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UMaine Today Magazine


Michael Kinnison’s lab is exploring eco-evolutionary questions using Trinidadian guppies, part of a large NSF Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) project involving 12 universities and the U.S. Geological Survey.Michael Kinnison’s lab is exploring eco-evolutionary questions using Trinidadian guppies, part of a large NSF Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) project involving 12 universities and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Michael Kinnison's lab is exploring eco-evolutionary questions using Trinidadian guppies, part of a large NSF Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) project involving 12 universities and the U.S. Geological Survey.

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The eco-evolution race

In Australia, snakes have evolved in order to coexist with invasive, toxic cane toads. Elsewhere on the planet, researchers have found plants with an evolved tolerance to heavy metals, and zooplankton that have evolved in order to survive on nutritionally poor cyanobacteria growing in polluted water.

The ability of such populations to evolve in response to environmental pressures threatening their existence is clear. But what determines how and when a population will be rescued from extinction by such contemporary evolution — adaptive changes occurring within a human life span?
The answer can be found in the study of eco-evolutionary dynamics, according to biologists Michael Kinnison of the University of Maine and Nelson Hairston of Cornell University, writing in Functional Ecology, the journal of the British Ecological Society.

Historically, evolution has often been considered too slow to be relevant to the ecological processes underlying extinction and conservation biology. Recent recognition of widespread evolution in contemporary time, spear-headed by earlier work by Kinnison, has begun to overturn this perception and open the door to a new synthesis of evolution's role in ecology. Instead of the usual focus on trait evolution that characterizes most studies of evolution, the study of eco-evolutionary dynamics considers how ongoing evolution influences population abundance, the interactions of species, and even the ways that nutrients and energy move through ecosystems.

In conservation biology, human impacts on environments and species that drive population declines also often impose strong selection for adaptations that may help species recover. In this respect, conservation problems may often constitute an eco-evolutionary race between the factors causing declines and the ability of species to sufficiently adapt to those changing conditions. Kinnison and Hairston believe this perspective encourages a broader scientific focus, going beyond the acute problems of imperiled populations and growing invasions to consider the complex mechanics that allow some populations to succeed while so many others fail.

In the winds of war

The high density of depleted uranium (DU) makes it ideal for the manufacture of military armor plating and armor-piercing munitions. However, the dust that results from explosions and fires involving equipment made with DU is becoming an international health concern for military personnel and civilians.

DU is less radioactive than the natural metal, but it is a suspected human carcinogen, affecting the bronchial cells of the lung through inhalation of particles.

Scientists at the University of Southern Maine and University of Maine recently conducted one of the first studies of the clastogenicity (chromosomal damage) of particulate and soluble DU in human bronchial cells. They found that DU dust particles did cause toxic and DNA-altering effects in human lung cells, comparable to those caused by other carcinogenic metals. Soluble DU was found to be toxic to cells, but did not damage the chromosomes.

Further research will focus on epithelial cells to determine DU's ability to cause lung disease or tumors.

The researchers' findings were re-ported in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, published by the American Chemical Society.

Digital access

This fall, the first copies of Fogler Library's newly digitized out-of-print books are available to patrons throughout Maine via the library's online catalog and to the public through

In a large-scale project to digitize public domain titles, including rare books, the University of Maine, Toronto Public Library, Cincinnati Public Library and Emory University partnered earlier this year with BookSurge,'s print-on-demand service, and Kirtas Technologies, the manufacturer of automated book scanning systems.

The collaboration and cutting-edge technology provide greater access to materials once only available on-site to patrons researching in the libraries' special collections. Digitalization also is a strategic preservation effort for leading libraries nationwide.

Fogler Library and the Maine State Library are collaborating in the project to digitize such out-of-print and rare materials as UMaine publications, historical Maine town reports, local histories, and documents relating to Wabanaki peoples.

Ultimately, the scanned titles will be available to be read online (with full text search capability) or downloaded by URSUS users. Low-cost, bound copies will be sold through BookSurge, with a portion of the proceeds being recouped by the libraries to cover the expense of digitalization.

"This project will dramatically enhance our ability to support research in history, the social sciences, the environment, genealogy, and on various public policy issues," says Fogler Library Dean Joyce Rumery. "It will also make a significant contribution toward our goal of making our holdings available to all Maine residents."

Theories about the North Woods debate

Institutional change theories applied to the extensive discussions of the 1994 proposal to create a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve shed light on why the debates were so heated and immovable, according to a University of Maine business professor and an economist.

Associate Professor of Management Stephanie Welcomer and Mark Haggerty, who teaches in the Honors College, examined several hundred public records from newspapers and journal articles on the proposed 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. They studied the extensive data set using principles of institutional adjustment, including those of the 20th-century institutional economic theorist J. Fagg Foster.

In particular, the UMaine researchers found that three of Foster's principles — technological determination, recognized interdependence and minimal dislocation —- made discourse especially difficult on the proposal by the group RESTORE: The North Woods.

The principle of technological determination hinges on "reliable knowledge" for problem solving. According to the UMaine researchers, sources of debate included conflicting projections for the wood products industry. In addition, local communities and state officials did not believe the economic studies commissioned by RESTORE.

Welcomer and Haggerty found that Maine communities experienced more security by maintaining the status quo of the North Woods than by investigating an alternative "perceived as too much of a threat to the traditional way of life."

The principle of recognized interdependence basically requires a community to agree to alter behavior or attitude. But in the case of the Maine North Woods Park, local communities viewed the proposal as coming from outsiders and involving federal regulation.

Under Foster's principle of minimal dislocation, widespread change in the institution is perceived as difficult to accomplish.

"In this case, the park is perceived to change a way of life: culture, economic livelihood, community makeup, traditions and recreation," wrote Welcomer and Haggerty in the Journal of Economic Issues. "It is understandable that such fundamental change would be opposed."

Insight Lite: Lobster dollars

The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine has compiled an economic snapshot of Maine's lobster industry. Among the facts and figures:

  • The estimated overall economic impact of the lobster fishery on the Maine economy is between $816 million and $1.36 billion annually.

  • In 2006, Maine lobstermen landed more than 66 million pounds of lobster, valued at more than $272 million. That's about $4.12 per pound.

  • Maine had 7,259 licensed lobstermen in 2005. Most (1,523 lobstermen) fish in Maine Lobster Management Zone D, from the mouth of the Penobscot River to Pemaquid. The next largest concentration of Maine lobstermen trap in Zone A, from Schoodic Point to the Canadian border.

  • Active lobstermen are involved in the industry an average of 31 years, holding a commercial lobster license or permit an average of 28 years, according to the Lobster Socioeconomic Impact Survey, released by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in 2006.

Priming inequality

According to the widely held American Dream, anyone can get ahead — attain status and garner rewards — if he or she is talented and works hard. But that same merit-based ideology also can lead people to psychologically justify status inequalities, according to two social psychologists at the University of Maine and University of California - Santa Barbara.

In two studies, researchers Shannon McCoy and Brenda Major found that the pervasive merit-based belief system in American culture can cause individuals to engage in system-justifying responses to personal and group disadvantage when rejected by someone of perceived higher status. As a result, even in the face of clear inequality, members of low status groups may be encouraged to construe personal and group disadvantage as deserved, and to minimize the perception that such disadvantage is due to discrimination.

In one study, women who were primed with merit-based messages (i.e. effort leads to prosperity) blamed themselves more often than discrimination when a man rejected them for a higher-status job in favor of a male. Men in the same study who were similarly primed with meritocracy blamed their rejection by a woman in favor of a female as much on discrimination as on themselves.

In a second experiment of college-age women, those primed with merit-based messages who then read an article about sexism endorsed system-justifying stereotypes (i.e. men on average are more decisive than women) more than those who did not receive meritocracy prompts or who read about prejudice against an ethnic group. They also self-stereotyped, rating themselves significantly higher in traits pertaining to warmth than to competence.

Regulating invasives

Invasive terrestrial plants are a major issue in Maine and their sales should be regulated, according to two opinion surveys conducted by University of Maine researchers.

Recently compiled results of the surveys, one set from members of the state's green industry and another from University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, found widespread support for collaboration to develop invasive plant regulations.

When asked about the role the green industry should play in the sale of invasives, more than 36 percent of the Master Gardeners who responded to the survey said businesses should not be allowed to sell any plants known to be invasive in Maine. Nearly 38 percent of the green industry members said businesses should be allowed to sell invasive plants, but should be required to provide customers and clients with information about how to manage them.

The survey, initiated last fall, was followed in May by a mandate from the Maine legislature for the state's Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources to convene a stakeholder group to assess the danger invasives pose to natural ecosystems.

The mandate is widely viewed as a first step toward the regulation of such plants, according to the authors of the survey — Lois Stack of UMaine Cooperative Extension; Donglin Zhang, Department of Plant, Soil and Environmental Sciences; and Mary Rumpho, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology.

Speaking ESL

A $1.5 million, five-year grant to the University of Maine will better prepare Maine teachers to work with a growing number of students just learning or still perfecting their English language skills.

The U.S. Department of Education Title III grant will enable research and teacher training in English as a Second Language (ESL). The program being created through the grant also is expected to sensitize teachers to the diverse and specific educational needs of a range of students who bring cultural, language and significant religious differences to the classroom.

Maine schools now have more than 3,000 children and young adults who speak Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Serb-Croatian, Somali, Sudanese, Russian, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy or American Sign languages, according to the Maine Department of Education. To accommodate that growing number of students, the population of ESL-trained teachers in Maine is growing exponentially.

While the classroom focus for multicultural students typically has been on learning English, students should be encouraged to retain their native languages, where so much of their cultural identity is reflected, according to the program's codirectors.

"By allowing them to lose their native language, we're impoverishing the state of Maine and its ability to become a player in a global economy," says Gisela Hoecherl-Alden, an associate professor of German and a codirector of the program with Laura Lindenfeld, a research assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism, and in UMaine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.


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