Jabberwocky Ecology

Starting young: getting ecologists to blog

Within the small community of ecologist bloggers much has been of the lack of blogging (and other odd pursuits like twittering) among ecologists (this is, afterall, EEB & Flow‘s raison d’etre), and I recently read over at academHacK that “in the future [academics] can be online or be irrelevant”. So, this semester I did what I could to get some future ecologists blogging. Instead of having traditional writing assignments for my Biogeography course I required students to set up a blog and post at least 3 EEB & Flow style posts about papers they read from the primary literature (I didn’t know about EEB & Flow at the time, but this was/is the spirit of the assignment). The response so far has been very positive and at least a couple of students (mostly of the graduate persuasion) have taken to blogging in a way that suggests to me that they’ll do this again in the future (i.e., they’ve already posted more posts than required even though they already know that they’ve locked down an A).

In my broader experience with introducing ecologists to new technology it’s really all about exposing folks to the potential of the new approach. Once they’ve seen the potential of something ecologists tend to embrace it pretty quickly. So, start your students young. Show them how easy it is to set up a blog, get them posting a little, and maybe soon we’ll all be clammering to be heard above crowd.

Evolution in the Multiverse

Today, I was watching a great episode of the History Channel show “The Universe“, which was exploring the concept of the nature of the universe. (On the off chance you are some type of physicist or astronomer who has stumbled on to this blog, you might want to skip to the next paragraph. It’ll be less painful for you that way). The episode explored the concept of whether there are alternate universes and, if so, what is their relationship to our universe. Apparently there are several different types of possible alternative universes. The two possibilities (of the four types of multiple universe scenarios) that I vaguely understood were a) parallel universes may coexist in the same physical space as ours or b) many universes may be floating along through “hyperspace” like soap bubbles. When I was a high schooler, I was torn between two career paths: ecology and astrophysics (yes, I know. I’ve always been a woman with broad interests). Honestly, if I had known that such wild theories about the universe were being studied, I might well have made a different decision. It would also have helped if I was better at math.

What caught my attention in this episode, however, was the assumption that, in alternative universes, not only would human beings exist, but I would exist. Having chosen the ecology path, this immediately got me to thinking about evolution. “Replaying the tape of earth history” has long been a thought experiment in the study of evolution. If we reran the history of life from the beginning, what would life look like right now – 4.54 billion years after the formation of the earth? The crux of the question is: how random is evolution? On the extinction side one could ask questions like: Would catastrophes that occurred in the past have the exact same impact on life on earth? Or would subtle differences in timing and conditions of the event or the activity of individuals lead to survival of species that otherwise went extinct – thus altering the web of species’ interactions and evolutionary potential of earth’s biota? On the evolution side: are key mutations and innovations inevitable (i.e. would they occur again if the tape was replayed) and if so, would they occur at the same instance as they did the first time? How would changes in the probability of a mutation occurring again and the timing (occurring sooner or later than it did before) affect how evolution played out? If certain types of mutations are more probable to occur than other types of mutations, and those mutations were key in evolution of life, then perhaps evolution is something more deterministic than a pure random walk through DNA space. Since microevolution is not my field of expertise, I’m not qualified to say. I don’t even know if anyone has tried to address the probability of  specific mutations occurring but I suspect that there is more that is random in evolution than predictable. If so, then if we were able to study Earth in the alternative universes, I think I would find that most of them were not populated with copies of me. (In addition to the issue of whether there are human beings on those alternative Earths, there is also the issue of whether all my ancestors actually hooked up again or decided to mate with someone else.) However, for those of you who are really bummed by this idea, I have a ray of hope. The physicists kept talking about an “infinite number of alternative universes”, and when you talk about infinity…well, a small probability multiplied by infinity is technically, I believe, infinity (have to admit that makes my brain hurt), so you probably do exist in alternative universes.

The high school sci-fi fan in me has obviously already imagined a branch of ecological and evolutionary study which uses alternative universes as independent experiments of evolution. Imagine what we could learn. Is DNA the only molecule that could code information stably? Or are their alternative universes where all life on Earth has RNA as its genetic code or even some other molecular structure? How important is the identity of species that go extinct to the overall history of evolution (does the loss of a specific small mammal during the K-T extinction prevent the Age of Mammals? Or does it only result in minor or even no differences in the overall diversification and dominance of mammals that occurred after the demise of the dinosaurs? Inquiring minds want to know. And who knows, maybe in an alternative universe we have already learned how to do this and I never had to make the choice between ecology and astrophysics and I’m currently busy using my knowledge of the multiverse to study ecology and evolution. I just hope that my alternative self is a little better at math!

Ecological Samuri

Data is the sword of the 21st century, those who wield it well, the Samurai.

Jonathan Rosenberg, SVP, Product Management, Google

Who are you calling Vermin?

imageLast week, I enjoyed Marc Cadotte’s post over at EEB and Flow on learning that he had one of the worst jobs in science: Triage Biologist. I thought both the post was funny and also the fact that I would never have thought about the work he does as being one of the worst jobs in science. I mean, many of us can think of much much worse things to do with one’s time than to have Cadotte’s research career. (Let’s just say that my time spent as an undergraduate marking with paint the thorax of a 2 mm long wasp is not remembered fondly). Imagine my surprise when I found out this morning that apparently one of those things that people would rather not do is “vermin handler” – i.e. rodent catching…i.e., my job! 


Unlike Cadotte, my work is not specifically mentioned in the article. I’m grateful for this because I already have some recruitment issues. It is not uncommon for me to have to reassure prospective graduate students that they are not automatically expected to work with rodents if they join my lab. And let’s face it, as the Popular Science article clearly shows, working with rodents – referred to as small mammals when you want it to sound better and never never ever as vermin – does have an image problem. Given the image problem, you may wonder why I was surprised that small mammal handling was listed as one of the worst jobs. Let’s just say that I don’t consider getting to go here:

Sarah picking up traps


And work with these:


to be any kind of hardship. You may also be wondering right about now about those students who join my lab who perhaps were not initially thrilled with the idea of working with “vermin” – what happened to them? Through fair means or foul, I do encourage all my students to go down to the field site to “just gain the experience”. They don’t have to handle rodents, all that is done by the trained graduate research assistant. All they have to do is help set traps and record data. Unanimously, undergrads and grads, come back loving the experience. So far they’ve even all ended up developing research projects on small mammals. If you’re suspicious, well, you’re welcome to tag along sometime. We always have room for one more vermin handler down at Portal.

Here be ecologists blogging

It seems that it was just time for ecologists to start blogging. We have recently come across two other ecology blogs:

Ecotone (the official ESA News & Views blog) which has been kicking out a respectable 4-5 posts/week on a combination of interesting papers and policy.


The EEB and flow which looks a fair bit like NCEAS circa 2007 and was started because

While there are some great science blogs dedicated to evolution (Dechronization and Evolutionary Novelties, for example) there is conspicuously little blogging of recent advances in ecology and evolutionary ecology. Thus an ecology blog was born.

I think EEB and flow has this one right. We’re definitely collectively behind the curve as a field in the blogosphere and it’s good to see that changing.

Looking through EEB and flow’s archives it’s interesting to see some parallel interests cropping up over there. Maybe it’s not surprising that we’re all excited about Darwin at the moment, but we also have paired posts on current challenges to scholarly publication, and after following the link from Marc Cadotte’s post on having one of the worst jobs in science (if this was me I would definitely find a way to get this on my CV) I realized that Morgan does too (you have to click through to image #4 due to a questionable web design choice). I guess that greatly procrastinating minds think alike.

Blogging the Origin

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or are a new assistant professor), you are surely aware by now that Darwin’s 200th birthday is this week. However, unless you’re a certified blog-crawler, you may not be aware of Blogging the Origin. In honor of Darwin’s bicentennial birthday, John Whitfield (a freelance science writer and author of In the Beat of a Heart, a must read for those of us with a weakness for metabolic ecology) has been blogging his way through each chapter of On the Origin of Species. It is quite a treat to read – it is both insightful and funny….and much quicker than trying to reread the original in time for Darwin’s big day. Whitfield both summarizes Darwin and puts him in a modern context. Here are a couple of excerpts for you to whet your appetite:

From Chapter 1:

And, as evidence of ancient artificial selection, he mentions that “from passages in Genesis, it is clear that the colour of domestic animals was at that early period attended to.”

The. Irony.

From Chapter 2 (how can you not love something that quotes one of my favorite people):

More useful in such cases is the phylogenetic species concept — a species is a group of populations that shares a common ancestor, and is distinct from any other similar group. Although, again, seeing as we all share a common ancestor sooner or later, it’s tricky to know where you draw the line between groups. The microbial ecologist Jessica Green once pointed out to me that microbiologists typically put two cells in the same species if their ribosomal DNA is 97% identical. Applying the same criterion to primates, she says, and you’d be sharing a species with the ring-tailed lemur.

From Chapter 14 (not to ruin the ending for anyone):

This relentless piling, sorting and re-arranging of evidence can make Darwin seem a little OCD, like an intellectual version of Wall-E. But he also knows that beneath all the case studies, there’s a logical core to evolution by natural selection, even if he can’t put it in an equation.

So roll on over and check it out! I promise you won’t be disappointed*

*from the legal department of weecology: this is in no way a legally binding guarantee and does not imbue the reader with any legal rights such as refunds, exchanges, or restitution for lost wages for time spent reading said blog. The reader does have the right to leave nasty comments, however, if they did not enjoy reading Blogging the Origin – though the author thinks if you don’t enjoy reading Blogging the Origin it just indicates something is deeply wrong with you.

Definitely not the meaning of “non-significant”

Andrew Gelman over at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science posted a hilariously awful story about the interpretation of a non-significant result he saw at a recent talk (I particularly love the Grrrrrrr at the end).

I’m always yammering on about the difference between significant and non-significant, etc. But the other day I heard a talk where somebody made an even more basic error: He showed a pattern that was not statistically significantly different from zero and he said it was zero. I raised my hand and said something like: It’s not _really_ zero, right? The data you show are consistent with zero but they’re consistent with all sorts of other patterns too. He replied, no, it really is zero: look at the confidence interval.


This and related misinterpretations crop up all the time in ecology. I’ve witnessed some particularly problematic cases where the scientist is interested in attempting to determine if some data are consistent with a theoretically predicted parameter and the confidence intervals are relatively wide. The CIs sometimes contain both 0 and the theoretically predicted value and yet it is concluded that the data are not consistent with the model because the parameter is “not significant”. This is obviously problematic given that the goal of the analysis in the first place had nothing to do with demonstrating a difference from 0.