to transfer the Antarctic collection and to provide stewardship for it.

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Joseph Stoner, 541-737-9002, jstoner@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Anthony Koppers, 541-737-5425, akoppers@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Fish and mercury: Detailed consumption advisories would better serve women across U.S.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Among women of childbearing age in the U.S., fish consumption has increased in recent years while blood mercury concentrations have decreased, suggesting improved health for women and their babies, a new study shows.

The research at Oregon State University also indicates fish consumption advisories tailored to specific regions and ethnic groups would help women of childbearing age to eat in even more healthy ways, including better monitoring of mercury intake.

Food from the ocean has a unique and valuable nutritional profile. Among seafood’s many benefits are the omega-3 fatty acids that promote neurodevelopment, and the nutrients in seafood are especially important for pregnant women to pass on to developing fetuses.

But the main way people are exposed to toxic methylmercury – a mercury atom with a methyl group, CH3, attached to it – is through eating seafood. Thus the need for precise, nuanced fish consumption advisories, said Leanne Cusack of Oregon State University, the corresponding author on the study. 

Comparatively less-toxic elemental mercury enters the ocean from natural sources such as volcanic eruptions and also from human activities like the burning of fossil fuels, which accounts for about two-thirds of the mercury that goes into the water.

Once in the ocean, the mercury is methylated, diffuses into phytoplankton and passes up the food chain, accumulating along the way.

A scallop or a shrimp, for example, can have a mercury concentration of less than 0.003 parts per million. A large predator like a tuna, on the other hand, can contain roughly 10 million times as much methylmercury as the water that surrounds it and have a concentration of many parts per million.

Exactly how the mercury in the ocean becomes methylated, scientists don’t know.

Fish advisories are usually aimed at women of childbearing age because a developing fetus has greater sensitivity to the neurotoxic effects of methylmercury. Jointly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration recommend women in that group eat two meals of low-mercury fish per week.

Using data from the ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Cusack’s research group looked at fish consumption patterns with regard to blood mercury levels in U.S. women of childbearing age from 1999 to 2010.

Findings were recently published in the journal Environmental Health.

Women in the coastal regions, particularly the Northeast, were found to have the highest blood mercury concentrations; women living away from the sea, especially in the inland Midwest, had the lowest.

Coastal residents also ate fish the most frequently, with the species consumed varying by region. The type of fish most often consumed was shellfish in every part of the U.S. except for the inland West and inland Midwest.

As women’s age and household income increased, so did their fish consumption frequency and blood mercury concentrations. Among ethnic groups, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives and Native Americans ate fish the most often and showed the most mercury, and Mexican Americans consumed fish the least often and showed the smallest concentration of mercury.

“We also found total monthly fish consumption by women of reproductive age was higher than it had been in recent years, with women consuming more marine fish and shellfish but with no appreciable difference in the mean consumption of freshwater fish, tuna, swordfish and shark,” said Cusack, a postdoctoral scholar in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

“That’s encouraging because marine and shellfish are associated with smaller increases in blood mercury. And also encouragingly, an average women who’d eaten fish nine or more times in the previous month had lower blood mercury levels than women who’d had fish at the same rate in 1999-2000.”

The differences in consumption and mercury levels by race and region illustrate the need for tailored fish advisories, she said.

“They need to have information about fish types and quantities you can safely eat,” Cusack said. “The more detailed they can be, the better.

“The main thing is we do need to increase fish consumption in this demographic,” Cusack added. “It has been increasing since 1999, but it’s still not at the level where we want to see it. People need to start consuming fish, and advisories need to focus on the benefits of consumption and not just the risks by providing a broad range of fish that are low in methylmercury and high in omega-3’s.” 

Media Contact: 

Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

Source: 

Leanne Cusack, 541-737-5565
Leanne.Cusack@oregonstate.edu

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