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Preserving Biodiversity in the Age of Climate Change

The dean of conservation biology has a message for young scientists: Get out of the lab

Hundreds of scientists are gathered in Oakland this week to share ideas on how to stem the tide of extinctions among plants and animals. On opening night of the inaugural North American Congress for Conservation Biology, they got an earful from Michael SoulĂ©, professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, founder of the Wildlands Network and the Society for Conservation Biology. Considered the “father” of conservation biology, Soule is concerned that the work he started is getting bogged down in the lab. I sat down to talk with him at the conference. This is an edited version of the interview.

What were the biggest problems when you started working on conservation biology?

Lisa Cox/USFWS

Coastal sage scrub and riparian habitat on the San Diego Refuge.

I was a kid naturalist in San Diego. I went around collecting things and going to tide pools and playing in the chaparral, the coastal sage scrub. Those places are gone now; they’ve been bulldozed and they’re now housing developments. So I saw with my own eyes, and was gradually more and more horrified to see, everything I loved disappear, bulldozed.

Later, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I recognized that human population growth was a tremendous factor in changing and shrinking habitats all over the world. And we recognized that pollution — in those days it was DDT — was a big factor in causing the disappearance of brown pelicans, for example, on the West Coast. Continue reading