Ecology: the most important science of our times

12 07 2013

rocket-scienceThe title of this post is deliberately intended to be provocative, but stay with me – I do have an important point to make.

I’m sure most every scientist in almost any discipline feels that her or his particular knowledge quest is “the most important”. Admittedly, there are some branches of science that are more applied than others – I have yet to be convinced, for example, that string theory has an immediate human application, whereas medical science certainly does provide answers to useful questions regarding human health. But the passion for one’s own particular science discipline likely engenders a sort of tunnel vision about its intrinsic importance.

So it comes down to how one defines ‘important’. I’m not advocating in any way that application or practicality should be the only yardstick to ascertain importance. I think superficially impractical, ‘blue-skies’ theoretical endeavours are essential precursors to all so-called applied sciences. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is fundamentally no such thing as a completely unapplied science discipline or question. As I’ve said many times before, ‘science’ is a brick wall of evidence, where individual studies increase the strength of the wall to a point where we can call it a ‘theory’. Occasionally a study comes along and smashes the wall (paradigm shift), at which point we begin to build a new one. Read the rest of this entry »

Having more tree species makes us wealthier

28 01 2013

money treeAs more and more empirical evidence pours in from all corners of the globe, we can only draw one conclusion about the crude measure of species richness (i.e., number of species) – having more species around makes us richer.

And I’m not talking about the esoteric or ‘spiritual’ richness that the hippies dribble about around the campfire after a few dozen cones pulled off the bong (I’ll let the confused among you try to work the meaning of that one out by yourselves), I’m talking about real money (incorporated into my concept of ‘biowealth‘).

The idea that ‘more is better’ in terms of the number of species has traditionally found some (at times, conflicting) empirical support in the plant ecology literature, the latest evidence about which I wrote last year. This, the so-called ‘diversity-productivity’ relationship (DPR), demonstrates that as a forest or grass ecosystem gains more species, its average or total biomass production increases.

Read the rest of this entry »

Malady of numbers

30 07 2012

Organism abundance is the parameter most often requiring statistical treatment. Statistics turn our field/lab notes into estimates of population density after considering the individuals we can see and those we can’t. Later, statistical analyses will relate our density estimates to other factors (climate, demography, genetics, human impacts), allowing the examination of key issues such as extinction risk, biomonitoring or ecosystem services (humus formation, photosynthesis, pollination, fishing, etc.). Photos – top: a patch of fungi (Lacandon Jungle, Mexico), next down: a palm forest (Belize river, Belize), next down: an aggregation of butterflies (Amazon, Peru), and bottom: a group of river dolphins (Amazon, Colombia). Photos by Salvador Herrando-Pérez.

Another interesting and provocative post from my (now ex-) PhD student, Dr. Salvador Herrando-Pérez. After reading this post, you might be surprised to know that Salva was one of my more quantitative students, and although he struggled to keep up with the maths at times, he eventually become quite an efficient ecological modeller (see for yourself in his recent publications here and here).

When an undergraduate faces the prospect of a postgraduate degree (MSc/PhD), he or she is often presented with an overwhelming contradiction: the host university expects the student to have statistical skills for which he/she might never have received instruction. This void in the education system forges professionals lacking statistical expertise, skills that are mandatory for cutting-edge research!

Universities could provide the best of their societal services if, instead of operating in isolation, they integrated the different phases of academic training students go through until they enter the professional world. Far from such integration in the last 20 years, universities have become a genuine form of business and therefore operate competitively. Thus, they seek public and private funding by means of student fees (lecturing), as well as publications and projects developed by their staff (research). In this kind of market-driven academia, we need indicators of education quality that quantify the degree by which early-career training methods make researchers useful, innovative and cost-effective for our societies, particularly in the long term.

More than a century ago, the geologist and educator Thomas Chamberlin (1) distinguished acquisitive from creative learning methods. The former are “an attempt to follow by close imitation the processes of other thinkers and to acquire the results of their investigation by memorising”. The latter represent “the endeavour… to discover new truth or to make a new combination of truth or at least to develop by one’s own effort an individualised assemblage of truth… to think for one’s self”. From the onset of their academic training, students of many countries are instructed in acquisitive methods of learning that reward the retention of information, much of which falls into oblivion after being regurgitated during an exam. Apart from being a colossal waste of resources (because it yields near null individual or societal benefits), this vicious machinery is reinforced by reward and punishment in convoluted manners. For instance, one of my primary-school teachers had boys seated in class by a ‘ranking of intelligence’; so one could lose the first seat if the classmate in the second seat answered a question correctly, which the up-to-then ‘most intelligent’ had failed to hit. Read the rest of this entry »

Gone with the birds

1 09 2011

Another great post by Salvador Herrando-Pérez.

Through each new species, evolution assembles a unique combination of genes. Ever since living forms have populated our planet (> 3 billion years), the number of combinations is incalculable. That is why evolution resembles a cocktail shaker. Contemporaneous biogeographers look for order in that shaker to explain the history of life, as much as historians look for monarchs and revolutions in a library to explain the history of humanity.

The ethnic diversity of our suburb, village or city obeys factors of different temporal extent. Recent factors such as wealth, politics (war, segregation), culture (tradition, religion), and technology (airplanes, bridges, tunnels) determine racial migration, mixing and extinction. On the other hand, pre-historical factors express the expansion of the earliest hominids from Africa to the other continents – what makes a bantu ‘bantu’, or an inuit ‘inuit’.

Present ecological conditions and the macro-evolutionary past stock the elements by which biogeography attempts to understand the mechanisms shaping the spatial distribution of species, e.g., why kangaroos are restricted to Oceania, or why you could believe you were in Spain while strolling through a Greek forest. Read the rest of this entry »

Drive the future of biodiversity research

20 07 2011

My colleague, Professor Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, has a few funky PhD positions available in high-tech biodiversity applications.

We are looking for interested graduate students, who are highly motivated and enjoy independent and unusual research in the general areas below. An interest in evolution and natural history are key requirements, and a background in any of the following would be useful: evolution, genetics, molecular biology, chemistry/biochemistry and environmental science.

Environmental Genomics

New genomic approaches for biodiversity studies of environmental samples: a number of PhD positions are available in a large-scale project to apply high throughput sequencing approaches to the analysis of environmental samples and develop a new range of methods to perform biodiversity surveys, taxonomic discovery, and environmental impact reports. The project will employ multiplexed PCR, 2nd/3rd-gen sequencing, bioinformatics and Phylogenetics to develop novel systems for rapid and accurate biodiversity assessment. Key topics within the project are the analysis of natural and re-use water supplies, monitoring presence and abundance of threatened species and Australian native grasses. A strong molecular biology and/or bioinformatics background is required. The project is a AU$1M Australian Research Council-industry partnership. Read the rest of this entry »

Taxonomy in the clouds

4 07 2011

Another post (see previous here, here and here) by my aspiring science-communicator PhD student, Salvador Herrando-Pérez.

Taxonomy uses rigorous rules of nomenclature to classify living beings, so every known species has a given ‘name’ and ‘surname’. The revision of certain taxonomic groups (particularly through genetic analyses) is favouring the proliferation of nominally new species, often propelled by virtue of their charisma and conservation status.

In secondary school, most of my classmates associated the subject ‘Biology’ with unpronounceable Latin taxonomic names, with which all known living beings are branded — ‘Canis lupus’ reads the identity card of humanity’s best friend. When the Swedish monk Carl Linnaeus proposed such binomial nomenclature, he could hardly imagine that, two hundred years later, his terminology would underpin national and transnational budgets for species conservation. Taxonomic nomenclature allows the classification of species into clusters of the same kind (e.g., diatoms, amanitas, polychaetes, skinks), and the calculation of an indispensable figure for conservation purposes: how many species are there at a given location, range, country, continent, or the entire planet?

Traditionally, taxonomists described species by examining their (external and internal) morphological features, the widest consensus being that two individuals of different species could not hybridise. However, a practical objection to that thinking was that if, for instance, an ocean separated two leopard populations, ethics should prevent us from bringing them in contact only to check if they produce fertile offspring, hence justifying a common-species status. Genetics currently provides a sort of ‘remote check’.

New species, new names

Over the last three decades, the boom of genetics and the global modernisation of environmental policies have fostered alternative criteria to differentiate species, populations, and even individuals. As a result, experts have created a colourful lexicon to label management or conservation units or new taxonomical categories such as that of a subspecies1, e.g., Canis lupus dingo for the wild Australian dog (dingo). These changes have shaken the foundations of taxonomy because several definitions of species (biological, phylogenetic, evolutionary) are forced to live under the umbrella of a common nomenclature. Read the rest of this entry »