Monday, July 28, 2008

The challenge of promulgating bear facts.

I had an opportunity this evening to briefly review the impact of DNA research on the taxonomy and conservation of Ailuropoda melanoleuca which also made me reflect on the frustrating struggle of scientific fact to struggle to the public forefront. Put more simply, we had a bedtime discussion of pandas, DNA, relatedness & poop.

As I've mentioned before, some innocent parental actions resulted in the strong imprinting of pandas on my greatest genetics project, so that our house is now filled with various likenesses of the great bicolor Chinese icons. That I can see only 3 where I am sitting now is surprising -- and partly reflects the fact it is dark outside. We have numerous books on giant pands and the school & public libraries have supplied more, and tonight a new little book from Scholastic arrived mysteriously on TNG's pillow. He was eagerly reading it when he came to the fateful passage "It says they're not bears!". But 'The Boy' knows better, and he knows why.

This is a recurring theme in panda books. For a long time the taxonomic placement of pandas was a matter of great dispute, with some assigning them bearhood, some placing them with raccoons, and some allotting pandas a unique clade. A related question concerned the affinity of giant pandas for red pandas and red pandas with the other carnivores. Finally, in the late 1980's the problem yielded to molecular methods, with the clear answer that pandas are bears, albeit a the root of the ursine tree.

What's surprising is how slowly this information has moved into the world of children's books. Of course, the public & school libraries often have books which predate the great resolution, so they are forgiven. Some explain that pandas are bears, but fail to give the evidence. And a few have caught up. But this Scholastic book wasn't one of them, despite having an original copyright solidly after the molecular studies AND a bunch of professors listed as advisors.

Given that TNG is so fond of pandas, and it is no secret, there are those (often adults) who will attempt to dissuade them in their bearness. So I've tried to coach him in how to go beyond simply asserting that they are bears, but explaining why science classes them so. And for an eight year old, he can give a pretty good 1-2 sentence summary.

Which leads us to scat. He merges the two a bit, certainly because of the affinity of his age group for matters excretory (which, of course, his cunning father considered in introducing this topic!). A key question in panda conservation is how many are in the wild. Between their secretive habits and dense bamboo forest habitat, it is difficult to spot a panda in the wild, let alone make a census (nevermind those questionnaires!). So, as with many wild animals, DNA from panda scat is a convenient way to track individuals, and with this tracking the estimate of the number of pandas has shot up -- from the really depressing (to panda fans) ~1500ish to perhaps about a thousand more -- still in grave peril as a wild species, but a thousand more pandas napping in the woods is something to cheer. Unfortunately, the items on pandas in kids magazines & kids sections of newspapers still often quote the older figure.

A similar sort of experiment came up as an item of controversy earlier this year. There are many things I find admirable about John McCain (which is not synonymous to say I'm voting for him -- I haven't decided & I won't tell once I do!), but his pandering about a bear issue earlier this year wasn't one of them. In his fight against congressional earmarks (a good thing), he had singled out a study in Yellowstone National Park's which was sampling DNA from grizzly scat. Amongst his assaults on this study was the question asked loudly of what good this would do beyond setting up a bear dating service. Now, on the one hand I think scientists should be carefully thinking why this important study is apparently being funded by earmark and not peer review. But it is truly sad when you can explain population sampling to an eight year old, but not to someone older than his father who wishes to run the country. Yes, bear counting isn't quite on the same scale as some of the other great scientific issues which are being discussed this election year. But, given that the source behavior of that study is often cited as a benchmark for veracity ("Does a bear..."), it wouldn't be a bad one to get right.

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