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The art of conservation: communicating science through illustration

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

23 July, 2022

Bobolink with American bison. Illustration by Joel Popp.

Doing scientific research is one thing, and communicating the results is quite another. Scientists may learn many skills in the course of their careers, but these do not always include creative communication. IBCP collaborator Joel Popp started his wildlife career doing field research on birds including Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), songbirds who fly thousands of miles each year to their nesting grounds in American grasslands. Joel subsequently began exploring art and its use in service to the sciences. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a scientific illustration can help research results reach many more people than a scientific publication alone. Joel recently completed a scientific illustration program in which he turned his focus back to Bobolinks, and specifically the response of Bobolinks to the recent arrival of American bison on their nesting grounds. As someone with experience in both field research and outreach, Joel is working to expand the creative possibilities by which we can communicate research findings and advance conservation goals.

Bobolink on his Nebraska nesting grounds; after nesting he will fly thousands of miles to his wintering grounds in South America. Photo by Nico Arcilla.

Grassland birds have declined more steeply than any other group of birds in North America and are in urgent need of conservation action. Joel decided to use his work on grassland birds as the basis for his final project in the course. Specifically, he focused on a recent publication about the impacts of bison on songbirds, in which IBCP scientists and colleagues examined how a bison reintroduction affected Bobolinks on their nesting grounds. Unfortunately, this study showed that Bobolink adults and especially juvenile birds declined dramatically following the introduction of a dense bison herd to grasslands where Bobolinks had previously been abundant. This was a surprise because many conservation groups have promoted the idea that reintroducing bison, which were pushed to the brink of extinction 150 years ago, will help bring back grassland birds.

While grassland birds and bison have a long history together, historically this meant wild, free-ranging bison roaming over a large area without necessarily lingering in any one place. Most modern bison herds, however, are confined to a limited area, concentrating their impacts on plants, birds, and other wildlife. This creates a conservation conundrum for groups seeking to keep bison and also foster wildlife conservation.

Joel Popp standing by to assist colleague Rachel Kaplan remove a female Bobolink from a mist net as part of a study of grassland birds and bison in Nebraska. Photo by Nico Arcilla.

What to do? In national parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, managers remove bison on a regular basis to keep bison population densities low enough to allow wildlife and habitat to thrive. By ensuring low bison densities on grasslands where bison are kept, land managers help maintain important breeding grounds for Bobolinks and other grassland birds that are desperately in need of protection while they nest and raise their chicks. Joel created a graphic to shows this tradeoff, in which larger numbers of bison are associated with lower numbers of birds like Bobolinks, but that lower bison densities may allow more birds to thrive.

We are delighted that Joel chose to illustrate this challenging topic as his final project in his effort to become a certified scientific illustrator, visually conveying scientific information to complement research and outreach publications. We look forward to working with Joel to continue to make and communicate new discoveries on birds and their conservation.

In limited areas, land managers manage a tradeoff in which higher numbers of bison can mean fewer plants, birds and other wildlife, whereas maintaining lower bison numbers allows birds to thrive. Illustration by Joel Popp.

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