Saturday, June 25, 2011

In search of eco-evolutionary dynamics: Norman, Oklahoma

After the bioGENESIS meeting in New York, I was off to Norman, Oklahoma, for the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution. Arriving with Joel Cracraft, we were greeted by 103 degree temperatures and high winds. (After a walk, Spencer Barrett likened it to being in a blow drier.) I went almost immediately to the reception at the wonderful Sam Nobel Museum of Natural History on the University of Oklahoma Campus. The reception was, as usual, a great place to meet up with old friends and combatants, and to make new ones; all the while arguing about various aspects of evolution and science (the cool field work, those damn reviewers of that last MS, the rarity of jobs and grants, etc.) It was bit harder than at past meetings to get too worked up on these topics because the university, city, or state authorities had seemingly dictated that each participant was allowed exactly two drinks. We had a nice little card that they would stamp each time we got a drink. Great, I thought, looking at the card, two free drinks! Finishing those quickly, I went to buy some more – no dice. You simply couldn’t buy more drinks. So off I went in search of someone who wasn’t drinking in hopes that they hadn’t yet given up their tickets. Beside the world’s largest dinosaur skull, I found Xavier Thibert-Plante, and was then able to get back in the beer line.

I will get to some science and nature later but first a few more notes on the puzzling approach to alcohol consumption in Oklahoma. At the barbeque the following night, we were allowed THREE beer and, perhaps to make sure we didn’t have four, several uniformed policemen were circling the tables. And very serious they were – although one had a beer glass filled with something that looked remarkably like beer. Afterwards we went to a bar in town and found out that it is illegal to serve beer over 3.2% alcohol on outdoor patios – because this is public space. Fortunately (or not), Bud, Coors, Corona and the like produce special beers with the alcohol content euphemistically labelled as “Not more than 3.2% alchohol.” Either 3.2% is imperceptible or the words “not more than” had considerable import.

A few nights later, I was about to head from the conference centre hotel to the university dorms (where I was staying) when I passed by Howard Rundle: “How about a whisky at the bar” he asks. Well, I am a sucker for any conversation that starts with those four words. Over the next 15 minutes, Howard, Jeff McKinnon, Jenny Boughman, and a few other folks cleaned the hotel out of all single malts not called Glenlivet or Glenfiddich. At one point, someone asked the bar tender if he had Laphroaig or Lagavulin, to which he responded “I have no idea what you are saying.” You get the idea. Paradoxically, however, we were never once asked for ID at any venue and no one else mentioned having been ID’d. Perhaps anyone can drink in Oklahoma, as long as they only have two drinks below 3.2% alchohol. All of a sudden it was nearing midnight and I realized in a flash that it was father’s day and I hadn’t called my Dad. Lacking a cell phone (I lost it a year ago and haven’t bothered to replace it), I was rescued by the loan of a phone from Mike Whitlock. Not having a cell phone in a world of cell phone users is a great way to make a lot of free calls.

The science at the meeting was the usual mix of a wide variety of topics on all things evolution. There was an eco-evo symposium, called “reciprocity between ecology and evolution,” organized by David Reznick. But I didn’t spend much time there as I had seen similar talks by most of the speakers quite recently. It did seem like a great introduction for folks who don’t normally think about the topic. Sadly, I saw few other talks on eco-evolutionary dynamics, with some key exceptions being Ron Bassar on guppies and Matt Walsh on zooplankton and alewife. (Expect posts on this blog from them soon as I made it clear that I would personally ensure neither of them would get academic positions until they did a post.) The sessions that I enjoyed most were those related to ecological speciation in all sorts of critters. The sessions or talks that I enjoyed the least were those that sought to find the “gene for this” or the “gene for that” – boring stuff for the most part (although not always of course). The introduction to a talk shouldn’t motivate the question of interest as “we wanted to find the gene for ....” For me, the scientific questions of greatest interest don’t rely on what the name of the gene is, although I will admit that finding a set of genes influencing adaptation or speciation does then allow some interesting analyses.

On the last day, I took a walk in the area around the conference center. In very short order, I found and photographed a nesting Killdeer (on a small island in the parking lot beside a car), a Jay (it hit me on the head from behind while I was walking), a nesting Mockingbird (it hit me on the head while I was looking at its nest), nesting Redwing Blackbirds (nearly hit me on the head), and the symbol of the meeting the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (spectacular stuff). Then I was off to the airport for a flight that never left owing to thunder storms in Chicago. I spent the night put up in a hotel by the airline and had a few glasses of beer and discussion about the genetics of adaptive radiation with Rees Kassen. (It’s a many small world after all!!!) Then it was up at 4:15 am for the trip home. Here’s hoping the next adventure in the search for eco-evolutionary dynamics will have just as much science and wildlife but more beer and whisky.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

EVOsystem Services in the Big Apple.

For the past three days, I have been in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History for the annual meeting of the DIVERSITAS core project bioGENESIS (thanks to Joel Cracraft for hosting). The goal of bioGENESIS is to promote the incorporation of evolutionary biology into biodiversity science. Every year, evolutionary biologists of many stripes gather in some exotic locale (Paris, Brazil, Bali, NYC) to discuss how the goals of the project can be advanced and to make steps in that direction. More importantly, we drink large amounts of fine wine and argue, argue, argue about all things biodiversity and evolution.

At each meeting, a major topic of discussion is how biodiversity science seems to have lost the biodiversity – and, for that matter, the science. Instead, it seems to be all about ecosystem services, which does not recognize the value of biodiversity per se and makes policy makers think that all that matters is that we have (for example) pollinators and clean water right now. What is forgotten is that all of these services are provided through the evolution of different species from a common ancestor, and so all ecosystem services are really EVOsystem services. (If you like or dislike the term all credit or discredit should be directed to Dan Faith, who seems to have a knack/fault for such terms or acronyms – PD anyone?). Moreover, evosystem services are so much more because they recognize that biodiversity has current or potential future values to humans that we don’t know about yet and can’t yet envision. And, of course, conserving biodiversity is important in its own right – even if there isn’t any clear human benefit now or in the future.

So what are some evosystem services that biodiversity has provided over the past few days. How about wine? Would you like it if all we had to drink was Merlot? Thank Evolution for Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Block 7 versus Block 28 Zinfandel. All of this is the product of genetic diversity arising through evolution in the recent past. And maybe in a few years we will have something new variety or strain; I propose “Petit Donoghue” – one can only imagine it will be accessible. And what about all those different dogs I have seen straining the leashes of those frenetic dog walkers of New York. All of this – the diversity of dog skull anatomy is as great as the entire Carnivora (work by Abby Drake) – was the product of evolution over the recent past. Now there is clearly an evosystem service that doesn’t filter water or pollinate crop plants yet is nevertheless an important part of our modern cultural landscape. I suppose dogs in general might perform an important role fertilizing Central Park but presumably this task could be accomplished just fine – maybe better – by only one breed, or just wolves for that matter.

Biodiversity produced by evolution: 2000 wines at Nice Matin, the site of our dinner on Tuesday Night.

And this is indeed the problem with ecosystem services as the primary justification for biodiversity in a policy arena – it doesn’t necessarily require biodiversity per se. That is, if all we were interested in is a particular set of ecosystem services, perhaps we could just figure out those species we need for those services and then stop – Great Danes for everyone. But this ignores the possibility the Pomeranians and Weiner Dogs interact with the environment in different ways – ways that have consequences for current and future ecosystem function – even if we can’t see it now.

Further reading:
Faith, D.P., S. Magallón, A.P. Hendry, E. Conti, T. Yahara, and M.J. Donoghue. 2010. Evosystem services: an evolutionary perspective on the links between biodiversity and human well-being. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2:66-74.

Hendry, A.P., L.G. Lohmann, E. Conti, J. Cracraft, K.A. Crandall, D.P. Faith, C. Häuser, C.A. Joly, K. Kogure, A. Larigauderie, S. Magallón, C. Moritz, S. Tillier, R. Zardoya, A.-H. Prieur-Richard, B.A. Walther, T. Yahara, and M.J. Donoghue. 2010. Evolutionary biology in biodiversity science, conservation, and policy: a call to action. Evolution 64:1517–1528.

A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...