Harris Conservation Forum sheds light on importance of ‘unpopular bodies’ – UMSL Daily

Danielle Lee (center), an associate professor of biology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who earned her doctorate in biology at UMSL in 2010, answers a question from the audience during the 2022 Whitney and Anna Harris Conservation Forum last Thursday at the zoo of Saint-Louis. Lee served as a forum presenter on “The Importance of Unpopular Organizations” and was joined by Kasey Fowler-Finn (right), associate professor of biology at Saint Louis University, and Nicole Miller-Struttmann (left), Associate Professor. of biology at Webster University. (Photo by Burk Krohe)

In recent years, there has been a movement toward more natural backyards and outdoor spaces and away from the monoculture turf lawns that were once the American ideal.

The desire to preserve biodiversity has been fueled by greater public awareness of phenomena such as worsening droughts and declining insect populations. This has led scientists and policy makers to think more critically about the importance of the creatures and plants that many of us spend time and money trying to manage or eliminate.

The 2022 Whitney and Anna Harris Conservation Forum, “The Importance of Unpopular Organisms,” explored the world of insects, rodents and weeds and what we can learn from them. The annual event was co-hosted last Thursday evening by the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center and the Saint Louis Zoo inside the zoo’s The Living World.

“As biologists, many of us spend our scientific lives working with animals and plants that most people just aren’t as keen on as we are,” said Aimee Dunlap, associate professor of biology and Acting Co-Director of the Harris Center. “There is a lot of love for pandas and not so much for the incredible diversity of rodents. Bumblebees may win a lot of affection from the public, but their hymenopteran cousins, the wasps, not so much. There are so many cool aspects of nature that we can witness in our own backyards.

During the forum, approximately 50 attendees heard presentations from three St. Louis-area biologists: Kasey Fowler-Finn, associate professor of biology at St. Louis University; Danielle Lee, associate professor of biology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who received her doctorate in biology from UMSL in 2010; and Nicole Miller-Struttmann, associate professor of biology at Webster University.

Fowler-Finn introduced the first and pointed out how insects and arachnids found in and around our homes communicate through vibration. She noted that they perform important ecological functions such as sanitation services and biological control, but they can also be sources of beauty and ingenuity if you look and listen carefully enough.

“I think their importance really extends beyond these ecosystem services,” she said. “They really act as a real source of wonder and wonder. That’s what I hope to convey to people tonight.

“I want to address a certain aspect of the world that spiders and insects share, namely the addiction to sound. My goal is not to convince you of the importance of the ecosystem, but of the importance of understanding how other organisms navigate the world in ways we don’t normally think about.

Lee then took the floor and recounted the long history of humans with rodent pests, pointing to tales from ancient Egypt as well as traditions such as the Pied Piper.

“Rodents have been our uninvited, but most enduring, familiars throughout human history,” she said.

While pest rodents have an undesirable reputation — they carry disease and are responsible for billions of dollars in agricultural damage each year — Lee noted that they are also incredibly adaptable and thrive in urban, suburban and natural environments. Because of this resilience and the continued closeness of rodents to humans, she argued that humans must prioritize the study of rodents to provide effective institutional solutions to the problems they create.

In his own research on field mice in Missouri and Illinois and the giant rat in Tanzania, Lee found that rodents have spatial preference utilization patterns.

“As a natural historian studying a pest rodent, I recognize that understanding this rodent can impact many different fields — public health, biomedical research,” Lee said. “In other words, having this basic natural history informs things like how we manage parks, how we manage green spaces, how we should invest in strong infrastructure. It also impacts understanding of how we become more ethical and better scientists and community members in the future.

Miller-Struttmann discussed common weeds such as clover, goldenrod, pokeweed, Virginia creeper, and wild violet. Although these plants are often removed from lawns in favor of grass seed, they have many practical uses and benefit local ecosystems. Miller-Struttmann celebrated the uniqueness and usefulness of each maligned plant with a haiku poem before cataloging their many benefits.

She sang the praises of the wild violet, which can be used to make delicate floral-flavored jellies or brightly colored dyes, and pokeweed, a plant that has been cultivated for generations in the southern United States and served as a nutritious substitute – after boiling several times – for more expensive leafy green vegetables.

Members of the public also learned about the use of passion flower as an anti-anxiety medicine and mild sedative, the vital role of Virginia creeper as food for caterpillars, and the protein-rich foliage of clover, which feeds livestock. and dairy cows.

Before the three questions posed by the audience during a lively panel discussion, Miller-Struttmann closed his remarks with two more haikus.

“Just misunderstood, weeds have benefits, for those who know about them,” she said. “It was a pleasure to share these under-loved plants, thanks for joining.”

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Robert M. Larson