Author Archives: tanjakp

Locating Shark’s Teeth in the Phone Book

Supervisors: they’re our mentors, bosses, idols. Sometimes, they can seem almost super-human – they know everything, and find every single flaw in your work.

So it can be easy to forget that your supervisors and various other higher-ups are not necessarily a species of perfect, paper mass-producing, hyper-creative geniuses, but in reality just experienced people, who still make mistakes and have “brain-farts”. The following is a personal encounter I had which serves as proof.

The setting: we’re at the University of Copenhagen, the year is 2014. I was in the final stage of my Bachelor’s studies. In many countries, writing a Bachelor’s thesis is common practice, and it’s exactly like a Master’s thesis, just smaller. We thought of it a bit like a “practice round”, before the real deal. However, you’re still doing new science, and for many of us, it’s the first independent work we do in our careers.

At this point in my life, I was playing around with the thought of becoming a paleontologist, and therefore did my project within that topic. I did my thesis at the Geological Museum, and my mission was (at least from the outside) rather simple: I was handed a box with fossilized shark teeth, which had been collected in Angola in the 1980s. I was tasked with figuring out from what kinds of sharks they came from, and based on that, make some qualified guesses regarding the time period and the environment in which they had originated. Relatively straight-forward!

The box itself had been handed over to the museum by a private collector in the 80s. He had worked at a limestone quarry in western Angola, was hired by a Danish company, and had collected the teeth for fun as they popped out of the limestone during his employment. At a point, he had handed over the box to the Geological Museum, thinking that they might be interested. Since then, it had been lying in a corner somewhere, never analyzed, his name and address at the time meticulously handwritten in cursive on a piece of paper in the box.

Sounds like a pretty sweet, deal, right? I’m not going to lie: despite inevitable frustrations along the way, it was.

BUT! It turned out to be pretty darn difficult figuring out anything, given no one knew anything about the actual collection of the teeth. “Western Angola” is a relatively big area, and the exact position of an old limestone quarry on the other side of the world is surprisingly difficult to find.

I tried contacting the assumed company (which had, of course, changed name in the meantime) – nothing.

Carcharhinus_falciformis_off_Cuba

During my Bachelor’s thesis, I managed to find the location of some ancient shark teeth by looking in the one place we’d completely neglected – the phone book (Image Credit: Alex Chernikh, CC BY 2.5,)

I tried prying my supervisor, hoping that some crucial piece of information resided in the back of his head – nothing. The box had been handed in before he was hired at the museum, and the collector was likely dead by now. My frustrations grew to the point of unbearable!

One day, a friend of mine, who did her project in the same department, stopped by, and I managed to vent my frustrations. Jokingly, she suggested that we could try Googling the name of the collector. I laughed it off, and declared that according to my supervisor, the man was long gone. Well, maybe he had some family, who knew something, she suggested – it couldn’t hurt looking, and it slightly better to procrastinate doing that, than stalking people on Facebook.

Lo and behold!

His name popped up in the online version of a phone book…

with a phone number…

and apparently at the same address as on the note.

I re-checked multiple times, as this could not possibly be – but then again, what would the odds be of another man with the exact same name, living on that exact address?

Baffled, I went to my supervisor to ask, if I could contact the collector and ask him about the teeth, or if there were any specific reasons, why he or others had not done that yet.

He looked at me with wide eyes, silent for a few seconds, then said (I might be paraphrasing slightly, it’s been a while):

“He is still alive? How did you find out!?”

“I googled his name. He’s in the phone book – same address as he gave back in the day. Can I call him? He can probably tell me some more details about the specimens.”

At this point, my supervisor stood up, crossed the room, and shook my hand. “Yes! Well done! Thank you! Why didn’t I think of that?”

So there you have it: the next time you’re intimidated by a professor or another superior, thinking that they are some kind of super-human knowledge-machines, remember:

Sometimes they forget to check the phone book.

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson: Rise of the Planet of the Insects

Anne-Sverdrup-Thygeson has made it her life's mission to fascinate the world - with insects

Anne-Sverdrup-Thygeson has made it her life’s mission to fascinate the world – with insects (Image Credit: Håkon Sparre, CC BY 2.0)

The Internet has been set abuzz (pun intended) lately by rumours of the Insect Apocalypse. And whilst the concept itself is depressing, it’s worth smiling at the fact that the public has finally started to take an interest in the ecological plight of a group of animals until recently ignored whenever possible. After all, insects include, wasps, cockroaches, bees and myriad other ‘nasties’.

Professor Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is one academic/author who has made it her life’s mission to turn people around on insects, which includes her recent Brage Prize nominated book “Terra Insecta”. Sam Perrin and I sat down at the recent Norwegian Ecological Society Conference to ask Anne about why people have an aversion to creepy crawlies, how scientific communication helps in her mission, and whether or not the planet could survive the eradication of the mosquito.

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Bigger is Not Better

Not all GPS coordinate data are created equal, and some of it may actually be meaningless. (Image Credit: Daniel Johansson, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The smartphone fallacy – when spatial data are reported at spatial scales finer than the organisms themselves (2018) Meiri, S., Frontiers of Biogeography, DOI: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2n3349jg

The Crux

One of the greatest annoyances when using museum specimens, old datasets, or large occurrence databases (such as GBIF) is when the locality of an occurrence is only vaguely described, and the coordinate uncertainty is high; “Norway” or “Indochina” doesn’t really tell you much about where that specific animal or plant was seen. Luckily, the days where such vague descriptions were the best you could get are long gone, as most of us now walk around with a GPS in our pockets, and even community science data can be reported very accurately, and more or less in real-time.

However, we have now encountered the opposite problem: the reported coordinates of organisms are often too precise to be realistic, and in the worst-case scenario, they might be borderline meaningless. The author of this study wanted to highlight how this advance in technology coupled with our eagerness to get more accurate data and results have made us too bold in our positional claims.

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The Sitka Spruce

The Sitka Spruce was introduced by the timber industry, and now covers almost 5 million hectares in Norway

The Sitka Spruce was introduced by the timber industry, and now covers almost 5 million hectares in Norway (Image Credit: Paul Harald Pedersen, Fylkesmannen in Nord-Trøndelag, CC BY 4.0 )Tanja Petersen

Once again, let us talk about trees. Do not be fooled by their innocent appearance – that is exactly what they want! In reality, they can be just as problematic as any animal species. This week I takes a closer look at the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).

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Alien Trees & Filling the Knowledge Gap

recent report jointly published by WWF, Sabima, Friends of the Earth Norway and the Norwegian Botanical Society showed that alien tree species are one of the largest threats to native tree species, even inside protected areas. The news even reached Norwegian news outlet NRK. But why are alien trees a problem? Isn’t a tree, well, just a tree? As guest blogger Tanja Petersen explains, not quite.

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