Excellence in Science Communication
BioOne is proud to present the 2023 cohort of BioOne Ambassadors, and we invite you to read their exemplary submissions in this showcase.
Now in its sixth year, the BioOne Ambassador Award recognizes early-career authors who make scientific research more accessible to a wide audience including funders, the general public, and scholars in related fields. By clearly and creatively summarizing the impact of their work, they encourage greater scientific literacy and aid in the broader understanding of our natural world. Selected from among early career researchers published in BioOne Complete journals, BioOne Ambassadors represent the next generation of excellence in science communication.
Dr. Xochitl Clare
This response is in reference to:
Journal of Shellfish Research, 41(2): 283-290 (2022)
Xochitl S. Clare, Li Kui, Gretchen E. Hofmann
Dr. Chelsea Kross
Like many places across the world, Northwest Arkansas is a growing urban area with a population size that has doubled over the last 30 years and is expected to be home to nearly 1 million people by 2045. Such a rapid growth in population size can result in equally rapid habitat destruction and modification, usually at the expense of local wildlife. How do wildlife populations respond to such rapid change? Well, with a handful of historic population records collected over the last 30 years and some enthusiasm, we set out to (at least partially) answer that question as it pertains to Crawfish Frogs.
Why Crawfish Frogs? They may not be an icon of the American prairie, but the Crawfish Frog is found throughout the eastern prairies and river valleys of the Central US and, like many amphibian species, the species is in decline. Crawfish Frogs have a distinct call described as a short snore that can be heard during breeding, a time when Crawfish Frogs can be found relatively easy. The Crawfish Frog is unique among many of its True Frog relatives because they do not spend much time in, or even near, wetlands, instead relying on crayfish burrows most of the year. However, their unique habitat needs require large tracts of relatively intact open-canopy habitat and access to crayfish burrows. As a result of habitat loss, the Crawfish Frog has gone extinct in one of the 13 states (i.e. Iowa) it historically occurred in, and is a species of greatest conservation need in the remaining 12 states. Like many species of the American prairie, Crawfish Frogs need targeted conservation action.
We identified 81 potential breeding locations, including 16 sites known to have actively breeding Crawfish Frogs within the last 30 years, covering a range of prairie remnant, cattle pasture, row crops, and urban habitats. At each site, we completed repeated call surveys (i.e. we listened for calling males) and recorded environmental factors that might be related to calling activity. Our results provide important insights on Crawfish Frog population persistence in rapidly developing areas. Historical breeding populations, nearly 40%, had likely gone locally extinct, with no calling activity over the study period and much of the surrounding areas heavily developed for human-use. However, we also detected new breeding locations, primarily in cattle grazing and pasture habitat types. While Crawfish Frog populations do not persist in urban areas, they seem to persist in low-intensity agriculture habitats. We also identified landscape factors associated with Crawfish Frog presence to increase the probability of finding new breeding populations. Surprisingly, prairie mound density, an important topological feature common in open-canopy habitats and easily identifiable using remote-sensing tools, was a good predictor of Crawfish Frog presence. Additionally, the presence of mounds in agricultural areas indicates that while degraded, the habitat has not been extensively plowed or destroyed.
When we expanded our study area in Northwest Arkansas to cover more counties and a broader community of reptiles and amphibians, this trend remained true. Prairie mounds were important predictors of occurrence for not only Crawfish Frogs, but also other prairie-associated species.
Globally, temperate grasslands are the most endangered ecosystem with the highest risk of future biodiversity loss and amphibians are the most threatened vertebrate group, with over a third of all known species threatened with extinction. Our study helps contribute to a growing knowledge base that shows low-intensity agricultural habitats can serve as important reservoirs for many open-canopy species in rapidly changing landscapes. However in agricultural areas near or converted for urban use, wildlife populations with low mobility and specific habitat requirements, such as the Crawfish Frog, are more likely to go extinct. Additionally, having easily accessible metrics that can be used to narrow down survey locations to improve the probability of identifying new populations is valuable for species conservation. Prairie mounds and other mima-like mounds are found on every continent except Antarctica, and are often indicative of historic grassland habitat. Our study provides some evidence that these easy to identify topological features could be a useful tool for predicting grassland-associated species occurrence. With species-specific associations, mound density might also be a useful metric for identifying and targeting critical habitats for grassland conservation and restoration.
This response is in reference to:
Ichthyology & Herpetology, 110(1): 50-58 (2022).
Chelsea S. Kross, John D. Willson
Dr. Leilton Luna
Preserving biodiversity is a crucial aspect of conservation efforts, and monitoring endangered species is a critical component of this process. The possibility of losing species recently discovered by science raises concerns about our ability to preserve biodiversity in the face of rapid global change. An example of this is the Araripe Manakin, which was discovered in 1998 and immediately added to the IUCN red list of critically endangered species and is now one of the most endangered birds in the world. With a population size of more than 800 individuals and occupying a small stretch of 40 km² of Atlantic Forest, in the Chapada do Araripe northeastern Brazil, this species is at serious risk of extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, and genetic effects inherent in small populations.
Since the discovery of the Araripe Manakin, the Association for Research and Preservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (AQUASIS) has been closely monitoring its population to identify and mitigate threats. In the last two decades, population censuses have shown a significant average decline of 26% due to forest destruction and severe droughts exacerbated by global warming. Although these factors are overtly detrimental to the species, they may also pose less apparent but highly menacing dangers, such as a reduction in genetic diversity and increased risks associated with inbreeding. Knowing this, we started an investigation to explore this possibility.
My role in this research was to investigate the impact of habitat fragmentation on the species’ ability to disperse and maintain genetic diversity, as well as to assess changes in inbreeding levels, using genetic data collected over a window of 14 years (2003 – 2017) of the Araripe Manakin conservation project. As a scientist, I am fascinated by the genetic monitoring’s potential to inform conservation programs for endangered species. Genetic technology provides valuable information about a species’ genetic diversity, inbreeding levels, and gene flow, which can help to improve conservation and management strategies. In the case of the Araripe Manakin, we found both positive and negative population genetic aspects. Despite intense habitat fragmentation, the species still maintains levels of gene flow that help retain genetic diversity. However, the genetic diversity levels of the Araripe Manakin are critically low and are further compromised by the recent population size declines. These findings underscore the importance of ongoing genetic monitoring to track changes in variability that could be alarming to the species’ health, as well as maintaining habitat restoration efforts to ensure the manakin’s survival.
But how can genetic monitoring help the Araripe Manakin conservation? Think of genetic monitoring like a check-up at the doctor’s office – it helps us identify potential health problems before they become serious. Without monitoring, we risk losing vital genetic diversity, which can lead to weaker species that struggle to cope with environmental challenges. By implementing genetic monitoring, we can better understand and manage threatened species, helping them to thrive and play their important roles in ecosystem processes. Based on our results, we have designed specific preventive measures to avoid the reduction of adaptive potential of the Araripe Manakin through the loss of genetic diversity. Some of our recommendations involve recolonizing recently restored forest areas and assessing nest predation and parasite risks to help maintain stable population levels. Since then, our work has been instrumental in informing the Brazilian government’s national conservation plan for this charismatic bird, which is now serving as a model for other endangered species in the country, such as Grey-breasted Parakeet.
The conservation plan has not only brought attention to the importance of preserving the Manakin, but it has also changed the awareness of the local population in the Cariri region, in northeastern Brazil, through environmental education initiatives. In addition, birdwatchers, and nature enthusiasts from all over the world come to experience the unique sight of the Araripe Manakin, providing a boost to the local economy through eco-tourism. This increased visibility of the importance of environmental preservation in the Cariri region is a significant step towards promoting sustainable development and protecting biodiversity in the area and beyond. Incorporating genetic monitoring into the conservation plan of the Araripe Manakin exemplifies the significance of ongoing research for preserving endangered species, which can have positive impacts on both the environment and the economy.
Finally, in a world where biodiversity is constantly under threat, the story of the Araripe Manakin serves as a wake-up call for all of us. We must ask ourselves whether we are pushing biodiversity beyond its limits, jeopardizing not just one species but many others we may not even know to exist. But we can make a difference. Investing in the continuity of research enables us to monitor endangered species, detect potential risks, and devise preventive measures that enhance their chances of survival in the face of rapid environmental changes. Beyond that, the ongoing monitoring of the Araripe Manakin exemplify the significance of collaboration between scientists, conservationists, policymakers, and local communities in preserving endangered species. Therefore, we can ensure that Araripe Manakin’s story is not a tragedy but a call to action, inspiring us to work tirelessly to preserve the remarkable biodiversity of our planet.
This response is in reference to:
Ornithological Applications, 124(2): 1-12. (2022).
Leilton Willians Luna, Sofia Marques Silva, Weber Andrade de Girão e Silva, Milene Garbim Gaiotti, Regina H. Macedo, Juliana Araripe, Péricles Sena do Rêgo
Dr. Nidia Mendoza-Díaz
Changing the world is something we do every day, without even being aware of it. Our species is changing the world all the time; for better, for worse…. We usually inhabit this world without realizing that there are more species living with us, without us, or even in spite of us. As biologists, as taxonomists, we face the “taxonomic impediment;” it means that many species become extinct before they have even been discovered by scientists. Discovering, describing, naming and explaining biodiversity are the daily goals in the work of the scientist trained as a taxonomist.
Plants are a group of living things that are familiar to us since childhood. They provide nourishment and make our spaces a more pleasant place. The Earth has been inhabited by plants for hundreds of millions of years, so they have had an evolutionary path in which different species have originated, each with its own particular characteristics, from morphological, molecular, to a unique distribution.
A little part of that big plant diversity is the genus Antiphytum, which is interesting because it only occurs in America in a way called disjunct, which means a gap in its distribution: some species are in North America, but others in South America without intermediate representatives. A first question related to this kind of distribution is whether the species in both regions belong to the same genus. The species from North America were more known, but a large information gap existed on South American species. Therefore, in our general goal of obtaining a comprehensive knowledge of this genus, it was imperative to explore and investigate the species in South America.
Our research led us to establish links with researchers in Uruguay. The information we had on Antiphyum in South America was scarce and was reduced to two briefly documented species. Once in Uruguay, I was able to observe specimens from the Herbarium of Universidad de la República (MVFA), which lighted me about a different species from the ones I was seeking. Discovering of new species occurs not only out in the field! However, this species had a previous name. In the past, a botanist named José Arechavaleta did a great work called “Flora Uruguaya”, in which he described this one and another species within the genus Myosotis, belonging to family Boraginaceae as Antiphytum, the group of my interest. When I saw the traits and features in the specimen that Arechavaleta described as Myosotis berroi, I knew that it was an Antiphytum, but none of the known. It was stimulating! Imagine the surprise, the excitement of seeing something that everyone else sees, but that makes sense with the eyes of a taxonomist trained in a group.
This was going very well: we were adding one more species to the diversity of Antiphytum in South America! We were filling the information gap about this genus in this region by transferring the species from Myosotis to Antiphytum! This was not just a name change, but the recognition of common characteristics shared by species of a same lineage that help explain their evolutionary trajectories.
Even better (from the perspective of a Latin American botanist), we were recognizing and recovering the information from a local work. Many plants of the New World were named by European researchers. That is not bad in itself, the problem is when a previous local effort was made, but it was ignored by several reasons.
For the other Arechavaleta’s species we could not obtain a correct name, but we found the original specimen on which Arechavaleta based its description of this species, and this was also a great achievement. With our research, we have set people’s sights on these species and point out the need to search for and collect more specimens of them in Uruguay and Brazil, where current occurrences of Antiphytum berroi are unknown. What we do know of this country comes from herbarium specimens from areas currently destroyed. That is the “taxonomic impediment” in action.
We are continually changing the world, and the world is shaped by a million interactions among species unknown to people, but which have a bearing on our lives. Taxonomists try to make these species less unknown to everyone. Maybe for many, Taxonomy is a very basic science, but it offers us the best opportunity to document and describe the biodiversity of our planet. Moreover, it promotes the collaboration among researchers from different regions of the world, all moved by the same purpose: the love for investigating biodiversity, its causes and explanations. From our discipline, we are consciously changing the world.
This response is in reference to:
Novon, 30(1): 80-91. (2022).
Nidia Mendoza-Díaz, José M. Bonifacino, Marina Díaz, Hilda Flores-Olvera
Dr. Kelsey Moore
What did the Earth look like billions of years ago? And what were the early life forms that shaped the world and set life on its evolutionary trajectory? As a geobiologist, I have spent years trying to answer these questions. I study ancient microfossils preserved in rocks that are hundreds of millions to billions of years old and preserve a record of some of the earliest life forms on our planet. I was always struck by how incredible it was that we can look at rocks like chert – a rock composed of microcrystalline quartz – and see actual bacterial cells that were alive over a billion years ago. We have this beautiful snapshot of ancient life that inhabited the oceans during the Proterozoic Eon – 2.5 billion years ago to 541 million years ago – but I always wondered how this was possible. How did these cells get preserved? How was it possible that minerals could form so quickly around these delicate structures to freeze them in time? These questions set me on a path to better understand that early life and how it may have not only been fossilized, but maybe played a role in its own fossilization.
During my PhD, I tackled my questions through fossilization experiments. Historically, scientists have thought that the process of fossilization that froze those bacterial cells in time was purely abiotic – that it occurred without the help of biology and that the cells were simply innocent bystanders in their own entombment. But I had a suspicion that this might not be true. I hypothesized that the microbes themselves may have had a hand in their own preservation, that they may in some way have contributed to the formation of minerals that preserved them. I tested my hypothesis by incubating living microbes in seawater similar to Proterozoic oceans. After a month of waiting, I was shocked to find that the cyanobacteria had created a sort of “candy coating” of amorphous silica around their cells, preserving the soft organic cells just like the fossils. Oddly, though, the candy-coating of silica was enriched in magnesium, an element that we had not expected. Eventually we were able to untangle the mechanism of fossilization and found that the cells had fossilized themselves through cation bridging. Cell surfaces are often negatively charged, a detail that may seem trivial but in this case is important. Some of the dissolved silica in the water around the cells is also negatively charged in solutions that are slightly basic (typical in seawater). Chemistry and physics tell us that like repels like, so how to you get a negative silica molecule to bind to a negative cell surface? This is where cation bridging comes in. The magnesium cations act as positively charged bridge to bind the silica to the cell surfaces. Through this process, the cells acted as a template to facilitate silica precipitation and their own fossilization.
This discovery was exciting because it revealed a possible mechanism to explain those ancient microbial fossils. But there was still something missing. Just because we found one mechanism, how could we be certain that this was the mechanism that occurred billions of years ago? To answer this, we turned to the fossils. We set out to identify evidence that this microbially influenced cation-bridging mechanism in ancient fossils. Using various types of microscopes (light microscopes and scanning electron microscopes (SEM) with energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) we analyzed microfossils and organic matter preserved in ancient chert. And we found exactly the evidence that we had hoped for. The organic matter was enriched in cations and embedded with various nanoscopic cation-rich phases. These cation-organic associations in the chert confirmed that the mechanism that we had identified in our experiments (microbially influenced cation bridging) could explain how microbial cells were preserved in ancient marine environments. You may be asking yourself, why does this matter? Who cares how the cells were preserved? Well, armed with an understanding of how ancient microfossils were preserved, we can begin to address that fundamental question: what did the early Earth and ancient life on our planet look like? Beyond identifying evidence of microbial life in the rock record, we can begin to characterize those ancient microbes and the water chemistry of the ancient oceans in which they lived. Most importantly, we discover that elemental cycles and mineral forming process on the early earth were not purely abiotic. Ancient microbial life did not simply exist in the world, it contributed to shaping the world around it. This holds true not only for the past, but for the present. Microbes are an incredible part of our planet and the more we understand about how microbes contribute to surface processes, the better we can understand the evolution of our planet as a whole in the past, present, and future.
This response is in reference to:
PALAIOS, 37(9): 486-498. (2022).
Kelsey R. Moore, Theodore M. Present, Frank Pavia, John P. Grotzinger, Joseph Razzell Hollis, Sunanda Sharma, David Flannery, Tanja Bosak, Michael Tuite, Andrew H. Knoll, Kenneth Williford
Watch a special conversation with the 2023 BioOne Ambassador Award winners, who come together to share their experience as early career researchers, along with insights for effective scientific communication.
To read more from early-career authors in BioOne Complete publications, visit the 2023 BioOne Ambassador Award Nominee Research Collection.
Arícia Duarte Benvenuto
Dr. Chris Murray
Susan Skomal, Ph. D.
BioOne extends its thanks to Arícia Duarte Benvenuto, Chris Murray, and Susan Skomal, who offered their time and expertise in selecting this year’s winners.