Meet Four Cincinnatians Who Are Spearheading Ecological Change

The Queen City is home to some of our most outspoken eco champions.

Whether in the field, in the lab, or behind the camera, these four experts have devoted their lives and work to studying the natural world.


Photograph courtesy Joseph Johnson, other images

Joseph Johnson, Assistant professor and researcher at the University of Cincinnati

During his undergraduate studies, Johnson learned that bats represent nearly a quarter of all mammal species on the planet. He’s been fascinated by them ever since. Twenty years later, Johnson is an ecologist and assistant professor in the School of Information Technology at UC, where he does research using environmental sensors to better understand animal populations, including bats. White-nose syndrome, an invasive fungus, has decimated several bat species, pushing them toward extinction, but Johnson is leading a number of projects that aim to better understand where bats live. One of those projects involves collecting information from private landowners, public organizations, businesses—anyone who has bats living around them. “We have a considerable number of opportunities to make substantial contributions to wildlife conservation of bats right here in our towns and cities,” Johnson says.

Photograph courtesy Cheryl Dykstra, other images

Cheryl Dykstra, Wildlife research consultant and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Raptor Research

Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dykstra completed her Ph.D. studies on the impacts of contaminants on bald eagle populations on Lake Superior. For the last 25 years, she’s studied red-shouldered hawks in Cincinnati and the Hocking Hills region. Dykstra and her colleagues were the first to study urban red-shoulders in eastern North America and have learned that city birds are adapting well and reproducing at the same rate as their counterparts in more natural study sites. Dykstra co-edited the book Urban Raptors: Ecology and Conservation of Birds of Prey in Cities with Clint Boal, another researcher of urban birds of prey at Texas Tech University. “We designed the book to be a valuable source of knowledge for researchers, wildlife management agencies, urban green space planners, and enthusiastic birdwatchers alike,” she says.

Photograph courtesy Valerie Pence, other images

Valerie Pence, Director of plant research at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife

As it stands, due to habitat loss, climate change, and other factors, 25 percent of the plant biodiversity in our world is in danger of being lost. But some plants can’t be conserved in traditional seed banks. Sometimes, Pence explains, the seeds can’t survive the seed banking process or there may be too few or no seeds to bank. That’s where her team at the Exceptional Plant Signature Project at the Cincinnati Zoo steps in. They develop and utilize technologies that cryopreserve embryos or tissues of the plant, putting them in liquid nitrogen for storage. Her lab has developed protocols for conserving some of the most endangered species in the United States, including local restoration projects of Cumberland sandwort, running buffalo clover, and Kentucky clover in parts of Kentucky. Pence is currently focused on developing methods that improve cryopreservation methods for oak trees.

Photograph courtesy Jordan West, other images

Jordan West, Independent wildlife photographer and educator

Originally from Cincinnati, West started carrying around a point-and-shoot camera on hikes about 10 years ago. “I was taking photos of everything that moved, including reptiles, amphibians, and birds,” West says. “I became obsessed with learning everything that I could about my subjects.” He was amazed at how many species he had never heard of that could be seen in Cincinnati. Today, West travels around the region (and is a frequent visitor to Spring Grove Cemetery) practicing ethical wildlife photography, obtaining images of his subjects without disturbing them. He works closely with local birds of prey conservation organization RAPTOR, Inc. “Ethical photography can be as simple as not overstaying your welcome, especially at nest sites,” says West, who learns the routines and boundaries of his subjects, capturing close-ups of hawks, songbirds, owls, and other creatures from a distance with a large telephoto lens. He hopes his work raises awareness about the natural world around us and the species that we live alongside.

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