Tag Archives: natural

Are the Combined Effects of Human Development Worse Than the Sum of Their Parts?

Decreases in river discharge can negatively affect fish like this sucker, but what happens when they’re compounded by local changes in land use? (Image Credit: Hotash, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Anthropogenic land-use change intensifies the effect of lows flows on stream fishes (2019) Walker, Girard, Alford & Walters, Journal of Applied Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13517

The Crux

Human activity can create a lot of different problems for the world’s ecosystems. These problems can impact an ecosystem simultaneously, often in different ways. For instance, a warming climate might push some species further towards the poles, but human structures like factories or mines might impede their dispersal. It’s relatively easy to study the effect of any one stressor that we place on a species, but looking at the interaction of multiple human-caused stressors is more difficult.

Take freshwater ecosystems. A warming climate means that there’s less snow and more rain in the winter, which reduces the river’s flow (or discharge) in summer. At the same time, nearby human construction can reduce nearby plant life, which in turn increases the amount of sediment washed into a river and lowers water quality. But do the two effects combined simply equal the sum of their parts, or does that combination make the total effect on local species even worse?

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Preserving Biological Heritage: The Importance of Type Specimens

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.

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We’ve all seen them, either on Instagram or out on the hiking trails and in creek beds. Sure, it may look cool in your time lapse video, but did you know that every single one of these is causing damage to the environment? (Image credit: Craig Stanfill CC BY-SA 2.0).

Yes, cairns are bad. Yes, they look cool, and yes, you get lots of likes for them, but they are bad for the environment and YOU SHOULD STOP BUILDING THEM! There, now that that’s out of the way, let’s have a conversation about cairns and why you should never, EVER, build another one again (and actually take down any that you see).

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Erica McAlister: On the Appreciation of Flies

Dr. Erica McAlister of the British Natural History Museum recently released The Secret Life of Flies, an exploration of the more fascinating side of the fly (Image Credit: Erica McAlister, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

The Norwegian ForBio conference occurs once a year, and brings together a large collection of biosystematics experts from the Nordic countries. Biosystematics being a bit outside my field, it’s not something I’d generally attended, however this year it was 250m away from my office, so I considered attending. But what tipped me over the edge was the presence of Dr. Erica McAlister of the British Natural History Museum, who in late 2017 published The Secret Life of Flies, a brilliant expose on one of nature’s traditionally less sympathetic taxa.

Erica’s talk was fascinating, replete with stories of lost artifacts, mosquito sex and David Attenborough. Afterwards, I got the chance to sit down and chat with Erica about everything from the problem with honeybees, to the beauty of mosquitoes to issues with a certain Jeff Goldblum character.

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Blending In

In nature, it often pays to blend in to your background, especially if you’re a prey species like the deer mice used in this study. (Image Credit: Gregory Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

Linking a mutation to survival in wild mice (2018) Barret et al. Science, 363, p. 499-504.

The Crux

A big part of ecological studies involves investigating how certain traits or behaviors work (adapted) or don’t work (maladapted) in a specific environment, while scientists who study genetics may investigate specific parts of the DNA that are under selection for specific values of a given trait. Surprisingly, not many studies investigate these two aspects of natural selection simultaneously, instead they will attribute selection to a specific trait value without knowing the genetic mechanisms behind it.

The authors of this study used a well-studied model system of deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) to link these two aspects of ecology together, tying a mutation in a gene that codes for coat color into selection in the wild. The study took place in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, a relatively young region (in geological terms) where these mice are expected to have recently adapted to the environment due to strong selection for traits that promote their survival.

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