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Confronting Conservation’s Wicked Challenges through Story

(Logo: Allison Simler)

This week PLOS Biology experiments with new ways of communicating conservation science in a special collection — Conservation Stories from the Front Lines. The articles in the collection present rigorous and significant conservation science, but do so in a way designed to reach larger audiences by harnessing the power of story. 





“Elk Bath” wildfire in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, United States. (Photo: John McColgan, a fire behavior analyst at the U.S. Forest Service)

Annaliese Hettinger

My family is sick. All four of us – at different times, but consistently –  have been sick over the last three months. Our friends, neighbors, and community are sick too. That’s because we live in the same ravaged landscape. We don’t live near a toxic Superfund site. We don’t live in a coal-mining community, and our water is not contaminated by rotting lead pipes. We live in north-central California, near the coast. Our lungs are raw from smoke. Our eyes are red from microscopic ash particles. Our hearts are broken over the stand-replacement intensity of more than 160,000 acres burned (an area nearly as large as the whole of New York City). We’ve experienced trauma, and our bodies continue to suffer as a result. Fire succession research tells us that it can take 10-20 years for our local ecosystem to recover fully. As for our communities and bodies, only time will tell. Recovery from environmental trauma isn’t as well-studied. What we do know, though, is that we aren’t alone. Extreme weather and natural disasters, at home and abroad, have become the new normal.


Rescuers search for survivors in the debris after heavy rains triggered flash floods and mudslides in Mocoa, Putumayo, Colombia.

This past year — the second hottest on record, following another record year — wildfires burned more than 9.5 million acres across the U.S., destroying entire communities. A trifecta of storms – Harvey, Irma, and Maria – battered Florida, the Gulf Coast, islands of the Eastern Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. Nearly 1,000 people were killed in massive floods and landslides throughout Bangladesh, India, and Nepal that affected some 41 million people, according to United Nations humanitarian agencies. Roughly 200 died in mudslides in Colombia while devastating earthquakes rocked Mexico, and after a significant three-year drought, considered the worst in over a century, Cape Town is at serious risk of losing water to homes and most businesses.


Yet the impacts of climate change reach far beyond the human and economic losses wrought from extreme weather events and natural disasters. We’re in the midst of a worldwide epidemic of species extinctions that will only worsen in the face of the accelerating deterioration of natural systems. And there’s mounting evidence that climate change, which is already impacting global biodiversity, may become both a driver of biodiversity loss and an amplifier of existing threats. Confronting these wicked challenges will require conjuring new approaches to doing, and communicating, science. In 1985, Michael Soulé defined the emerging field of conservation biology as a ‘crisis-driven discipline’. Today, conservation scientists and practitioners aim to protect species, habitats, landscapes, and ecosystems as quickly, efficiently, and economically as possible to preserve biodiversity and natural resources.


Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park, where scientists have tracked the impacts of climate change on flora and fauna.

At the core of conservation biology is an explicit understanding that humans are part of the ecosystems we inhabit and exploit. And as crises mount, and human impacts become more evident, scientists, journalists, and science communicators seek every possible avenue for sharing the best available science with audiences far beyond the academy.


Inspired by personal experience of ecological crises and a belief in the power of story, Liz Neeley, Jonathan Moore, and I, working with PLOS Biology’s Liza Gross, have curated a collection of peer-reviewed, scientifically robust stories that highlight the deeply human side of research. Each story presents the real experiences and emotions their authors lived through while conducting research. They represent an experiment with a new model for scientific publishing that blends rigorous science with an intrinsically human mode of communication – storytelling.


The golden toad, once abundant in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, now extinct. (Photo: Charles H. Smith)

Storytelling is an ancient craft that gives voice to our emotions in a way that can resonate with and even transform others. Storytelling can also be an effective way to engage nonexpert audiences that, research suggests, is (not surprisingly) easier to comprehend than traditional scientific communication. Yet, the conventional mode of scientific research publishing often constrains scientists to write up their research results stripped of the stories behind the question-asking, hypothesis-testing, and data collection. Consequently, scientific publications are often dry and – especially for non-scientists – boring!


The stories in this collection encompass a broad range of conservation research topics and reflect a diversity of authors, subjects, and geography. Our contributors study across species and habitats from the common fish that inhabit western Virginia creeks and frogs that once lived throughout the cloud forests straddling Costa Rica and Panama, to the big cats of the Sonora Sierra Madre Mountains and rare butterflies of North Carolina.


Here’s a roundup of the stories we’re publishing this week:

  • Karen Lips offers us a front-row seat to extinction as she relives the horror of watching the rainforest frogs she studied for years disappear.
  • Nick Haddad heals from a personal trauma that leads to an epiphany about the best route to recovery for the rare butterflies he studies.
  • Elizabeth Hadly recalls the “bygone days” when scientists, the public, and policymakers worked to reverse the damage caused by human activities and warns of the folly of inaction today, when planetary emergencies abound.
  • Emmanuel Frimpong compares his efforts to nurture students to the ecosystem services provided by a common minnow to make the case that abundant species need conservation too.
  • Sergio Avila-Villegas recounts a life-changing encounter with a jaguar that taught him a new ethics of studying endangered animals.

Bluehead chub, a common minnow species native to the U.S. Southeast. (Photo: Noel M. Burkhead)


Our hope with this collection is to illustrate that, through story, science is deeply informed by, and even benefits from, human emotions and experiences. We recognize that in some scientific arenas, storytelling has a bad reputation. It’s viewed as biased, baseless, and even manipulative. We agree on the need for rigor and careful representation of reality within science narratives. And while we did not subscribe to a traditional structure – instead asking authors to choose a format that best lent itself to their expression of experiences, results, and conclusions – submissions were peer reviewed, modeling the quality control and self-corrective nature of science. The resulting collection contains robust stories where scientists reflect on the process and results of their research to communicate with audiences in ways that traditional papers can’t.


What my community experienced last year was but one of many natural disasters around the world. Now, thankfully, the debris cleanup is progressing rapidly. Green shoots cover once blackened hillsides. By nature, human beings and the ecological systems we inhabit and depend upon are resilient. We can recover from a certain degree of destruction, trauma, and loss. But our innate and natural ability to recover is not enough to save us from the extent and rate of global change occurring today, and predicted into the future. Every system across all scales has limits that once breached are not possible to return from. Meeting the challenges we face from our global, wicked problems will require innovation in science and in science communication. Sharing our collective stories is one, powerful place to start.


Annaliese Hettinger works at the nexus of science, policy, and human dimensions. She is a postdoctoral researcher and science communicator based currently at the University of California Davis, Bodega Marine Laboratory.



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