Posts Tagged ‘Ecology’

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

 

Sometimes it comes at night. I lay awake in the middle of the night, and think, unbound and unbounded, and ideas come. And often, I eventually get back to sleep, right before I have to get up, and I lose it all. This time, I decided to get up and write them down. It is four in the morning, and because I’ve woken up at that approximate time the two nights before, unable to find sleep again, I decide this time that it’s not worth the wait of Morpheus, and the frustration of Massive Attack (my alarm clock song).

But before I silently get up and discreetly leave the bedroom, I think about another thing. That email I received yesterday that mildly annoyed me. It was about a questionnaire, that people working on the border of two disciplines should fill out, but I don’t remember to what endeavor. The point that bothered me was that they were requesting it from “scientists at the interface between life science and formal sciences”.

Right. In essence, life science is not a formal science. I know that what we do as ecologists is very formal in the sense that it is strict and rigorous and that I shouldn’t get touchy about this ‘informal’ adjective. Formal sciences really means sciences focused on formal systems, and formal systems are systems of abstract thoughts based on mathematics. Even if many ecologists use mathematics and statistics as a primary tool, we are focused on physical systems. Right ok. Pill swallowed. So how to define the idiosyncrasies of biology when you don’t want to give in into the stereotypes of the hierarchy of sciences? Because, yes, there is a strong hierarchy, at least in the mind of many people, scientists and laymen alike. Many think that hard science apply only to maths and physics. Same thing for the term exact science. Pure is usually used for a branch of maths only, so the rest must be quite impure. And because we biologists are not included in social and sciences either, we must be – since we are right between the world of hard/exact/formal sciences and social and human sciences – the only scientists busying our days doing science that is impure, inexact, informal, soft, asocial and inhuman. The best of all sciences. Thrilling.

Well, I prefer to think of biology as a science of complexity and variability. Because these are really the two entities we are working with and that really define the kind of struggle we face on an everyday basis. And ecology is probably the paramount of these two features. To the point that we embrace them totally. Complexity of uncountable species interacting with their environment in space and time is what attracts most of us to ecology. Variability, far from the interference it represents in physics, has become itself a major focus of interest in our discipline.

Now, it’d be good to end up on a clever conclusion, so I’ll go back to bed and hope ideas will come. By the way, getting up in the night to write down ideas in hopes of not forgetting them in the morning might work, provided you don’t start blogging. Damned, I don’t even remember what these ideas were about…

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Nuclear power recommended by environmental scientists? Probably sounds like a bomb, but read this.

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

The list of signatories can be found here and here. Now, please, do read the article of Brook & Bradshaw before getting emotional and all. Now I’m waiting for the fallout…

nuclearprogramIllustration.sellingnukepower

 

It may seem odd that someone often known as a conservation biologist would promote and defend basic ecology. Yet, I do. I do because I feel basic ecology needs promoting and defending. In a time when environmental crises are so worrying (at least for those who are aware of them), it is normal that people, including scientists, would want to favour applied ecology. That is, after all, a science directly committed to solving environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradations, food security, emerging diseases, climate change and the likes.

As a result, the trend has been in the past decades to increasingly favour applied ecology; and because budgets are not extensible, that has been at the expense of basic ecology.

Yet, there are many reasons why basic ecology – or fundamental ecology – is important. I will not enumerate them all here, you’ll probably want to read the article I just wrote, with 4 other authors in the last issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, here if you subscribe, for for free here*. But I can still pick up a few, just to arouse your curiosity, because I’m sure you didn’t think of them all, and several might surprise you a bit.

And then not! Go read the paper, I’m feeling lazy today and I’ve been told to keep my posts shorts. But of course, you can use this blog to tell me why you disagree. Because, unlike applied ecology, debate is fundamental in science.

ThermodynamicsOfEcology
by Ari Weinkle

* you can download the paper from the link on this post or directly from my lab web page here. I shouldn’t offer it like that, but I am in the process to pay for the Open Access and I don’t want to wait until it is available for readers to access it easily.

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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