Santa Clara University

Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences

News and Events


Environmental Studies and Sciences News & Events

  •  SCU research sheds light on how plant species invade

    Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012


    It’s always been a bit of a puzzle—why do some species that get introduced outside their native areas become terrible invasive pests, while others either die out or poke along without bothering anyone? Recent research by ESS professor Virginia Matzek has helped shed more light on this question.

     One longstanding theory about plant invaders is that they have greater plasticity than non-invaders. Plasticity is the ability to react to local conditions with different appearances or behaviors—for instance, the way a houseplant deprived of light will stretch out longer stems and make fewer leaves than well-lit plants. If invasive species are more inherently flexible in how they react to climate, for instance, they may be able to invade a wider area than less plastic species.

     Matzek grew ten species of pines in the greenhouse—five that were known to be invasive on at least two continents, and five that had been widely introduced around the world but had never shown invasive characteristics. By altering nitrogen availability to the two groups, she could see how plant traits like photosynthetic capacity and water-use efficiency reacted to high or low levels of resource availability.

     Matzek found that invaders were not more plastic for any of the 17 traits she measured. Instead, invaders seemed to succeed by simply being better than non-invaders at a number of essential plant functions, including producing more leaves and more efficiently using nutrients for photosynthesis.

     Many studies have compared plasticity in invader and non-invader groups, but this study was a step forward because all the species were closely related, so differences between the invasive and non-invasive species are likely to be essential to their invasiveness. The paper, “Trait values, not trait plasticity, best explain invasive species’ performance in a changing environment,” was published in PLOS One and can be read here.

  •  What is Conservation Science?

    Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012

    Efforts to protect nature and prevent extinction of plants and animals have traditionally focused on fencing nature off from people. But as the human population climbs toward 9 billion or more, Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier of SCU's Dept of ESS argue that conservationists must pursue strategies that simultaneously protect nature and meet basic human needs.

    The full article was published this month in the journal Bioscience and is available via JSTOR.

  •  SCU Baja program reinvigorates Natural History pedagogy

    Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012


    In the era of molecular biology, some might think of collegiate courses in natural history as being a bit “old school,” a return to Victorian times when naturalists such as Charles Darwin ruled the roost.  Nothing could be further from the truth according to SCU scholars John Farnsworth and Christopher Beatty, who just published a paper in the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience.

    Beatty and Farnsworth have both been associated with SCU Studies Abroad in Baja, the former teaching ENVS 144, Baja Natural History, and the latter teaching ENVS 142, Writing Natural History.  They see a key linkage between their courses as the development of powers of observation, especially in the process where observations lead to identification which in turn leads to description.  They write, “Adeptness in description links directly to the ability to observe, and we find this prerequisite lacking among some of our students when they enter the program.” 

    The Baja program, now in its sixth year under Farnsworth’s direction, has emerged as a national model of how writing pedagogy can combine with experiential education in natural history to create a program that engages students uniquely. The program has become so popular in recent years that it is now limited to juniors and seniors majoring in environmental science, biology, or environmental studies. The program website can be found here 

    According to Farnsworth and Beatty, the key to the program’s success has been in how it utilizes a journaling process to organize field notes. During the field portion of the class, students are required to keep more than mere species lists, making observations about behaviors and the habitats in which they discover organisms.  The students are assigned writing prompts for each class, and are instructed to spend at least two hours each day working on their field notes.

    The paper, titled: “The Journal’s the Thing: Teaching Natural History and Nature Writing in Baja California Sur” is available via the Natural History Network website.

  •  New Study: Political Affiliation, Minorities, and Nature’s Services

    Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012

    New analysis on the intersection of politics and nature was released today in the latest issue of the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The authors, Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University and Hazel Wong of The Nature Conservancy, drew from national public opinion surveys from last eight years. 

    The work may provide insight to the coming elections on November 6, when more than 60 conservation-related state initiatives will be decided by voters across the country.

    Their analysis highlights several findings:

    • More than three-quarters of those polled believed the United States could have both a strong economy and good land and water protections. (To date Gallup polls have only framed this question as jobs versus the environment).  
    •  A majority of Americans, including 51.4% of Republicans, would be willing to accept a small increase in state or local taxes to pay for land and water protections.
    • Voters of color were much more likely than white voters to think that natural services (such as the production of marketable products and storm protection) are “extremely important”.
    •  Conservation communities’ emphasis on protecting  nature for its intrinsic values isn’t appealing to self- identified Republicans and Independents. They see nature benefits such of clean water, recreation and economics as reasons for conserving land, water and wildlife.

    “These studies reveal that Americans care deeply about the outdoors, and the benefits that nature provides us,” said co-author Hazel Wong.  “Our elected officials around the country should be aware that it’s in their interest to be responsive to nature’s strong, bipartisan constituency.”

    Michelle Marvier commented, “It’s time for conservationists to quit preaching only to the choir. Protecting nature for its own sake is all well and good, but to regain broad public support we need to emphasize and demonstrate that protecting nature is in the best interest of people.”

    The paper's abstract can be accessed here.