How Changing What You Eat Can Help the Planet

Everyone has to eat, but what you eat actually has huge impacts on the planet. It often feels like

I do most of my regular grocery shopping at the farmers market. They taste better too!

environmental impacts are outside your control and made by big corporations, but changing our diet actually makes a huge difference. Here’s what you can do to help protect the wildlife in our planet:

  1. Eat less meat. While vegetarian/vegan is best, don’t let perfection be the enemy of action. Try to have one meatless meal a day or meatless days of the week. It’s not black and white.
  2. Shop local. I buy almost all of my produce at farmer’s markets. I love this because I love supporting local farmers (especially as the daughter of a small business owner) and the carbon footprint is MUCH smaller than most produce at the grocery store.
  3. If you eat meat, choose pasture-raised products or hunt. You can buy this meat at farmers markets, but also Whole Foods. These animals spend their lives in pastures. Since the quality of their diet is improved (e.g. not grain for cows, naturally occurring insects for chickens), the quality of the meat is better. So even if you don’t care about the planet, this meat is better for you and does not come with antibiotics, hormones, etc. Toxins accumulate in fat, so eating non-pasteurized fatty products like pork is not good for your body. Also, the animals here at least have humane lives, where as in factory farms animals live in appalling conditions. With hunting, there are obviously no additives and all of the animals are free range to the fullest extent.
  4. If you eat fish, choose products that are sustainable. Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to know what to buy.
  5. Avoid products that contain unsustainable palm oil. Palm oil is found in SO MANY THINGS. Palm oil plantations are destroying habitat for endangered organutans. Download the Palm Oil app by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to know which products are friendly for these amazing apes.

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Take a Child Outside to Create Future Conservation Advocates

Catching and releasing wildlife like frogs played a strong role in developing my conservation ethic.

It might not seem like you are doing anything, especially something for the planet, but one of the best things you can do for biodiversity conservation is to actually take a child outside. Over the past few decades, people are spending more and more time indoors, and connecting less with nature. As television, malls, smart phones, and social media compete with nature, the latter frequently loses. So what’s the big deal? And how does this help conservation? Experiences with nature at a young age are a huge predictorof attitudes towards conservation and natural resource stewardship. Ask myself or any other ecologist how they got started in this field and its always the same thing – exploring and playing outdoors as a child. Whether it was turning over rocks to look inside insect worlds or blowing dandelion seeds, these experiences are imperative to form an emotional bond with nature and a strong sense of place that motivates people to protect natural places. Remove these experiences and you are left with a generation of people unable to make these connections and therefore apathetic towards nature. Who will give money to World Wildlife Fund when they have not seen wildlife? Who will vote for protected areas? This “extinction of experience” is a great and often underestimated threat to biodiversity.

One of my favorite things to do as a girl was explore creeks. I still do that today when I get the chance.

These experiences with nature need not be pristine or profound. Talk to those same ecologists and a lot will muster up memories of backyards and gardens in addition to national parks. These experiences can occur in the most urbanized areas. In New York City and Chicago, there are wild enough areas for coyotes to re-colonize, although the typical landscaped city parks will also do. Don’t think the biodiversity of urban areas is subpar either. Urban parks, gardens, and your yards yield a surprisingly high amount of biodiversity, are important for conservation, and even hold discoveries waiting to be made like new species.

To bring your experiences in nature to the next level for children and biodiversity, use observations as a learning opportunity. See trash? Explain why it’s important not to litter and that animals frequently eat and choke on discarded balloons, straws, and wrappers. Also, pick up the trash to not only project good conservation attitudes, but also good conservation ethic through behavior (double environmental points if it’s recyclable!).

Even if you don’t care about nature, you should get outside (and take a young one too) because it’s good for you! There are selfish reasons to go out in nature that are still effective on your health even if you lacked in nature experiences as a child. Researchers are just beginning to scratch the surface on the mental health benefits of going outside including implications on ADHD, depression, aggression, and even play. For instance, children engage in twice as much play and more creative play in areas of high vegetation, and even views of dense vegetation can improve self-discipline.

Although long-term, one of the biggest things that you can do for biodiversity is ensure this planet still has advocates. Take a child outside this weekend, even if it’s only in your backyard. `

Nature is everywhere – even in the biggest cities in the world. This photo of NYC was taken by Ed Bourdon and can be found here.

This blog was originally published on the Wildlife SNPits.

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Upgrade Your Yard for Wildlife by Letting it Go

The word biodiversity congers up visuals of far away places – the Amazonian rainforests or The Great Barrier coral reef. Having an impact can seem insurmountable, but is in fact it is within your reach. Biodiversity is as close as your own backyard. Traditional conservation models separate people and animals through protected areas, putting and saving biodiversity “over there” in areas seemingly untouched by people. Human development is not slowing down and we rarely gain more land to set aside for nature. To sustain wildlife, developed areas are needed as corridors and even permanent habitat. This means you can have a direct impact on wildlife by improving (or letting go of) your yard. Here’s some easy ways how.

Monarch butterfly. Photo from http://americanlivewire.com/2014-09-07-monarch-butterfly-thriving-milkweed-plant/

Landscape with native plants. Urban areas can actually have higher plant biodiversitythan natural areas because of invasive species of ornamental value of used in landscaping, but native plants are important for wildlife. They have evolved in that ecosystem with those species and therefore host higher species richness and are essential for other species, some of conservation concern. For example, monarch butterflies, which been in decline for decades, need milkweed to lay their eggs. Plant some milkweed and you directly help monarch populations. Native plants require less water, no pesticides, and as an added bonus are low maintenance. Natives are especially important in arid areas as the plants have evolved with little water and can handle stressful droughts. Planting native flowering plants provides food sources for pollinators, which are vital to our economy, as they pollinate our food supply.

Don’t use pesticides. Pesticides obviously kill insects and other pests, which means they directly reduce insect biodiversity, but also other species by reducing food sources.  Pesticides are highly toxic to humans and animals, and spread throughout the environment as runoff, which can also affect animals and us in the form of endocrine disruption, interfering with reproduction.

Make your yard certified by the National Wildlife Foundation. Photo from https://libertyhydebailey.org/2010/07/02/museum-becomes-a-certified-wildlife-habitat/

Or don’t landscape at all.When I was little, we were not allowed to walk on my next door neighbor’s lawn. I could not understand this concept. How could someone care about grass so much? He was so obsessed about getting it perfectly green and manicured, dumping tons of pesticides and fertilizers on it, that now I am happy that I didn’t walk on it for my health. Mowed lawns are actually terrible for wildlife. They are severely monocultured and do not provide any dimension for habitat structure. Therefore, there is less food and shelter in yards with large, manicured lawns. Even if you can’t get away with, or can bear the thought of not having a lawn, at least let parts of your yard go. Piles of brush, logs, and unraked leaves all provide macro and microhabitat that a range of wildlife can enjoy. The best part about this tip is that you can be super lazy and still do it.

Put up a bird house and a bat house. With the sprawl of houses and monocultured lawns, animals like birds and bats lose the types of complex structures such as tree cavities that they live in. Building these houses creates shelter in these difficult, developed landscapes. Setting up bat houses can reduce human-wildlife conflict (bats will choose bat houses over your house) and can make your yard more enjoyable by eating mosquitos.

Keep cats indoors. This one is huge. I love cats (I have four), but they are cute, little wildlife murderers. While they don’t discriminate, killing reptiles, birds, and mammals, their impacts are particularly damaging to bird populations. One study found they kill at least one bird per month (that was only what they brought back). Multiply that by all the cats, both owned and unowned, and you could have impacts in the billions.

Don’t be fooled. They look cute and innocent, but they are supreme hunters. Which is why they stay indoors.

If you follow these guidelines, you may consider certifying your yard as wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. Beyond these recommendations, there are only a few more things to do such as providing water sources.

The weather is warming up and everyone is getting ready for some backyard recreation. When outside at your grill or mowing the lawn, look around and see if there are some small tweaks you can make to make your yard more wildlife friendly. Better yet, involve your children to create conservation stewards for the future. You won’t just help wildlife, but you’ll also save time and money.

This post was originally posted on the Wildlife SNPits.

On camera traps, we find lots of wildlife on let-go areas of school yards. Some even have higher detections than nearby protected areas.

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Pollinators: Fashion forward, but in Decline

Bees on the Chanel 2016 runway

Spring is in the air! Flowers are blooming in real life and in prints of your favorite designers. With flowers come the buzzing of bees, flies, and butterflies – important pollinators. When visiting flowers to forage on nectar and pollen, pollinators move pollen that gets stuck to their bodies from the anthers (male part of the plant) of one flower to the stigma (female part) of another, allowing for fertilization and therefore reproduction to occur. Without pollinators, many plants cannot reproduce meaning that pollinators are critical for our food supply, worth at least tens of billions of dollars for this ecosystem service.

The pollinator that usually first comes to mind is the bee. Saying “the” bee is a huge understatement, considering there are 20,000 known species and considering many are either undiscovered or undescribed, probably thousands more. The bee we are most familiar with is the honey bee, which collects nectar to make honey stored in hives to help bees survive through the winter when there are no flowering plants. Bees are really cool animals as some species have a highly evolved and complex eusocial system. In this system, there is one reproducing individual (the queen) in which all other adult members care for her and her offspring. Eusociality has been explained by kin selection for years, where individuals benefit by helping others raise young as they share genes and contribute to fitness indirectly, but more recently, scientists have proposed this system has evolved through the defense of a nest and extreme evolution.

Butterflies on the Versace runway

Bees were seen in the Chanel couture and Christian Dior Spring 2016 collections as embroidered detailing, earrings, and broaches (I cannot even tell you how much I love these looks!). Unfortunately, bees are in great need of help. The have been in decline for years due to habitat loss (see below how you can help), climate change, pesticides, and disease.

Butterflies are another well-known pollinator and also well-used by designers, especially for spring. The most iconic butterfly in the United States is the monarch butterfly, known for its incredible migration from the US to Mexico, and similar to bees, in decline. This butterfly also suffers from loss of habitat, and milkweed specifically, in which the caterpillar exclusively eats and the butterflies lay their eggs upon. Really cool citizen science (meaning you can participate in real science) opportunities exist in monarch butterfly research, resulting in peer-reviewed publications advancing the knowledge of monarchs.

Most people think of invertebrate insects when it comes to pollinators, but there are also vertebrate pollinators. Hummingbirds in the New World and similar-looking sunbirds in the Old World both feed on nectar and pollinate. Dolce & Gabbana feature a scene of these birds foraging in their spring collections (and who wouldn’t want their man in a sunbird suit?).

Dolce & Gabbana suit

My favorite pollinator is also a vertebrate, and a pretty unexpected one, the lesser long-nosed bat. You are also probably a fan of this pollinator because this bat is responsible for pollinating blue agave, which is the plant used for making tequila. Despite their importance in a drink many people love, bats tend to be hated (undeservedly so) by people. This bat has therefore suffered because of it and was endangered for years in Mexico. However, due to the amazing dedication of “Bat Man” scientist Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, the endangered species designation of this species was reversed, making a conservation success story for this unlikely pollinator. Medellin is a true conservationist and worked hard to educate the public on the importance of this bat to Mexico’s economy and heritage, find new roosts, and restore habitat. His story is told in the BBC documentary “Natural World: The Batman of Mexico,” which I highly recommend. The lesser long-nosed bat is back to pollinating blue agaves and making sure there is plenty of tequila for Mexicans and the world to enjoy. Fashion designers need to take note of the Bat Man’s ability to promote this flagship species and create some cool bat-inspired fashions (I could only find one, a gothic bat dress by Giles).

Bat dress from Giles 2014

There are far too many pollinators for one blog post, which truly showcases their importance worldwide. Others include monkeys, lemurs, possums rodents, wasps, ants, flies, moths, beetles, lizards and snakes. However, the unfashionable trend of pollinators is that most are in decline. Even if you don’t care about conservation, you should care about your food supply. One way you can have an impact is by creating pollinator-friendly habitat where you live, and don’t underestimate your neighborhood. A recent study found that bees actually preferred foraging in urban gardens over forests. This is especially important for migrating pollinators so they can have food sources when they stop along their long journey. On your next stop to your home or garden store, make sure to pick up some native plants that please pollinators to help support their conservation.

Visiting a tequila factory in Guadalajara, Mexico. Agaves behind me!

This post was originally featured on The Wildlife SNPits. All photos are courtesy of Vogue.