Category Archives: Opinions

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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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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