Shiny happy loci holding hands!

A few years back, I read Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden, and was a huge fan. In it, she builds a compelling argument that sex and gender are two different independently assorting quantitative genetic trains. I.e., Your sex (anatomy) and gender (behavior and sexuality)? Not actually the same thing. Also, not binary. Both (yes, sex, too) are continuous traits.

She builds a strong case for this both based on the wild variety of mating strategies out in nature (and shows how they don’t really fit into the binary gender paradigm of sexual selection) and even more thoroughly through human biology and history.

While it generated a kerfuffle about “Darwin was wrong!” (and sexual selection is really not a key piece of natural selection), the whole sex/gender division into continuous traits is really the most mindblowing part of the book.

But through it all, me and my biologist friends who read it were nearly jumping out of our chairs wanting some real scientific meat. The biggest question we had was “What is the underlying model of evolution, here?” It seemed there must be one, particularly given Roughgarden’s incredible prowess and a theoretical evolutionary ecologist. We were rewarded by hearing Roughgarden lecture on the barest beginnings of a quantitative framework a few weeks after finishing the book, but it was still just a sketch.

So I was totally jazzed to see that in addition to things percolating in the white literature she has recently published The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness.

Take that Richard Dawkins!

It appears to have just come out, so I’ve got an order in for one. But I admit, I’m pretty durned intrigued. Particularly because of the following from the book jacket:

“Building on her brilliant and innovative book Evolution’s Rainbow, in which she challenged accepted wisdom about gender identity and sexual orientation, Roughgarden upends the notion of the selfish gene and the theory of sexual selection and develops a compelling and controversial alternative theory called social selection. This scientifically rigorous, model-based challenge to an important tenet of neo-Darwinian theory emphasizes cooperation, elucidates the factors that contribute to evolutionary success in a gene pool or animal social system, and vigorously demonstrates that to identify Darwinism with selfishness and individuality misrepresents the facts of life as we now know them. ”

So, I’m curious. I’m sure sacred cows will be slaughtered left and right, but, at the end of the day, the whole will make sense as an extension of current knowledge. Although, I’m sure it will cause more than its share of controversy as well.

snails going nom nom nom = productive diverse tidepools?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe “gold standard” experimental design for asking how do changes in biodiversity change ecosystem function has been to randomly assemble communities of varying species richness, but equal abundance, and examining differences in function from one level of richness to the next.

But let’s be honest. Changes in diversity due to impacts by man will not be random. In many ways, the early (and much maligned) designs of Tilman and colleagues are really more relevant to realistic biodiversity change scenarios than random assembly experiments. Sure, the mechanism behind diversity’s effect may not be as clear, but the end results sure are.

When it comes to changes wrought due to runaway trophic cascades (e.g., overfishing -> release of small predators -> removal of their grazer prey), the recent article by Altieri et al. provides a pretty compelling* example of some of the counterintuitive changes from real-world changes in ecosystem function.

The authors look at the consequences of increasing densities of grazers in intertidal tidepools for 6 months. They find that, while increasing grazer density decreases the biomass of algae (natch!), that total productivity (here defined as mg of Oxygen produced per hour per square meter) stays constant. So, the amount of oxygen produced per hour per gram of algal biomass has actually gone up. Wild, eh? What is more striking is that 1) this appears to be due to pools that have a more even even distribution of species having higher biomass specific rates of productivity (see Figure 2 from the paper below) and that increasing the abundance of grazers actually increases species evenness. It does not, however, effect the number of species per pool.

The authors argue that, by changing evenness in a non-random manner, we can see that realistic changes in biodiversity can indeed alter how ecosystems function. More intriguingly, changes in function may bee counterintuitive. Heck, if I looked at a pool full of lush green algae versus one which, while it had a pretty even mix of species, was grazed down to the dregs, I’d say that the lush pool was more productive. But I’d be wrong.

I do admit, I am curious if this is all just an Ulva (the dominant seaweed) story. But, then again, any competitive dominant is going to alter the function of all other species in the surrounding community. By ensuring that no one species can dominate, grazers boost total function. And what is more, those changes really depend here not so much on the number of species, but how evenly distributed they are across a landscape.

I remain curious as to how work like this can better tie into ecological forecasting. We can often understand some of the basic implications of an human impacts – changes in abundance of key players or the response of sensitive species. I wonder how this work on non-random changes to community properties such as evenness and diversity will enhance our ability to predict and understand the more profound, yet also less intuitive, changes to ecosystems.

* – Full disclosure, I have worked with most of the authors at one time or another, and they are a motley, loveable, and brilliant bunch of folk.

Altieri, A., Trussell, G., Ewanchuk, P., Bernatchez, G., & Bracken, M. (2009). Consumers Control Diversity and Functioning of a Natural Marine Ecosystem PLoS ONE, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005291

tweet your data

Well, my mind has been blown. Fisheries analysis based on tweets?! How cool! In the age of LTER (n.b. I work for the sbc lter), the comingn of NEON, etc., it’s nice to see an innovative of getting large quantities of data from outside of the academic box.

And I can think of a myriad of field science/twitter uses:

  • oceanography: get boaters to tweet for a temperature reading with a lat/long and ocean color
  • rare species ecology: have hikers tweet every time they go on a trail, and tweet again if they see something rare
  • subtidal ecology: have divers tweet when/where they go, and some qualitative measure of diversity or abundance of target speciesAnd, really, this could probably be subsidized by 10 cents per tweet or something to get buy-in. Algorithmically, catching cheaters shouldn’t be too hard (outlier analysis, etc).

    Sounds like an interesting NCEAS kind of idea….

    (via the oyster’s garter)

  • Bringing the grey to light


    Want to know what happens when a fish is sucked into a powerplant intake from both the technical and fish’s point of view? Curious about what some of the legends in the field of taxonomy were writing when they were undergraduates? Want to track down every single fish gut contents record in the Pacific Northwest for the last century?

    Wonder no more! The gray literature, formerly that stuff that scientists hold in vague contempt but often turn to for absolutely crucial basic information, is now starting to come online.

    I discovered this talking to the amazing library staff at Moss Landing Marine Lab. There, they are part of an effort called Aquatic Commons, which is putting reports online from a variety of US and international agencies. MLML is specifically working up the California Department of Fish and Game collection.

    This is in turn feeding into Avano, a marine and aquatic science literature search engine which hits both the grey and the white literature.

    And there really are some gems, such as Don Abbbott’s undergrad report on the littoral ascidians of Monterey Bay before he went on to co-author Intertidal Invertebrates of California, early studies of the impact of the Diablo Canyon power plant which shaped much of how we monitor biological impacts,or, my personal favorite, Purgatorio – two rather different views of the same event which I excerpt from below:

    When Italian Film Stars Go Prawn

    Ah, Isabella Rosellini. After enlightening us last year to the strange proclivities of all manner of garden invertebrates, she’s back, filling us in on how animals, like Crepidula fornicata get down in the ocean.

    Now I’ve heard it all before, but there’s something about these bizarre little trinkets that is both beautiful, and could really wake up an invert zoo class full of sleepy students. It even has the obligatory barnacle video.

    It’s like David Lynch, Julie Taymor, and my copy of Brusca & Brusca had a baby.

    Enjoy! Oh, and, if you’re not a biologist, it’s more than a tad not safe for work.