Friday, December 19, 2008

Does 'junk food' threaten marine predators in northern seas?

I've got a piece in today's Science looking at what's called the junk-food hypothesis. This is the idea that climate driven changes to food webs are hurting marine predators either by causing their preferred prey to be replaced by less nutritious species, or by causing those prey species to become less nutritious themselves.

Here's the intro...

In 2004, ecologist Sarah Wanless was observing a colony of guillemots on the Isle of May off the coast of southeast Scotland. These diving seabirds were having a terrible breeding season in the United Kingdom, and some colonies hatched no chicks at all. But Wanless could see that parent birds were catching as many fish as ever, if not more. "We couldn't work out what was going wrong," she said. The light dawned when she and her colleagues measured the fat and protein in the fish being caught, mostly sprat, a member of the herring family. Compared with previous years, the amount of energy a hungry guillemot received from a 10-centimeter sprat plunged in 2004, dropping from 55 kilojoules to 12 kilojoules. "They were largely water," Wanless says.

And for keenies, and because Science's News Foci don't have reference lists, here, in no particular order, is some further reading. All free unless otherwise stated.

Low energy values of fish as a probable cause of a major seabird breeding failure in the North Sea

Community reorganization in the Gulf of Alaska following ocean climate regime shift

Junk food in marine ecosystems (not free, but there's a press release).

Pollock and the decline of Steller sea lions: testing the junk-food hypothesis

A Critical Review of the Regime Shift-“Junk Food”-Nutritional Stress Hypothesis for the Decline of the Western Stock of Steller Sea Lion


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Happy Christmas!

Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations

(Addendum: Turns out this paper got tons of coverage earlier in the year. I should really google paper titles before I link to them.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Chainsaw massacre and the need for speed

This feature from yesterday's Observer on Britain's trees is worth a look. It's particularly good on the benefits and threats to urban trees, which was all new to me. When it looks at woodland, and efforts to restore it, I found myself wishing for a lot less Felix Dennis (flying over his woodland in his helicopter, talking nonsense on climate change) and a lot more (any) Oliver Rackham.

There's a sentence about how the Woodland Trust has found itself outbid when trying to buy land in southeast England that made me think of a recent Ecology Letters paper on how to work out when to buy land, weighing uncertainty of it's conservation against the need to buy it before someone else does.

Eve McDonald-Madden of the University of Queensland and her colleagues use a modelling technique called stochastic dynamic programming – often applied to animal foraging behaviour – which predicts what you should do at any given time, given what’s already happened. They come up with an optimal method for decision making, and a simpler rule of thumb which uses current knowledge of the sites conservation value, and the deadline on a decision, to give a deal-or-no-deal answer.

I guess this might not be so applicable in the UK, where pretty much everything is already surveyed, so conservation value is well known and budgets and land prices are the main issue. But perhaps it might help in prioritizing. And I thought it was a neat paper in general.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Group theory

I've got a feature in this week's Nature about using network science to work out what makes for a successful collaboration - mainly in terms of writing highly cited papers, but also more generally. It grew out of seeing Northwestern's Brian Uzzi (you can download his papers here) and Pietro Panzarasa of QMUL talk at NetSci 08 this June. (here's Panzarasa's abstract)

Here's the nub of the matter. I think you have to pay for the rest.

...the scholars who study the folkways of science have been tracking the decline of the single-author paper for decades now. And they have followed the parallel growth of 'invisible colleges' of researchers who are separated by geography yet united in interest. But what is new is how their studies have been turbo-charged by the availability of online databases containing millions of papers, as well as analytical tools from network science — the discipline that maps the structure and dynamics of all kinds of interlinked systems, from food webs to websites.

The result is a clearer picture of science's increasingly collaborative nature, and of the factors that determine a team's success. Funding agencies are not using this work to decide where the money goes — yet. But the researchers behind the analyses are willing to give tentative tips on what their work reveals. They also think that their studies point to rules of thumb that apply very broadly, whether you're looking for a gene or putting on a show.

One related thing I didn't mention in the piece, but is worth checking out, is the extremely cool Map of Science.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I was there

This summer, I was lucky enough to get an invite to the meeting 'Toward an extended evolutionary synthesis' at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria. Or, as it was pre-labeled on the Interweb, the WOMAD 1994 of Evolution. (Hang on, that doesn't sound right. Altamont of Evolution?)

Anyway, I have a feature pegged to the meeting in this week's Nature. It deals mainly with the relationship between the modern synthesis and evo-devo. There were also many interesting discussion of palaeontology, genomics and ecology, which I am sure will surface in other guises elsewhere, most notably the book derived from the conference, due out early next year.

For the official line, the meeting's final statement is here. And to see what it looked like, go to the flickr group. It's a tough old job.

Friday, September 05, 2008

BES 2008

The last time I went to a British Ecological Society annual meeting, in 2006, I wrote a (remarkably long) post about how it was all a bit impenetrable and inward looking. I went to this year’s at Imperial on Wednesday and Thursday and had a much better time. Hopefully I'll get a few pieces written on the back of it.

The highlight was an excellent session on the impact of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Working out how species will respond to climate change is a big deal right now – and lots of ecologists are unhappy with the climate envelope models that look at the climate where something lives now, look at where that climate will be in 2100 (e.g. further north, higher up) and work out whether that’s a feasible journey. But there’s more to life than the weather – food, parasites, species interactions. Several of the talks tried to factor these into climate projections without becoming hopelessly complicated, and did a pretty good job.

(And ecosystem services seem massive right now in ecological research and environmental policy, at least in the UK. A couple of people made the point that policymaker’s enthusiasm for incorporating them into policy actually outstrips scientific understanding of how they contribute to human wellbeing. Lots of work for ecologists there, and lots of potential collaborations with social scientists.) The issue of how you value them – is money the only meaningful metric? was also touched upon.

And, wandering in and out of sessions, most stuff was pretty good. The only thing that I entirely failed to get my head around was any of the talks in the session on rapid human-induced evolutionary change, which sounded like it should be interesting, but was all over my head, with no clear take-home messages. I was peeved, because I should have stayed in the session on using phylogenetics to explain tropical diversity – Toby Pennington’s talk on trees, dispersal and speciation was excellent.

Anyway, the general feeling was that many UK ecologists are engaged with providing good science that is really relevant to our problems, and of getting that science across to decision makers, despite the inevitable need to compromise that’ll entail, in a way that they weren’t even a couple of years ago. And the science isn’t just boring cut-down-reeds-to-create-habitat-for-invertebrates kinda stuff, it’s an exciting blend of theory and data, getting a really fundamental questions – the relationship between ecological networks (food and mutualism webs) and ecosystem services being a prime example.

The BES also has an Ecology and Policy blog.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Across the curious parallel

I've got a feature just out in PLoS Biology on the parallels between language change and biological evolution. It particularly tries to look at what the microevolutionary mechanisms might be that drive the macroevolutionary patterns seen in language.

For a different take on the same topic, see Emma Marris's recent feature in Nature. Mine's free, but you'll have to pay for hers.

Friday, July 18, 2008

TREE 2.0

The current Trends in Ecology and Evolution has an article on science blogging by John Wilkins, who is both a philosopher at the University of Queensland and author of the blog Evolving Thoughts.

The piece seems aimed more at people who don't write/read/comment on/know of the existence of blogs than those that do. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Review: coral books

And I've got a piece in the current London Review of Books on two recent books on coral: Steve Jones' Coral, and J. N. Veron's A reef in time, one of many, many books recently declared to be 'Silent Spring for climate change/coral/fisheries/etc.'

Here's the first par:
Tens of thousands of years ago, the arrival of people in the Americas, and in Australia and New Zealand, was followed by a wave of extinctions, particularly of the largest species, which made the most attractive game. More recently, rats, cats and goats have eaten their way through the native plants and animals of small and not so small islands; and California is home to four hundred introduced plant species, which have almost entirely displaced the native prairie. But in the next hundred years or so, we are likely to see something new, as human activities cause the disappearance of ecosystems on a global scale. Species living on mountain-tops are going to find their habitat disappearing, as warmer climates rise up to engulf them. And Steve Jones and J.E.N. Veron warn that climate change may well bring about the end of coral reefs – if overfishing, disease, invading species and pollution don’t get them first.

Where we're at

I've not been posting for a while mainly because I've been working on a proposal and sample chapter for a book. More details here soon, I hope. That's kept me out of action with regards to journalism, and generally swimming in the info-plankton.

But I did go to the Network Science meeting in Norwich last week, and had a very good time (partly because I used to go to university in Norwich). I was on Nature's shilling, so I wrote a couple of news stories for them, one about the relationship between social network structure and happiness and one about the influence of workplace social networks on productivity.

I also wrote a couple of blog posts for one of Nature's blogs, one general muse on the meeting, and one about an integrated network approach to studying disease.

Actually, you can give it away

So, I was googling my book, as you do, and I came across this, the Morris County Municipal Utilities Authority Awards for Exceptional Achievement in Recycling. Looks like Mendham Books had a copy of ITBOAH gathering dust in a storeroom, and decided to devote it to a good cause.

Not as a prize, though - no one's that desperate. As a 'table favor', whatever one of those is. One stage up from a complimentary mint, I'm guessing.

Anyway, here's the lucky winner.

Doesn't she look whelmed?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Just Science 2008

An e-mail this morning reminded me that I'd signed up for this year's version of the Just Science blogging binge.

So, as today's contribution, here's a couple of things of which I have seen no media coverage but which I think are worth a look.

A paper in Ecological Economics by Blake Alcott, available here, takes issue with the idea that frugality can save the world...

One alleged weapon against unsustainable environmental impact is for the wealthy to consume less. [But] the lower initial demand lowers prices, which in turn stimulates new demand by others. The strategy moreover addresses only the rich, raising questions of its theoretical maximum efficacy. Its proponents usually conflate frugality with the North–South dichotomy and intragenerational with intergenerational equity. Moreover, there are difficulties with the supporting arguments that frugality is good for one’s own sake as well as for the environment, and that the rich should ‘lead the way’ to living more lightly. Personal behaviour change is furthermore not a substitute for international political efforts.

I agree with the last bit. But I suspect that, even if it doesn't directly lead to less consumption, consuming less would be good for people (me included) in other ways - mental health, changed priorities, philosophical shifts etc. - that would probably ultimately be good for the environment.

The other is slightly similar, intellectually - a paper in Ecology Letters looking at how ecosystems respond to global (climate) change. The counterintuitive point is that species in more diverse places will be less able to adapt to change (in an evolutionary sense) because there will already be someone there better adapted to the new conditions, and so they'll get out-competed before they can change.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Mike Leigh mark-recapture experiment II

The discovery of Neptune. Gauss's calculations of the orbits of asteroids. The 1919 solar eclipse that caught light bending. Science is filled with masterly predictions, triumphantly confirmed.

Add a new one to the list.

In Sept 2006, I wrote, in a quite poorly punctuated post, of my repeat sightings of film director Mike Leigh around London. I suggested that Leigh could be a model for measuring the bumping-into-frquency of any two Londonders. And, based on three sightings, I ended the post with
if you're reading this, Mr Leigh, I'll see you in 2008.

Well, we were in the NFT on Sunday afternoon, queuing up to get tickets for The Lady Vanishes, and there he was, right in front of us in the queue!

Imagine my pleasure. Conclusive proof that any two Londoners (of similar cultural interests/socioeconomic level) can expect to cross paths just under every 18 months. I released the director back into the wild, to go on making his finely observed portraits of lower-middle-class desperation, secure in the knowledge of another encounter in summer 2009.