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Amazing Advancements in Wildlife Biology | #NowNotThen Tag

Amazing Advancements in Wildlife Biology | #NowNotThen Tag

Welcome back to Nature League! In a rapidly changing world, it’s fascinating to think
about how much has changed in our lifetimes. For example, the human population was barely
above five billion when I was born, and that number has increased by about 50%
in just my lifetime. And of those people currently alive on Earth,
more than half live in urban areas, which is definitely different
compared to when I was born. And in terms of technology, oh man! In my lifetime, the world has seen the premiere and
development of the internet — so, you know, there’s that. Not to mention personal cell phones
and the myriad changes that have happened to human society
because of this tech. Those changes are just for the world and human
society in general; however, what’s really fun for me is to think about the biggest changes
that have happened within my own areas of scientific and personal interest. [CHEERY INTRO MUSIC] Recently, Dr. Lindsey Doe of Sexplanations
started the #NowNotThen tag, where she discussed four positive changes she’s noticed during
her lifetime in the field of human sexuality. She tagged me and three other creators and
challenged us to do the same for our areas of interest. So, here are my four #NowNotThen positive
changes for wildlife biology and conservation! Number 1: The use of genetics in conservation. While technological advances have fundamentally
changed human society, they’ve also fundamentally changed wildlife biology research projects
and methods. One of these tech advancements is the use
of genetics in conservation and the application of molecular data to actual management decisions
around the world. This is my specific field of research and
has been for a while, but when I first heard of conservation genetics in undergrad, it gave me a
sense that something was fundamentally changing. Imagine a population that’s being monitored
to see how it’s doing. One of the most basic things you’d need
to know is: how many individuals are there? During my lifetime, scientists have gone from
manually counting individuals in the field to using genetic data. Nowadays, analyzing this kind of data from
a small number of individuals can give more information about population numbers than
manually counting ever could, and a lot of the time, using genetics is both faster and
cheaper than previous methods. And right now, another change is happening —
that’s the progress from genetic data to genomic data. Instead of studying several genes, wildlife
biologists are now investigating the entire set of genetic material in organisms and populations. This is exciting because we can now answer
previously unanswerable questions about things like genes under the process of natural selection
and how these genes can interact with the environment. This information will be really important
when it comes to assessing how populations might respond to global changes
in climate and habitat. Thinking about the use of genetics and genomics
in conservation brings me to Number 2: non-invasive sampling. In the past, researchers obtained DNA samples
from individual organisms by taking tissue in the form of blood, biopsies, or small clips on the
outside of the body, like on the edge of a fish’s fin. While some might argue that the benefit of
the conservation-driven research outweighs the harm or discomfort to the organism, there
are definitely ethical issues with this methodology. During my lifetime alone, an entirely different
approach has been created and refined. This approach is called “non-invasive”
genetic sampling, and it’s distinct from the other methods because to qualify as “non-invasive,”
the source of the DNA has to be left behind by an individual and is collected without
catching or disturbing them. DNA can now be extracted from non-invasive
samples of hair, scat or feces, and feathers, without ever seeing the individual, much less
majorly disturbing it. Let’s be honest, though — a lot of people
that go into wildlife biology do so because they want to experience wildlife up close
and personal. With non-invasive genetic sampling, this is
becoming a thing of the past. And while that might be seen as a negative
by some, there are several major positives. We already touched on the reduction in disturbance,
pain, and/or suffering, but the benefits of non-invasive sampling extend past ethical
considerations. There are also some gains on the science side of things as well. For species that are naturally rare, endangered,
or cryptic, it can be incredibly hard to ever get close enough to study them, much less
take a tissue sample. However, non-invasive sampling has totally
changed the game. Take snow leopards. This species is listed as Vulnerable on the
IUCN Red List, but in the past it’s been really difficult to study them and draft conservation
guidelines because they’re so hard to capture. I mean, cats are already ridiculously good
at not being found when they don’t want to be found, so imagine that trait but in
a population that’s sparse and distributed across mountains and rugged terrain. Yeah… total sampling nightmare. And yet… scientists have recently been able
to estimate snow leopard population numbers and spatial connectivity by extracting DNA
from snow leopard scats left behind by the cats. Everyone wins — the snow leopards can remain
elusive and out of sight while scientists obtain information about snow leopard populations. #catscats #conservation Number 3: Epigenetics. A third major positive change during my life
is the study of epigenetics and the ongoing restructuring of the way we think about evolution. While this one doesn’t solely belong in
the wildlife biology bin, it’s important enough that I just have to talk about it. We’ve discussed evolution and natural selection
here on Nature League, as well as briefly touched on the concept of epigenetics. Epigenetics can be broadly defined as heritable
changes to an organism’s genome that affect things like gene expression or packaging
but don’t change the actual DNA sequence itself. These changes can be caused by the environment.
Basically, gene expression can be altered chemically because of something like diet,
or exposure to a chemical, or trauma. When I was growing up and taking biology in
high school, we were taught that development was a product of “nature vs nurture.” Basically, the jury wasn’t out on whether
an organism’s DNA or an organism’s environment determined the majority of that organism’s
development. But with the arrival of epigenetics, the biological
sciences have evolved, if you will, into a new idea, which is “nature via nurture.” Yes, genes do determine many things about
an organism, but the expression of genes can be determined by non-genetic factors. What’s more controversial is whether epigenetic
changes can actually work as an evolutionary force. While several studies have provided evidence
that epigenetic changes can be passed on to the next generation, scientists are still
figuring out how just how many generations these changes can last throughout. If we find that epigenetic changes can be
passed on and persist for thousands of generations, well… that would add a brand new chapter to
Darwin’s theory of evolution. So while epigenetics as a concept or emerging
field of research isn’t a positive or negative thing in itself, the fundamental reshaping
and rethinking of core principles in biology is a great thing for rationalism. Number 4: Citizen science. The last positive change I’d like to highlight
in wildlife biology is citizen science and the general sharing of knowledge. A citizen scientist can be anyone who volunteers
to collect or process data and contributes that data to a scientific project. The job of “scientist” only became a regularly
paid profession toward the end of the 19th century, so technically, citizen science isn’t
anything new to humankind. However, citizen science during my lifetime
has absolutely exploded, particularly within the fields of ecology and biodiversity research. For example, take the U.S. National Park Service. They have an entire portion of their website
dedicated to citizen science projects within their parks, including things like surveying
bees to inform the Park Service about prairie dynamics, rock climbing Devils Tower National Monument
to record information about bat roosting, and monitoring plants and animals throughout
the Appalachian Trail. And it’s not just a few government agencies
and non-academic organizations teaming up with citizens. Citizen science is a global
phenomenon, and the contributions extend into the scientific, peer-reviewed literature. A 2016 paper reviewed the use of citizen science
data by analyzing datasets in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which is the world’s
largest database of information about where species occur on Earth. The analysis found that approximately 349
million species occurrence data points came from projects that include a majority of contributions
from citizen scientists. A lot of the recent explosion in citizen science
has been empowered by improvements in technology and the advent of social media. However, citizen science is, at its core,
driven by everyday citizens being fascinated by the world around them and interested in
data collection. I think this is a huge positive change for
biodiversity research and science as a whole, because it serves as a reminder that science
isn’t about lab coats and academia. Instead, science is and has always been the
common human endeavor of asking questions about the world around us. And while issues do exist regarding citizen
science data consistency and accuracy, citizen science itself gives me hope about the future
of my field of study. The current state of biodiversity on Earth
is troubling, but there are amazing advancements in the fields of wildlife biology and conservation,
and I’m so glad I took some time to think about them and share them here. Thank you for watching this episode of Nature
League, and thanks especially to Dr. Lindsey Doe of Sexplanations for tagging me in her
#NowNotThen video. I’d like to continue the conversation and
tag the following creators and ask them to talk about some positive changes they’ve
noticed in their areas of interest during their lifetimes: Hank Green, Taylor Behnke,
Jackson Bird, and Craig Benzine. If you would like to continue this conversation,
you can make your own #NowNowThen video and share it with me on Twitter @Nature_League. Heads up! Today is the last day to pre-order the Critically
Endangered Sharks poster because after today, it will be gone forever… Hopefully, unlike
these critically endangered sharks. Get yours at! The link is in the description.

7 comments on “Amazing Advancements in Wildlife Biology | #NowNotThen Tag

  1. i love how far we have gone, from biology to astrophysics. i remember the crazyness of that one time we cloned that one sheep.

    I do love the non invasive sampling. good use of poop hunting. wait… how do they go on poop hunting?

    citizen scientists are some of my favorite people!

    i wish i was tagged on stuff. i never do. #sodramatic

  2. Yes citizen science is so cool. It's what got me into the world of wildlife biology. In a couple years I'll be moving to Missoula to study wildlife biology at the UM.

  3. Thanks for teaching me what epigenetics is, and Thanks for the tag! Now to decide whether I should talk about advances in cosmetic chemistry or in political organizing 🤔

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