Friday, July 29, 2011

Selection, mutation, gene flow, and drift: the Canadian Institute of Ecology and Evolution

I spent the last two days at the meeting of the Management Board of the Canadian Institute of Ecology and Evolution (CIEE). The meeting was hosted by CIEE Director Art Weis at the University of Toronto’s Koffler Scientific Reserve. Additional conspirators in attendance were Mark Forbes (Carleton University), Steve Heard (University of New Brunswick), and Locke Rowe (University of Toronto). Sally Otto (University of British Columbia) joined us by Skype. Our task was to plan and implement the continuing development of the CIEE and its programs.

The setting was unique – the former country ranch (800+ acres) of Murray Koffler, founder of Shopper’s Drug Mart and the Four Seasons Hotels. The house was once decadent and, although now in some disrepair, was still memorable - and not just because we could visit the bedroom where Pierre and Margaret Trudeau reportedly conceived Justin. My favorite part of the house was (no surprise here) the bar – an oval room paneled with wood from an old barn and stocked by Art, and his wife Donna, with an extensive collection of spirits – including a 21 year old Balvenie, now sadly much diminished. The evenings passed pleasantly in such surroundings and, with the ample liquid encouragement, Art’s sister gave us all tattoos befitting our inspirations and aspirations. No word yet on whether Locke and Sally will follow suit.

The grounds themselves were an interesting mix of forest and old fields, with the fields swimming in flowers and swarming in their pollinators. Several large ponds had been built along the course of a creek and these were home to squadrons of fighting and mating dragonflies – the photographing of which made me late on several occasions. I was also distracted by a group of sparrows foraging for caterpillars on the driveway under the large trees that lined it. It seems that green caterpillars were literally raining down on the pavement and were much more conspicuous there than they would have been on the ground. As far as I could tell, the sparrows would unendingly walk up and down the driveway getting a caterpillar every meter or so – all day long. One wonders if the result will be selection on the adult insects to not lay eggs on trees with pavement below them – but perhaps no genetic variation (and therefore evolutionary potential) exists in such behavior.

And, yes, we did actually do work. We crafted a statement of the vision and mission of the CIEE (a DRAFT is reproduced below); we finalized a plan for funding, membership and governance; we worked on a prospectus and progress report; and we brainstormed candidates for the next Director and the Scientific Advisory Group. On departure, we all promised to get together for another round of drinks and tattoos in the future.

Vision and Mission (DRAFT)

The CIEE provides a national platform for breakthroughs that integrate ecological and evolutionary sciences to address fundamental challenges and practical concerns of importance to Canadians. This integration will be critical to the generation, translation, and mobilization of important knowledge about the world around us. This knowledge then enlightens society as to how best to identify and protect critical components and services of the biosphere now and in the future.

The CIEE will accomplish its vision by

· Identifying existing and emerging challenges that require expertise in ecological and evolutionary analyses;

· Assembling the best teams of scientists to tackle those problems with synthetic and integrative approaches;

· Mobilizing those teams by providing support for them to focus on solutions to those challenges; and,

· Involving students and young researchers, thereby shaping and empowering the next generation of experts who will use synthetic and integrative approaches to solve future challenges.

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