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UC Santa Barbara
Department of Geography
UC Santa Barbara
Department of Geography
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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

July 07, 2015 - Giant African Rats Trained to Detect Land Mines and Tuberculosis

The following is from Wikipedia but has been widely featured in the media, following the publication of an article titled “Teaching Giant African Pouched Rats to Find Landmines: Operant Conditioning with Real Consequences” in the journal Behavior Analysis in Practice in 2010:

APOPO (an acronym for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling: "Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development" in English) is a registered Belgian non-governmental organisation which trains African giant pouched rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. APOPO's mission is to develop detection rats technology to provide solutions for global problems and inspire positive social change.

Bart Weetjens, the founder of APOPO, loved playing with his pet rats when he was a young boy. Years later, as a student at University of Antwerp, Bart applied the idea of using rodents for mine detection as an outcome of his analysis of the global mine detection problem. Due to his childhood experience, he knew that rats, with their strong sense of smell and trainability, could provide a cheaper, more efficient, and locally available means to detect landmines. Early research into this technology began in Belgium, with initial financial support from the Belgian Directorate for International Co-operation (DGIS) in 1997 to develop the concept. In 2000, APOPO moved its headquarters to Morogoro, Tanzania, following partnerships with the Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force. Now housed by the University, APOPO trains the rats – termed HeroRATs because of their life-saving capabilities – in near-to-real conditions.

In 2003, APOPO began operations in Mozambique, with its first mine detection rats achieving official accreditation, according to International Mine Action Standards in 2004. Fully integrated mine-clearance operations began in Mozambique in 2006. In 2003, APOPO won the World Bank Development Marketplace Global Competition, which provided seed funding to commence research into another application of detection rats technology: Tuberculosis (TB) detection. In 2008, APOPO provided proof of principle for the utilization of trained rats in detecting pulmonary tuberculosis in human sputum samples. In 2010, APOPO launched a three-year research plan to closely examine the effectiveness of detection rats in diagnosing tuberculosis, in comparison to other diagnostic technologies, and to focus on future implementation models.

Using African giant pouched rats to detect landmines has several advantages. The rats are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, where they are used and, thus, are well-suited to the climate and are resistant to many endemic diseases. They are also widely available and inexpensive to procure. Few resources are needed to raise a rat to adulthood and they have a relatively long lifespan of six to eight years. Furthermore, rats do not form bonds with a specific trainers but rather are motivated to work for food. This adaptability allows for the trained rats to be transferred between handlers.

In the minefields, the rats are too light to detonate a pressure-activated mine by walking over it. Their small size also means that the rats can be easily transported to and from operational sites. Mine Detection Rats (MDR), the name given to the African giant pouched rats (genus Cricetomys) used by APOPO, work to detect landmines by using their exceptional sense of smell. In a minefield, MDRs wear harnesses connected to a rope suspended between two handlers. Rats methodically sweep up and down a demarcated hazardous area and indicate the scent of explosives by scratching at the ground. The insignificant weight of the rats means they do not detonate a landmine; their scratching solely indicates the presence of a mine. Each suspected area is screened by two animals. The locations that are indicated by the rats are marked off, and then followed up later by a manual demining team, who detect and destroy the mines.

APOPO is currently the sole operator for the demining of the Gaza Province in Mozambique. This will assist Mozambique in reaching their 2014 APMBC deadline. Operations in Mozambique began in 2003, with the first group of 11 mine detection rats passing official accreditation tests in 2004, and fully integrated mine clearance operations – including manual deminers, mine detection rats, and machinery for ground preparation – in 2006. Since the start of operations, APOPO’s Mozambique Mine Action team has returned over 6 million m2 of land to the population. Over 2,400 landmines have been found and destroyed. 

In 2010, the Thailand Mine Action Center (TMAC) supported APOPO’s proposal to conduct a combined non-technical and technical survey of all mine suspected areas in the provinces of Trat and Chantaburi, along the Thai-Cambodian border. APOPO is conducting the project in partnership with local Thai NGO Peace Road Organization, with the goal of accurately determining how much of the suspected hazardous areas (SHAs) actually contain landmines.

Tuberculosis is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, responsible for 9.2 million new illnesses and 1.7 million deaths each year, mainly in poor countries. Rat detection technology is aiding DOTS programs to help diagnose vulnerable populations. APOPO trains detection rats to detect Mycobacterium tuberculosis in human sputum samples. In APOPO’s laboratory in Tanzania, rats sniff a series of 10 holes in a line cage, under which human sputum samples are placed for evaluation. When a rat detects TB, it indicates by keeping its nose in the sample hole and scratching at the surface of the line cage.

Currently, in most of the world, tuberculosis is detected through microscopy, a method that has not changed significantly in the last 100 years. Microscopy is relatively slow: on average, a laboratory technician can process 40 samples per day, while a trained rat can evaluate the same number of samples in less than seven minutes. APOPO’s detection rats provide second-line screening to eight partner DOTS Centers, located in Dar es Salaam and Morogoro, Tanzania. In 2010, this second-line screening increased new TB case detection rates of APOPO’s partner hospitals by 43%. In the future, APOPO hopes detection rats will become a key instrument in curbing the spread of Tuberculosis worldwide. Exceptionally fast, accurate, and cost-effective, they have an important role to play in screening large and at-risk populations.

Full training of a detection rat takes approximately nine months on average, and is followed by a series of accreditation tests. The rats are socialized and then trained through principles of operant conditioning. When the rats first begin their training, they learn to associate a “click” sound with a food reward of banana or peanuts. Once they learn that "click" means food, the rats are trained on a target scent. Rats trained to detect mines are taught that when they indicate TNT (the explosive in most mines), they will hear a click and then get food. The rats working on TB detection are trained using TB-positive samples. After various stages of training which build on the skills learned in the previous stage, the rat is ready to go to work in either a minefield or into the research lab for tuberculosis or remote scent tracing (RST) detection.

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Stella Larson for bringing this material to our attention.

Image 1 for article titled "Giant African Rats Trained to Detect Land Mines and Tuberculosis"
HeroRAT in action (Wikipedia: APOPO)
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A HeroRAT searches for a mine (Ibid.)
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A Detection Rat receives her food reward (Ibid.)

July 07, 2015 - Alumna Dawn Wright Given the Bromery Award for Minorities

Our illustrious alumna Dawn Wright recently received the 2015 Geological Society of America’s Randolph W. and Cecile T. Bromery Award for Minorities which is awarded to those making “lifetime significant contributions to research in the geological sciences or to those instrumental in opening the geoscience field to other minorities.” Dawn sent the news to UCSB Geography “with thanks to UCSB for all the great training and opportunities afforded to me to make a contribution.”

Dawn received Interdisciplinary PhDs in Physical Geography AND Marine Geology at UCSB in 1994. An Oregon State University faculty member since 1995, Wright is a marine and coastal geography expert so passionate about her subject that she’s known as “Deepsea Dawn.” Wright joined Esri as its chief scientist on October 3, 2011 to help formulate and advance the intellectual agenda for the environmental, conservation, climate, and ocean sciences aspect of Esri's work, while also representing Esri to the national / international scientific community.

The Bromery Award for Minorities is given to any minority (an ethnic group that is significantly underrepresented at advanced levels of engineering and science), preferably African Americans, who qualify under at least one of these two categories:

  • 1) Nominee has made significant contributions to research in the geological sciences, as exemplified by one or more of the following: a) publications which have had a measurable impact on the geosciences, b) outstanding original contributions or achievements that mark a major advance in the geosciences, or c) outstanding lifetime career which demonstrates leadership in geoscience research.
  • 2) Nominee has been instrumental in opening the geoscience field to other minorities, as exemplified by one or more of the following: a) demonstrable contributions in teaching or mentoring which have enhanced the professional growth of minority geoscientists, b) outstanding lifetime career service in a role which has highlighted the contributions of minorities in advancing the geosciences, of c) authorship of educational materials of high scientific quality that have enjoyed widespread use and acclaim among educators or the general public.
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Dr. Wright views herself as a scientist working within and between the areas of geographic information science, marine science, and ocean informatics. Dawn is a leader in her outreach to the larger community, including her interactions with school children and her interest in encouraging more young women to pursue careers in science. She has been featured in the national media and in Leon Lederman’s Portraits of Great American Scientists.

July 07, 2015 - A Warm Welcome to Our New Academic Personnel and Space Management Analyst

Lauren Brous joined Geography staff in May as our new Academic Personnel and Space Management Analyst, replacing Bernadette Weinberg who officially retired at the end of June. Lauren is a University of Arizona alumna with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Marketing. For the past year, she has been working in Human Resources (in various capacities, but mainly as a recruiter) at California State University, Long Beach. Before that, she also held a Human Resources position at Gillian Executive Search in Long Beach.

Lauren has a passion for traveling, and she had the opportunity to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic as an undergraduate. During her time abroad she visited several different European countries and learned a lot about various cultures. After she graduated from the University of Arizona, she lived in Hawaii where she enjoyed hiking, swimming, and being outdoors.

Lauren is a Santa Barbara native with strong ties to UCSB. In the 1980’s, her grandmother, Shirley Brous, worked in the Geography Department as an Assistant to the Chair. Her mother also worked on campus in the Materials Research Lab and recently retired after 35 years. Lauren says that she’s delighted at the opportunity to be the third generation of her family which has worked on campus, and Geography is delighted to have her working with the Department.

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Lauren recently became engaged to her high school sweetheart, and she enjoys taking their puppy, Maui, to the beach, as well as watching and playing sports.

July 01, 2015 - Alumnus Dennis Gibbs Credits his Career to UCSB Geography

Dennis Gibbs graduated with a BA degree from the UCSB Geography Department in the Spring of 1989 and was immediately hired by Santa Barbara County Flood Control District (after doing an internship) in order to assemble their first computerized rainfall database, using the spreadsheet of that era, Lotus 1-2-3. His emphasis as a Geography major was Climatology, Hydrology, and Geographic Information Systems, the latter of which was in it’s infancy in the late 1980’s (the Department didn’t offer a BS in 1989). Dennis studied under the tutelage of Joel Michaelsen, Jeff Dozier, Earl Hajic, Frank Davis, Laura Haston, Jack Estes, and Jeffrey Star.

Dennis went on to manage the Flood Control District’s Hydrology section and the ALERT (Automated Local Evaluation in Real Time) System, in which automated rainfall and streamflow sensors reported in “real time” via radio frequencies to Flood Control headquarters, which allowed engineers and hydrologists to evaluate runoff and flooding conditions. Dennis then became the Flood Control Hydrologist, he served as an officer for the ALERT Users Group, and he was President of the Santa Barbara–Ventura Chapter of the American Meteorological Society for several years. He also published a paper with Ed Keller after the Painted Cave Fire: “Hydrological Response of Small Watersheds following the Southern California Painted Cave Fire of June 1990.”

In 1999, Dennis had an opportunity to transfer to the Santa Barbara County Water Agency to work on Groundwater and Water Supply issues, and he once again turned to the UCSB Geography Department and came back to take classes taught by Hugo Loaiciga to “bone up” on the principles of the characteristics of Groundwater. During this time, Dennis became the Senior Hydrologist for the Santa Barbara County Water Agency, a licensed professional Hydrologist through the American Institute of Hydrology, and a licensed Weather Modification Operator through the Weather Modification Association. His duties included administration and oversight of the regional cloudseeding program to increase rainfall in the watersheds behind Lake Cachuma and Twitchell Reservoir, as well as dealing with Groundwater reports and information requests. During this tenure, he authored and coauthored several reports and publications, including “Using a Geographic Information System to Store, Retrieve and Disseminate Groundwater Data” and “Water Availability of the Cuyama Valley, California.”

When asked about his education in the UCSB Geography Department, Dennis replied: “I was very fortunate to get an excellent education under some tremendous individuals like Dr. Michaelsen, Jeff Dozier and many, many others, many whom formed the Bren School at UCSB. It was a very diverse education that allowed me to expand in all horizons of Earth Sciences.” After a 26 year career with the County, Dennis’s plans are to spend more time with his parents who are 82 and live in Clovis, do some traveling, and find a role in helping California agricultural interests meet their water requirements during this dry spell, particularly in light of the new regulations about water that are emerging.

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Dennis as an undergraduate Geography major at UCSB - seen here studying "hydrology"
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Dennis caught this rainbow trout at Lake Cachuma a few weeks ago - he calls fishing "aquatic research"

July 01, 2015 - Lopez-Carr and Fellow Researchers Receive NSF Funding to Eradicate Schistosoma Parasite

With $1.5 million in NSF funding, a group of researchers from UCSB and partner institutions will study the effects of a novel way of eradicating schistosomiasis. The following article in The UCSB Current, written by Sonia Fernandez and titled “A Win-Win-Win-Win,” goes on to state:

Built in 1986, the Diama Dam between Senegal and Mauritania was constructed on the Senegal River to improve irrigation for nearby crops and prevent upstream saltwater intrusion. However, shortly after its completion, it became evident that what many people in the area would have gained in economic opportunity they lost in public health.

The dam, while improving irrigation and providing a source of fresh water, also presented ideal conditions for snails that host the Schistosoma parasite. As a result, those who live and work around that section of the Senegal River are constantly infected and reinfected by the flatworm and suffer from the effects of schistosomiasis. Senegal has one of the world’s worst schistosomiasis problems.

“It’s a debilitating disease,” said Armand Kuris, UC Santa Barbara professor of zoology and one of the world’s leading parasitologists. Unlike other serious contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS, schistosomiasis is chronic, said Kuris. Rather than killing outright, schistosomiasis erodes the human host’s health as the worms multiply in his or her body. Eggs, if not expelled in the host’s urine or feces, can migrate to different organs, disrupting their functions. The result is overall poor physical health, an impaired immune system and cognitive difficulty.

The disease has wider implications, according to UCSB geography professor David López-Carr, whose research focuses on the human dimensions of environment change, particularly in the developing areas of the world, as well as rural poverty and development. Those chronically afflicted tend to be the rural poor, people who live and work, bathe and play in the river and surrounding waterways and farms. This is where the infected freshwater snails thrive and continuously shed cercariae, the free-swimming larvae of the parasite that seek out and penetrate human skin. Because the people are constantly exposed to the parasite, and don’t have the means to avoid it in their daily lives or afford treatment, this population is chronically at a health and socioeconomic disadvantage, with poverty and poor health affecting each other in a self-perpetuating cycle. “It makes you less competent at anything you do,” said López-Carr. “It makes you less effective as a parent or in your work — and that has a huge economic impact on a society.”

Conventional treatments for this ongoing schistosomiasis epidemic have consisted of drug-based control programs and preventive chemotherapy, programs that have had successes. However, the environment of the Senegal River, with its impacted ecology, provides the setting for rapid reinfection, according to Kuris, who has been studying schistosomiasis in sub-Saharan Africa for 25 years. Medical programs to cure people of schistosomiasis, though effective, are ultimately unsustainable if the source of the parasites remains unmitigated, he said.

However, there is hope, and it might be in the form of a local river prawn (Macrobrachium vollenhovenii), currently under study by Kuris and colleagues in Senegal, that has the potential to turn the situation around. Reintroducing the crustacean into the affected areas to prey on the snails could disrupt the parasite’s life cycle and diminish, if not eliminate, the schistosome’s presence in the water.

“In the big picture, what we’d really like to do is eliminate this scourge,” said López-Carr. Depending on the efficiency and effectiveness of the method, efforts in the area to reduce the prevalence of and infections by the parasite may not only get a much-needed boost but the local economy may also profit. The prawns, which do not become infected with the flatworm larvae they eat along with the host snails, could also potentially be farmed for food and sold at market, he said.

This novel way of eradicating an infectious disease like schistosomiasis has many levels and, with a highly competitive $1.5 million grant provided by the National Science Foundation, López-Carr, Kuris, and a host of researchers from various disciplines will be studying these levels by looking at, among other things, the complex interaction of human and natural forces that may alter patterns of disease transmission. The principal investigators in this project also include James Sanchirico, professor in the Department of Environmental Science & Policy at UC Davis; Kentucky State University aquaculture expert James Tidwell; and Susanne Sokolow, associate research biologist dually appointed at UCSB and Stanford University.

“The main question is, ‘What are the predictors of human infection or reinfection?’” said López-Carr. Because schistosomiasis is an insidious disease — people can have it without dying and often without obvious outward symptoms for long periods of time — the geographic, social and demographic elements that may influence who gets the disease and how infection, in turn, affects people and their interactions with the local environment have not yet been studied in-depth, according to López-Carr.

“We plan to couple the study of the biological dynamics with models of the economics of the disease and of the prawn intervention,” said Sokolow. Small prawns are most effective at killing snails, she added, so the ones that have grown large can be harvested for sale or consumption, provided small ones are stocked in their place. “In this project, our bio-economic models will aim to answer the questions of how many prawns to stock, when to harvest, and how to devise the optimal win-win-win-win solution that benefits human health, environmental restoration, hunger alleviation and economic development,” she said.

Image 1 for article titled "Lopez-Carr and Fellow Researchers Receive NSF Funding to Eradicate Schistosoma Parasite"
Native prawns play a huge role in the novel schistosomiasis eradication effort. From The Current; photo credit: Susanne Sokolow
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David López-Carr (courtesy photo)
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Schistosoma life cycle. Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, snail fever, and Katayama fever, is a disease caused by parasitic worms of the Schistosoma type. It may infect the urinary tract or the intestines. Signs and symptoms may include abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stool, or blood in the urine. In those who have been infected for a long time, liver damage, kidney failure, infertility, or bladder cancer may occur. In children it may cause poor growth and learning difficulty. Schistosomiasis affects almost 210 million people worldwide, and an estimated 12,000 to 200,000 people die from it a year. The disease is most commonly found in Africa, as well as Asia and South America. Around 700 million people, in more than 70 countries, live in areas where the disease is common. Schistosomiasis is second only to malaria, as a parasitic disease with the greatest economic impact. From ancient times to the early 20th century, schistosomiasis' symptom of blood in the urine was seen as a male version of menstruation in Egypt and was thus viewed as a rite of passage for boys. It is classified as a neglected tropical disease (Wikipedia: Schistosomiasis)
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The parasites that cause schistosomiasis live in certain types of freshwater snails. The infectious form of the parasite, known as cercariae, emerge from the snail, hence contaminating water. You can become infected when your skin comes in contact with contaminated freshwater. Most human infections are caused by Schistosoma mansoni, S. haematobium, or S. japonicum. Image: Left: Biomphalaria sp., the intermediate host for S. mansoni. Right: Bulinus sp., the intermediate host for S. haematobium and S. intercalatum. Center: Adults of S. mansoni. The thin female resides in the gynecophoral canal of the thicker male. (; image credit: DPDx)

June 30, 2015 - A Warm Welcome to Alycia Lewis, Our New Contracts and Grants Manager

A warm welcome to Alycia Lewis who has accepted the Department of Geography’s offer to be the new Contracts & Grants Manager for Geography. She replaces Beilei Zhang who held that position for 25 years and formally retired at the end of June.

Alycia is a UCSB alumna who graduated in 2002 with a B.S. degree in Zoology. She has extensive experience in research administration and worked for the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, and the California NanoSystems Institute before joining the Geography department. She is also a RACC Certified Research Administrator and says that she is fascinated by the research that takes place at UCSB.

When interviewed, Alycia mentioned that she’s a Southern California native and loves the beach and being outdoors. Her favorite activities include running, stand-up paddle boarding, and hiking, and she is an avid animal lover. She has a passion for cooking, especially baking sweets for others, and is a huge basketball fan (go Lakers!). Alycia also stated that she enjoys helping others and loves to make people smile, and she added that she is excited to be a part of the Geography team and looks forward to working with everyone in the department. We, in turn, look forward to working with her!

Editor's note: During her interview, Alycia modestly omitted the fact that she is one of the only two Certified Research Administrators on the UCSB campus, and that there are only about 2,500 active CRAs in the entire U.S. “The CRA designation is granted in the United States by the Research Administrators Certification Council (RACC) to individuals who demonstrate the knowledge necessary to serve as an administrator of professional and sponsored research programs. Candidates must hold a Bachelor's degree, possess at least three years of related experience, and pass the Certified Research Administrator examination before being conferred the right to use the CRA designation” (Wikipedia: Certified Research Administrator).

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Alycia has extensive experience in research administration and worked for the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, and the California NanoSystems Institute before joining the Geography department.
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Alycia (center) with Beilei (right) and Nicole McCoy, our Student Programs Manager, at the staff retirement lunch held at the Boathouse (see the June 27 article about it).

June 29, 2015 - Island Rodents Take On Nightmarish Proportions

According to a news release from Duke University, rodents of unusual sizes are 17 times more likely to occur on islands than elsewhere. The article by Robin A. Smith appeared in DukeToday on June 22 with the title above:

Researchers have analyzed size data for rodents worldwide to distinguish the truly massive mice and giant gerbils from the regular-sized rodents. They found that the furry animals with chisel-like teeth are 17 times more likely to evolve to nightmarish proportions on islands than elsewhere. The results are in keeping with an idea called the “island rule,” which previous studies claimed didn’t apply to rodents. The study appears online in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Duke University biologists Paul Durst and Louise Roth analyzed data from more than 1,000 rodent populations representing more than 60 species across the globe. The dataset included mice, rats, squirrels, hamsters, and porcupines, ranging in size from the tiny 0.2-ounce harvest mouse to the nearly 50-pound North American beaver.

There may be nothing remarkable about a 100-pound capybara -- a South American rodent the size of a St. Bernard -- if that’s the norm for that species, the researchers say. The question gnawing at Durst and Roth was identifying the rodents that, over time, have become exceptionally large or small for their kind.

In other words, which parts of the world are home to the hugest hamsters, or the smallest squirrels? The answer was islands. More than half of the rodent populations on the 182 islands they looked at weighed in among the top or bottom 2.5 percent for size for their species.

Take Coues' rice rat, for example, which researchers believe got to the island of Cozumel from nearby Mexico and Guatemala. Some island populations have grown to more than twice the size of their mainland counterparts. “Deer mice, too, are nearly twice as big on the Gulf Islands off the coast of Vancouver than on the North American mainland,” said Durst, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Scientists don’t know how long ago most rodents arrived on the islands from the mainland territories where they originated, or how long each took to reach peculiar proportions. But for the most part, the researchers discovered that the extreme cases were unusually large, rather than unusually tiny. The few dwarfs in their dataset are found on hot, dry islands that are particularly brown or barren rather than lush and green. An Asian tree squirrel called Finlayson's squirrel, for example, has shrunk by half since arriving on the Thai island of Ko Lan. “They don’t have the resources they need to get big,” Durst said.

Size changes in island animals are well-known to science. In 1964, biologist J. Bristol Foster surveyed size trends in island and mainland animals and suggested that large animals usually get smaller on islands, and small animals usually get bigger, a generalization that biologists later dubbed “the island rule.” Data collected for animals like elephants and deer in the decades that followed proved largely consistent with the island rule, but until recently the question of whether rodents followed the same size trends was far from clear cut.

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Some wood mice off the coast of Wales have evolved to nearly twice the size of their counterparts on the European mainland (Wikipedia: Wood mouse; photo credit - by Rasbak via Wikimedia Commons). Island gigantism or insular gigantism is a biological phenomenon in which the size of animals isolated on an island increases dramatically in comparison to their mainland relatives. Island gigantism is one aspect of the more general "island rule", which posits that when mainland animals colonize islands, small species tend to evolve larger bodies, and large species tend to evolve smaller bodies. With the arrival of humans and associated predators (dogs, cats, rats, pigs), many giant as well as other island endemics have become extinct (Wikipedia: Island gigantism)
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When it comes to island rats and hamsters, how big is big? The Coues’ rice rat on the island of Cozumel is twice as big as the same mice in Mexico. Deer mice on the Gulf Islands are twice as big as deer mice in Vancouver. The St. Kilda field mouse on the Scottish island of St. Kilda is double the size of mainland field mice. The Flores giant rat (above) on the Indonesian island of Flores can be 17.7 inches long with an additional 27.5 inches of tail, making it twice the size of the average brown rat. The same is true on most other islands (

June 29, 2015 - Alumnus Edward Pultar Plugs the Latest from Valarm

Alumnus Edward Pultar (PhD 2011) recently announced his company’s latest developments, using the brainchild he and his brother created, Valarm (“Versatile Asset Locator and Remote Monitor”), a powerful software platform for collecting geo-located sensor data:

It's been an exciting 1st half of 2015! Here's the latest from Valarm:

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Edward and his brother Lorenzo. Lorenzo (right) has been developing software since 1995 and has built major systems for Ford Motor Company, DaimlerChrysler, R.L. Polk, ADP, IBM, Qualcomm, Movielink/Blockbuster, ESPN, and Yokohama Tire, to name a few. Valarm was born when Lorenzo woke up one morning to discover his motorcycle had been stolen by professional thieves. Originally, Valarm was conceived as an affordable and accessible theft-prevention and vehicle tracking device which Lorenzo would use himself to protect his replacement bike. Today, Valarm has evolved into a general purpose platform for asset tracking, data acquisition, and remote monitoring.
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During February 2015, Edward from Valarm was invited to Makkah / Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to present at the 2015 GIS Innovation Forum conference. “This was our first time in the Middle East and the conference as well as the hospitality was amazing. The conference focused on GIS entrepreneurs and startups with attendees and speakers from Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia.”

June 27, 2015 - A Farewell Lunch for Beilei and Bernadette

One problem with beautiful places is that they’re popular! UCSB Geography staff’s “last supper” for two of its retiring members almost became a liquid lunch because staff had to wait 45 minutes for a table at the Boathouse, and they all hit the outside bar early.

The occasion was the last day of work for Beilei Zhang, Geography’s Contract and Grants Manager, and Bernadette Weinberg, our Academic Personnel and Space Management Analyst, both of whom are now officially retired. It was also an opportunity for all staff to get better acquainted with Alycia Lewis (Beilei’s replacement) Lauren Brous (Bernadette’s replacement), and Alex Feldman (Computer Network Tech 3, a new addition to our IT staff).

Bernadette chose the Boathouse because of its spectacular setting, not to mention its great Margaritas (Bernadette had at least two of them). The Boathouse opened in August 2008, replacing The Brown Pelican as a popular beachside restaurant at Arroyo Burro Beach. The beach is widely known as Hendry's Beach by local residents because the nearby farm land (now replaced by homes) was once the home of Scottish immigrants William Nicol and Anne Stronach Hendry and their children who lived there from the 1890s until 1918.

Located off of Cliff Drive, Hendry’s is the terminus of Arroyo Burro Creek and stands at the foot of the Santa Barbara coastal bluffs of the Wilcox Property (the Douglas Family Preserve), which is adjacent to the east. Hendry’ s is only 5 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, but parking is limited and reservations for a table at the Boathouse are strongly recommended.

Editor's note: Lots more photos of the staff outing can be found on our Event Photos page. For more about Beilei and Bernadette's retirement celebrations, see the June 5, 2015, article, "A Bittersweet Farewell to Two of Our Finest Staff Members."

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Staff in front of The Boathouse (photo credit: Beilei)
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The gang poses on the beach
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Alycia Lewis
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Lauren Brous
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Alex Feldman (right) with Dylan Parenti

June 24, 2015 - Alumna Sarah Battersby Discusses Issues and Advances in Mapmaking

As part of a Directions Magazine series on communicating with maps, Diana Sinton discusses issues and advances in mapmaking with cartographer Sarah Battersby, a research scientist at Tableau Software and currently the president of the Cartographic and Geographic Information Society.

Q: What are some of the key developments that you have seen in cartography in the last decade?

A: I think that one of the most exciting cartographic developments in the last decade is the explosion of online mapping and tools for map design. It’s amazing to think about the huge efforts that have gone into making it easy for people to visualize their spatial data, whether as a Google Map mashup, using desktop or online GIS, with d3 or other scripting libraries, etc. The downside to all of this is that I think it is still too easy to make a bad map, and way too easy to distribute that bad map to a wide audience. My cartographic archive of what not to do just keeps growing thanks to all of the great finds on Twitter and Facebook.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who really care about helping others work with and understand spatial data and there is some great research in cartography, GIScience and in spatial thinking that I think will help shape the next generation of tools that we use to design maps to make them more intuitive, more beautiful and generally more effective for understanding spatial data.

The growth of the open source geospatial community has also been impressive. It is exciting to see so many people dedicated to improving the world of geospatial data and technology, and to helping the world with geospatial, like the work coordinated by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. I think this open source momentum is key in the future of cartography and GIS.

Q: People often bring up the issue that Web Mercator is used as a default projection with web maps. That creates a tension with all of us who were taught in cartography and GIS classes that the Mercator projection is almost always inappropriate for the maps we’re making; it grossly distorts areas toward the poles and is presumed to give people false ideas about the size of countries and even continents. How much of a problem is this really? Can we cross fear-of-Mercator off of our worry list?

A: A few years back I did a bit of “forensic cartography” research on this to try to figure out how Web Mercator became the standard, and I think it is because of the success of Google Maps — the projection is even occasionally referred to as “Google Mercator.” Other online mapping systems changed projection to match. I’m not sure what the logic was behind the original selection of the projection, but it is easier to tile a rectangular projection, and the equations for Mercator are simple. The conformal property of the projection is also nice for local-scale mapping. But…is it the only choice? I imagine that any rectangular projection should tile nicely, and I imagine that it won’t be too many years before we have online mapping systems that don’t tie us to a single projection. For instance, Bernie Jenny has done some amazing work with adaptive map projections.

As for the distortion in the Web Mercator projection, I think this is a significant issue for visual analysis. I’m a big believer in one of Egenhofer and Mark’s principles of Naïve Geography, that “maps are more real than experience.” I have thought of this as the map becoming our source of truth; even if people know that there is distortion in the map I think there are very few people who can successfully compensate for it in reading the map. This is a significant problem for any distance or area-based analyses calculated in Web Mercator coordinates, as well as for the map reader trying to visually make sense of spatial patterns.

I definitely wouldn’t cross Web Mercator off of our list of things to worry about. It is imperative for map designers to be actively thinking about and addressing issues with projection, otherwise their analyses may be hugely incorrect.It is also important for map readers to be cognizant of the distortions in Web Mercator and other projections. I don’t mean that I expect people to be able to identify and calculate distortion, just to maintain a healthy skepticism with their map reading.

Q: What do you think are the top “gotcha” issues for mapping today, from the perspective of a cartographic software designer? What about from the perspective of JohnMapmaker?

A: I think that every cartographer has a set of pet issues that they always look for. For me, I often focus on classification and data normalization. It drives me crazy when I can’t figure out how the mapmaker decided to break up the data into classes. Are those quantiles? Natural breaks? Do the breaks have meaning? Class breaks make such a huge difference in the resulting pattern on the map and it drives me crazy when I see the default 5-class natural breaks map without any explanation. To me this is the sign that the mapmaker doesn’t know much about the data.

I also see way too many maps that are really just population maps. Should it be a surprise that locations with more people tend to have higher counts of all sorts of other attributes? This is another problem of not thinking enough about the data. If you don’t know your data well, how do you make a map that tells a clear — and appropriate — story?

Q: You have the perspective of having taught students about mapmaking for many years, and have done much basic research in cartography. Now you are in the position of working with software designers to help them implement good mapmaking principles to help users of commercial software design more effective maps. How is this shift from basic to applied research working? How has it changed how you pose research questions?

A: It is great to focus on specific, applied problems tied to facilitating how people ask and answer spatial questions. There is still much to think about in terms of general cartography, but now that we’re at a time when it is so easy for anyone to take a dataset and turn it into a map, I think about what we can do to help people make better maps faster. My research has always focused on how people understand and use spatial data, so there hasn’t been a change in my research direction, but I have done a lot of stepping back to what I would call the “cartographic primitives.” Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about very basic questions of what information we need to obtain from maps and what characteristics of a map would facilitate finding answers to these questions. I also spend a good bit of time thinking about what makes an interesting pattern on a map and how I can help someone make better choices about their map type, colors or classification to uncover these interesting patterns.

Essentially, I feel like the questions I face now are based on how we can take our collective research and applied knowledge about designing better maps and put it to use helping people that don’t have decades or even semesters of work in cartography. It’s an amazing challenge and hopefully I can do some good to help the world see and understand their spatial data more effectively.

Editor's note: Many thanks to Professor Keith Clarke for suggesting this material.

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Sarah Battersby is a research scientist at Tableau Software. Her primary area of focus is cartography, with an emphasis on cognition. Her work emphasizes how we can help people visualize and use spatial information more effectively. Her research has covered a variety of areas, including perception in dynamic map displays, geospatial technologies and spatial thinking abilities, and the impact of map projection on spatial cognition. She works closely with the maps development team. Sarah earned her PhD in Geography in 2006 from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is a member of the International Cartographic Association Commission on Map Projections, and is currently President (2015 - 2016) of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society – a society composed of educators, researchers and practitioners involved in the design, creation, use and dissemination of geographic information. Source:
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