Friday, December 22, 2006

Given the choice, I'd vote for a sea lion

For a long time, I wanted to be a behavioural ecologist when I grew up. I had come to biology via watching birds and David Attenborough programmes, read The Selfish Gene (which is bascially a very good book about behavioural ecology) at an impressionable age, and in the early 90s it seemed like a really vibrant and exciting area.

But now it seems to have been a victim of that success — almost (to exaggerate) a completed science. We have a set of ideas that have been very successful at explaining animal behaviour in evolutionary terms — kin selection, optimal foraging, various models of sexual selection, and a few others. Most aspects of animal behaviour seem explicable in terms of one or other, and nothing seems to need a big new idea to explain it. I'd be interested to hear anyone else's thoughts on this (particularly if you disagree).

Anyway, this is really just a preamble before I mention some recent behaviour papers that caught my eye. Behavioural ecology might not be white hot, but it still delivers high on the fancy-that factor.

For example, did you know that sea lions are masters of self control? If you offer them a pile of five fish or a lone fish, and then give them the one they don't choose, they quickly learn to choose the smaller reward — more quickly, in fact than primates, who keep lunging helplessly for the bigger pile (I don't think they offered the primates fish. Probably bananas, or something.).

Not only that, diving seals can hold off digesting their dinner until they surface, to reduce the amount of oxygen they use up underwater.

One area of behavioural research that's still kicking up dust is, of course, evolutionary psychology. Here, for example is a worrying paper from Evolution and Human Behaviour looking at the influence of face shape on voting decision:

We show that differences in facial shape alone between candidates can predict who wins or loses in an election.

Anthony Little and his colleagues took the faces of recent election opponents — Kerry/Bush, Blair/Howard, and several others from around the world. They recreated the differences between the two candidates' faces on neutral models, so that subjects wouldn't recognize them, and then tweaked them to exaggerate the difference (not sure why they did this — it seems to undermine the study's claims to reflect reality). Then they showed the faces to people, and asked who they would rather vote for, without any other information.

The percentage preferences for the simulated faces predicted fairly well the destination of votes cast in actual elections.

The Sunday Times reported on this at the weekend.

Little speculates that voters chose Blair because his skin looked healthier than Major and his face, with a strong jaw and thinner lips, looked more masculine than Hague. “Firm jaws and heavy brows denote masculinity,” he said.

Perhaps more reassuringly, they found that "there may be no general characteristics of faces that can win votes". People asked to choose a peace- or wartime leader, for example, prefer different sorts of faces — wartime voters prefer a more dominant, masculine face, apparently. Sigh. I imagine doctors of spin are already out with the callipers and booking their men and women in for plastic surgery.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An obscenity

This is beyond the usual scope of this blog, and I know there're a lot of bad things happening in the world, but to take a group of people who came to your country to work in your medical system, accuse them, despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary, of infecting children deliberately with HIV, torture them, refuse to hear relevant evidence in court, and then sentence them to death - in what mainly seems to be an attempt to cover-up the shoddiness of one's own procedures - seems particularly shameful and grotesque.

Let's hope that the Libyan government has some sense of justice and humanity, and overturns this decision.

Nature's Declan Butler has done a fine job of reporting this story.

Monday, December 18, 2006

It's lonely out here

There's an interesting post on Evolgen about the paucity of ecology bloggers. Although the discussion seems to have wandered off-message rather. I reckon that one of my previous rambles about ecology's general media-unfriendliness may be relevant to this issue.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The way things go

If, like me, you're a fan of the conservation of momentum, chemical reactions, kettles, stink, bangs, 70s board-game Mousetrap, or 70s BBC2 show The Great Egg Race, get down to Tate Modern and check out Fischli & Weiss's "The way things go' (Der Lauf Der Dinge).

This piece of video art, part of an F&W retrospective showing at the Tate until January, shows an absurdly convoluted and entertaining chain reaction of things bumping, rolling and swinging into each other, not to mention setting each other on fire, inflating, puncturing, foaming, and so on. It's not exactly science, but you can see a sort-of-science (or engineering, at least) thought process behind it that ought to appeal to anyone in the least bit geeky. It reminds me of the great domino-topples that seemed also to be on TV every week in my distant, distant youth (do they still do those?). And apparently it was ripped off by, I mean inspired, that Honda advert of a few years ago.

I didn't stay for the whole thing, which lasts 30 minutes, but what I did watch seemed to go on forever. Some of the slower parts were actually quite painful to witness. If you can't get to the Tate, don't worry. You can get a DVD (and see a trailer) here (I was sorely tempted - I envisioned showing it at Factory-style happenings in my groovy Shoxton loft, and I don't even live in a groovy Shoxton loft. Or own a DVD player.). Or you can see the first 7+ minutes on YouTube:

Friday, December 01, 2006

Make yourself happy

Thank God (or whoever else might be responsible) for the Onion.

Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution.

The cost of leafing

This week's Nature has a news feature by me on leaves (why have they made 'plantecology' one word?). Specifically, it's about the patterns in leaf construction seen across all land plants, what causes them, and the consequences that they have for our understanding of the living world. (Lovers of waffle will not want to miss hearing me talk about this on the Nature podcast.)

[M]ost of the variation in the physical and biochemical properties of leaves can be represented on a single axis running, to put it crudely, from quick and juicy to slow and tough. [This is] the 'worldwide leaf economics spectrum', and it embodies many of the trade-offs that govern how plants deploy their resources within the limits that physics places on biological possibility.

The work … has attracted the attention of everyone, from plant physiologists studying how leaves work to biogeochemists looking at the cycling of nutrients on a global scale. In part, the paper is so popular because of the size and scope of the database that underlies the work; but the popularity also reflects the intellectual excitement that surrounds the discovery that so much can be explained by so little. This has given some ecologists hope that by looking at the large-scale patterns in how organisms work, they can gain a general understanding of why species live where they do, and why some are common and others are rare. Such findings are not of purely academic interest: climate researchers are using them to improve their models of the consequences of global warming.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of writing this feature was investigating an idea among some ecologists that the best way to understand why species live where they do, and why some are common and others rare is to think not about species, but traits — such as leaf biology, seed size and number, and so on.

In some ways, this is counterintuitive. Most, perhaps all, cultures name the plants and animals around them, and recognize that they split into groups of similar kinds, i.e. species. Many ecologists come to the science through a love of natural history, and identifying and naming stuff. And consequently, many theories of biodiversity are rooted in what's been called 'nomenclatural ecology':

To try to understand things such as what determines the number of species that can coexist in a place, how numerous each species is, and how productive the system as a whole is, ecologists have traditionally looked at what species are present, how they interact, and how their abundance affects that of the others. Such an approach is an extension of ecology's roots in natural history, says Brian McGill of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "People become ecologists because they love to go outdoors and look at the woods. They get attached to putting names on things, and get focused on knowing lots about particular organisms."

But this approach soon becomes intractably knotty, as the number of possible interactions between species rises geometrically with the number of species. "We don't have the capacity to learn as much as we need to know by studying one species at a time. Studying interactions between species, and then trying to build that up, hasn't panned out. It's too complicated," explains McGill.

Traits — such as, for leaves, mass-per-area, or photosynthetic rate — are measurable, and comparable in a way that species names aren't, and also allow one to quantify natural variation. I think of this as dropping below the species level, to look at the components of biology — how organisms work, and how they differ — and I've a hunch it might offer a way out of the current morass of different theories to explain the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. Of which there are tons — it did my head in trying to get to grips with this area.

Of course, to make satisfying science, one wants to be able to turn trait studies back into predictions about species, because as human beings that's how we perceive the world.

But this looks like it might be possible — Science recently published an extremely cool paper by Bill Shipley and colleagues using trait measurements and, to my satisfaction, maximum entropy theory to predict the abundance and distribution of plants in abandoned French vineyards with 94% accuracy. Which is pretty damn good.

I confess, I really should have covered this in ITBOAH, but it didn't cross my path while I was writing this. Very sorry, ITBOAH-readers.