Have You Seen the Gorilla?

By Guest Blogger Daniel Scognamillo
Ph.D., Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation in the
Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 10.13.29 AMHave you seen that video where a group of students participating in an experiment on selective attention pass a ball to each other? At the beginning of the video you are asked: How many times do the students wearing white shirts pass the ball to each other?

Getting the right answer made me feel pretty good about my observation skills. After all, observing is how I make my living. As a scientist I observe nature, try to explain how it works, and use that new knowledge for the conservation of natural resources.

The video asks a second question: Did you see the gorilla? The what? The gorilla? I rewound the video, and there he was. As students passed the ball, another student wearing a gorilla costume walked from one side of the screen to the other pounding his chest like King Kong.

The experiment shows that I was so focused on certain objects that I ignored other important elements occurring simultaneously. I was guilty of selective attention. The experience got me thinking. I realized that during a large part of my career in natural resource conservation, I was so focused on certain things that I missed the gorilla.

But my vision has changed. In the last six years, I have focused my research on ecosystem services — the benefits human receive from natural world, like drinking water. This allows me to not only see a bigger picture, but to incorporate one of the pillars needed to support conservation of natural resources — the forest industry. Looking for this bigger picture, and how forestry fits in, is the focus of a study in East Texas. The study is looking at ecological networks – the core areas, corridors, and buffer zones – that provide the physical conditions necessary for ecosystems and species populations to survive in a human-dominated landscape.

I’m working on this study with my colleague Dr. Gary Kronrad, whose expertise allows him to lead the economic analysis of the study. We are taking a big picture view of this project so we can incorporate environmental, economic and social interests equally.

Our work is enabled by a Sustainable Forestry Initiative Conservation and Community Partnership Grant, in collaboration with Campbell Global. This two-year study will estimate species richness at the edges of pine plantations and develop management strategies to promote biodiversity and connectivity across the landscape. These management strategies, if implemented by timber companies, will result in plantations blending with the landscape and becoming key elements in the design of regional ecological networks.

What changed my perspective? One factor was attending the SFI Annual Conference last fall in Montreal, where I learned much about the interconnectedness of sustainable forest management, and the attainment of conservation objectives. Participants came from across the entire supply chain, from forest managers to end-consumers. Conservation organizations were also on hand. The conference helped to open my eyes, so that now I have a better chance of seeing the gorilla.

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