Research Briefs

Four channels of human interactions with ecosystems
Four channels of human interactions with ecosystems
NCEAS Documents Intangible Effects of Nature on Human Well-Being
    Nature may turn out to be the best medicine when it comes to human well-being. Providing such necessities of life as food, water and shelter, nature not only underpins and controls the conditions in which people live, it also provides important intangible benefits. A new synthesis of multidisciplinary peer-reviewed research identifies the ways in which nature's ecosystems deliver crucial benefits — and thus contribute culturally and psychologically to human well-being in nonmaterial ways.
    The research, which brings together diverse research and highlights gaps in our understanding of these vital connections, was conducted by a working group of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). Their findings were published recently in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources.
    "Many of these bits of information are out there, but they're scattered across disciplines with dramatically different ways of knowing and doing research," said lead author Roly Russell, of the Sandhill Institute for Sustainability and Complexity in British Columbia. "We hoped that we could make a first attempt at bringing together these disparate pieces of research into a cohesive whole that could help demonstrate just how pervasive the intangible connections of this relationship between nature and human well-being are."
    According to co-author Kai M.A. Chan of the University of British Columbia, such cultural ecosystem services represent psychological, philosophical, social and spiritual links between people and ecosystems, which are at the very core of human preferences and values.
Michael Gurven
© Rod Rolle
Michael Gurven
Anthopologist Studies Evolutionary Benefit of Human Personality Traits
    Bold and outgoing or shy and retiring — while many people shift from one to the other as circumstances warrant, in general they lean toward one disposition or the other. And that inclination changes little over the course of their lives.
    Why this is the case and why it matters in a more traditional context are questions being addressed by anthropology professor Michael Gurven. Using fertility and child survivorship as their main measures of reproductive fitness, the researchers studied over 600 adult members of the Tsimane, an isolated indigenous population in central Bolivia, and discovered that more open, outgoing — and less anxious — personalities were associated with having more children — but only among men.
    The findings were published recently online in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
    "The idea that we're funneled into a relatively fixed way of interacting with the world is something we take for granted," said Gurven, the paper's lead author. Gurven is also co-director of the University of New Mexico-based Tsimane Health and Life History Project. "Some people are outgoing and open, others are more quiet and introverted. But from an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn't really make sense that our dispositions differ so much, and are not more flexible.
    "Wouldn't it be great to be more extroverted at an important party, more conscientious when you're on the clock at work, less anxious when talking to a potential date?" Gurven continued. "Differences in personality and their relative stability are not unique to humans, and have now been studied in many species, from ants to primates. How could dispositional consistency be favored by selection?"
    Gurven and his team wanted to examine the personality measures they had on the Tsimane adults and determine what consequences might result from one personality over another. "Considering the evolutionary adaptiveness of a trait like personality can be problematic in modern developed societies because of the widespread use of contraception," Gurven explained. "In all animals –– including humans –– the better condition you're in, the more kids you have. And for humans in more traditional environments, like the Tsimane, the higher your status, the better physical condition you're in, the earlier you might marry, and the higher reproductive success you're likely to have."
Ninotchka Bennahum
© Ellen Crane
Ninotchka Bennahum
Dance Scholar Explores 'Carmen' as Gypsy Geographer and Mythic Female Figure
Conceived in the imagination of French writer Prosper Mérimée and set to music by composer and countryman Georges Bizet, Gypsy dancer Carmen is the literary invention of two men. However, while her origins trace back to the masculine mind, she has, over time, refused to be defined by those who created her. Instead, Carmen has emerged through history as a symbol of the unfettered female artist.
    In her new book, "Carmen — A Gypsy Geography" (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), Ninotchka Bennahum, a professor of dance and theater, presents Carmen as "an embodied historical archive, a figure through which we can consider nomadic, transnational identity and the immanence of performance as an expanded historical methodology."
    Bennahum traces the genealogy of the female Gypsy presence in her iconic operatic role from her genesis in the ancient Mediterranean world, her emergence as flamenco artist in the architectural spaces of Islamic Spain, her persistent manifestation in Picasso's work and her contemporary relevance on stage.
    "The book began as a history of Carmen and an archival and performative evolution of Spanish and Gypsy dance on the French Romantic stage," said Bennahum, a dance historian and performance theorist. "But as I searched, I became intrigued by the idea of migration. It's choreographic. I found I was really interested in migration, nomadology, homelessness and art as the receptacle of cultures that travel. Gypsy people — flamenco artists — carry their histories with them on their backs. So I looked at Carmen as a mythic figure, a woman from polytheistic lands in the Ancient Middle East."
    According to Bennahum, Carmen's history is mytho-poetic and feminist. "On another level it's also a dance history, and on still another it's an operatic history. But it really belongs to Carmen, who emerges out of the sand like an avatar and affects people by dancing. And inside the dance is an archeology of time and dancing and history. If you know how to read the dance, you can read the history," she said.
Benjamin Baird
© Spencer Bruttig
Study Reveals the Brain Connections Underlying Introspection
    The human mind is not only capable of cognition and registering experiences but also of being introspectively aware of these processes. Until now, scientists have not known if such introspection was a single skill or dependent on the object of reflection. Also unclear was whether the brain housed a single system for reflecting on experience or required multiple systems to support different types of introspection.
    A new study by student Benjamin Baird and colleagues suggest that the ability to accurately reflect on perceptual experience and the ability to accurately reflect on memories were uncorrelated, suggesting that they are distinct introspective skills. The findings appeared recently in the Journal of Neuroscience.
    The researchers used classic perceptual decision and memory retrieval tasks in tandem with functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine connectivity to regions in the front tip of the brain, commonly referred to as the anterior prefrontal cortex. The study tested a person's ability to reflect on his or her perception and memory and then examined how individual variation in each of these capacities was linked to the functional connections of the medial and lateral parts of the anterior prefrontal cortex.
    "Our results suggest that metacognitive or introspective ability may not be a single thing," Baird said. "We actually find a behavioral dissociation between the two metacognitive abilities across people, which suggests that you can be good at reflecting on your memory but poor at reflecting on your perception, or vice versa."
NCEAS researcher Ben Halpern
NCEAS researcher Ben Halpern
Food Provision an Area of Great Concern, According to Ocean Health Index
In the 2013 Ocean Health Index (OHI) — an annual assessment of ocean health led by Ben Halpern, a research associate at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management — scientists point to food provision as the factor that continues to require serious attention.
    The OHI defines a healthy ocean as one that sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people now and in the future based on 10 diverse public goals. The 2013 score of 65 out of 100 demonstrates the ongoing need for more effective management of this precious resource.
    "I'm encouraged because people, organizations and governments are paying attention to the Ocean Health Index and what they can learn from it," Halpern said. "Not only has the OHI been adopted as an indicator to gauge how well countries are meeting their biodiversity conservation targets, but it is beginning to inform the United Nations World Ocean Assessment and was named by the World Economic Forum as one of two endorsed tools for helping achieve sustainable oceans."
    Goal scores out of a possible 100 for categories that make up the OHI ranged from a low of 31 for natural products to a high of 95 for artisanal fishing opportunities. Other categories include food provision (33), carbon storage (74), coastal protection (69), coastal livelihoods and economies (82), tourism and recreation (39), sense of place (60), clean waters (78) and biodiversity (85).
    With a score of only 33 out of 100, food production from wild harvest and mariculture (cultivation of marine organisms in the open ocean) was the second-lowest-scoring goal and one of the most important resources from the sea for people around the world. A score of 100 is given for wild-caught fisheries if the biomass of landed stocks at sea is within ±5 percent of a buffered amount below the biomass that can deliver maximum sustainable yield. For mariculture, the number of tonnes of product per coastal inhabitant living within 31 miles of the coast is calculated for each country, and all countries above the 95th percentile receive scores of 100. Countries that have never had mariculture are not scored.
Song-I Han and Chi-Yuan Cheng of the Han Research Group
© Spencer Bruttig
Song-I Han and Chi-Yuan Cheng of the Han Research Group
New Tool Enhances Study of Membrane Protein Structure
    Membrane proteins are responsible for transporting chemicals and messages between a cell and its environment. But determining their structure has proved challenging for scientists. A study by the Han Research Group demonstrates a new tool to resolve the structure of membrane-embedded and membrane-associating proteins using the water dynamics gradient they found across and above the lipid bilayer as a unique ruler.
    More than 25 percent of all human proteins are membrane proteins, which perform other essential functions, such as sensing and signaling. They also constitute approximately 50 percent of current drug targets, but the structure of only a small percentage has been resolved.
    The study came about when researchers discovered that water on the membrane surface has a very distinct movement pattern: It is slowed down because the water is attracted to the membrane surface across several water layers. The scientists then wondered whether they could use this as an intrinsic ruler to determine how the associating protein is anchored into the membrane.
    "It's very difficult to determine at what depth and in what conformation the protein is associating with the membrane, especially if you're talking about the interface or even the surface," said chemistry professor Song-I Han, the corresponding author of the study. "We found a contrast mechanism — water dynamics — which is distinctly different even above the membrane surface where there is no lipid density. The membrane surface distinctly changes the property of the water layers above it."
Jennifer Thorsch, CCBER director
© Laurie Hannah
Jennifer Thorsch, CCBER director
Cheadle Center Receives Grant to Digitize Specimens
    UCSB doesn't have a natural history museum, but the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (CCBER) comes close. Among other things, CCBER houses the campus's plant and vertebrate collections, which include some 120,000 individual specimens preserved and maintained for teaching and scientific research.
    Now, with a one-year Museums for America grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), CCBER scholars will digitize more than 70,000 specimens in the center's vascular plant collection. The funds will be used to improve databasing workflows, increase efficiency and speed, and complete the data entry of the remaining 80 percent of specimens that have yet to be digitized.
    A center under the Office of Research, CCBER has a long and venerable history. In 1945, a faculty member started the herbarium, a collection of preserved plant specimens used for research and for teaching. Another faculty member founded the vertebrate collection, which consists of thousands of mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles. In 1995, both collections came together under the umbrella of the Museum of Systematics and Ecology (MSE), which morphed into CCBER a decade later when MSE fused with the ecological restoration program.
    "Formally, under our umbrella we have three major areas," said Jennifer Thorsch, the Katherine Esau Director of CCBER. "We have the ecological restoration arm, we have our education arm and we have the collections arm."
    The IMLS grant required matching funds, some of which came in the form of a generous donation from William and Mary Cheadle, the son and daughter-in-law of the former UCSB chancellor. "The campus also provided additional matching support. These contributions were instrumental to CCBER receiving the grant," Thorsch said.
Frank Davis
NCEAS Director Frank Davis
NCEAS Joins With The Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society
    The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) has joined with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to form Science for Nature and People (SNAP), an initiative aimed at addressing modern conservation and economic development in ways that will benefit humankind, especially the planet's poorest and most marginalized citizens.
    The first working group of SNAP, which meets this week in Santa Barbara, will focus on a project titled "Western Amazonia: Balancing Infrastructure Development and Conservation of Waters, Wetlands and Fisheries." The working group also includes international experts from Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research, National University of the Peruvian Amazon, the United Nations Development Program, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.
    SNAP will leverage the highly productive synthesis research model first established by NCEAS. "Over the course of this week, the group will begin tackling the challenging issue of how to model and balance the competing demands for resources in the Western Amazon," said Frank Davis, NCEAS director and a member of SNAP's governing board.
    SNAP's mandate is to find practical, knowledge-based ways in which the conservation of nature can help provide food, water, energy and security to Earth's fast-growing population. The SNAP official launch announcement was made at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) currently underway in New York City. CGI's 2013 theme, "Mobilizing for Impact," explores ways that its members and member organizations can be more effective in leveraging individuals, partner organizations and key resources in their commitment efforts.
Scanning electron micrograph of the nanomechanical transducer
Scanning electron micrograph of the nanomechanical transducer
Scientists Use Nanomechnical Coupling of Microwave and Optical States
    Fiber optics has made communication faster than ever, but the next step involves a quantum leap –– literally. In order to improve the security of the transfer of information, scientists are working on how to translate electrical quantum states to optical quantum states in a way that would enable ultrafast, quantum-encrypted communications.
    A research team has demonstrated the first and arguably most challenging step in the process. The paper, published recently in Nature Physics, describes a nanomechanical transducer that provides strong and coherent coupling between microwave signals and optical photons. In other words, the transducer is an effective conduit for translating electrical signals (microwaves) into light (photons).
    Today's high-speed Internet converts electrical signals to light and sends it through optical fibers, but accomplishing this with quantum information is one of the great challenges in quantum physics. If realized, this would enable secure communication and even quantum teleportation, a process by which quantum information can be transmitted from one location to another.
    "There's this big effort going on in science now to construct computers and networks that work on the principles of quantum physics," says lead author Jörg Bochmann, a postdoctoral scholar in UCSB's Department of Physics. "And we have found that there actually is a way to translate electrical quantum states to optical quantum states."
David Tilman
David Tilman
Threats of Extinction, Overfishing Can Be Predicted in Advance of Declines
    A new study shows that threats created by overfishing can be identified decades before the fish species at risk experience overly high harvest rates and subsequent population declines. Researchers developed an Eventual Threat Index (ETI) that quantifies the biological and socioeconomic conditions that eventually cause some fish species to be harvested at unsustainable rates. The findings are published in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
    "Overharvesting poses a significant threat to biodiversity, particularly marine biodiversity, where a half-century of industrial fishing has caused the collapse of many populations and severely impacted many ecosystems," said David Tilman, professor of ecology, biodiversity, and ecosystem functioning at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and co-author of the paper. Multispecies fisheries, which use trawling, longlining, and seining, are some of the largest contributors and have the most ecological impact.
    Previous approaches to defining overfishing mainly inferred threats only after a population had declined or was experiencing high harvest rates. "Though these approaches have provided valuable insights into patterns of overharvesting, they tend to identify already harmed species, said lead author Matthew G. Burgess, an ecology, evolution, and behavior Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota. "The ability to predict future declines can allow us to prevent harm before it has a chance to occur."
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