This interview was first published in late 2018 on the predecessor to Ecology for the Masses under the title “Marlene Zuk: Gender in Science”. Image Credit: Marlene Zuk, University of Minnesota, CC BY 2.0
As part of a two-day gender equality workshop for the Department of Biology at NTNU, Kate Layton-Matthews and I had the chance to interview Professor Marlene Zuk. Marlene is a prominent evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist, and a well-known advocate of improved gender equality in academia.
Her emphasis on bringing about more fact-based discussions on gender and how to attract women to typically male-dominated professions is unfortunately still necessary. People are still maintaining the view that women are ‘naturally less inclined’ to what are considered as ‘masculine’ disciplines, but as Marlene explains, it is impossible to disentangle culture from genetics. Her work is fundamental in the face of such dangerous over-simplification, for instance in the light of the firing of a disgraced professor at Cern, the European nuclear research centre in Geneva, where a male professor commented that ‘Physics was built by men’, which was unsurprisingly met with immediate backlash. In the words of another gender equality-advocate and professor in Physics, Jessica Wade, we need to fight against the ‘toxic and incorrect messages’ that such people are propagating.
Deciding which species to conserve is hard enough, but deciding how many of a species is a viable goal is an entirely different matter (Image Credit: Frank Wouters, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
When talking about species conservation, my concern is always around how many individuals should there be in a population of species. What should be our numeric goal in re-establishing a species? Should the endangered anoa become as many as their domestic relative, the water buffalo, of which there are at least 3 million individuals in Indonesia? How about the songbirds? Should each species be as abundant as the chicken?
Endless forms most stupid, icky, and small: The preponderance of noncharismatic invertebrates as integral to a biologically sound view of life (2020) Jesse Czekanski‐Moir & Rebecca J. Rundell, Ecology & Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6892
When we think about evolution, too often our perception is that it drives species towards larger, more complex, more beautiful forms. It’s driven by popular media in part, but also by the way we teach it and the organisms we choose to focus on. This goes right back to early conceptions of evolution, with Darwin’s seminal text The Origin of Species referencing “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful”, instead of “most basic and abhorrent”.
But the authors of today’s paper want to challenge that preconception of evolution as favouring larger or more complex or beautiful organisms, and they have some truly magnificent examples to do so with.
Tasmanian Devil at the Zoo Duisburg, in 2017. The only zoo in Germany that keeps them. (Credit: Mathias Appel / CC0)
With the seemingly endless stream of bad news relating to the environment we’re often faced with these days, hearing ecosystem restoration or conservation success stories are always a welcome relief. With the number of species that have been displaced from their native habitats, the news of an endangered species being successfully introduced to a new area should be shouted out. So you cannot blame a conservation geneticist like me for jumping happily when I heard news of the release of the European bison and Tasmanian devil back to their native habitat.
Ancient DNA can teach us a great deal about prehistoric life. So why is it so troublesome? (Image Credit: Flying Puffin, CC BY-SA 2.0)
When we’ve talked about type specimens on Ecology for the Masses, we‘ve spent a lot of time emphasising how important it is to preserve them. Bottom line is, if they get destroyed, there are a lot of really important biological questions that become very difficult to answer.
Thankfully, landmark leaps in technology have made it possible to extract DNA from those specimens and store them in a public repository (e.g. the NCBI nucleotide database). So then even if a specimen is lost, the DNA would still be there and could be compared to that of other specimens to figure out if it’s the same species. Sounds like a clever and straightforward thing to do, but as always, it’s more complicated in reality.
Image Credit: billp1969, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped
You might have come across the word “subspecies” when reading about biodiversity, but what does the term actually mean? And do we really need a more precise classification beyond species? There is unfortunately no consensus about this. Ask 5 biologist and you’ll get at least 10 different answers. So let’s have a look at why it’s such a complicated issue.
Museum collections may seem like they’re just for display, but they often house important biological information (Image Credit: Andrew Moore, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)
Last September, the devastating news of a fire in Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro hit the world. The fire destroyed most of the collection, including about 5 million insect specimens. Many of the samples were holotypes, a subset of type specimens which are particularly valuable to the scientific world. If you want an indication of just how valuable, some researchers even charged back into the building while it was on fire to rescue these specimens, saving about 80 % of the mollusc holotypes.
I speak to another group of influential researchers on how ecology has changed over the recent decades (Image Credits: Sam Perrin, Mallee Catchment Management Authority, Gretta Pecl, CSIRO, CC BY-SA 2.0, all images cropped)
I’m 29. It’s not like that makes me uniquely qualified to give me the youth’s perspective on ecology today. But it does make me 100% unqualified to talk about how ecology has changed in recent decades. So when I was at the recent Australian Society for Fish Biology Conference (a line you’ll surely be sick of if you’ve been keeping up with my recent interviews), I decided to get some uniquely fishy perspectives on how our discipline has changed over the last 20-30 years.
The following commentaries are naturally from fish biologists. If you’d like a broader perspective on the changing face of ecology, check out Part One and Part Two of this series. You can also find the full interview with all the scientists below by clicking on their names.