Russia: Monitoring Russia’s “rewilding”

Doing fieldwork in the remote wilderness of Russia isn’t for the faint of heart. There are long distances to travel on deeply rutted roads, bleak outpost towns with meager accommodations, and bears and wolves to contend with. Plus—in the case of visiting American scientists—the constant presence of an armed guard who wasn’t there to protect them from large carnivores. “

He was there in case we encountered illegal poachers,” explains forest and wildlife ecology (FWE) professor Volker Radeloff, who has been visiting Russia in a research capacity for a dozen years, most recently with his fellow FWE professor Anna Pidgeon.

According to the duo (who are married), the opportunity to visit two of Russia’s protected areas— the Kologrivksi Forest northeast of Moscow and the Caucasus Mountains in the south—is worth the trouble.

That’s because Russia offers a unique case study for conservation scientists interested in studying the impact of land use changes on wildlife populations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens abandoned the state’s collectivized farms, leaving many of the agricultural fields to revert to a more natural state—and opening up new space for animals to live and roam.

“Their forests are regrowing and their wildlands are coming back, which is something we don’t see in many other places on the planet—especially at that magnitude,” says Radeloff.

Radeloff, an expert in using satellite imagery to monitor land use changes, can look at his remote sensing data and see that forests are expanding in Russia. But the images don’t tell Radeloff and Pidgeon much about what’s happening “on the ground” with local wildlife populations. For that, they need to partner with Russian scientists, working with them on their turf.

As an example, while satellite imagery can help identify promising habitat for the reintroduction of European bison into new areas within the Caucasus Mountains, many other factors will determine a herd’s ultimate success.

“We identified an area that looked like good habitat, but the local scientists made it quite clear that this would not work because of the human context,” says Radeloff. “They told us the bison would all be shot there within a week; they’d never survive. That’s the kind of information we need that we cannot learn remotely and that nobody is publishing about in scientific journals.”

That “human context” is a significant factor, even within the nation’s protected areas. Animals are hunted for food by locals and for trophies by affluent sportsmen. In the southern Caucasus Mountains, ibex, a type of wild goat, are killed for their horns, which are used as wineglasses during traditional Georgian wedding ceremonies. The Saiga antelope of the Kalmykia are likewise poached for their horns, which are sold on the Chinese medicine market. These forces must be factored in.

Trips to Russia also enable Radeloff and Pidgeon to develop important scientific relationships. They regularly host Russian conservation scientists in their Madison labs, giving visitors the opportunity to work on short projects that can aid their efforts back home in Russia.

“Both of us are interested in capacity building, particularly in countries where the resources or training may not be quite as comprehensive as it is here in the United States,” says Pidgeon. “These relationships lead to a cross-pollination that benefits both sides as we work to study and support wildlife populations in Russia.”

Costa Rica: New trail in paradise

This past January a group of CALS students found themselves bushwhacking through a dense mountain forest in Costa Rica, crossing paths with monkeys, colorful birds, snakes and strange-looking frogs along the way.

But no worries: They weren’t lost.

As part of a service-learning course offered by the Department of Landscape Architecture, they were scouting out a new hiking trail for the Cloud Forest School, a bilingual, environmentally focused K–11 school located just outside the majestic, fog-shrouded cloud forest reserves of Monteverde and Santa Elena. The reserves are among the most biologically diverse places on Earth, serving as home to more than 2,500 plant species, 400 kinds of birds, more than 200 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians—and thousands of insects.

“We hiked through the most wild parts of the mountain to collect GPS points of potential new trails,” says Lyn Kim, a landscape architecture senior who spent two weeks in Costa Rica as part of the Cloud Forest Studio course, as it’s called.

CALS students helped plan, map and build a five-kilometer trail through the school’s extensive grounds, which include both pristine and previously harvested cloud forest. The path, which includes resting points of special ecological interest, was designed for Cloud Forest School field trips as well as for the school’s annual fundraiser run. Creating it, however, was just one piece of a much larger effort.

“The long-term goal is to help develop some kind of meaningful forest restoration plan for the property,” says landscape architecture professor Sam Dennis, who co-leads the course along with department chair and professor John Harrington.

“We also want to help support the school’s environmental education efforts so their students can go on to jobs in the local ecotourism industry,” he adds.

Dennis and Harrington made a five-year commit- ment to the school and so far have led two groups of CALS students to conduct work there. In addition to building the trail, students have also started develop- ing classroom curriculum materials, nature guides for the property and interpretive trail signage.

The trips expose CALS students to landscape architecture’s vocational variety. “People tend to think of landscape architecture as putting plants onto landscapes, but that’s very little of what we actually do,” explains Harrington. The course gives students
a taste of environmental restoration work, commu- nity development work, and the creation of outdoor educational spaces with community input.

Kim, for one, was thrilled with her experience last January, and not just because she got to see an active volcano and zipline down the side of a mountain on her day off.

“At school we always design on trace paper and in the computer, but we never get to see our designs built,” she notes. “During our trail-building project, we got to see our work come to life.”

Kazakhstan: Dam monitoring protects water supply

Unpredictable flooding and droughts, which scientists predict will intensify with climate change, elevate the importance of dams for managing and storing water, even in places that normally receive adequate rainfall. Maintaining the world’s existing dams helps ensure that farmers will have the water they need to feed the planet’s burgeoning population.

To aid that effort, graduate students Charles Chang and Andrew Schreiber, both in agricultural and applied economics (AAE), have created software that can quickly and inexpensively determine a dam’s structural integrity using their algorithm and data from easily installed fiber-optic sensors, such as those already in use at the Koksarai Dam in Kazakhstan.

“Our system gives water managers a more cost- effective way to monitor the overall integrity of dams than any other technology,” says Chang. He is col- laborating with a team of engineers who developed the sensors, led by Professor Ki-Tae Chang at South Korea’s Kumoh National University of Technology. The sensors, which measure water seepage through a dam, provide real-time data the researchers are using to locate areas of erosion that could eventually under- mine the dam’s capacity.

“We’re targeting dams in developing countries, most of which are used as reservoirs for agriculture. Many of them have no solid core and are easily moved by high water pressure, or they are older dams that need maintenance,” says Chang. “We can give water managers the information they need to decide whether repairs are required.”

Up to now, notes Schreiber, “Earth dam monitor- ing has required considerable amounts of capital and labor, leaving poorer communities at a loss.”

Chang and Schreiber drew on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team to create their product. The team includes civil engineering professor Chung R. Song of the University of Mississippi and Jesse Holzer, a UW computer science graduate student. AAE professors Tom Rutherford and Corbett Grainger serve as project advisors.

“Some models of dam sustainability measure the effects of sedimentation in the reservoir, but our project goes farther by looking at the erosion factor,” says Chang. “For example, if Kazakhstan were to experience less rainfall due to climate change in the coming years, we would want to maintain a higher reservoir level in the dam for future agricultural use. But we also know that higher water levels can trigger more erosion.”

As economists, Chang and Schreiber want to help governments predict how much they need to invest in a dam to increase its capacity. And because different climate change scenarios can affect both sedimentation and erosion—the main causes of dam failure—the team will model the returns toinvestment in dammaintenance or aban-donment. “What is thebenefit to society tohave that dam rein-forced or allowed to collapse?” Chang asks.

After implementing erosion detection algorithms for earth structures in Korea and Kazakhstan, Chang andSchreiber now collaborate with pH Global,a start-up venture that creates inference algorithms for a variety of geotech- nical public amenities, such as tunnels and dikes.

“A fifth of the world’s population lives in water- scarce regions, and most dams lack monitoring capability,” says Chang. “With our algorithm and sensors, water managers can minimize costs by using less hardware and more software.”

The students may have a viable commercial product on their hands. It has drawn some attention in South Korea and France, Chang says, and several contracts for using it are already in place.

Five things everyone should know about gluten

1. What is it? Gluten is a substance composed of two proteins—gliadin and glutenin—that are found in the endosperm (inner part of a grain) of wheat, rye, barley and foods made with those grains, meaning that gluten is widespread in a typical American diet.

2. Is it harmful? People who suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disorder, are unable to tolerate gluten. Even a small amount of it (50 milligrams) can trigger an immune response that damages the small intestine, preventing absorption of vital nutrients and potentially leading to other problems such as osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage and seizures.

3. How widespread is celiac disease? An estimated 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease; as many as 83 percent of those suffering from it remain undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed with other conditions. Another 18 million (about 6 percent of the population) do not have celiac disease but suffer from gluten sensitivity. They report such symptoms as diarrhea, constipation, bloating and abdominal pain—which also are symptoms of celiac disease—but do not experience the same intestinal damage. For those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, a gluten-free diet is beneficial.

4. Should you cut gluten from your diet even if you don’t have these conditions? Probably not. Restriction of wheat in the diet often results in a decrease in the intake of fiber at a time when most Americans consume significantly less than the recommended amount. Low-fiber diets are associated with increased risk of several acute gastrointestinal diseases (examples: constipation, diverticulosis) and chronic diseases such as heart disease and colon cancer. If not done carefully, gluten-free diets also tend to be low in a number of vitamins and minerals.

5. Don’t diagnose yourself. The broad range of symptoms associated with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity may be due to other causes; self-diagnosis and treatment of perceived gluten intolerance may delay someone from seeking more appropriate medical care. The only way to know for certain if you have celiac disease is from a blood test for the presence of specific antibodies followed by a biopsy of the small intestine. If you are experiencing the symptoms described above, please seek medical care.

Beth Olson is a professor of nutritional sciences. Her principal research areas concern breastfeeding support and improving infant feeding practices in low-income families.

Field Notes: India

Anuj Modi was nervous when he arrived for the first day of his summer internship at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station last year. The freshman dairy science major could have been back home with friends and family in Bikaner, India. Instead, he was on the other side of the world, tasked with helping care for a large herd of dairy cattle. It was the first job he had ever had.

And he’d never milked a cow.

“Before my internship, a cow was just like any other animal—like a horse or a camel,” Modi recalls. “I didn’t know anything about cows or dairy farming.”

But that doesn’t mean Modi didn’t know a thing or two about the dairy industry. His grandfather got the family into the business more than 40 years ago. His father helped carry on the legacy, and Modi is now hoping to take the family dairy business into its third generation. Today, Lotus Dairy has three processing plants in Rajastahn, India’s largest state. They process one million liters of milk a day, selling it to clients like Nestle and Mother Dairy, a subsidiary of India’s National Dairy Development Board.

Considering this, the fact that it took a move to Wisconsin to acquaint Modi with a cow may sound strange. But there are very few modern dairy farms in India. The cow enjoys sacred status in the Hindu faith and legal protection in many Indian states, which means managing a large herd and culling cows that are sick or not producing is often out of the question.

In addition to political and religious considerations, having a small herd is simply a way of life for many. “People in rural areas keep four or five cows in their backyard and sell the milk to people like Lotus,” Modi says. “We collect milk mainly from villages. We have chilling centers in 80 locations across our state, and the number of people bringing us milk is high, close to 35,000 or 40,000.”

This arrangement is so common that it makes India the world’s leading producer of milk. And it’s not even close. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, India has 48 million dairy cows, up from 38 million only five years ago. Brazil, the next closest country, has half as many. There are only 9.2 million in the United States.

Combine that level of supply with a modernizing industry that’s making milk production and processing more efficient, and you have the beginning of a boom. International developments like these are being felt here on campus, says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Sciences.

“As the dairy farms and milk processing plants in countries like India, China and Pakistan expand and modernize, they import supplies, equipment and expertise from North America,” Weigel says. “And they build relationships, which lead to sending the next generation to study abroad.”

Weigel says the resulting influx of international students is beneficial to the department. They provide existing students with a new and global perspective regarding dairy farming and life in other countries. And, he says, “They extend Dairy Science’s reach and impact well beyond the borders of Wisconsin—influencing dairy production systems on other continents and building a global alumni base.”

Field Notes: South Africa

In the fertile, rolling hills of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, it’s hard to imagine a food shortage. But hunger is a serious threat there, espe- cially for children. The area also has high levels of poverty and HIV infection.

Researchers at the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) are teaming with local groups to try to improve those condi- tions. Together they have formed the Livelihood, Agroecology, Nutrition and Development project— LAND for short—to address the region’s complex, interrelated problems.

“Using a participatory approach, we have built strong ties with local villagers and their co-op, the Ncedisizwe Co-op, which means ‘helping the nation,’” says CIAS director Michael Bell, a professor of community and environmental sociology.  The Ncedisizwe Co-op encompasses 800 small- holder farmers in 26 villages.

Other local partners include the Indwe Trust, an NGO focusing on sustainable development, and Kidlinks World, a Madison-based charity dedicated to AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children.

The group’s goals are to provide sustainable livelihoods for smallholder farmers and their com- munities; to integrate health and nutrition with sus- tainable agricultural practices; to enhance ecosystem services such as crane habitat, erosion control and carbon sequestration; and to strengthen communi- ties through participatory decision-making.

Better use of grasslands will be key in those efforts, researchers say. “The people of this region are blessed with a wealth of grassland resources, but these resources are literally being eroded before their very eyes,” says agronomy professor Randy Jackson, who accompanied the LAND team on a recent visit. “Much of this is attributable to a governance system that treats most rangelands as unregulated commons, resulting in continuous grazing that promotes unde- sirable plants and exposure of bare ground.”

Rotational grazing, the group notes—which actually originated in Africa—will potentially double the level of animal production while also building soil quality, reducing erosion and promoting wildlife habitat. LAND has conducted workshops with farmers on rota- tional grazing and helped develop a supply chain connecting local grass-based meat to national and international markets.

Other activities have included helping form a women’s cooperative for vegetable production, working with community members on improving water supplies, and helping establish perennial home gardens to increase the quality and variety of local diets.

The LAND project has matured to the point where it can serve as the basis of a new global health certificate field course, “The Agroecology of Health,” that debuted this past winter. Bell and doctoral student Valerie Stull brought 10 undergraduate and two graduate students to the Eastern Cape for a 15-day visit that encompassed learning about agroecology and hydrology systems and working with community members to establish a one-acre vegetable garden at a school in the village of Kumanzimdaka.

The students planted herbs, tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage and radishes and plotted locations for future fruit trees.

“The experience left me feeling a tremendous amount of respect for the people in the community who continue to live off and use the land,” says Alexa Statz, a junior in life sciences communication. “I have high hopes that the garden we built together will be something that can stay with them for generations to come.”

Bell plans to continue having undergraduates participate. Learning about themselves and their place in the world, questioning and thinking critically were all objec- tives of the trip. “But the biggest objective was to provide students with the chance to discover what it means to lead a life of consequence,” Bell says. “Now that’s a pretty grand goal—and I think it happened in South Africa. It clicked.”

Field Notes: Central America

Jim Nienhuis, a CALS professor of horticulture, spends a lot of time conducting research in Central America, a place he has cared about deeply since serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. He’s never stopped thinking about how to address the region’s most pressing problems. Among them: the striking number of single mothers among the rural poor.

“The men had used them and then left for the cities,” says Nienhuis. “They were cast off, but they are young, they are smart, they are willing to work, and they love and care for their children. They can’t abandon their young families and go to work in the city, but they can and usually do live with their parents, and together they survive.”

Often, too, they have small parcels of land—and thus a means of support by intensively growing vegetables both to sell at local markets and to feed their families. Women’s agricultural cooperatives—groups that allow these farmers to share resources and experience, ranging from shared tools to increased bargaining power at the market—were formed to help them in those efforts.

The problem: quality seeds are often beyond their means. Multinational seed companies looking to make a profit prefer to sell to large-scale producers—and at up to 15 cents per seed, women hoping to grow crops for market simply cannot afford them. And inexpensive local seeds are highly susceptible to plant diseases that substantially decrease yields.

That’s where Nienhuis could help. With funding from USAID, three years ago he began a program called “Seeds of Hope” to teach women in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to raise their own seeds. As a plant breeder, Nienhuis helped develop open-pollinated varieties of disease-resistant tomatoes and peppers that women could save from their own crops and replant the following year.

The program is making a difference. “The women have really liked the new seed varieties for their rapid growth and high demand in the market,” says Doris Hernandez of CARE El Salvador, who works with the women. Each year Nienhuis conducts at least one training program in Central America that brings all the women together. And each year the program brings the women to the CALS campus. Workshops have covered everything from small business management and greenhouse production to business technology and seed storage.

Last summer, for example, they learned how to better save seeds with clay “drying beads” that are mixed with seeds to absorb moisture. In humid Central America, their use means much higher rates of unspoiled seed for the next planting season. Seeds of Hope supplied beads to each cooperative.

Having access to seeds and training has boosted the women’s confidence. Not only do they raise and sell vegetables, they have taken their businesses in new directions. Many of them, for example, now raise seedlings on an increasingly large scale to sell to other local farmers’ cooperatives.

“They continue to surprise me with their ingenuity,” says Nienhuis. With the new skills and international networks they have developed from Seeds of Hope, women’s cooperatives scattered across Central America are positioned for growing success.

Field Notes: Potato Exchange Benefits Peruvians

In the growing region around Puno, Peru, farmers hedge their bets.

Located 12,000 feet above sea level, on the side of an Andean mountain, Puno has a growing season that’s short, cool and prone to frost. The staple food of the area is potato, and local farmers plant dozens of different varieties on their plots—some that they relish for their flavor, as well as some less palatable, frost-tolerant types.

In good years everything grows well and families have plenty to eat. In bad years—when there is an unseasonable or particularly hard frost—their preferred plants fail, and they must rely on the small, bitter potatoes produced by the hardy survivors.

Soon, however, they will have a better option. For the past two growing seasons, farmers near Puno and in three Peruvian highland villages have participated in a project to grow and test frost-tolerant versions of their favorite local varieties, with great success.

These special potato plants were developed in Wisconsin by a team of CALS plant scientists and plant breeders using germplasm stored in the U.S. Potato Genebank, located in Sturgeon Bay.

“I think this is the first case where a potato developed in the U.S. has been accepted by local farmers in these communities in the Andes,” says project coordinator Alfonso del Rio, an associate scientist in the lab of John Bamberg. As an employee of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Bamberg serves as director of the U.S. Potato Genebank. He is also a professor of horticulture with CALS.

The plant materials used for the project, like the vast majority found in the U.S. Potato Genebank, were brought to the United States from the Andes, the potato’s site of origin. This makes the project a special opportunity for potato breeders in the United States to give something back.

“We’re interested in returning the benefits of our genebank to Peru and the broader Andean region because that’s the area that supplied our country with germplasm,” says Bamberg, who led the project’s breeding effort. Earlier work by CALS horticulture professor Jiwan Palta, the third member of the team, made modern marker-assisted breeding for frost tolerance possible.

To make the new potato lines, Bamberg took an exceptionally frost-tolerant wild relative of the potato family—a weed, basically—and crossed it with seven popular native Peruvian potato varieties to generate frost-tolerant versions of the native potato plants.

Although the new potato lines were originally meant to be added to Peru’s national potato breeding program as germplasm for further breeding, the farmers who were involved in the trials are eager to start growing some of them right away. And no wonder. This past growing season in Puno, after a late, hard frost, a few of the new frost-tolerant lines far outperformed the local varieties, yielding twice as many pounds of potato per plot.

The CALS team hopes these more dependable potato plants will help bolster Peru’s vulnerable rural communities.

“If the farmers could send part of their harvest to market, even 10 or 20 percent, they could have some money to invest in community development—in things like clinics, schools and libraries,” says del Rio.

“Highway Robbery” Has Far-Reaching Costs

In the busy port town of Tema, Ghana, the driver of a tanker truck of gasoline northbound for Bamako, Mali, loads a few dozen pineapples onto his rig and sets out for the distant capital city. His six-day drive will take him through 60 checkpoints, where he will pay about $200 in small bribes to police, customs and other officials, offering gifts of pineapples to speed his way through these delays.

In Madaoua, Niger, a southbound trucker bringing onions to the market in Accra, Ghana, will pay $580 in bribes along his 2,000-kilometer route and be delayed nearly six hours, adding $1,165 to his total transport costs.

Such stories are commonplace among thousands of drivers in West Africa for whom bribes are simply the cost of doing business. But taken as a whole, this form of petty corruption does a lot of damage to the region’s economy.

Professor and UW-Extension specialist Jeremy Foltz and professor Dan Bromley, both from the CALS Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, used a unique data set compiled by USAID teams to put some numbers on it.

Analyzing detailed surveys of more than 1,500 long-haul truckers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, including data on amounts and collectors of bribes, Bromley and Foltz estimate that corruption costs—focusing on losses from time delays and bribes paid—add 15 to 30 percent to the cost of transporting food
and other products to and from markets in the region.

Foltz became interested in the topic when his own car was stopped by bribe-seeking police during his Fulbright fellowship in Mali a few years ago. “Bribe-taking at highway checkpoints is widespread,” Foltz says. “Because it appears that the profits are shared all the way up the chain of command, it’s immune to quick policy fixes.”

Such corruption hurts the economy in far-reaching ways. At stake, Foltz and Bromley say, are prices paid to farmers growing products for export to distant markets. With increased transport costs eating into profits, farmers gradually abandon certain crops such as cashew trees that grow well on marginal lands and prevent soil erosion.

“The issue here is that net returns suffer, agricultural investments are necessarily delayed, yields fall, and soon attentive management is not worth the trouble,” they wrote in an article for Natural Resources Forum. “Fields and specific crops are left unattended. Tree crops are ignored or ripped out. Economic malaise sets in. Sustainability suffers.”

But the damage doesn’t end there. “Petty corruption of the type we are studying has a more deleterious effect on private investment than larger-scale government corruption,” says Foltz. “African countries have some of the lowest levels of foreign investment in the world and can ill afford to perpetuate a system that hampers growth even more than taxation.”

Foltz and Bromley are now focusing on understanding the structures, incentives and constraints to corruption, with the goal of providing information to policy makers and others seeking to eliminate this important barrier to development.

The outbreak of violent warfare in the region has not made their work any easier—or less needed.

“We’re studying the impact of new anti-corruption policies in Ghana and also how civil conflicts affect corruption,” says Foltz. “For example, in the recent conflict in Ivory Coast, rebel militias funded their operations in part by extorting bribes that were three or four times higher than normal. In Mali, rebels have used kidnapping and drug smuggling to raise money.”

Better Barns for Dairy

Gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 left the tiny nation of Moldova with plenty of barns and other structures from former collective farms—but not enough money or expertise to catch up with modern agricultural practices.

In recent years, however, capital has been flowing into Moldova’s dairy industry—and with it, a desire to upgrade old Soviet facilities. Most of them consist of tie stall barns housing a maximum of about 100 cows each, and milking is done with bucket milkers. Between securing, feeding and milking the cows, such facilities require significantly more labor than the freestall barns and milking parlors commonly used in the United States and elsewhere.

That’s where CALS can help. Biological systems engineering professor and UW-Extension specialist Brian Holmes recently spent two weeks in Moldova under the auspices of CNFA, a nonprofit that focuses on rural economic growth in developing countries. Holmes visited four dairy farms and provided hands-on training and presentations on everything from building ventilation, freestall barn arrangements and milking parlor design to feed
storage and manure management.

Because capital is still limited, dairy farmers often have to make decisions based on thriftiness rather than on labor efficiency or the benefit of the cow, Holmes says. Upgrades often come through remodeling existing facilities rather than building new ones—and therein lies the challenge.

But Holmes was able to provide options that farmers can put into practice even under resource constraints. “Producers who implement these recommendations should expect to see improved animal performance, reduced labor costs, improved profits and improved environmental protection,” Holmes says.

Sudden change in how a society is governed does not necessarily result in sudden change in how people behave, Holmes observes. “The old ways and ‘the way we’ve always done things’ persists for extended periods,” he says.

For example, some of his recommendations require farmers to think in new ways about animal care.

“A classic situation is to convince the dairy operator that the prefabricated concrete sidewall panels should be removed for good summer ventilation and to use curtains to close the sidewalls in winter,” says Holmes. “There’s a strong belief that cold temperatures are detrimental to cows and that they should be kept warm in winter.”

There’s still much work to be done in the former Soviet Union, and not just in Moldova, Holmes says—and he’s ready to keep doing his part. Earlier this year he traveled to Belarus and worked with dairy farmers who had very similar needs and goals.

Sloths Thrive at Chocolate Source

Like many and much more nimble Neotropical fauna, sloths are running out of room to maneuver.

As forests in South America and Central America are cleared for agriculture and other human uses, populations of these arboreal leaf eaters, which depend on large trees for both food and refuge, can become isolated and at risk. But one type of sustainable agriculture, shade-grown cacao plantations, could become critical refuges and bridges between intact forests for the iconic animals.

In Costa Rica, CALS forestry and wildlife ecology professors Jonathan Pauli and Zach Peery are using a complex of intact tropical forest, pasture, and banana and pineapple plantations—all connected by a large, shade-grown cacao farm—as a field laboratory to explore the ecology of two species of sloths in a rapidly changing environment.

“We know a lot about sloth physiology,” says Pauli. “But when it comes to sloth ecology and behavior, we know almost nothing. It’s a giant black box.”

But some of that mystery is being peeled away as studies of both the brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth, two common species, are yielding new insights into their mating habits and how the animals navigate the landscape.

The fact that sloths require forested habitat and are sedentary makes them vulnerable to deforestation, says Peery. “Once a tract of tropical forest has been cleared, sloths have relatively little capacity to seek out new habitats.”

But the shade-grown cacao plantation, with its tall trees and network of cables for moving the pods that ultimately become chocolate, seems to be a de facto refuge and transit hub.

“Because of the diverse overstory of native trees, the cacao farm appears to provide excellent habitat for both species of sloths,” explains Peery. “We want to compare sloth populations in cacao to populations in intact tropical forests to see if cacao provides habitat that is of as high a quality as their natural forests.”

Fleshing out those ecological parameters, however, requires a better basic understanding of sloth behavior, knowledge the CALS researchers are now beginning to accumulate.

For example, in a study recently published in Animal Behavior, Pauli and Peery described the mating system of Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths and showed that, unlike many other animals, the females tend to disperse from their home range and that the breeding territories of males can slightly overlap, with males tolerating competitors on the fringes but excluding them, sometimes violently, from the core. And Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths of both sexes seem to have multiple partners as well. “They’re more promiscuous than previously thought,” says Pauli. “We see a much more flexible system of multiple matings.”

That’s not so for the three-toed sloth. In another study, published in PLoS ONE in December, they found that three-toed sloths are strongly polygynous—males exclude other male competitors and mate with many females.

In addition to contributing to basic sloth knowledge, these findings should help wildlife and land managers in the Neotropics make sound decisions to better balance development and conservation.

“Understanding how shade-grown agriculture can benefit sensitive tropical animals such as sloths is highly relevant, considering the ongoing and rapid loss of biodiversity in the Neotropics,” notes Pauli. “What kinds of ecological services can these already altered landscapes provide? Can we mitigate future biodiversity loss with a greater emphasis on shade-grown agricultural systems than crops grown in monocultures? That’s the future we’re facing.”

Because of their sedentary nature and dependence on forest, sloths can be viewed as an “umbrella species,” says Peery. “Protecting sloths could indirectly protect many other animal species in tropical forests that are harder to measure and study.”

More water for the desert—and beyond

Qatar’s reserves of oil and natural gas make it one of the richest countries in the world—except when it comes to water. The desert nation is notably low on water, and what little it has often is salty.

So when CALS biological systems engineering professor Krishnapuram “KG” Karthikeyan was offered the chance to spend two and a half years at Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar campus in Doha evaluating innovative water treatment techniques and helping to establish an environmental sciences program, he jumped at the opportunity.

“In Wisconsin, my focus has mostly been on water quality issues. There, where water is scarce, I could focus on water quantity and how to make the best use of existing resources,” says Karthikeyan, who returned to Madison this fall.

Desalinating water so that it can be used for drinking and irrigation usually requires expensive equipment and a lot of energy. Karthikeyan’s research—conducted in partnership with UW–Madison civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Anderson and others—focuses on capacitive deionization (CDI), an emerging method of removing salts and minerals from water by applying an electric field between carbon electrodes. The latest generation of CDI technology that Karthikeyan and Anderson’s group tested proved efficient for use in desalination and capable of reducing operational costs—in fact, it can easily be coupled with a solar energy source, a readily available commodity in Qatar. Karthikeyan believes the new technology could lead to the development of low-cost, energy-efficient inland desalination systems—a leap that would have implications well beyond Qatar.

“Not all arid countries are rich like Qatar,” notes Karthikeyan. “They don’t have the money to desalinate water from the Persian Gulf or other sources. You have to keep pushing the envelope looking for low-cost, low-energy methods.”

While in Qatar, Karthikeyan also began exploring the long-term effects of using treated wastewater for growing crops, research he will continue in Madison in collaboration with CALS soil science professor Joel Pedersen. “Water reuse is going to be of growing importance universally,” says Karthikeyan. “It’s already an issue in the southwestern United States and in southern California—and it will become more important in Wisconsin as well.”

Karthikeyan also took water issues into the classroom, where he taught non-science students—mostly business, computer science and information technology majors—how the environment, engineering and society are related.

“Getting non-science majors excited about topics like water management is important,” Karthikeyan says. “Linking water and food production helped them see an economically important connection. With climate change issues at the forefront, these topics are very timely, and as future entrepreneurs, these business students will play a significant role in their future companies and raise awareness among their colleagues.”