Category Archives: Opinions

Meet the Inbreeders

Image Credit: Mike Baird, CC BY 2.0; Chuck Szmurlo, CC BY 3.0; Ryan Hagerty, USFWS, Public Domain)

Nowadays we know to avoid mating with close relatives so that your children are healthy. As close relatives accumulate similar genetic diversity, mating between relatives of most species can lead to genetic diseases in their offspring. Humans have a lot of options; there are 7 billion of us worldwide. But how about an endangered species with less than 10 individuals in the wild?

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Calling All Scientists: Letters to a Pre-Scientist Needs Your Help!

Last year, 1650 students from across the US exchanged letters back and forth throughout the school year with professional scientists from around the world as part of the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program. Through the friendships formed between students and their scientist penpals, Letters to a Pre-Scientist helps kids see scientists as real people and empowers them to see themselves as future scientists.

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Ecological Modelling, the Coronavirus, and Why They’re Not A Perfect Match

Image Credit: Pharexia, Ratherous, AKS471883, Source Data from  Johns Hopkins University CSSEThe Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNew York TimesCNBC.

As it quickly became clear in late February and early March that COVID-19 was not going away anytime soon, attention turned to trying to figure out when and where the virus would spread. Epidemiologists and virologists have had their work cut out for them, trying to simultaneously reassure and warn people the world over about the dangers, the nature and the potential timeline of the virus.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to see ecologists try and tip their hat into the ring. Early on in the pandemic, teams of ecologists sprang up, trying to use Species Distribution Models to predict the spread of the virus. And whilst this might sound helpful, many of these studies lacked collaboration with epidemiologists, and their predictions very quickly fell flat. Some studies suggested that areas like Brazil and Central Africa would be largely spared by the virus, which quickly turned out not to be the case. Flaws in the studies were spotted quite quickly by concerned members of both the ecological and epidemiological communities alike, and a few teams got started on responses.

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Aliens & Invaders & Exotics, Oh My: The Language of Invasive Biology

The Burmese python, which has spread throughout the Everglades in Florida as a result of accidental or intentional releases by pet owners (Image Credit: US NInvaders, Aliens, and tational Park ServicePublic Domain Mark 1.0, Image Cropped)

Language is important. It’s a lesson many biological scientists would have learned a long time ago if we hadn’t kept social sciences at such a wary arm’s length. Ecologists have a tendency to label and relabel ecological concepts (anyone up for a debate about the word ‘niche’?), species and even global phenomena (think global warming vs. climate change) based on anything from shifts in public perception to new findings that challenge our earlier labels.

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On Fish Dispersal and the Perpetual Evil of the Duck

Image Credit: Norbert Nagel, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Credit

Woe betide my fishy ancestors, for I am come here today to vent my grievances at a paper so dastardly it has cast a tepid patina of anxiety on a LOT of the structured squabbling my colleagues and I call ‘research’.

Actually, I shouldn’t vent too harshly on the sarcopterygiites, those ancient lobe-finned ancestors of ours and their close cousins the regular fish. Birds, as always, are the main culprit here. An abhorrent series of mutations that messed up a perfectly good reptile.

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Pride in Science

Image credit: Joint Base Langley-Eustis,Va, CC0 1.0

Scientists face many challenges during their professional lives, but one prevalent problem that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves is that of the LGBTQIA+ (hereafter “queer”) community and the lack of inclusiveness in science. In honor of Pride Month, I wanted to take the time to highlight some of the challenges facing queer scientists and what we can do as a society to better ourselves.

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The Bird Watching Community: Citizen Science at its Finest

Image Credit: Warrieboy, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning. Whilst the sun has yet to rise and everyone is fast asleep, dedication and passion have awakened you. With a comfortable set of hiking boots, a thermos filled with coffee or tea and a pair of binoculars around your neck you venture into the local forest or mountain area. Hours you spent there searching, looking and listening. When you finally see those recognizable shades of pale brown and chestnut dashing by, or hear that distinctive, vibrant melody interspersed with prolonged pew-pew’s and swift chook-chook’s, you realize that it was well worth waking up so early.

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An Ugly Truth: Pandemics and the Livestock Trade

Image Credit: Hippopx, CC0 1.0, Image Cropped.

Ever since COVID-19 hit, things have changed for people the world over. Many governments enforced lockdowns on their citizens, certain products are harder to get than before (looking at you toilet paper hoarders), and there has been an enormous and terrible loss of life. A wet market in China is suspected to be the source of the outbreak, but one thing to consider as we move forward is that the risk of another outbreak from other animal markets remains high.

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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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