A Bird’s-Eye View of Air Pollution

Olivia Sanderfoot, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and incoming SEFS doctoral student with Professor Beth Gardner’s research group, is the lead author on a paper just published today in Environmental Research Letters, “Air pollution impacts on avian species via inhalation exposure and associated outcomes.” Reviewing nearly 70 years of the scientific literature, the study explores how much we know about the direct and indirect effects of air pollution on the health, well-being, reproductive success and diversity of birds.

Olivia with a stuffed great gray owl (named Wilson) that she uses in her All About Owls lesson at the Madison Audubon Society.

According to Olivia and the paper’s co-author, Professor Tracey Holloway the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, few studies have examined the health and ecological well-being of wild bird populations in the United States—only two since 1950, in fact. In their paper, they identify gaps in research to date on the impacts of air pollution on birds, including air pollution’s effects on the avian respiratory system, reproductive success, population density and species diversity.

“There is a lot of work to be done in this area,” says Olivia, who has been transitioning this summer from her projects at the University of Wisconsin. “Air quality is an ever-changing problem across the globe. There’s a need to look at different types of air pollution and different species all over the world. We have a huge lack of understanding of the levels of pollution birds are even exposed to.”

Learn more about the paper in the official release from the University of Wisconsin, as well as a video abstract Olivia put together for the research. You’ll get to talk to her in person when she arrives in Seattle this coming Thursday, August 18, after wrapping up her summer job as an educator with the Madison Audubon Society. We look forward to welcoming her to our school and community and learning more about her research!

Photo © Olivia Sanderfoot.

New Faculty Intro: Beth Gardner

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

Earlier this March, we welcomed one of our newest faculty members, Beth Gardner, who joins us as an assistant professor from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State University. Along with Professor Laura Prugh, Beth is one of two recent additions to the wildlife faculty at SEFS, and she brings enormous experience in quantitative ecology.

Beth grew up near Pittsburgh in Lone Pine, Pa., and as an undergrad at Allegheny College she first explored the intersection of math of environmental science.

When she arrived this spring, Beth jumped right in and taught QSci 381: Intro to Probability and Statistics, and future courses could include some form of statistical modeling.
When she arrived this spring, Beth jumped right in and taught QSci 381: Intro to Probability and Statistics, and future courses could include some form of statistical modeling.

Though she had a deeper personal interest in environmental studies at the time, she thought she was better at math and might settle on that route “by default.” Her compromise was to combine the subjects through a double major, and then to find a senior research project that also drew from both: creating a model of hydroponics and fish growth.

That was a long time ago, so the finer points of her first model are a little hazy, but the experience solidified her academic path. Beth applied to grad school at Cornell University and went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in natural resources. She then spent several years as a postdoc at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where she worked on developing spatial capture-recapture models, which have become one of her core interests.

Her research today generally focuses on using models to assess wildlife populations. Depending on the data, Beth is able to estimate a wide range of demographic rates, such as survival, recruitment, distribution patterns, abundance, resource selection, size of home ranges and other habitat relationships. Put a simpler way, she says, one way to think of models is to imagine a couple people going out on a lake and catching some fish. They might catch 40, which is a good sample, but what they really want to know is how many total fish are in the lake. That’s where Beth’s work begins. “It’s figuring out patterns,” she says. “I take the errors and uncertainty in sampling to build models to tell you what you didn’t see.”

Filling in those data holes can be essential for conservation, management and ecological understanding, she says, especially as climate and land-use changes continue to alter the environment and affect wildlife populations in new and unexpected ways.

Beth reeling in a tuna as part of a project to tag and measure them.
Beth reeling in a tuna as part of a project to tag and measure them.

The next challenge is to figure out where to apply her research in the Pacific Northwest. After all, moving across the country effectively rebooted her research program, she says, so she’s still organizing her lab—the Quantitative Ecology Lab—and lining up her first projects. Broadly speaking, though, her lab at SEFS will address three main areas: the development of spatial capture-recapture models, mostly focused on data collected from genetic surveys (e.g., scat, hair-snares), camera trapping and small mammal surveys; the development and application of site-occupancy models to improve estimation of habitat relationships and species distributions; and the explicit incorporation of spatial auto-correlation into count models.

As she gets fully settled at SEFS, Beth will continue to work on a few other ongoing projects, including one looking at the abundance and distribution of seabirds in the western North Atlantic and the Great Lakes, and how those populations might be affected by the anticipated development of offshore wind energy power installations (she has a half-time postdoc, Evan Adams, working with her on this research). She’s also helping a few graduate students wrap up their degrees back at N.C. State, and she anticipates welcoming her first students at SEFS around January 2017.

We are thrilled to have Beth in our school, and we hope you get a chance to meet and welcome her as soon as possible!

Photos © Beth Gardner.

Beth at a field station in Finse, Norway. “Technically, I was hiking,” she says, “but it was early July and the snow was insane.”
Beth at a field station in Finse, Norway. “Technically, I was hiking,” she says, “but it was early July and the snow was insane.”


SEFS Seminar Series: Spring 2016 Schedule

The schedule is set for the Spring 2016 SEFS Seminar Series, and this quarter we’ve organized the talks around the theme, “Exploring Nature, Health, Ecosystems and Sustainability.” We’ll also be featuring three candidates for the Nature, Health and Recreation faculty position we’re interviewing for right now—all in the first three weeks—so there’s a lot to get excited about this quarter.

Held on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 4:20 p.m. in Anderson 223, the talks are always open to the public, and the first seminar of each month will be followed by a casual reception down the hall in the Forest Club Room. Students can register for course credit under SEFS 529A.

Check out the schedule below and join us for as many talks as you can!

PowerPoint PresentationWeek 1: March 30
“The Impacts of Nature Experience on Mood, Emotion Regulation and Cognitive Function”
Greg Bratman
Stanford University

Week 2: April 6*
“The Effects of Family-Based Nature Activities on Family Relationships”
Dina Izenstark
University of Illinois

Week 3: April 13
“Access to Nature and Psychological Health: The Geography of Children”
Dongying Li
University of Illinois

Week 4: April 20
“Measuring Ecosystem Function in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region of Alberta: Problems and Solutions”
Professor Derek MacKenzie
University of Alberta

Week 5: April 27
“Hello from the Other Side: New Approaches for Wildlife Population Modeling”
Professor Beth Gardner

Week 6: May 4*
“Bryophytes and the Sustained Nitrogen Economy of Boreal Forest Ecosystems”
María Arróniz-Crespo
Universidad Politécnica de Madrid

Week 7: May 11
“Contrasting Plant Flammability and the Implications for Fire Regimes”
Morgan Varner
U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station

Week 8: May 18
“What are We Trying to Sustain, Anyway? Some Questions About the Idea of Sustainability”
Professor Steve Harrell
SEFS and Anthropology

Week 9: May 25
“Nature’s Rx in Cities – Economic Value . . .  and Who Should Care”
Dr. Kathy Wolf
Research Scientist, SEFS

Week 10: June 1*

“Blast from the Past: Understanding Plant Community Assembly on Mount St. Helens”
Professor Cynthia Chang
UW Bothell
School of STEM, Division of Biology

* Indicates reception after seminar