What is the role of today’s academic society?

29 04 2022

This is not a rhetorical question. I really do want to solicit responses to the aspects I will raise in this post, because I have to admit that I’m a little unclear on the subject.

Preamble — While I do not intend to deflate the value of any particular academic society, I’m sure some might take offence to the mere notion that someone would dare challenge the existence of academic societies. I confess to have belonged to several academic societies in my career, but haven’t bothered for some time given the uncertainties I describe below.

A Subjective History

In my view, the academic society represented an important evolutionary step in the organisation of thematic collegiality. As disciplines became ever more specialised, it was an opportunity to unite like-minded colleagues and support new generations of academics in the field.

In the pre-internet days, academic societies provided the necessary fora to interact directly with one’s peers and advance. They also published thematic journals, organised field trips, garnered funds for scholarships, recognised prowess via awards, and crafted and promulgated constitutions on issues as varied as academic behaviour, societal warnings, governance, and politics.

Face-to-face meetings were indeed the primary vehicle for these interactions, and are a mainstay even in today’s pandemic world (but more discussion on the modern implications of these below).

Peer-reviewed disciplinary journals were arguably one of the most important products of the academic society. Back before academic publishing became the massive, profit-churning, mega-machine rort that it is today, such journals were integral to the development of different academic fields.

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Bane of the bees

19 04 2022

Bees are essential for pollination, but their critical function can be perturbed by pesticides. The detrimental effects of those chemicals accumulate through a bee’s life, and become stronger if females cannot collect pollen from wildflowers.

Our childhood experiences partly determine our health, personality, and lifestyle when we are adults, and our experiences accumulate over time. Accumulation also occurs in any living being and can explain why some populations and species adapt to their environments better than others.

Migratory birds are a clear example. Thousands can travel to their breeding grounds after wintering elsewhere, and those coming from regions laden with resources (e.g., food, shelter, water) will have a greater reproductive success than those that migrated from resource-poor regions (1). In ecology, these ‘carry-over’ effects can take place between seasons, but also across the different phases of the life cycle of a plant or animal (2).

From larvae to adults

Clara Stuligross and Neal Williams have studied the carry-over effect of pesticides on the blue orchard bee Osmia lignaria in California (3). Instead of the typical hives constructed by the honey bee (Apis mellifera), solitary blue orchard bees make lines of brood cells with mud partitions, glued into holes and crevices of branches and trunks from fallen trees (see videos herehere, & here).

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LXXI

11 04 2022

Now that the Australian election has been called for next month, here are a few cartoon reminders of the state of environmental politics in this country (hint: they’re abysmal). I’ve surpassed my normal 6 cartoons/post here in this second set for 2022 because, well, our lives depend on the outcome of 21 May. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.


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A cascade of otters

4 04 2022

Carnivores are essential components of trophic webs, and ecosystem functions crumble with their loss. Novel data show the connection between calcareous reefs and sea otters under climate change.


Trophic cascade on the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA) linking sea otters (Enhydra lutris) with sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus) and calcareous reefs (Clathromorphum nereostratum). With males weighting up to 50 kg, sea otters have been IUCN-catalogued as Endangered since 2000. The top photo shows a male in a typical, belly-up floating position. The bottom photo shows live (pinkish) and dead (whitish) tissue on the reef surface as a result of grazing of sea urchins at a depth of 10 m. Sea otters are mesopredators, typically foraging on small prey like sea urchins, but their historical decline due to overhunting unleashed the proliferation of the echinoderms. At the same time, acidification and sea-water warming have softened the skeleton of the reefs, allowing for deeper grazing by sea urchins that eliminate the growth layer of living tissue that give the reefs their pinkish hue. Large extents of dead reefs stop fixing the excess in carbonic acid, whose carbon atoms sea water sequesters from the atmosphere enriched in carbon by our burning of fossil fuels. Photos courtesy of Joe Tomoleoni taken in Moss Landing – California, USA (otter), and on the Near Islands – Aleutian Archipelago, Alaska (reef).

For most, the decisions made by people we have never met affect our daily lives. Other species experience the same phenomenon because they are linked to one another through a trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade occurs when a predator limits the abundance or behaviour of its prey, in turn affecting the survival of a third species in lower trophic levels that have nothing directly to do with the predator in question (1).

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) represent a text-book example of a trophic cascade. These mustelids (see video footage here and here) hunt and control the populations of sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus), hence favouring kelp forests  — the fronds of which are eaten by the sea urchins.

Removing the predator from the equation should lead to more sea urchins and less kelp, and this chain of events is exactly what happened along the coasts of the North Pacific (2, 3). The historical distribution of sea otters once ranged from Japan to Baja California through the Aleutian Islands (see NASA’s photo from space, and documentary on the island of Unimak), a sub-Arctic, arc-shaped archipelago including > 300 islands between Alaska (USA) and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia), extending ~ 2000 kilometres, and having a land area of ~ 18,000 km2.

But the fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries brought the species to the brink of extinction, down to < 2000 surviving individuals (4). Without otters, sea urchins boomed and deforested kelp ecosystems during the 20th Century (5). Now we also know that this trophic cascade has climate-related implications in other parts of the marine ecosystem.

Underwater bites

Doug Rasher and collaborators have studied the phenomenon on the Aleutian Islands (6). The seabed of this archipelago is a mix of sandy beds, kelp forests, and calcareous reefs made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates fixed by the red algae Clathromorphum nereostratum. These reefs have grown at a rate of 3 cm annually for centuries as the fine film of living tissue covering the reef takes the carbonates from the seawater (7).

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