Tag Archives: ecology

The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Four

This installment includes thoughts from (left to right) Dag Hessen, Erica McAlister, Rasmus Hansson and Prue Addison (Image Credits: Dag Hessen, University of Oslo; Erica McAlister, CC BY-SA 2.0; Miljøpartiet de Grønne, CC BY-SA 2.0; Synchronicity Earth, CC BY 2.0)

Running EcoMass means we get to sit down with some exceptionally interesting ecologists, conservations, and in this post, even environmental politicians. Most of these individuals have been a part of the discipline for much longer than we have, so when we get the chance we pick their brains about how ecology has changed over the past decades. It’s always interesting to hear which aspects of ecological life we take for granted simply weren’t there 40, 30 or even 10 years ago.

You can also check out parts one (link), two (link) and three (link) of our Changing Face of Ecology specials, and click on the names below to read our full interviews with each of this issue’s respondents.

Tim Robertson, Head of Informatics, Global Biodiversity Information Facility

Biological Data Management

I would say that I see much more collaboration today across our community, and willingness to work together and share data than when I joined 12 years ago. I think there’s less competition and there’s more willingness to share content, software and expertise. That has been a very rewarding thing to be part of. I work at GBIF, which is really more of a community than an organisation, and as a product of that change the community has grown very healthily.

Dag Hessen, Professor, Section for Aquatic Biology and Toxicology, University of Oslo

Aquatic Biology, Ecological Author

I think ecology is probably one of the topics that have changed the least. We got the basic concepts like food webs, trophic cascades etc. decades ago. But since then I think ecology has evolved too little.

I think what has changed is the type of analysis that’s done. You used to be able to go to a conference and present data from “your lake”. Just one lake. And there was someone in the audience who might raise their hand afterwards and say, maybe that’s what happens in your lake, but not in my lake. It was a very phenomenological way of thinking, which isolated case studies didn’t help. So the advent of meta analysis, time series, large spatial studies, these things that were seen as pretty laborious before have now become hot stuff. And it’s helped improve our statistical analysis.

Erica McAlister, Senior Curator, Diptera, Natural History Museum, London

Entomology, Evolutionary Genetics

We’re becoming very difficult to understand to the layperson. If you’d walked into a genetics talk at a conference these days today with no understanding of molecular incrimination, you would have struggled. We have to think about how we can communicate better. When we communicate to a wider, maybe not scientific, audience, it would be better to focus on what we’ve understood from the data, not get tangled up in methodology and vernacular. I do think we’re becoming more and more exclusive within science and in disciplines – we’re having issues communicating amongst ourselves at times due to such much science speak.

On the plus side, we can ask so much now. I don’t have to be a specialist in one discipline anymore, I can facilitate and work alongside other people with other backgrounds, which is great. I’ve got sequencing projects, morphology projects and then biodiversity projects and food security projects. I get to do all of that. So in many ways it’s brilliant that we’ve got all this technology, we’ve just got to be careful how we use it and phrase it.

Carsten Rahbek, Professor, Natural History Museum of Denmark

Global Ecology, Evolution and Climate

When I was doing my PhD thesis at the Smithsonian, I could go down to the library and sit there, and go through all the relevant journals in my field, and get an overview. That’s impossible today. The success and the relevance of ecology has caused a massive explosion of data and knowledge. So the amount of scientists working with this is immense.

Now sometimes we have the view that the more information we get the better. But massive information can lead to us not being able to tell up from down. So now we have the challenge of figuring out how to deal with all this information, so we can still extract and deduct sensible things out of it. Because if we’re just taking the consensus or the average, it’s going to be very skewed. So how do we deal with that?

Prue Addison, Conservation Strategy Director at the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust

Conservation Ecology

I think the most relevant change for me is the emergence of the field of applied research and knowledge exchange, actually achieving research impacts. It’s a growing discipline, and more and more scientists are really jumping into it. They’re asking how do we make our research more relevant, and we do that by working with end users, decision makers, the people who use the science, in a far more collaborative way. Rather than “scientist does research, publishes paper, expects the world to read it”. This is far more about, “scientist produces science that will help influence real decisions”. We want to have environmental benefits, we want to go and work out who we can work with that has the power to make decisions. To change how the environment will actually be in the future.

Whilst it is definitely improving, it’s still quite slow. The talk is happening. We know that research needs to have real societal impact and become more relevant. But metrics aren’t in place yet to evaluate whether Universities are actually doing that.

Rasmus Hansson, former leader of the Norwegian Green Party

Environmental Politics

When I grew up there was no ministry of the environment. There were no environmental studies, there was no environmental law. There was no environmental technology. There was no sector of business that made jobs and profits out of environmental solutions.

I would argue that environmentalism and everything connected to it is the biggest political and social change that has happened in Western society in the last 50 years. It is the most important project in any society. Even Russia and China have now had to become environmentally conscious. The change is colossal. The first environmental minister in Norway, more or less the first environmental minister in the world only came along sometime in the 70s. If you go back to the 1960s and take away environmentalism the world would be hell today. It would be absolute mayhem. So that’s the difference. The problem is whether development has already gone too far. Are we too far gone in terms of carbon emissions, land use? But either way, we have slowed our planet’s descent down enormously compared to what would have happened if [the environmental] movement had not started in the 1970s.

Modernising Ecological Data Management: Reflections from the Living Norway Seminar

Ecological data is constantly being collected worldwide, but how accessible is it?

Ecological data is constantly being collected worldwide, but how accessible is it? (Image Credit: GBIF, CC BY 2.0)

This week Trondheim played host to Living Norway, a Norwegian collective that aims to promote FAIR data use and management. It might sound dry from an ecological perspective, but I was told I’d see my supervisor wearing a suit jacket, an opportunity too preposterous to miss. While the latter opportunity was certainly a highlight, the seminar itself proved fascinating, and underlined just how important FAIR data is for ecology, and science in general. So why is it so important, what can we do to help, and why do I keep capitalising FAIR?

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To Blend in or Stand Out?

Body coloration of an animal can be useful for not only attracting prey, but also avoiding being eaten. One important question is whether or not this coloration can simultaneously serve both purposes? (Image Credit: Chen-Pan Liao, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Multifunctionality of an arthropod predator’s body coloration (2019) Liao et al., Functional Ecology, https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13326

The Crux

One topic that has interested ecologists for decades is that of animal body coloration, and what function that coloration can serve for the animal. Despite this fascination and the work that has been done to study this aspect of animal biology, the actual mechanisms driving the evolution and maintenance of body color are not well understood. Many different aspects of an organism’s life can shape and affect body color, such as avoiding predators, attracting mates, and whatever resources an organism has available to create specific colors. In addition, many of these aspects often compete with one another, such that a color that is good for attracting mates may also make you more easily-spotted by a predator.

Spiders provide an excellent system in which to study the evolutionary significance of body colors, as previous work has shown that body color affects mate attraction, predator avoidance, and prey attraction. The authors of today’s study wanted to know if these complex color patterns could serve more than one function in the spider’s life.
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The Ecology of Godzilla

With the King of the Monsters back for his second turn in cinemas, we go through the big, the bad and the bigger problems that a creature of this size might have if it lived on Earth. Is feeding on radiation useful? Don’t be ridiculous.

The Ecology of Godzilla

3:24 – Cinematic History of Godzilla
13:54 – The Ecology of Godzilla
42:16 – Godzilla vs. No-one

The Physiology of Godzilla

01:41 – 2014 Godzilla Need-to-Know
07:08 – The Physiology of Godzilla
37:14 – Vet’s PSA (Adopting Foreign Pets)

Dag Hessen: Advancing the Teaching of Ecology

Dag Hessen (second from right) believes that the teaching of ecology needs to move forward, better integrating our impact on the planet (Image Credit: paal @flickr, Image cropped, CC BY 2.0)

Teaching ecology has taken up a large chunk of my year. I love doing it, and I thoroughly enjoy seeing students becoming engaged in new concepts. But the way we teach ecology can often be quite static, with too little emphasis on how our ecosystems are changing, and how we can communicate this to a world thoroughly in need of more scientific understanding.

One person working to change how we teach ecology is Dag Hessen. I spoke to Dag earlier this year about communicating science to children through literature, which you can read more on here. But during the discussion we got sidetracked and went in-depth on how the teaching of ecology needs to change.

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How Different is Too Different?

This Peruvian warbling-antbird must walk a fine line between being different enough from its competitors to reproduce successfully, while staying similar enough to be able to recognize and outcompete the same competitors (Image Credit: Hector Bottai, Image Cropped, CC BY-SA 4.0).

Range-wide spatial mapping reveals convergent character displacement
of bird song (2019)
Kirschel et al., Proc B, https://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.0443

The Crux

In nature, many different organisms can be found in a single location, and sometimes those organisms are closely related to one another. When this happens, classical evolutionary theory predicts that these closely related species should differ in some ways, so as to differentiate members of their own species from others and avoid the costs associated with breeding with a mate that will not produce any viable offspring. This is called character displacement, and there are many examples of this in nature where two different species may be very similar when they live in different places (allopatry), but when they live in the same place (sympatry) they will differ in appearance, behavior, or the exact part of the local habitat that they live in (see Niche Partioning below).

A specific form of character displacement, called agonistic character displacement, occurs when traits or behaviors associated with competition differ between closely related species living in the same area. This is thought to reduce the costs of wasting energy on competing with an organism that you don’t really “compete” with. Agonistic character displacement can, however, result in greater similarity of traits when similar species live together, but previous studies in this area have not accounted for other causes of this similarity. Today’s authors wanted to do just that. Read more

Idealism and Environmentalism: The Green New Deal

American politicians Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, champions of the controversial environmentalist bill, the Green New Deal (Image Credit: Senate Democrats, CC BY 2.0)

If you’ve lost track of what’s going on in US politics (very excusable), you might have missed out on yet another issue that is dividing people. I’m not talking about the Mueller report, or gun legislation, or health care. I’m talking about the Green New Deal, named after the New Deal, a compilation of programs and projects that gave Americans jobs after the Great Depression and built quite a lot of infrastructure. The newest “Green” version is meant to do the same following the Great Recession that America has been suffering the aftershocks of since late last decade. An initiative sponsored by Democrats, the Green New Deal has come under fire from both sides for a wide range of reasons. While the movement for action against climate change is a global phenomenon, I am going to give a brief synopsis of what the Green New Deal represents in the US, and why it has been the subject of so much controversy.

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