So, what is a water vole?


This is:

The water voles (Arvicola amphibius) are a large, semi-aquatic rodent in the UK.  Scottish water voles have a slightly darker coat than their English counterparts, which may be explained by a different genetic background migrating to the UK from different parts of Europe at different times.  They are fairly short lived little animals that generally don’t live more than 2 years and a fully grown adult can be anywhere from about 170g to 300g. They are also been known as a “water dog” and you may be most familiar with water voles from the book, The Wind in the Willows.  Ratty was actually a water vole.

But Where does it live?

The live all over the UK and across much of Europe.  In the UK they are found near slow moving water in canals, streams, creeks (known as “burns” around here in Scotland), and ditches.  But they really like to have nice tall and grassy vegetation to eat and soft soil banks that they can burrow into. Imagine something like this ->


A Scottish “burn” with nice vegetation for water voles stream-side, yet surrounded by heather, nasty habitat for these little guys.

In the highlands of Scotland, these places are often fragmented into discrete little patches.  These nice little homes can be separated by miles by harsh unlivable habitat (although gorgeous, see below) for these animals.


The hills near Loch Muick in Balmoral. Hidden thoughout this big landscape are little pockets of good habitat, fragmented by other types of vegetation.

But there is a problem.  In the last several decades, the number of water voles have declined dramatically in the UK, some estimates have put it at 90% reduction from historic numbers.  In much of the lowlands where the biggest colonies existed in large habitat areas, human development has removed much of the available habitat and fragmented those remaining populations too much.  They have also been hit really hard by an invasive predator (more on that in a later post), adding to the troubles for them.

Why does it matter?

Beyond the inherent right to exist without worry of being pushed to extinction by our activities, voles can be important ecosystem engineers, by doing things like aerating soil with their burrows.

Another point is best summed up by a conversation with a “hill walker” (aka hiker) while I was returning from my first series of surveying for these majestic wee-beasties.  He asked me what I was about and I explained why I was out there, surveying for voles.  He replied, “Oh how are they doing, always seems like they are always getting eaten?”  This is a keen insight, as rodents often are a cornerstone of foodstuffs for other animals.  Water voles are prey for weasels, stoats, golden eagles, owls, herons, foxes, pike, and more!  They are important element in the ecosystems they play a part in.

So, I will leave you to mull over that and in my next H2Vole post, I will tell you more about how they have come to be in such a precarious situation in the UK.


For more information on water voles in the UK:


Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating?

I had arrived at the IALE World Congress (International Association for Landscape Ecology; see my last post to know what that means) early on Sunday, July 5th.  I bustled into the conference room, slurping weak coffee made in that morning’s motel room.  I was desperately searching for more coffee as the other participants trickled in.  I gave up on finding any more coffee just as the meeting preceded to start.  Pulling out my pad and paper, I waited, surrounded by a room full of strangers brought together by one man:  Dr. Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University.   We all were here because we were attending a workshop called: Telecoupling Framework for Studying Cross-Border and Cross-Scale Interactions.

Most of the participants at this workshop were here because NASA (yes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and Michigan State University had singled out the 17 or so of us as promising candidates to contribute to the field of landscape ecology (again, see my last post if you don’t know what landscape ecology is).  That being said, those two organizations had gambled on us by looking at previous work we had accomplished and deciding that we were among some of the best people to thrust a brand new scientific concept upon.  I can only say that I did not feel as if I belonged.  Surrounded by doctoral candidates, post-docs, and agency professionals, I was in the minority and one of the youngest in terms of academic careers.

I have to admit that I didn’t care if I belonged or not.  From childhood I could remember wanting to be somehow associated with NASA.  Seriously, didn’t everyone? I am sure I could look through pictures at my parents house and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to find one that included a space/NASA theme. I was just excited to be participating.  But wait. In what was I participating again?  Being one of the NASA-MSU awardees, I was participating in a telecoupling workshop.  Tele-whating?

Telecoupling is a new scientific concept that addresses the idea of the ever decreasing size of the world because of globalization and how human and natural systems are connected more and more – for better or worse.  And this new concept is the baby of Dr. Liu, the man who brought all of us together at this conference.  He brought us together to try and spread his new concept into different reaches of the scientific world.  And to do this, he had to make us understand what this concept really meant.

“Global Sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed” (Liu et al. 2015).  This means biologists haven’t really talked to sociologists all that much and vice-verse.  And this is a problem because the world is becoming more and more connected through environmental and socioeconomic means.  What happens to the environment in one place has an impact to the economy of another.  Human health issues can be impacted by the agricultural or biodiversity changes in another.  These places do not have to be near each other either.  One of the major tenets of telecoupling that Dr. Liu described was that it brings together human-natural interactions across broad distances.

Telecoupling has 5 major interrelated parts: systems, agents, flows, causes, and effects. Systems are the stages in which the human and environment interact.  These could be habitats, countries, or some other abstract spatial, temporal, economic, or social entity.  The parties that act within the systems are the agents.  These would be the multinational corporations, governments, NGOs, your aunt, your dad, you and me.  These agents impact how the materials, services, and information move between systems, i.e. how they flowCauses are why the telecoupled things happen.  And you can not have a cause without an effect.  The effect is the socioeconomic and environmental fallout or benefit of a telecoupling system/event.

From: Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., deFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., … Zhu, C. (2013). Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society, 18(2). doi:10.5751/ES-05873-180226

I have said before that I like examples.  So let us try to work one out using all of these different parts.  Let’s look at palm oil.  It is the worlds largest consumed edible oil.  Recently it has gone under higher scrutiny than it ever has before.  The palm oil industry has a long history that started out in West Africa and today is predominantly grown in SE Asia.  Depending on your perspective, the SE Asian countries and their producers are the sending system and the U.S. and other developed countries and their consumers are the receiving system.  The exchange of money and goods are the flows.  The agents are the governments, farmers, and environmental groups trying to manage different expectations and produce different outcomes.  The causes and effects are reciprocal but identifiable.  Recently, palm oil demand has increased but has been a major cause of deforestation. All those snacks you like to eat that have palm oil in them is helping cut down forests across the world.  That means loss of biodiversity, increase in carbon in the atmosphere, and mounds of other problems.  Because of this consumers have started to demand that business use palm oil that is more sustainably harvested.

I left out one key part.  And this is the part that I think has the most importance for the concept of telecoupling to have big impacts.  That was the spillover system, an idea not to many other scientific concepts incorporate.  In the palm oil example, I have one major example to show as a spillover.  Because of the demand for palm oil and the resulting tropical deforestation, American farmers could be losing a lot of money.  An article from the Economist, postulates that if palm oil producers (sending agent) were held accountable and rainforest conserving policies were enacted (spillover cause) based on these consumer demands (the receiving cause), American agricultural businesses (spillover agent) could expect to net up to $270 billion dollars more (spillover effect) than if nothing was done.

At our meeting we broke up into groups based on our research interests and Dr. Liu helped us start coming up with ideas for new research ideas in our particular areas of study using this telecoupling framework.  I am really excited to be included in this new field.  I think it has a lot to offer based off of its multi-disciplinary and holistic approach. Especially considering how telecoupling framework is adding the idea of the spillover system.  This might be the most important concept that is brought to the table by the telecoupling framework The world is getting smaller and the links that draw us together are getting stronger and stronger.  Telecoupling helps us identify the costs, the benefits, and unintended consequences of the globalization of the planet.  Through this it helps to reach for a more sustainable outcome for the future.

I will try to layout another example in Telecoupling and IALE World Congress Part 3: Avalanches and Watermelon Snow. Next time there will be many more pictures (I promise)!  Before I got to the landscape ecology conference, I spent several weeks backpacking and traveling across the west.  I tried to climb Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  I will try to layout the experience using a telecoupling framework to make it relevant.

I linked several good news articles, webpages, and journal articles throughout this post.  Please check them out for a more in-depth understanding of telecoupling.  Please feel free to email me too. And check back in later for new posts and updates.

I really am truly excited to part of this new field of understanding how human and natural worlds are interwoven.

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology?

That title, if you aren’t a landscape ecologist, might appear to be a bunch of mixed up words and random letters.  I will get to telecoupling in a later post so bear with me while I explain what IALE is. It’s the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  This is a professional society that tries to further scientific study in the field of landscape ecology.  That’s now the third time I have mentioned that phrase.  Many of you out there might wonder what it is.  If you are thinking that it means the study of how to landscape stuff, you’re wrong.  But don’t worry, because it is exactly what everyone that I talk to on airplanes and at bars thinks it is too.

So what is landscape ecology? Well it’s a little hard to describe.  I kind of think it’s like art in the way that you “know it when you see it.”  Here is an attempt though from the professionals:  IALE describes landscape ecology as, “the study of spatial variation in landscapes at a variety of scales.”

Okay… so that did not help much.  You are sitting there on the plane next to me thinking, “This guy just said some key words that go together and it still sounds like fancy landscaping to me. I don’t really care anymore.”  And that is because I have not done my job properly.  Lets try again.

A biologist’s job is to study life.  There are microbiologists that study cells and bacteria and things like that.  There are wildlife biologists that study, well, wildlife.  There are geologists that study the nature of the planet itself: how it formed; how minerals and rocks are formed and behave; and things of this nature.  Botanists study plants.  Ecologists study how all of the communities of life (single-celled life, plants, animals and everything in between) interact with each other and how they interact with all the non-living stuff (water, air, soil, sunlight, temperatures, fire, etc…).

Landscape ecology is, if nothing else, interdisciplinary.  It takes all of those things you just read in the previous paragraph and tosses in a couple other things like urban planning, ecosystem services, geography, and even more.  Again from the IALE website, “The conceptual and theoretical core of landscape ecology links natural sciences with related human disciplines.”  To me landscape ecology mashes these things together to try and understand how the distribution of a specific thing across the landscape influences other things and processes.

Picture taken by Joe Drake.

This picture really captures the idea of scale, disturbance, and the effect of human processes on natural systems. These are all parts of landscape ecology.

I like examples to try and explain things.  The following are all examples of what could be covered by the concept of landscape ecology: trying to understand what causes the spatial pattern of different types of forests; trying to understand how the spread of city sprawl will influence agriculture or wildlands; and simply trying to understand why cities, forests, rivers, lakes, deserts, and the other features of the landscape are where they are.

Other areas that landscape ecology covers includes trying to understand how the patterns of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts of ecosystems influence processes in the landscape.  Take this question for example, why are wild fires becoming more frequent and dangerous across the United States?  Related to these types of questions are another area of study under landscape ecology: trying to understand how humans are changing the patterns, processes, and natural systems of the landscape.  And what does it mean for the landscape (and some may argue more importantly what does it mean for us)?

One more big area of study within landscape ecology is trying to understand how scale and disturbance impact the landscapes and the players in that landscape.  Differences in the scale of a disturbance can make a big impact on natural systems. A little fire could be a good thing for a forest, but too much fire across too big an area might end up breaking down the natural systems that organisms rely on.  Sometimes, however, the findings are that you can get away with doing a lot of some activity without too many problems occurring.   Or landscape ecologists might find that even a little bit of another thing has serious and irreversible consequences for animals, plants, and people.  A good example of this type of thing is looking at the difference in ability for animals to inhabit a landscape that is being disturbed by different levels of logging.  Another example would be trying to figure out how the development of new suburbs are going to impact the ability for groups of animals to move between habitat patches?

This is just the most basic of intros.  Hopefully, if you were sitting on the plane next to me, you have not decided that risking death by falling to the earth via an escape through the exit row cabin door is better than listening to me any longer.  If you were at the bar listening to me and have not yet tried to drink enough to forget what I have been saying, there are some good places to find more info.  The webpage for IALE is here.  If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest the Wikipedia page on landscape ecology.  I don’t have time to go over the origin of the this discipline but it is interesting.  Some of the key players in the development of landscape ecology are Alexander von Humboldt, Carl TrollRobert MacArthur, E. O. Wilson, and John Wiens among many others too numerous to mention here.

Next time will be about me and telecoupling. So I guess it will be about you too.  So deal with it.

In the morning the jungle had taken my socks…

This is an essay I submitted to the 2014 Sowell Collection Essay Contest held by the Southwest Collection at TTU ( I was selected for first place.  It covers some of my fieldwork and an author that has been a great inspiration for me.  I hope you enjoy.  

In the morning the jungle had taken my socks. It did not intend to let me have them back either. I had just slid out of my hammock and was trying to slip on my socks from yesterday. I had left them on the guy-rope of the hammock to try and air the socks out overnight. There was no chance of drying them out here. The shoes you put on over them were soaked anyway; why waste them? I was preparing to pull them over my pruned feet when I noticed that something was on the inside of the cuff of the sock. It was a small egg case. I figured a fly had laid it there that night. And I was right. I just didn’t know how right. On further inspection, the socks had been taken over. Someone was already wearing my socks. Squirming egg cases were attached to each and every stitch of pile on the inside of my socks. Another pair lost to this job. Nature was having a good one on me and I wasn’t appreciating it this early in the day.

Photo credit to Pablo Oleiro.  These are my feet.  After the socks had come off.

Photo credit to Pablo Oleiro. These are my feet. After the socks had come off.

I had just woken up from a series of light naps strung together. I had not made much headway in the way of sleep that night and the dawn light filtering through the canopy was unwelcome. Its warmth, however, was. The jungle gets surprisingly cold at night when your camp is situated in a wind-blown saddle set high in the volcanic ridges of interior Pohnpei. I had been laying in a hammock with a cheap blue-plastic tarp slung over to keep the rain from falling onto me. The wind just carried it under the awning and onto me from other directions instead. Throughout the night the wind, rain, and shivering kept me awake enough to read from the book I had packed up there.

It was a collection of coyote trickster stories, Barry Lopez’s first book, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter. Appropriate topics considering the laughs the jungle was having at my expense. I had brought it along to the island as part of a small collection of reading material designed to entertain myself for 5 months. I was out there on a project collecting data on birds and vegetation – trying to get the only in depth survey of avifauna for this area completed. This was to serve as a baseline of information before the effects of raising sea levels changed the islands of the Pacific and their plants and animals forever. One in a series of field biology jobs I have had.

And that was all that came from the first experience with Mr. Lopez’s work. I was entertained, the book was finished, and then it was put back into my bag. It flew back across the Pacific in an airplane and was placed on a shelf at my parents’ house back in the Midwest. I traveled some more until I got another temporary field biology job in Northern California. Near the end of that season, I found myself at a small bookstore in a coastal California town. I picked up a couple books to read when we weren’t working 14 hour days. I picked up Arctic Dreams in that pile. The cover had fallen off and the pages were yellowed but the price was right: $1. I recognized the name of the author from somewhere I could not quite remember. I figured I knew nothing about the Arctic so I would give it a try. I tossed it into my truck but again, that is where the book sat. I tore off on another cockamamie road trip to southern Arizona where my next field job was waiting. Across the Sierra Nevada, through Death Valley and into the Grand Canyon I saw vistas too big to describe, trees named after Presidents, and saw so much of nature’s bounty Ansel Adams would have run out of film. All that the book saw was the underside of my driver’s seat.

When I finally reached Ajo, Arizona, I immediately got sucked into the unique wilderness. I worked almost half a year on the job, chasing desert rains and the ephemeral waters that follow. I was working in the middle of the Sonoran Desert on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, which was managed by the United States Air Force. Some of the largest tracts of open land available for animals are housed on military property. I was recording information about new ways to find isolated waters, determining water quality, and recording information about the animals that use these rare waters. This work would eventually (unknowingly) lead to my pursuing my Master’s Degree at Texas Tech University.

A day would start at 0400 and end whenever we lost light or access to the Range. Our working group had a security code name and was required to sign forms removing the Government from responsibility in the event we accidently blew ourselves up with the old unexploded ordinance that litters the range. We had to travel through dunes fields and desert mountain ranges. The landscape was austere, beautiful, and often painful. But to those that were willing to look, there were things to find.

Part of the range.

Part of the range.

This was not my first work in the desert, but it was this time working in the Sonora which made me fall in love. The desert was setting up shop in my head. It laid down bedrock, aquifer, and roots. From the fissures of unknown cracks in my logic sprung forth the plants, animals, and waters of my enchantment. I had no reason to love the punishing environment I was working in but I did. I would go out at night just to watch the stars and scorpions crawl across their respective sides of up and down.

Besides late night animal tracking, evening entertainment at our field housing consisted mostly of siestas in the hammocks we had rigged up on the back porch. It was the only way to cope with late afternoon highs that reached into the 120’s. Besides it was hard to beat those seats for watching the sunset, especially when you had a beer to help wash it down with. I found the book on one such afternoon, looking for anything in my truck I had not already read. I plucked the copy of Arctic Dreams from its hermitage and plopped down in the hammock. 3 hours later I woke back up having never actually started it.

The next day I picked it back up and started reading the book. Before I had finished the preface, I was able to find passages that still loom in my conscience, because I was trying to find a place for myself in the desert just as the desert had found a place in me.

“The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as the turns of the mind and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable. The mind full of curiosity and analysis disassembles a landscape and then reassembles the pieces – the nod of a flower, the color of the night sky, the murmur of an animal – trying to fathom its geography. At the same time the mind is trying to find its place within the land, to discover a way to dispel its own sense of estrangement.”

He compared the Arctic to a desert. In many ways they are very similar, but it wasn’t the environmental cues that were sticking out in my head when I read the book. There were too many human elements that could be strung together by a long thread from the far north to the desert.

I had traveled by foot and by truck and by airplane across this landscape. Each level of technological removal also encouraged a psychological removal. Going across this landscape can be daunting. And the emotional comfort that is afforded by the technological and psychological removal is alluring. Removing the human from the landscape does neither landscape nor human any good. It is something that often eludes conservation discourse and the subsequent management decisions it brings about. This insight was surely something I lacked. The presence of modern humans in the Arctic was readily observed and seemed very out of place, according to Mr. Lopez. It is a sentiment I can readily vouch for in the Sonoran. 2-track crisscross the saguaro fields and human trash stands out among the tans, rusts, and greens.

A bit out of place?

A bit out of place?

During field work, when it was not my time to drive, I would read as we bounced along in the truck through desert arroyos and old access roads. I would stop every couple of paragraphs just to stare out the window and take in the scenery. I would mix it with the words I had just read. Passages full of broken schooners sprawled out across the ice, hull crumpled and holds empty. Wooden ribs standing out against the landscape. I would remember descriptions of overland travel across the desert and of the great Conestoga wagons left in the empty wastes. The imagery was the same. As I walked through the desert I saw the human remains of this day and age, cars with engine blocks rusted together and the doors torn off the body and tumbled across the desert. And old military equipment, forgotten and useless, dotted the landscape we moved through.

The farther into Arctic Dreams I read, the more I felt I understood the desert environment I was actually in. Lopez’s descriptions of physical phenomena, like mirages, would have still been enlightening if that is where it stopped. The human history of the Arctic was deeply linked to the physical phenomena and Lopez is a master at communicating this connection. We know that the arctic region experiences drastic seasonal shifts in light. It was his detail of a cultural response to experience the depressive loneliness of darkness, the perlerorneq – a word with no English equivalent, which stuck with me. It illustrates how the human and landscape are products of each other. Mr. Lopez quotes an anthropologist that the word means, “to feel ‘the weight of life.’” But he continues and expands so that we can truly understand the darkness of the depression, and how much it resembles the sunless days of arctic winter.

I have yet to find an equivalent for the desert to this last notion, except maybe in regards to water. But that would be a reach and I would have to try. This in itself is another reason Lopez has provided an invaluable addition to my understanding. Not everything translates but if I keep looking and trying to understand, I might just catch a glimpse of understanding. Anything that helps spark curiosity and a drive to sate that curiosity is a gift. I have given away my copy of the book to a friend to try and share that feeling, that gift.

This book deepened my love for the natural world, humans included. It provided insight into a region I knew very little about. Not just the arctic, but also the desert. The book moved across its designated landscape and the messages that emerged helped the desert communicate with me. The desert got into me. It wrinkled my skin, and cut my knees. The desert air parched my throat and the desert water quenched my thirst. Words for unique features in the Sonora invaded my speech, and changed how I looked at the world around me. Tinajas and charcos are my new water sources, and the rains that fill them are also the rains that bring flash floods. Now, I cannot hear rain without considering my traveling route. Maybe I would not have had as strong a reaction if I had Arctic Dreams in the jungle with me instead of in the desert, but I do not think that is the case. Arctic Dreams also tempered my passion so that it gave me a more useful and deeper understanding of the sense in which humanity is not and should not be removed from the natural systems. Without knowledge of place, we have no sense of place. We become lost. We are icebergs drifting slowly, melting in a sea foreign to us until we disappear and no longer resemble what we once were.


If you are interested in reading more about or by Barry Lopez, please consider visiting: and check out his work.  

All images and text © 2014 Joseph Drake