The Loh Down On Science

How do you track the absence of species? This ecologist found a clever way!

New York Public Library

Vintage Hilton Hawaiian Village menu.

Is there scientific data to be found in . . . restaurant menus?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Meet Kyle Van Houtan.  He’s an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.  Van Houtan researched fish counts in Hawaii. 

Scientists typically use government records for this research.  But Van Houtan encountered a problem!  Government fishery tallies were pretty spotty in Hawaii before the 1950s.

But he realized:  Maybe fish weren’t getting counted back then.  But they were still what was for dinner.

So Van Houtan turned to an unusual data source:  restaurant menus!   Tourists return from Hawaii with souvenirs.  Grass skirts, macadamia nuts, and, sometimes, menus.  Van Houtan gathered vintage menus.  From personal collections, museums, even libraries.  Three-hundred-seventy-six in all.

What did they reveal?  Before 1940, near-shore fish filled menus.  But later? Ocean going fish, like tuna and swordfish dominated.  Van Houtan compared that to recent data and concluded:  Hawaii’s near-shore fish populations have dropped dramatically.

He says menus could likely be useful for other scientific research.

We’ll need more crayons at this table!  If not an umbrella drink.

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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