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Agricultural research explores the world, from molecules to oceans

The Willamette Valley has lost—and gained—half of its bird species in 60 years

Nashville warbler

The Nashville warbler is decreasing in population in the Willamette Valley (Photo by John Breitsch/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 1953, an OSU grad student named Richard Eddy compiled a thorough inventory of birds species at six sites within 30 miles of Corvallis. Sixty years later, an OSU grad student named Jenna Curtis revisited Eddy’s research. She found that there’s still about the same number of bird species in the mid-valley, but about half of those that Eddy witnessed have been replaced by new species.

So, why has there been little change in the number of bird species, but a great deal of change in which bird species live here?

“Bird communities change as the habitat changes,” said Curtis, a doctoral student in fisheries and wildlife at OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and lead author on the study. Regional habitat appears to play an important role.

And a lot has changed in the Willamette Valley in 60 years.Grazing lands have turned into crop fields, and crop fields have turned into housing developments. As a result, species such as pheasant, bobwhite, chipping sparrows, and common nighthawks largely have disappeared from the valley, according to Doug Robinson, the Mace Professor for Watchable Wildlife at OSU.

Other birds that seem to be decreasing in association with regional environmental changes include Nashville warbler and the northern rough-winged swallow. Birds that have increased in association with human activity include Anna’s hummingbird, European starling, brown-headed cowbird, and house finch.

Robinson is conducting bird surveys across Oregon to establish new baselines for species diversity throughout the state. People interested in volunteering for the project can find more information at: oregon2020.com


Wildflower identification? There’s an app for that

Oregon Wildflowers app

Information about the Pacific Northwest’s wide array of wildflowers is just a swipe away with a new mobile app designed in part by botanists in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The Oregon Wildflowers app, co-developed by the Oregon Flora Project and High Country Apps, provides information on 1,054 wildflowers, shrubs, and vines common in Oregon and adjacent areas. For each plant, the app offers photographs, natural history, range maps, and more. It works without an Internet connection once downloaded.

“You can use the app no matter how remote you are,” said Linda Hardison, the director of the Oregon Flora Project. “It’s designed for both budding wildflower enthusiasts and experienced botanists to learn about the plants in our region.”

The Oregon Flora Project has also recently published the first of an illustrated three-part Flora of Oregon, the definitive reference for more than 4,700 native and naturalized plants in Oregon.


Land economics: the final frontier

The Oxford Handbook of Land Economics

Wars are fought over land; wealth is tied to land; every society for centuries has developed rules to manage land. Now, a new 768-page handbook describes the latest developments in land economics, natural resource economics, environmental economics, regional science, and urban economics.

The Oxford Handbook of Land Economics is as big as it sounds. Edited by JunJie Wu, an economist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, and Joshua Duke of the University of Delaware, the handbook brings together authors from all over the world to explore how ecosystem services are produced from land and what kinds of policies are available to enhance those services.

Junjie Wu

OSU economist Junjie Wu (Photo by Tiffany Woods.)

This covers a lot of ground, so to speak. In a comprehensive survey of land-related work in several areas of economics, authors explore how society can protect prime farmland from urban encroachment and how society might adjust land management behavior to protect water quality. Some chapters disentangle the economics of land conservation and preservation, while others provide economic analyses of the legal institutions of land use.

Throughout the handbook, land is a theme that integrates various disciplines of economics and provides insights for policy-makers as they develop new rules for a new millennium of land economics.


OSU uses unmanned aircraft to take temperatures up in the air

UAV

Unmanned aerial vehicle (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

The lower atmosphere is where things happen between air, water, and Earth. We breathe it, birds flap through it, but remarkably little of it has been measured. Now researchers in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences are combining fiber optics with unmanned aircraft to probe this critically important, yet poorly understood, swath of Earth’s atmosphere.

Temperature is a critical driver of this so-called boundary layer, says John Selker, an OSU hydrologist who has pioneered the use of fiber optics to measure water temperatures across landscapes with pinpoint accuracy. Now he and colleagues Chad Higgins and Michael Wing are using unmanned aerial vehicles (shown at right) to loft thin, 400-foot fiber optic cables into the atmosphere.

By measuring tiny pulses of light zipping along hair-thin strands of glass, the cables capture thousands of temperature readings along their length, detecting differences as slight as one one-hundredth of a degree Celsius. This research will gain valuable understanding of how clouds and rainstorms develop, how air pollution gets diluted, how pollen moves across the landscape, and other atmospheric dynamics.

Selker’s combination of fiber optics and unmanned aircraft joins a growing fleet of scientific instruments available to researchers through the Center for Transformative Environmental Monitoring, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


Common chemicals may gang up to increase cancer risk

William Bisson

William Bisson,OSU cancer researcher and an expert on computaional chemical genomics, showing a simulation of a protein in water. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

“Cancer is a disease from a buildup of diseases,” said William Bisson, a cancer researcher in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “It follows multi-step development patterns, and in most cases it has a long latency period. It has to be tackled from several angles that consider the complexity of these patterns.”

Bisson is part of a multi-year, multinational study of how common environmental chemicals that are assumed to be safe at low doses may act together to disrupt human tissues in ways that eventually lead to cancer.

Among the 85 chemicals studied were bisphenol A (BPA), used in plastic food and beverage containers; rotenone, a broad-spectrum insecticide; paraquat, an agricultural herbicide; and triclosan, an antibacterial agent used in soaps and cosmetics.

Traditional risk assessment, Bisson said, has historically focused on a quest for single chemicals and single modes of action—approaches that may underestimate cancer risk. This study examines the interplay over time of low-dose exposures to several chemicals.

“Our findings suggest these molecules may be acting in synergy to increase cancer activity,” said Bisson, an expert on computational chemical genomics, shown here with a simulation he produced of an enzyme protein. “Better understanding of what drives early cancer development will be key to designing effective strategies for prevention and early detection," he said.


Vintage research

OWRI Stakeholder Report

Oregon Wine Research Institute Stakeholder Report

Grapevines are taking a well-deserved rest right now after laboring to make Oregon’s distinctive wines. But Oregon State University’s wine researchers aren’t slowing down. Year-round you can find them scouting for mealybugs in vineyards across the state, peering at yeast under a microscope, teaching winemakers how to use a spectrophotometer, or giving a talk on aroma compounds.

These scientists are part of OSU’s Oregon Wine Research Institute, a virtual center under the umbrella of the College of Agricultural Sciences. A new stakeholders’ report highlights their work in labs at the Corvallis campus and at several of OSU’s research and Extension centers around the state. Their mission is to address the needs of Oregon’s more than 1,000 vineyards and nearly 700 wineries through research and educational outreach. Read about it on the Oregon Wine Research Institute's website.

Nashville warbler
Oregon Wildflowers app
Junjie Wu
The Oxford Handbook of Land Economics
UAV
William Bisson
OWRI Stakeholder Report