Guest post: Interpreting Lemurs

Chris Smith was one of the first people I met in Raleigh. He showed up at the hotel in a big van, carrying a clipboard with a list of 20 names.  

Chris and I had been talking before. We had discussed Sci-Ed projects via email. We chatted over a Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy. I even made pushy requests (e.g., can I follow you around with a camera and microphone?), to which he consented with shy enthusiasm.

 That clipboard list of 20 names included mine. Chris took the group of 19 and I to a tour of the Duke Lemur Center. But it was on the tour that I witnessed a transformation in our host. Something about his tone of voice, posture, and eye contact had changed. Chris had morphed into a confident, lemur-authority science interpreter. 

Atop the tallest pine tree, Kizzy sat poised and tense. Then, like a skydiver jumping from a plane, she leapt from the branches. Arms and legs outstretched, she crashed through the tangle and landed with a big bear hug onto a small limb below. Black and white ruffed lemurs are not the most graceful of lemurs.

If you read Sci-Ed regularly, then we’ve met. I was the guide and narrator of Cristina’s Lemur Week videos (Part I and Part II). I work at the Duke Lemur Center, the world’s largest collection of lemurs outside of their native Madagascar. The Center houses over 250 animals on 70 acres in Durham, NC. I serve as the education specialist, and it’s my job to introduce people to the world of lemurs. I take small groups of visitors on guided tours of the facilities. Our goal is to get them close to the lemurs so they can see why lemurs are so special.

kizzy_r2
Kizzy, the black and white lemur, leaping through the forest. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

That morning, the tour group and I had been in the forested free-range enclosures for only a few minutes before the lemurs descended. As we watched Kizzy and her four sons come crashing down, I talked to the group about the lemurs who roam free in the forest. Lemurs are primates – the most ancient primates on Earth, in fact. Evolved more than 60 million years ago, lemurs found themselves in isolated Madagascar and over time adapted into more than 80 unique species, with characteristics and behaviors all their own. Today, lemurs are considered the most endangered group of mammals on the planet. More than 90% of all species are threatened with extinction. Some could disappear in as few a ten years.  Now surrounding us, the lemurs furiously clamored for their treats as the keeper tossed crunchy chow around. I took the opportunity to talk about the diet, foraging behavior and social interactions between lemurs. The visitors smiled, laughed and gasped while these ruffed lemurs ate, jumped, and squabbled over food.

A science interpreter facilitates learning

The role of an interpreter (that’s me) is to reveal the “awesome.” Interpretation in museums or zoos goes beyond reciting facts. It’s about building an emotional connection with the audience. Interpretation done well meets the audience intellectually and provokes their own curiosity. It’s a way of communicating that involves connecting the visitor to the resource through the experience. The goal is to promote action on the part of the participant: to learn more, share what they’ve learned with others or take action directly on the issue.

At the Lemur Center, I try to get visitors as close to the animals as possible while highlighting the different aspects of lemurs’ lives, research and conservation. When the blue-eyed black lemur stares at visitors, guests often comment on the beauty of the lemur’s blazing blue eyes. I can use that as a perfect opportunity. Only 4 primate species have individuals with blue eyes (one of them is humans), but only in blue-eyed black lemurs do each individual possess this trait. They’re also critically endangered, and their unique genetic distinction could disappear forever due to habitat loss. The Duke Lemur Center houses the only two breeding females in captivity.

Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.
Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.

The combination of fluffy, bright-eyed animals and a knowledgeable guide is magic for guest experience and education. Ballantyne et al. (2007) studied the impacts of different animal exhibits and interpretation schemes at zoos and found that when guests can see an active animal and they have someone to easily explain what they’re seeing, guests learn more. Interpretive programs have been shown to positively influence environmental awareness and conservation action in visitors to natural heritage sites (Zeppell 2008). These effects were discussed in Sci-Ed previously, here, here and here.

I conducted my own little research project at the Lemur Center and asked a few people about their experiences on the forest tour. Why did they visit? What did they like? What do they remember most? In the course of my conversations, no one would really own up to having learned anything. Still, they were able to tell me many lemur stories, including ring-tailed lemur stink fights, aye-ayes with rodent-like incisors, or a ruffed lemur’s loud, barking call. Guests were receiving information, but the emotional response to seeing the animals up close made them receptive to the information.

Kizzy and her family withdrew to the treetops to sunbathe. As I lead the guests out of the forest, they continue to ask me questions and talk about the experience. We still have more lemurs to meet, and I have more information to share. I’ll see their pictures on Instagram later in the afternoon – a sure sign:  they’ll be lemur lovers for life.

References

  1. Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. R. Ballantyne, J. Packer, K. Hughes, L. Dierking. Environmental Education Research, Vol. 13, Iss. 3, 2007

  2. Education and Conservation Benefits of Marine Wildlife Tours: Developing Free-Choice Learning Experiences. Heather Zeppel, The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol. 39, Iss. 3, 2008


 

Featured image: A black blue-eyed lemur. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

Do lemurs like to move it-move it? (video)

Lemurs had their 15 minutes of fame, back when DreamWork’s Madagascar came out in 2005. This year it’s time for IMAX Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to shine a spotlight on this primates.

We discussed before how nature documentaries influence the public’s understanding of science, and mostly increase the general public’s science literacy. Which is why I was curious to test the effect of the Madagascar movie: what did it teach the general public? Did it result in the public’s new understanding of lemurs? During my visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I had the perfect opportunity to find out. During  the 40 minute car ride, I asked acting driver and education specialist Chris Smith. And here’s what he told me:

This is the second installment of our participation on Lemur Week. For Part I, click here.

Sci-Ed joins Lemur Week (video)

Their ghostly eyes are lovely windows to their souls.

Lemurs are primates – they have long tails, tree-climbing hands, and incredible curiosity. At least that’s what I encountered on my visit to the Duke Lemur Center (sponsored by Owen Software). Education specialist Chris Smith led me on an amazing tour. See below:

The Duke Lemur Center offers tours, similar to the one above. Their goal is to raise funds for research (Smith estimated that 10% of the center’s funds come from tours). Most of all, the center aims to educate the public and raise awareness about lemur conservation. And it seems to pay off: in 2013, they received 18,000 visitors (5,000 more than a previous record-breaking year). In addition to tours, the educational department is expanding to bring in even younger visitors, so conservation education can start earlier. The Duke Lemur Center now has a “primates for pre-schoolers program” for kids ages 3-5, and a “leaping lemurs summer science camp” for 6th and 8th graders from all over the country. For the grown-ups, there’s an “evening with the experts” with such curious topics as “are you smarter than a lemur?”.

Come back Wednesday for another video on Duke Lemur Center, when we’ll explore some of Chris Smith’s strategies when talking lemur science to the public.

The Biggest Sci-Ed Stories of 2013

As 2013 comes to an end, it’s a time for reflection and thought about the last year, and look towards to the future. 2013 was quite the year in science, with impressive discoveries and wide reaching events. I’ve selected my five favourite science stories below, but I welcome your thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts on the top science stories of 2013.

GoldieBlox and Diversity in Science
This isn’t a new issue by any stretch, but it is one of the most important issues facing science (and higher education in general). Diversity in science is essential for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly, it gives us different perspectives on problems, and thus, new and novel solutions. Within the scientific establishment, there have been many stories about discrimination and inappropriate conduct (see SciCurious’ excellent series of posts on the matter, including posts by friends of the blog @RimRK and @AmasianV), and, unfortunately there are no easy solutions.

Perhaps the biggest diversity-related story this year was GoldieBlox. While initially this started as a media darling (who didn’t love the video?), further examination revealed deep-set problems in how they chose to approach the issue of gender representation in STEM disciplines.

There is a lot of change required to reach equality in science careers and to ensure that people are judged and given opportunities based on their work, not their privilege. Lets hope that in 2014 we can start the ball rolling on that change.

Fracking and Energy
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is a way by which natural gas is extracted from shale or coal beds deep in the ground. This is done by pumping millions of gallons of pressurized, chemically-treated water into the ground, which breaks up the rocks and allows the gas to escape and be collected at the surface. There are large deposits of gas stored in this manner throughout the Northeastern United States and Easten/Atlantic Canada, and, as you can imagine, the economic incentives to extract this gas are huge. In fact, the Hon. Craig Leonard, Minister of Energy and Mines in New Brunswick said:

Based on U.S. Department of Energy statistics, 15 trillion cubic feet of gas is enough to heat every home in New Brunswick for the next 630 years.

Or if used to generate electricity, it could supply all of New Brunswick’s residential, commercial and industrial needs for over 100 years.

In other words, it has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage to our province.

These economic benefits, however, have to be considered along with potential risks that come along with pumping gallons of water into the ground. The most apparent is how fracking requires an excessive amount of water, which could negatively impact other industries. In addition, this treated water could potentially open cracks into underground water supplies, contaminating our drinking water supply. Finally, what do we do with this water once it’s been used – how do we dispose of it safely and efficiently? These are all concerns that need to be addressed, along with other environmental issues that may arise. There’s no doubt that we need to plan for energy independence, and a way to revitalize your economy is a benefit no politician (or citizen) would like to pass up. However, we have to think long term and plan for the future.

Typhoon Haiyan and Global Warming
Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, killing an estimated 6,111 people in the Philippines alone and doing over USD$1.5 billion in damage. Currently, over 4.4 million are homeless – which is almost the population of the Phoenix metro area (4.3 million from their 2010 Census), or the entire population of New Zealand (4.2 million from their 2013 Census). While the immediate threat has passed, there are now other problems arising. Many of the victims remain unburied, and sanitation remains an important concern to prevent outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and other communicable diseases.

Typhoon Haiyan highlights what we can expect with global warming. While the general understanding is that global warming will simply lead to warmer temperatures, that is not entirely true. A “side effect” suggests that we are more likely to see extreme weather events, which include typhoons and tropical storms.

Politics impacting Science and the US Sequester
The US sequester had long reaching implications for federal scientists. For those who rely on seasonal fieldwork, this could have eliminated a full year of research, while those who were reliant on grants being submitted for this season had to reschedule research priorities. However, the effects aren’t limited to this calendar year. From this article in The Atlantic:

It’s not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting — or worse, halting — basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

It remains to be seen how the effects of the sequester play out. How long the effects last, and whether the US research industry simply stumbles or falls down, are still up in the air.

Commander Chris Hadfield and Science Communication
It’s no secret that I think Chris Hadfield is an amazing science communicator. His videos in space, the way he engaged with youth, and his approach to science in a “this is awesome” sense captured the imagination of the world while he was up in the International Space Station. His personality and enthusiasm for science continued once he landed back on Earth, and he recently released his first book. When it comes to issues around communicating science, one that I feel quite strongly about is that we need more science communicators. We have a few – Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and such. But we need others, and Chris Hadfield helps show the breadth of scientific discovery, and his personality and enthusiasm for science make him a great ambassador for science to young and old alike.

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Finally, us at PLOS Sci-Ed are now celebrating our first birthday. Since we launched last year, we’ve had over 180,000 visits and hope to continue growing in the future. A sincere thank you to the PLOS blogs community manager Victoria Costello for her constant support, and finally, a heart felt thank you to all our readers. We hope you continue to comment and share our work with your networks.

So these are my choices for the biggest science stories of 2013. What are yours?

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, consider reading The Biggest Public Health Stories of 2013, over on PLOS Public Health Perspectives!

Why is climate change education important to our health?

“Even if climate change isn’t real [but we know it is], aren’t the benefits of cleaner air, water and land worth all the effort put towards cleaner energy, reduced resource use and all general “green” practices?”  I can’t remember where I first heard this, or the exact quote, but it makes one think.  As much as this concern is about nature and ecology, it also has direct and indirect consequences on human health, as well.

 

Let me count the ways…

The following resources are just a few that describe how climate change will affect our health, and the fourth contains interviews with people around the world about how the changing climate has affected them.

Environmental Protection Agency

The Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health

World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization (Especially if you like maps and charts)

Practical Action (Global climate change interviews)

In summary, the above links break down into direct and indirect consequences of climate change, including diseases (malaria and cholera), extreme weather events (storms and heat waves), pollution of air and water (ground level ozone), and food security.

The World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organizations co-published a report on how change will affect human health.
The World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization co-published a report on how climate change will affect human health.

 

Where does it fit?

At great risk of contradicting what I wrote in a previous post, Rolling your eyes at climate change education, I see this as a subject that fits well into a number of standard middle school (ages 11-14) and high school (ages 14-18) level classes — in addition to earth science, health and biology seem obvious fits.  However, any climate change education in formal or informal environments needs to be to the point, and not overbearing, as many students are already exposed to climate change on a regular basis.  For teachers it may be too much to continue adding content to an already bursting-at-the-seems curriculum, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find this topic in every district.

If it doesn’t make its way into school, where else does it fit?  As hot a topic as it is, news outlets provide pieces here and there, as do educational networks such as Discovery Channel or National Geographic, with entire specials dedicated to climate change.  It’s hard to hide from climate change education, formally or informally.

 

Why do we learn about climate change?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if climate change education is making a difference.  Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising despite advances in technology, and we regularly witness, and sometimes participate in, practices that are not the most environmentally friendly.

Albeit many people do make conscious decisions to mitigate climate change in a small, personal way, but if not to “fix” climate change, are we only learning about how it will affect our health in order to prepare for the changes ahead?  Malaria in new areas, more super-storms, drought and heat waves, floods, food security threats – just a sample of what is in store for us in the future.  Scientists are predicting which areas and populations will be greatest affected in the near and far off future.  The most well known, and one of the earliest, of these predictions is probably forecasting which cities or states are going to become underwater with sea level rise.  And most people are at least somewhat aware of more frequent heat waves.

The maps show the number of days per year with peak temperatures above 90°F from 1961 to 1979 and projected for 2080 to 2099. By 2100, north Florida is projected to experience more than 165 days per year (over six months) over 90°F. Source: USGCRP (2009)
The maps show the number of days per year with peak temperatures above 90°F from 1961 to 1979 and projected for 2080 to 2099. By 2100, north Florida is projected to experience more than 165 days per year (over six months) over 90°F.  Source: USGCRP (2009)

 

The fruit of our efforts is still to come

The bright side is knowing that climate change education as we know it is less than 10 years old.  I never learned about it in school (I graduated high school in 2000) and I would presume that nearly all adults about my age and older did not grow up with climate change as part of their upbringing – and we’re the ones driving the world right now.  In another 15 or 25 years I would expect that those becoming young adults and professionals will finally be able to act upon all of their years of climate education and realize that their actions have consequences, whether they affect them directly or indirectly.  Then we will see if we are only learning about climate change to prepare, or to “fix” it, too.

 

Can you worry about an animal you’ve never seen? The role of the zoo in education and conservation.

Update: twitter readers have contributed cases where captive breeding programs have saved species from extinction, and have (or are in the process of) released animals back to the wild. Many zoos also hold the last remaining animals of their species. Examples of successful conservation cases include (but are not limited to): Ozark hellbender: salamander, Houston toad, Kihansi spray toad, Socorro doves, Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon, Arnold’s giant tortoise, California condor, and the previously mentioned golden lion tamarin and  black-footed ferret.

“He had black fur and a horn on his head,” my sister said. She came to DC for a few weeks and spent many afternoons visiting our local zoo. After one of those visits,  she hurried to Google Chat to report that a big tall bird was chasing her behind the fence of his enclosure. My sister described the bird as having long fur-like feathers and a horn. She has never seen anything like that before and was genuinely curious. She was familiar with the belligerent bird’s neighbors, the rheas (ratite birds like ostriches and extinct moas). Rheas are native to South America, as are we, and we’ve seen them before while growing up in south Brazil. “Mystery bird” was about to become a perfect example of zoo education.

Rhea at the National Zoo. Photo credit: Rory Harper.

What justifies the existence of zoos? Questioning the goals of zoos.
The role of the zoo has evolved to prioritize research, education, and conservation. Some people still condemn the existence of zoos based on zoo’s past life of pure entertainment. It is true that zoos started as menageries and amusement parks, but they have come a long way since the late 1800s. Currently, laws protect wild animals and guarantee their welfare (e.g., Animal Welfare Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act). Accreditation bodies make sure zoos and aquariums offer great care for their animals.

The field of animal research  benefits from zoo experience. Zoo keepers, researchers, and vets have learned a lot about animal care as zoos evolved. Improvements in husbandry have led to increased longevity of animals in captivity. In his book At Home in the Zoo, published in 1961 and covering the previous thirty years on the Manchester Zoo, Gerald Iles mentions that “animals which were once either difficult or impossible to keep in captivity are not only thriving but breeding. Longevity records are constantly being broken.”

Zoos have an essential role in conservation. Back in the 60’s, Iles already said that “…the animals of Africa have been reduced by 80% within the last hundred years… and 600 species of animals are tottering on the brink of extinction.” Currently, zoos have their own breeding programs to help in cases of dwindling populations. All efforts in captive breeding have led to increased research. Like author Jake Page put it, “many zoos have become places of rigorous scientific research… coupled with an active effort not just to preserve in captivity those creatures that are endangered in the wild, but… to understand, save, and replenish unique natural habitats.” Besides breeding endangered animals (e.g. the successful golden lion tamarin breeding program, or the black-footed ferret breeding program), zoos are also investing in displaying less popular animals.

Still, there are many people and organizations out there who dislike or choose not to believe in this new role of the zoo. People like Peter Batten, who in his book Living Trophies states that “primary reasons for zoo use are only remotely connected with learning.”

Do Zoos actually educate?
A study at the Edinburgh Zoo tracks visitors who enter a primate exhibit ‘Living Links to Human Evolution Research Centre’ in the Edinburgh Zoo. The exhibit is outfitted with a behavioral research center, and on many occasions researchers are present and working with the primates. The study aimed to determine if watching the researchers had any impact on visitor experience.

Behavioral researchers at Primate Research Center, Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Bowler et.al, 2012

The study followed visitors and measured their dwell time in the primate exhibit, in the presence and absence of primate researchers. They found that visitor dwell time increased in correlation to presence of researchers. Bowler and colleagues claim that “…parents were often seen explaining the research to their children … what was happening in the research room.” But are visitors simply drawn by the “activity” (as opposed to passive viewing)? How do we know if the research observation is translated in education?

Another study aimed to identify the effect of animal demonstrations and of interpreters (the docent equivalent in zoos and aquariums). With a similar approach, Anderson et al. followed visitors and measured dwell time on Zoo Atlanta’s Asian small-clawed otter exhibit. In this study, researchers also surveyed visitors before and after they entered the exhibit. The survey attempted to find out if visitors’ perceptions of otters changed after their visit. Did they actually learn?

Zookeepers and interpreters were present in the otter exhibit. They talked to the public about the otters, and showed their natural behaviors through demonstrations (see section about demonstrations below). Some visitors were offered a sea otter demonstration, a demonstration accompanied by interpretation (albeit read from a script), and some were not offered demonstration or interpretation (i.e. signs only). The study attempted to measure the effects of interpreters, animal demonstrations, and signs on visitor learning. They determined that the visitors spent an average of two minutes  passively strolling the exhibit (i.e. with signs only and no human presence), compared with six minutes when animal demonstration was taking place, and eight minutes for animal demonstration plus interpreter. The survey results indicate that visitors preferred to watch the demonstrations. By comparing pre- and post-visit questionnaires, researchers believe that “visitors attending an animal demonstration retained large amounts of the content material weeks after having attended the animal demonstration.”

sea lion and keeper in the training demonstration. Keeper has a whistle and a bucket of fish for rewards. Sea lion is rewarded when she shows her flipper for inspection (for example, during a vet exam). Photo credit: Rory Harper.

Aren’t animal demonstrations just entertainment in disguise?

Most zoos offer animal demonstrations. I had a chance to watch sea lions on their training sessions. The zookeepers bring two of the animals out, while the public lines up to watch. The demonstration is in fact a training session for the sea lions: keepers reward the animals for certain behaviors, like rolling over, exposing their fins, allowing themselves to be petted. The sea lions receive rewards of fish and squid after they allow the keepers to treat them with eye drops, or rub their flippers. The goal of this training is not to amuse visitors, but to facilitate animal care. You can’t force a 500 lb marine animal to roll over to ultrasound their abdomen. The training counts on voluntary animal participation and proves very effective for animal care and also for their mental stimulation.

Besides, it is a great opportunity for science education and for spreading a message of conservation. The keepers talk to the public about sea lions in their natural habitat, their anatomy, their innate differences from seals. They also mention that the two older sea lions at the zoo were rescued from the wild as pups when their mothers died as result of sea contaminants. The image of helpless orphaned sea lion pups in a polluted sea is a powerful one.

Zoo keeper puts eye drops in sea lion’s eyes. Sea lion is rewarded with fish for complying. Photo by Rory Harper.

Educating by creating affective connections.

Jake Page mentioned that an affective connection with animals greatly helps conservation:  “It is difficult to be concerned about the fate of an animal you have never seen. Even a two-dimensional film representation of an animal does not have anywhere near the same effect as seeing one in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it. The usual response to such a real-life sight – whether in a zoo or in the wild – is emotional.” Gerald Iles points to an extra benefit of zoo animals to education. According to Iles, animals are individuals with personalities, and allowing the public to see that will have an impact in their emotion: “the public, visiting a zoo, sees many kinds of animal. Each species conform to a set pattern, often based on facts gleaned at school. Elephants are just elephants; lions are just lions; bears are just bears. What the visitor often does not realize is that each animal is also an individual…all my zoo elephants were different from each other, and each one leaves me with a different memory.” Another study reported on the “the positive effects of zoos on students cognitive and affective characteristics.”  As we’ve been saying here on Sci-Ed, education can be maximized if there is an affective connection between learner and object: it’s a moa at the mall, a marching penguin, and stumbling on learning opportunities.

Zoo critics will always exist. Many advocate for phasing out zoos, while offering no suggestion for what to do with the newly-homeless animals. They even disapprove of the role of zoos in education. Peter Batten, the incredulous zoo critic, believes that “the zoo’s contribution to education is minimal, … and most people show no more than casual curiosity about its animals.” As evidence for visitor’s disregard for animals or for learning, he cites “years of hearing visitors call cassowaries ‘peacocks’, toucans ‘fruitloops’, tigers ‘lions’, and otters ‘beavers.’”

At the zoo I’ve heard visitors call an ape “monkey,” and a rhea “ostrich.” It still does not change my belief that correct terminology is not necessarily an indicator of people’s attachment to the animals. Visitors are not expected to arrive at the zoo knowing the names and species of all animals in its collection. And I’m sure they are leaving the zoo with more information than before they walked in. In fact, my sister saw the “black bird with a horn” (or what Batten’s visitors called a “peacock”) but left the zoo with the knowledge of a new animal. I’m sure she won’t forget the rare sighting of the endangered cassowary. That’s an animal only found deep in New Guinea jungles, or in zoo conservation programs, where it helps researchers and visitors alike marvel at nature.

Mystery bird, the cassowary at the zoo. Photo by Rory Harper.

 References:
1. Anderson U, Kelling A, Pressley-Keough R, Bloomsmith M, Mapple T (2003) Enhancing the zoo visitor’s experience by public animal training and oral interpretation at an otter exhibit.  Environment and behavior, Vol. 35 No. 6, 826-841
2. Bowler MT, Buchanan-Smith HM, Whiten A (2012) Assessing Public Engagement with Science in a University Primate Research Centre in a National Zoo. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34505.
3. Frynta D, Lisˇkova´ S, Bu¨ ltmann S, Burda H (2010) Being Attractive Brings Advantages: The Case of Parrot Species in Captivity. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12568.
4. Kalof L, Zammit-Lucia J, Kelly J (2011) The Meaning of Animal Portraiture in a Museum Setting: Implications for Conservation. Organization Environment
5. Yavuz et al. Science and technology teachers’ opinions regarding the usage of zoos in science teaching. The online journal of new horizons in education, volume 2, issue 4, 2011
6. Whitworth AW (2012) An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendances in UK Zoos. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29839.

Wildlife documentaries or dramatic science?

Update: Lizzie Crouch expands the discussion when addressing fiction.

Jason G. Goldman just posted to Scientific American blogs the twitter discussion that followed this post. Brian Switek encourages us to use #scioceans and keep the conversation going. 

Behind the scenes with To the Arctic 3D. Photo credit: © Florian Schulz/Visionsofthewild.com via Smithsonian blogs.

I first met Chris Palmer when I attended his lecture about ethics in wildlife film. Palmer is a wildlife filmmaker, and his CV includes IMAX productions like Whales and To the Arctic, and the book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. Also a conservation advocate, Chris believes that filmmakers “have a responsibility of raising viewer awareness of the serious environmental problems facing the world”. We talked further (he graciously agreed to answer a few interview questions) and we both agree that wildlife films are great opportunity to educate the general public about science and spread a message of conservation. But, like Chris said, “[solely] promoting the beauty of the natural world is not the same as conservation.” How can we use wildlife films to educate?

Pelicans in flight by Etienne-Jules Marey. Photo – US public domain.

Can we learn science from wildlife films?

The use of films to teach science is not new. According to Gregg Mitman in Cinematic Nature, “the motion picture was first developed not for entertainment purposes, but for the analysis of animal motion.” In 1882, French physiologists Etienne-Jules Marey recorded pelicans in flight, with the goal to understand animal movement. Soon after, Eadweard Muybridge proved Marey’s hypothesis that a horse can have all four hooves off the ground, and photographed a galloping horse. Mitman also points out several other occasions in which film was used to benefit science, such as teaching surgery techniques and anatomy lessons (and also serve as inspiration for the pursuit of science).

The horse in motion by Eadweard Muybridge. Photo source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. US Public domain.

Since those early recordings for teaching and study, science and nature films have immensely diversified. Films allow for observation of animal behavior in their natural environment (such as hunting behavior recorded from penguins carrying cameras). We can now watch footage from remote locations that show exotic animals in their habitat. A broad spectrum of wildlife films is available to the public, from the high budget, state-of-the-art IMAX productions, to independent short films on habitat conservation. And somewhere in between, let’s not forget the “reality shows” and the presenter-led TV series (including the ones on the search for a hidden beast, real or otherwise). Besides giving us access to inhospitable ecosystems, films can also raise public interest in science and therefore encourage science education. Like Chris Palmer told me,  “[wildlife film’s] job is to raise awareness and promote conservation.”

Filming Meerkat Manor, a nature “reality show” that follows a family of meerkats and their social conflicts. Photo via Wikipedia.

Wildlife film has shaped the general public’s understanding of science. How did it reach the status of scientific authority?

Many people rely on wildlife films (and lately, on nature-related reality TV shows such as Meerkat Manor or Dangerous Encounters) as their source of scientific information. Nature films have the potential to educate and to bridge the knowledge gap between the general public and the scientific community. Such a gap is sometimes referred as the “deficit model,” or the “assumption that differences in understanding between experts and the lay public result from the latter’s ignorance of science,” according to Dingwall and Aldridge in their analysis of TV wildlife programming as science education source. (The debate over the deficit model is extensive and was recently discussed at the 2013 Science Online conference. In the words of science educator and PLOS colleague Jean Flanagan, “[the model is] at the very least incomplete; much misunderstanding of science goes further than just not being aware of the facts.”)

The public has come to trust films and see them as a scientific truth. In her study of scientific authority in wildlife film, Rebecca Wexler reports that “viewers regard film sequences as realistic because of cultural tendencies resulting from 19th century understandings of photography and film as mechanically accurate reproductions of the visual world.” This also happens because movies are labeled as scientifically correct and factual.

When I asked Chris Palmer him what he thought of scientific accuracy in nature films, he responded “you can find many scientists who are appalled at how they have been portrayed in documentaries and how their message has been corrupted and messed with by filmmakers for the sake of ratings.” It turns out this status of scientific authority is given to nature films even in cases of scripted dramas: footage that has been twisted to accommodate a sequence of edited scenes closely following a script.

Behind the scenes at March of the Penguins, a film that unintentionally sparked creationist intelligent design beliefs. Photo credit: Jérôme Maison © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique via The Documentary Blog.

Rebecca Wexler focused her analysis of scientific authority in film on March of the Penguins. The film shows beautiful footage of emperor penguins in their journey across Antarctica to breed and raise a chick (a task that has been deemed “the worst journey in the world” by Aspley Cherry-Garrard, who brought back an emperor’s egg in 1911). March’s constant use of anthropomorphism might have brought unwanted attention to the movie. Creationist groups have deemed this film as “proof” of intelligent design (ID). The fact that emperor penguins form mating pairs is seen as support for “traditional family values” of monogamy and heterosexuality. The hardship that emperors go through to raise chicks was believed to support ID (even though, for scientists, it seems like the opposite). Even the lack of conservation messages in the film has fueled an anti-global warming movement (if the penguins are doing fine, why should we be concerned?). Jean explored this topic in an earlier post on cultural cognition: groups (both creationists and scientists) will align with concepts that match their worldview, regardless of facts or accuracy.

The film is a beautiful drama, and it should be seen as such. Anthropomorphism is used with the goal of creating and emotional connection with the audience. For example, narrator Morgan Freeman explains some of the scenes: “‘[the penguins] are not that different from us, really. They pout, they bellow, they strut, and occasionally they will engage in some contact sports.” The movie director and distributors claimed that “the movie is simply a tale about penguins and that any attempt to divine a deeper meaning is misguided.” Except when films are portrayed as scientific facts and presented to a credulous non-scientific audience, perhaps they have a responsibility to make their intentions clear.

If films like March of the Penguins are seen as scientific authority and becoming a resource for creationism or ID beliefs (which may influence school curricula in parts of the US), what other non-scientific ideas are films serving as authority for? Should we expect to see nature “documentaries” about the search for Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster? (Oh wait, those already exist. Finding Bigfoot and Mermaid: the body found are only a few examples. Pseudoscience and cryptozoology in TV is illustrated by skeptic investigator Benjamin Radford.)

Burden’s komodo dragon. Screen capture via Slate.

Wildlife drama vs wildlife documentary: films should either be accurate or provide disclosure as being pure storytelling

In 1926, William Douglas Burden set out to film and capture komodo dragons for the Bronx Zoo. The resulting film was a hit, and it caused the increased number of zoo visitors hoping to see the reptiles up close. However, visitors were disappointed: the lethargic animals looked nothing like the blood-thirsty komodo dragons pictured in the movie. In order to create that behavior, the film was heavily edited and staged (watch a clip), the animals were baited with meat (you can even see strings holding it together), and Burden was not even present during their capture. As Mitman points out, “nature uncut and unedited is never as dramatic and captivating as nature onscreen.” In our interview, Chris Palmer mentioned that “[mass appeal] affects [science portrayal] in a big way. No one wants to watch a dull, pedantic, tedious scientist on TV, however exact, accurate, and nuanced they are being.”

Wildlife “drama” now employs a storyline and a script. It includes characters, that can be scientists or naturalists, but are usually the animals themselves. Animal characters are given a name, a role, and an anthropomorphic personality. They undergo a “hero’s journey,” complete with great adversity and conquest (e.g. a story on a long migration). The journey is put together by editing scenes from footage of different animals obtained in different geographic locations. The animal’s anthropomorphic behavior is accentuated by emotional narration and a celebrity narrator or on-camera host. Character’s “roles” reinforce human gender and societal roles such as good guys (prey), bad guys (predator), nuclear families (the mother takes care of the young while father hunts — apparently no one has heard of ostrich harens and male caretakers).

I don’t see a problem in using an interesting narrative. At the end of Whales, one of Chris’s IMAX productions, mother and calf whales “Misty” and “Echo” were not the same animals who started their migration in the beginning of the film. (Until we have humpback whale GPS, filmmakers have to improvise by recording different animals.) Still, referring to two other whales with those names might strengthen the storyline. I also enjoy the editing and narration, when they serve to educate. I am fine with staging with captive animals, as long as they are humanely treated (after all, I watch sea lions feeding every week and appreciate the educational opportunity the National Zoo is offering to its audience), and it can be especially useful to illustrate behavior otherwise impossible to see. What I am not happy with is the excessive anthropomorphism (Lucy Sullivan illustrates how anthropomorphism defeats science) and the lack of mention of conservation.

Diving with enormous cameras is just one challenge that IMAX filmmakers face. Photo of making of IMAX The Last Reef, via Scripps Institute.

“Environmental films need to do more to encourage conservation because the world’s ecosystems are troubled and in decline,” Chris believes. After I asked how can films adapt to better convey a scientific message of conservation, he stated “by listening more attentively and respectfully to the best scientists we have. Of course, what puts them into that category is that they are humane scientists who respect the rights of animals not to be harassed or harmed.”

Therefore, if a wildlife documentary is not a documentary, and is storytelling or wildlife drama instead, we should treat it as such. Because of its mass appeal, films have an enormous potential to raise awareness and drive change. I’d love to see it increase scientific literacy and to spread a message of conservation. Otherwise, in Chris Palmer’ words, “there would soon be nothing left to film.”

References

  1. Dingwall and Aldridge, Public Understanding of Science 15, 131–152 (2006)
  2. De Cheveigné, Public Understanding of Science 5, (1996) 231-253
  3. Kalof and Amthor, Etudes rurales, (2010) 165-180
  4. Kalof et al, Organization Environment (2011) 1-25
  5. Kilborn, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 48 (2006)
  6. Mitman, Isis, 84, (1993) 637 – 661
  7. Sullivan, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 349, (2006) 215-218
  8. Wexler, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 39, (2008) 273 – 279