On 30 May COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences from scientists involved in such work. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching for #reachingoutsci.
“Fortuna, Panama. Friday 10 January 1997 – We ran a transect on Quebrada Chorro and netted a bunch of tadpoles. The surprising thing was that we heard no Colostethus calling, although the habitat looks excellent, and saw no frogs. Next we ran a transect on Quebrada Arena and found a bunch more dead frogs (27 total now), but also a bunch of live ones. We even found two dying Rana tadpoles, one with a bloody lesion. It looks really bad for Fortuna.”
That’s my journal entry, from a trip to western Panama that was about to change our understanding of what we had been calling the Amphibian Population Decline Phenomenon. Four years earlier as a PhD student working in southern Costa Rica I had been surprised upon returning from my Christmas break by a sudden and mysterious disappearance of my study species and most of the other amphibians at the site. That had prompted me to move to Fortuna, a nearby site and set up new studies. The difference was that this time I had caught the epidemic, and was watching the frogs die before my very eyes. Dr. David Green, a vet pathologist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, would conclude that they all had a skin infection that we’d later learn was an aquatic fungus. Worse, it looked exactly like the skin infection killing frogs in Australia, and at the National Zoo. We had a global epidemic on our hands.
Over the next 12 years, I watched as entire communities of amphibians – hundreds of animals and over 100 species of frogs and salamanders - succumbed to chytridiomycosis, the fungal disease caused by that fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd for short). It was stunningly fast. Entire valleys would be wiped out in a few months. It was devastating. We worked furiously to document and understand what was happening, driven to tell the world about what we were seeing. We cranked out definitive papers. More importantly, though, I felt personally responsible doing something.
For me, that ‘something’ was going to take skills you just don’t learn in the lab or the field, so I applied for communication and leadership training through the Leopold Leadership Program. I wanted to learn how to better communicate lessons learned from the amphibian extinction I had observed in the hopes of alerting others and preventing new extinctions. I put my freshly honed communication skills to work, describing what we had seen in the field, and the impacts of those declines on populations, communities, and ecosystems. I gave lots of talks to many kinds of groups – colleagues, hobbyists, zookeepers. I always hoped that somebody in the audience would have the right bit of information to understand where this fungus came from, how it worked, and how we might control it.
Those early years were a whirlwind, but it felt good to know that by reporting on the losses I was helping conservation groups focus attention on the problem, I was raising awareness among scientists and citizens alike, and that organizations used this information to charge task forces, organize funding opportunities, distribute newsletters, and initiate global analyses.
As the years passed, we learned more about the global distribution of the Bd fungus and the wide range of amphibians affected and in decline. The message changed from one of prevention to one of rescuing frogs in front of the wave, then of searching for ways to genetically modify the fungus to reduce its lethality. There was still a lot we did not know, but as new genetic tools and analyses came online it seemed like we were making progress.
However, within the past few years we’ve come to several grim realizations: we can’t eradicate the fungus from the environment, most of the tropical jungle areas of the world are already infected, and human trade has helped move this pathogen around the world. So, again, I changed my message to how we might control invasive species and focused on lessons from successful eradication of wildlife diseases. And again, my target audience expanded to include agencies and NGOs with the hope that they might be able to monitor diseases internationally or regulate trade to prevent introductions of infected frogs.
Still, despite all our best efforts, it’s a Bd world now. Over the years, I have been moving my research sites eastward, racing to stay ahead of the epidemic wave as it burns through Panama, but now, I am out of sites and out of frogs. The kinds of questions we need to ask and the kinds of research we do are different. We are working at the Colombian border where Bd has already passed through and done its damage. We are now looking for evidence that survivors are evolving genetic resistance to disease. We still don’t know where it came from, how it gets around, or how to get rid of it. Worst of all, we don’t have any proven way to keep it out.
There aren’t many places left on the planet where Bd doesn’t yet occur. I dread the day when I hear that an infected frog has been found on Madagascar or Papua New Guinea where amphibians are still healthy. That will be a very sad day, because in the early days I never doubted that we’d figure out how to stop Bd; now I am sure we won’t.
It’s hard to believe that in just 15 years, I’ve watched dozens of species go extinct. It’s harder still to accept that despite our best intentions, tireless efforts, and expensive investments, we haven’t been able to save a single species. Not one. Not really. Sure, some species of frogs are safely housed in aquariums in zoos, but as long as we have no answer for addressing Bd where it persists in the environment, successful reintroductions and long-term solutions don’t seem likely. And I feel terrible. I feel like a fraud, and I feel responsible, as if being an expert on a topic means I am expected to solve the problem.
And the problem is bigger than just Bd. The full extent of the Global Extinction of Amphibians is now pretty well known, and it seems that we have not been able to apply any of those lessons to the most recent fungal epidemic killing millions of bats. The number of regional or global threats to biodiversity are increasing so rapidly that it is difficult to understand which factor or factors is involved, much less how to address them. I feel helpless, and useless, and wonder if it is time for a new conversation, one that reconsiders how we decide, prioritize, and even practice conservation measures.
We are living in an era called the Anthropocene. It is characterized by unprecedented amounts of change in our physical and natural systems but also in our human institutions. We will see many more changes, and many species and many habitats will continue to disappear or become unrecognizable. We think we have the knowledge and techniques to revive some extinct species, and we have been successful at restoring some degraded habits. What we don’t have are sufficient resources to individually repair and restore the rapidly increasing numbers of threatened species and habitats. The global economy has shifted, and we are still dealing with the rippling repercussions it has on funding to agencies, universities and individuals for research and conservation. Living in DC, I see firsthand the effects as numerous job cuts in conservation NGOs and federal agencies, and as shifts in priorities as donors of all sorts move away from biodiversity.
It's profoundly frustrating to have a platform and a voice, but not to have a clear call to action for the public. A common theme in science communication is that we have to the audience care. And people do care – a lot! They are eager to help, to offer suggestions, to get involved. But at the end of my talks there is no magic bullet. The truths I have to offer are not easy, they don’t instantly make us feel better. If there is tough love, let’s call what I have to offer “hard hope”.
We know that humans are the main cause of these global changes, and while that feels overwhelming, it also necessarily means that we have a choice in deciding whether and how control the direction and dimension of these changes. The ability to control our planet brings great responsibility, and makes scientific leadership, communication, and ethical considerations more important than ever. As individuals, communities, and as a society we are going to be asked to make many painful decisions in the coming years. We are going to need creative, informed and well-spoken stakeholders from all areas to participate as we decide what we want to save, and why. Scientists will be necessary to provide information on he structure and functioning of ecosystems and the role of species, but in the end, engaged citizens will the those who decide what species or habitats receive funding or research or rescue.
I am struggling to find a new message, one that moves past the death and destruction I have witnessed and beyond the feelings of helplessness and frustration, but one that is still honest and useful. I have been thinking about change and shifting baselines a lot recently, as I struggle to comprehend as everything – from frogs and fish, to bats, bees and forest trees - decline in number. I remind myself, “Nothing is as constant as change.” It’s inevitable. This is the most honest and most hopeful thing I can say: evolution happens. Life is resilient.
Where I work in the Appalachians today I am aware of the skeletal remains of American chestnut trees, victims of a past fungal epidemic that forever changed the ecology of this forest. Anybody who has driven through the extensive forest of Shenandoah National Park or Smoky Mountain National Park has seen how a generation of protection can restore the eastern hardwood forest to something that is similar to what was there before. It’s not the same, not by a long shot, but maybe one day we will see frogs return to Panama and the American Chestnut return to the Appalachians.
A special thanks to Liz Neeley for the inspiration to write this and for editing earlier drafts.