Using News Reports to Track Wildlife Black Markets

Read the full story in Wired.

The international black market in wildlife—alive or dead—is notoriously difficult to track. Hunters and smugglers don’t report their take for the same reasons that drug dealers don’t report profits to the IRS. But if you could actually track those networks, maybe you could do something about them. That’s what sent Nikkita Patel, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, to an unusual source of data on the illegal wildlife trade: the news.

The news reports are typically gruesome: a frozen tiger carcass found in a truck in Vietnam, or a dead rhino lying in a wildlife sanctuary with its horn hacked off. But the overall news is even worse…

But without knowing exactly what’s going on, wildlife agencies and researchers can’t stop these killings. So Patel turned to HealthMap, a tool the Boston Children’s Hospital created 10 years ago. The tool searches multilingual news aggregators and forums for media reports, parsing them for relevant keywords. It was already tuned to the wildlife trade, in part because animals can be vectors for disease spread. HealthMap records the key information in each article, such as the location of the reported illegal transaction, and keeps a tally of the number of individuals from each species traded.

Patel’s research, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, relies more on that data than previous illegal wildlife trade work. “It’s looking at who the key players are,” Patel says, “and how to best break down trade networks.”

What’s that bird? New website identifies species by your photo

Read the full story from Treehugger.

Your computer just became an ornithologist.

In a breakthrough for bird watchers and the avian-curious everywhere, the Visipedia research project and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have collaborated on a nifty website that has a keen skill: it can identify hundreds of bird species by photo alone.

Called Merlin Bird Photo ID, the identifier is capable of recognizing 400 of the mostly commonly encountered birds in the United States and Canada.

Students become ‘citizen scientists,’ track D.C.’s wildlife with cameras

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

Jasmyn Hill had been attending the same charter school in Southeast Washington for five years before she ever ventured into the woods that surround the campus.

“I had no idea what was in there,” said the 16-year-old junior with long turquoise nails and waist-length braids. She described herself as “not really the type who goes camping.”

But the city kid joined a “Green Team” at her school, and she now spends afternoons taking walks in the woods to learn about what lives there. She also helps set up cameras to record the wildlife. The experience has kindled an interest in environmental science, she said.

Hill and other students at the SEED Public Charter School are joining a growing army of “citizen scientists” who are gathering data about wildlife for the Smithsonian collection, information and images that can be used for scientific research and conservation efforts.

Michigan’s bald eagles full of flame retardants

Read the full story in Environmental Health News.

Michigan’s bald eagles are among the most contaminated birds on the planet when it comes to phased-out flame retardant chemicals in their livers, according to new research.

The study, published last month in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, found that the top predators in the Great Lakes are highly exposed to banned flame retardants, still widespread in the environment.

Urban Ecologists Are Studying How Wildlife Have Evolved to Fit Their City Environment, Block by Block

Read the full story in New York Magazine.

In August, I joined a trio of scientists on an expedition to a recently recognized hot spot of evolution: Not a geologically young archipelago of volcanic islands like the Galapagos, nor some previously unexplored tract of rainforest, but a corner of Highbridge Park in Washington Heights. Jason Munshi-South, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at Fordham University, waved to me from our agreed meeting spot at the intersection of 167th Street and Edgecombe Avenue. Beside him were two of his research collaborators, Stephen Harris, a PhD candidate in biology at CUNY, and Erin Dimech, a master’s student in conservation biology at Columbia.

A day earlier, they had set traps baited with birdseed. Now it was time to collect their specimens.