Category Archives: Opinions

What the Hell is On My Plant: A Botanist’s Guide to Metagenomics

Image Credit: Mislav Marohnić, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

If you’re unlucky, you already know that humans possess a skin microbiome. It sounds gross, but it’s simply an entire ecosystem of  microbes like bacteria living on our skin (maybe it is gross). Some of them help us, others might make us sick, for example when they enter open wounds. Plants have a similar set-up, hosting different ecosystems of bacteria on their leaves.

Hopefully, at this point I’ve made your skin crawl (because as you now know, it is literally crawling). But that microbiome can actually tell us some fascinating things about the animal or plant we’re looking at. So today, I’ll go through exactly what metagenomics is, and some of the information we can glean from a plant’s surface (I am a botanist after all).

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In Silico Science: Ecology Without the Nature

When dealing with complicated ecological concepts, theoretical models – though they may seem abstract – often help create bridges to fill in our understanding, writes Thomas Haaland (Image Credit: Aga Khan, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

It should not come as a surprise any more that most ecologists don’t spend all that much (work) time outside. Numerous posts on this blog about data management and ecological modelling draw a picture of a modern biologist spending most of their time in front of a computer rather than out in the field. However, the work is still intimately related to the natural world. Gathering the data is simply the first step on the way to scientific understanding, and between organizing data, analyzing data, interpreting results and writing them up, the computer hours just vastly outweigh the outdoor hours. But there is another, more mysterious breed of researchers that has even less to do with nature: theoretical biologists.

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Skype a Scientist: Breaking Down The Barriers Between Science and the Public

As with most of society, the COVID-19 virus has changed how ecological scientists have operated over the last few months. For some, field seasons ground to a halt as the requisite travel and cooperative work became impractical, or even dangerous. Productivity dropped for many as working from home or general anxiety took its toll. Others saw it as an opportunity to take science in new and interesting directions.

One such group was the Skype a Scientist team, who science communication initiative has flourished over the last month. The group facilitates informal online meetings between scientists and classrooms, and with a sudden global boom in video conferencing ability, its no wonder that Skype a Scientist has seen a rise in popularity. In light of the current situation, the program has even been expanded to include families, and any group of more than five students.

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Adaptation of Forests to Climate Change: Is It Possible?

Urbión Model Forest in Castilla y León, Spain (Image Credit: Julia Ramsauer)

In a world in which it’s still tough to convince many people that climate change is a very real phenomena, figuring out ways to tackle climate change is an even more difficult problem to wrap our heads around. In general, there are two strategies we can use: (1) mitigation (reducing the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) and, (2) adaptation (reducing the vulnerability of societies and ecosystems facing the impacts of climate change).

In my last piece (linked here), I wrote about the effects of climate change on forests. But what about the reverse, and their potential to mitigate climate change? Forests are crucial for climate change mitigation – they literally suck carbon out of the atmosphere. At the same time, forest adaptation will be necessary to avoid degradation of forest ecosystems due to a changing climate: an extremely complex task.

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Surprises From the Past: The Revelations of Ancient DNA

Forest Tundra on the Taymyr Peninsula between Dudinka and Norilsk near Kayerkan, Russia, taken in 2016. Was it always look like this? Should it look like this?
Image Credit: Ninaras, CC BY 4.0, Image Cropped

Although obtaining ancient DNA can be quite a headache, it is a very rewarding headache. After all the work that goes into obtaining DNA from a bone, fur, hair, or Viking’s leftover meal, researchers have to make sense of the apparent random sequence of nucleotide bases. But once that’s taken care of, there are a series of really interesting questions we can start to answer. Were DNA strands that are present in the modern times inherited from the past? How similar are today’s species to their forebears? Where is my pet velociraptor?

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The Mystery of the Sabertoothed Salmon

Image Credit: Jacob Biewer, Sankey et al., 2015

The charisma of enormous, slashing teeth is undeniable. Despite the fact that there are a myriad of fascinating prehistoric carnivores, the big mammals that the documentaries, big-budget films and kid’s shows seem to come back to are the sabre-toothed carnivores. Massive slashing teeth are actually a trait that has popped up a lot over the course of the Earth’s history, with at least three different groups of cat or cat-like mammal evolving them as a hunting mechanism. As well as a fish.

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Fostering a Sense of Place: Citizen Science for Conservation Decision Making

Volunteers collect data as part of the Centennial Saguaro Survey in Arizona, USA. (Image credit: US National Park Service, CC0, Image Cropped)

When it comes to making conservation decisions, science is just the first step. Putting scientific research to work addressing conservation challenges requires collaboration between researchers, stakeholders, and the public. And increasingly, researchers point to citizen science as a way to engage the public in conservation.

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