Posts Tagged ‘Conservation’

yes, better than Starwars and World of Warcraft together, the wars of ants. Last year in our lab, we set up wars between different species, among the most aggressive in the world.

I’m sure you can imagine. Monstrous armies of millions of Unsullied warriors, impervious to danger, dedicated to the death, working together with the efficacy given by millions of years of evolution, all entirely bent to one single purpose, destroying the other armies. I’m certain to are picturing this. Well, you are picturing it wrong, you immature brutes. So, what did we do and why did we do it?

It was a time when a Ph D student (Cleo Bertelsmeier) was studying the effect of climate change on invasive ants. I’ve told you already why we study invasive ants. If you’ve missed it, you can read it here. The first part of the PhD thesis was to build up species distribution models to try and predict where invasive ants would find favorable regions with climate change (ants are very sensitive to climate, and milder winters may mean higher probability of establishment). And the result was that some of the most problematic invasive ant species were predicted to arrive at the same place in several regions. And because the most obvious characteristics of all these invasive ants is that they are extremely efficient at removing other arthropods, starting with local ant species, we naturally wondered what would happen if two of such Hun armies were to clash in newly invaded territories. Or in other words, is there among these tiny berserk beasts one that would take over all the others (and the rest of the world with it).

So we set up colonies of four of the worst of the worst. These were the invasive garden ant Lasius neglectus, the Argentine ant Linepithema humile, the big-headed ant Pheidole megacephala and the electric ant Wasmannia auropunctata. The experiment set up by Cleo was not really the wars you pictured, but they were enough for our purposes: boxes with colonies of 300 workers and one queen, put into contact by a tiny tube, and days of counting the dead and the survivors. And these taught us a lot. First, that the experiments of one worker versus another in a Petri dish – often set up to establish dominance hierarchies among ant species – are not well suited, because some ants species need other workers to kill others. Some ants hold the enemy while it is being cut into pieces, and you can’t do that when you’re alone, and you’ll systematically lose in duels but not necessarily a battle. It also mean that classical experiments of 10 vs 10 workers in a Petri dish are also problematic, because the lack of natural conditions can bias the results. These ants are very stressed, more or less forced to fight, and with no territory, nest or queen to defend (which was not the case in our experiment). Last, it taught us that ants adapt their strategies according to their opponents. Some species that are very aggressive and kill everything were less so when confronted to potentially stronger adversaries. Some even escaped or feigned death. And some raided the other colonies D-Day style improved with chemical weaponry, with many losses but an eventual conquest while some others remained in their strongholds and privileged defense. And eventually it taught us that when you increase complexity, for example by putting all four species together, you increase… well complexity. Here, the species that systematically lost against any of the three others won half the time when all four were fighting simultaneously.

Now I’m sure you’d like to know who was the meanest of the four. The tiny electric ant, so named for its terribly painful sting? Or the scary big-headed ants, which soldiers can cut in two any of the other species? Well, I guess that to know that you’ll have to read the paper (and perhaps that one too about their strategies)… Yes, I know, I’m mean. That’s what the ants say too.

Marvel-Ant-Man-Banner-Poster

Of course, the best fighter of all remains the Ant-man

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When I was a PhD student, a researcher that I admired once told me that half the research in labs is done in corridors and coffee rooms. Of course he didn’t mean that the dire restrictions of lab and office spaces faced by academia nowadays force half of us to install their benches or computers there. Even in France. What he meant was that in academia the social aspect is very important, and that social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, are not to be neglected because they are not just breaks from work and coffee loading. They are more than that. They are crucial because that’s where scientists chat. They of course sometimes chat about mundane topics, such as whether Schrödinger’s cat is male or female or both, or why 42 and not 43, or 41. But they most of the time talk about their work. Yes, most of us are in the latest stage of nerdiness and can’t be saved anymore.

And chatting about studies is really important for two things. Well, three, because it also gives you information about what the guy on the desk next to you is spending his days on (beside Facebook), which can be interesting, if not utterly fascinating (sometimes). But regarding your own research progress it’s important because it forces you to synthesize and to structure your thoughts about your work (the whole of it, or a more specific problem). This effort alone can benefit you a lot. Sometimes it will help you to get unstuck or to spot a weak link in your reasoning; sometimes it will just help you see more clearly your problem and go forward more easily. The second reason is that you can get feedback that can in many times be useful, be it from someone close to your topic or on the contrary rather remote.

With this in mind, we have set up three types of regular meetings in our group (in addition to the boring ones). The first one is the SemiBeer. We’ve talk about it here. But in a nutshell, it’s a Journal Club with two twists: 1/ we treat unconventional papers, such as funny ones, articles about controversies or papers about carrier and 2/ we drink beer (or other stuff, with peanuts and crackers, what we call apéro in France, a key cultural tradition that every other country on Earth should copy).

The second type of socio-scientific meeting is the Teameeting. That’s where we discuss problems encountered by a team member. We just gather around a table with a computer and sheets of paper and someone presents where (s)he’s stuck in her/his topic and others try to give suggestions. A brainstorming session set up at teatime, so with homemade cookies and similar goodies, hence the super pun I’m so proud of: Tea-meeting / Team-eating. Oh God, am I good when it comes to food…

The last type of meetings that we have is the Breakfast Club. As you may have guessed (I hope for you), this one is in the morning, very very early (9 am) and we discuss about carrier. Students ask a question, such as how to best find a supervisor for a PhD or how to balance work and personal life, and the postdocs and PIs give them their famed wisdom. And we eat croissants and other morning delights with tea and coffee and good ambiance.

So if I count well, we’ve been very serious scientifically, because we’ve covered breakfast, tea time and apéro. And of course everyday we all have lunch together at the canteen of the university. Now I just need to do something about Elevenses, and we’d be one step closer to the Hobbits.

LabFoodYes, that’s my lab and yes I told them not to eat while doing experiments

 

Since biblical times, I’ve thought that one of the only things that perhaps could tip the balance in favor of the environment would be to have religious people on our side. When you think of it, they are numerous, they are organized and when they have divine directive, they take it rather seriously.

It seems that God, in Its great wisdom, has led the first men to believe that Nature was theirs to do whatever they wanted with, and that the only role of animals on Earth was to be at the disposal of Men, and that Men had to fight and win over Nature and this type of bullshit. Or so they wrote in the Bible. No wonder then that Christians don’t give a damn about the environment. Or at least, not enough to matter.

I don’t know enough of the other mainstream religions, but I doubt they also preach biodiversity and ecosystem conservation as one of their main messages (anyways, I’m not an expert but I reckon the main message of all three major religions is « don’t kill your neighbor » and their followers still seem to be struggling with it, so never mind the « don’t mess up your planet »).

And there I was thinking all this, quite pessimistically, and it seems God heard me and thought « Oh Franck, you may be a bit megalomaniac, but you gave Me a good idea, I’ll talk to some of My representatives ». Because next thing I knew, Pope Francis spoke (and wrote) a very clear and very explicit message about protecting biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and stuff in his Encyclal Letter: Laudato Si’. You can find it here. As explained in a nice analysis here, this makes him a powerful ally for conservation. And God knows we need all the allies we can find.

Its seems that the Dalai Lama also said things that go in this direction (but he also said some very sexist things recently, so he’s not my best buddy anymore; yet, Buddhists should listen to that environment thing), which means that we can expect some other major leaders of some other major religions to express themselves on the same lines, since God just asked them (or reminded them, because, hey, if God wanted to kill the planet, He’d just order a downpour and be done with it). And I’m pretty sure God doesn’t want us to mess up with His creation, even if He spent only 7 days doing it and has been a couch potato ever since. .

So now, if you ever were in doubt about how to spend your zealous energy, making converts, making money, or protecting biodiversity, now you know. God wants you to protect biodiversity. And so do I. He’s on my side. You don’t stand a chance. Obey and pray that our divine wrath is curtate and our clemency all-encompassing.

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Joy

 

Just a short note to inform you of the results of the BNP Paribas public vote: we won!
for those of you who followed the unbearable suspens of this sage, here are the figures:
FATES = 329
CPATEMP : 126
SOCLIM = 597
INVACOST = 4463
APT = 3361

So thank to you (yes, you), our research group is awarded an additional 50.000€ for communication purposes. We will use this money in two major ways. We will first buy the design and construction of an interactive web site to explain our results to the public, and allow them (yes, you again) to check that we are not just playing angrybirds all day long, ask questions and request all the analyses they want. We will also use this money to hire a communication officer that will be in charge of this web site, of dealing with emails from the public (i.e. replying to insulting ones and forwarding me the nice ones), of writting media memos and of many other things that we scientists are too clumsy to do ourselves.
Anyways, this is an opportunity to once more thank you all for your votes!
From the hysteria in France and the US to the delirium in Indonesia and Brazil and the frenzy in Australia and China, we now know we can count on hordes of devoted followers, ready to the craziest things for us, even sometimes read this blog.

 

 

The Fundation BNP Parisbas selected 5 scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50 000 € (that’s US$ 62,000) to one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost.

InvaCost will look at the impact on invasive insects, when climate change allows them to invade regions that are now too cold for them, but that will warm up in the coming decades. These include the red imported fire ant, the predatory Asian wasp, the disease carrying tiger-mosquito, and many others that are among the worst invaders worldwide. InvaCost is described a bit in an earlier post, here.

Our communication project is really different from anything that has been done before, and very probably different from the four other projects. In addition to building an interactive website to communicate with the public, show and explain our results and answer your questions, we will inaugurate a new type of citizen science, or participatory science: the public will be able to select some of the 20 invasive species we will study in InvaCost, from a large list we will compile. You will also be able to ask us to do specific analyses, for example “will Argentine ants be able to invade the UK?” or “where will the Formosan termite invasion expand in the USA” or “Is the malaria mosquito likely to reach my city and when?”. We will then collect the data, build and run the mathematical models, analyse the outputs and show and explain the results.

In a word, you will chose the subject and the questions, and we will do science for you. The money will be used to design and run the web site and to hire staff to interact with the public and make specific analyses during the four years of InvaCost. The communication project is described here.

So if you want to see that happen, it’s quite simple, vote for our project, by going here. And forward the message around, we will likely need tens of thousands of votes to be selected. Thanks in advance, we look forward to working with you!

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Yesterday was the first day of the fall quarter for about 35 000 students at UCLA. And I thought the campus was impressive before. It is now… intimidating, with all these new guys around. Looks like a Parisian metro with a crowd wearing flip-flops and sunglasses. Chatting with a student today, I realised that many of the first-year have no clue about the type of studies they want to do. If you are in this case, here, this post is for you.

I am sure pretty much anything is interesting to study, from arts to sports and history, to economics and to science. But studying is – unfortunately – not an end per se. You need to get knowledge to get a job. And you wouldn’t want to end up in a looser job like banker or lawyer. I mean, a job in which you realise at the end of your life that, although you’ve made big money allowing you to wear a Rolex (that will only impress other bankers and lawyers), the purpose and meaning is essentially artificial and inexistent. (wink to my few friends in these branches; for the others, well sue me!).

You could study art, sport, history or economics, but of course it is much less rewarding than science. And in science, let’s face it, you don’t want to become a friend of Sheldon Cooper, so you can rule out physics. All the other disciplines are obviously rather useless. What would you do with maths, now that there are calculators on Iphones? What would you do with chemistry, apart from  polluting our environment and our bodies? What would you do with medicine, apart from repairing the mistakes of the chemists? Nah, really, the only option that makes sense is the study of the functioning of our planet and of the beautiful, unfathomed depths of biodiversity: ecology.

Ok, perhaps I’m hinging a bit too much towards the ironic side, but if you think about it, it does kind of make sense. We need ecology more than ever. And not only because of the dire challenges that humanity faces in its damaged environment. Just because we still know too little about where we live. Let’s take Panthera leo, the lion. The king of animals. The iconic, charismatic species that is on every logo, blazon, story and cartoon all over the world. Do you know what we know about lions? Not much. We don’t even know how many lions there are on Earth! We know how many stars are in our galaxy, we know how many neurons are in our brains, we know how many consumers will buy any new product before they do. But the best specialists simply don’t have enough data to know how many lions there are. Needless to say we know little about all the other species, apart from a few. Hell, we don’t even know how many species there are on Earth! Not by an order of magnitude!

So, we really could use a hand (and a brain) there. Come do some ecology, String Theory can wait…

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As you have noted with bordering despair anguish, I have not posted anything here over August. This is simply because everyone told me not to ever stop posting, even for summer, in order to build an audience, and I generally don’t like being told what to do. Plus, I had nothing to say and was too busy seeping cocktails in the spa of my new residence.

ScientistVacation

But I am not that cruel, and will now put an end to your misery with new, regular, posts. Yeah! So, let’s start by some news on the changes in our beloved Biodiversity Dynamics lab over the summer.

Several people have left our group. James and Ben, both invited professors are now back in their lab, trying to recover from their French experience. They looked sane enough when they left, so if something goes wrong after, it’s not us! Alok and Noelia finished their postdoc and are now, Noelia in Bordeaux, and Alok a bit further, in India. Carmen has not left (although she has left the group web page): having hired an Assistant Prof and an Engineer, and having a PhD student (Amélie) and a postdoc (Fernando) and several interns, she is now setting her own research group. Good luck for this new stage! Cleo has finished her PhD Thesis and is currently doing a postdoc in Australia. Céline has finished her PhD Thesis too and is due for a postdoc in London, but remains in the lab until that postdoc starts. Boris has found an Assistant Professor position in Paris (at the MNHN) and Camille has been selected for a civil service to the sub-Antarctic island research stations: huge congratulations to all four for these major achievements!

We’ll miss them all!

Now, the lab won’t remain empty and new comers are joining the surviving crew to keep it as we like it: strong and warm, like coffee, and vibrant like… well, something that vibrates. After a Master in our group, Pauline and Irene are starting a PhD Thesis here, both with Elsa, while we welcome Olivier as a new postdoc with us.

I’ll miss them all too!

Yes, because I forgot to mention, I have deserted the lab for one year, starting a sabbatical year at the University of California Los Angeles. But I’ll stay connected, and visit them regularly, hopefully, when I miss too much camembert and strikes.

Last bit of news: I got lucky and received two major grants. Meaning that we are going to hire several postdocs quite soon. So stay tuned!