Friday, August 31, 2012

The unreasonables

Here is one very, very brief thought inspired by a friend’s passion for literature in the heat of US Presidential politics. This friend called my attention to the following quotation.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

Of course, my first thought was of eco-evolutionary dynamics (not partisan politics, as my friend undoubtedly had hoped). To some, the idea that the (sometimes small) evolutionary changes of organisms may alter the environment in ways that matter for ecosystems and, ultimately, for evolution itself may seem unlikely, especially when these changes are compared to large-scale geological processes. And perhaps the majority of species, those studied by reasonable evolutionary biologists, are those that adapt to the world around them. But that leaves the others – the niche constructors, keystone species, foundation species, and ecosystem engineers – as the unreasonable species that change the environments around them (either intentionally or unintentionally). And perhaps it is the unreasonable eco-evolutionary biologists that study them. But if we are to believe Shaw (he is the only person to have ever won both a Nobel prize in literature and an Oscar), all progress depends on these unreasonables.
George Bernard Shaw – Nobel prize in literature (1925), Oscar winner for the film Pygmalion (1938), and previously unidentified early adopter of eco-evolutionary thinking.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The “Baby One More Time” hypothesis

I am currently teaching a field course at McGill’s beautiful Gault Nature Reserve on Mt. St. Hilaire in Quebec. Four professors lead the students through a series of modules that investigate various ecological or evolutionary questions, and then the students do their own research projects. During the course of my module, a puzzling phenomenon was exposed in stark relief, which led to the hypothesis I will here describe.

My module investigated whether or not two species of fish (perch and pumpkinseed sunfish) each show resource polymorphism in the lake found on the reserve – that is, to what extent do different individuals specialize on the two main resource types: zooplankton in the open water versus benthic foods in the littoral zone. This topic is of interest because resource polymorphisms of this sort are thought to drive the adaptive radiation of fishes in lakes.

Resource polymorphism is irrelevant to this post except that the data collection set up the conditions that lead to the hypothesis. After catching fish in the lake, we retired to a research lab to process the fish. The “we” was seven students, myself, and the TA – and we established an assembly line for processing fish. The first person measured a series of external traits, the next one removed the gills, the next one counted and measured the gill rakers, the next one removed some muscle tissue for stable isotope analysis and removed the stomach, and then several other students analyzed the stomach contents to infer diets. And so on and so forth again and again and again through a total of about 80 fish.

Catching fish on Lac Hertel.

Needless to say this is all rather tedious – not unlike so many other cases of processing field samples. The typical way to help maintain motivation under such duress is to listen to music. Many of the students had their computers or ipods that included whatever “cool” playlists they had built over the years. First one student would start their playlist and sing enthusiastically along with the songs and perhaps another student or two would join in on one song or another, with the others not knowing many of the songs. Then a different student would start their playlist and sing enthusiastically to each song with the others again not recognize many of them. And so on through a number of students.

Then DJ-TA Felipe Perez-Jvostov took matters into his own hands. He first started playing some of his own favorites, which had roughly the same effect as that explained above. Then for reasons known only to himself, he went to youtube and started playing those trashy pop songs of 10 years ago: Britney Spears (Baby one more time), Christina Aguilera (Genie in a bottle), Backstreet Boys (I want it that way), and so on. The response was instantaneous and dramatic. Within a few notes of the first song (and all subsequent songs), EVERYONE was singing along at the top of their voices, harmonizing, bobbing their heads up and down, generally having a grand time. (Check out the candid video below.) And it isn’t just the current generation. If it had been a bunch of my friends, and someone had broken out Motley Crue (Smokin’ in the boys room) or the Scorpions (Big city nights) or (god forbid) Ratt (Round and round) everyone would have been singing along.

So why is it that everyone played their sophisticated playlists even though no one knew the songs but then when the old trash stuff from their teen years came on everyone knew it and enthusiastically sang along? My hypothesis (and I will grant it probably isn’t original) is this. When young, everyone wants to fit in and so people in a group or social network converge on the same songs (positive frequency dependence in scientific parlance). But as people grow up, many make a conscious effort to stand out of the crowd (negative frequency dependence) and one way this is manifest is by finding less common and more sophisticated music that one then displays to others.

I postulate that this sort of thing is common in the animal world even beyond humans. Juveniles look more similar than adults – and have more similar diets and behaviors – and are often more spatially clustered. So perhaps this shift from conforming to non-conforming is an adaptive ontogenetic shift shared by animals in general. The real question, however, is whether or not it is adaptive – that is, did it evolve because it increased fitness in past environments …

I just stopped writing this post for a few moments to get some whisky and take a pee. In the resulting stream of consciousness, I came up with an adaptive hypothesis – susceptibility to predation. When animals are young (or small), individuals are highly susceptible to predation and so they tend to do things that don’t make them stand out from the crowd. Those that do are toast. When old (or large), however, individuals are less susceptible to predation and so they can afford to stand out. Moreover, doing so often provides mating advantages by getting yourself noticed – the “rare male effect” is one example of this. So perhaps selection really does favor conforming when young but non-conforming when older. Stated more generally, perhaps positive frequency dependence in behavior is more common during juvenile stages and negative frequency dependence is more common during adult stages.

So the next time you feel old and want to recapture the magic of your youth, put on that Vanilla Ice or Motley Crue or Britney Spears again and sing out loud. Everyone will be convinced you are 20 years younger and they will feel 20 years younger too. Although your mating prospects are likely to decrease you will at least be less noticeable to predators. Hit Me Baby One More Time!

Praying Mantis - at the research project site of Natasha, Adam, and Stephanie.

Baby snapping turtle caught by Flavia.

Barred owl.

Garter snake caught at the Gault House.

Pickerel frog - also caught by Flavia.
More photos of these and other critters from the last few days are on my Flikr site:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Disentangling the direct and indirect effects of adaptation on ecosystems

Andrew Hendry has been telling me for at least a year now that I will never get a faculty job until I post something on his blog. Matt Walsh’s recent job snag shortly after posting his first post on the blog was enough to convince me that there may actually be something to this. My first post will just be to shamelessly advertise a new paper that Regis Ferriere, Andres Lopez-Sepulcre, Michael Marshall, Joseph Travis, Cathy Pringle and David Reznick and I recently had come out in the American Naturalist titled: “Direct and indirect ecosystem effects of evolutionary adaptation in the Trinidadian guppy” available at: and also another recently accepted to the American Naturalist that should be out in a few months.

First some background to the system. Those familiar with guppies can skip to the next paragraph and avoid the usual guppy system description. Guppies in Trinidad live along a gradient of fish community types in Trinidad. At one extreme, in so-called “high-predation” communities, they live with many different fish including the killifish, several species of caracins, several species of cichlids and two fish predators: the wolfish and pike cichlid. At the other extreme, in so-called “low-predation” communities, guppies live only with the killifish. These two community types are often separated by barrier waterfalls that restrict fish from moving from the high predation locations below to the low predation communities above. New populations of low predation guppies are believed to evolve when several guppies from the high predation communities make it above the barrier waterfalls into communities that contain only killifish. Decades of research on guppies between these two community types has shown that they exhibit genetically based differences in male coloration, body-shape, behavior and demography. A couple of years ago we asked whether these two phenotypes also impacted the environment in different ways. We conducted mesocosm experiments using guppies from 2 different high and low predation populations. We crossed phenotype treatments with density treatments to yield a relative impact of guppy phenotype compared with guppy density. The results, published in PNAS ( ), showed that the different phenotypes had different effects on multiple components of the ecosystem and that these effects were often as large as those of guppy density. Several studies like ours have examined the net effects of adaptive evolution on ecosystem properties. However, we do not know if these effects are confined to direct interactions or if they propagate further through indirect ecological pathways. Even less well understood is how the combination of direct and indirect ecological effects of the phenotype promotes or inhibits evolutionary change.

In this most recent paper, we coupled mesocosm experiments with ecosystem modeling to separate not only the direct and total indirect effects of different phenotypes of Trinidadian guppies on the ecosystem, but also the total indirect effect into its constituent parts. We show that although the direct effect of differences in the degree to which different types of guppies eat algae is larger than the total indirect effect, which includes the effect of guppies eating invertebrates that eat algae and the recycling of nutrients by guppies that stimulate the growth of algae, the individual indirect effects are much larger than the direct effect. Some of these individual indirect effects oppose each other and cancel each other out, leading to the small total indirect effect. However, we used the model to show that it is the indirect effects that determine how evolutionary changes in the degree of herbivory alter the amount of algae in the mesocosms and how this can lead to further evolutionary change in guppy herbivory. Along with the relatively recent realization that significant evolutionary change within a species can be rapid enough to happen over observable timescales, the researchers show how these types of dynamics can be used to predict the outcome of feedbacks between ecological and evolutionary processes.

In another recently accepted paper to American Naturalist, we dealt with the other side of eco-evo. This time we were interested in whether eco-evo feedbacks were important in the evolution of the low predation phenotype. We did so by asking whether the simplest type of eco-evo feedback—density-dependent selection—can explain the ability of the low predation phenotype to evolve from a high predation ancestral population. Density and biomass of guppies in low predation communities is higher than in high predation communities, partially due to release from predation in the low predation communities.

We first used a series of density manipulation experiments in 10 natural low predation streams to evaluate whether populations of guppies are regulated via density-dependence. We show that increasing density resulted in changes in vital rates that should decrease the population growth rate; decreasing population density resulted in changes to the vital rates that increased population growth rate. Control populations, where we did not manipulated the density of guppies exhibited population growth rates that did not differ from stasis. Next we conducted a series of mesocosm experiments where we crossed guppy phenotype with population density. At the end of the experiment we calculated rates of phenotypic growth based on measurements of the vital rates at the end of the experiment. The results of this component showed that at low density, high predation guppies had higher rates of growth than their low predation counterparts, but this advantage disappeared at high densities—indicating that low predation guppies are better able to deal with the negative effects of increased densities. In both the field manipulations and the mesocosm experiment, we were able to calculate actual population growth rate or phenotype fitness using integral projection models. Finally, we used the results from both these experiments to parameterize an evolutionary invasion analysis where we formally ask if an incipient low the predation phenotype can invade a population of high predation ancestors. Density here is central because the ability of the low predation phenotype to invade hinges on whether or not they exhibit positive population growth at the population equilibrium value of the resident (high predation) phenotype. The answer appears to be that density dependence allows an incipient population of low predation fish to initially invade, but is not enough to allow them to evolve towards to complete low predation fish.

Stay tuned for more papers coming soon on other ways evolutionary adaptation influences ecosystem processes and what missing pieces are needed to explain how low predation guppies evolve……..

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Toblerone of Speciation and a Great Big Ball of Heterozygosity

I recent spent 1.5 weeks at the Stickleback 2012 meeting on Bainbridge Island near Seattle and the ESA meeting in Portland – two meetings that could not be more different. The first involved just over a hundred people and was held at an isolated retreat with no concurrent sessions and a focus on a single species. The second involved more than 4000 people and was held in the middle of a big city with gazillions of concurrent sessions on countless different species. In between the two meetings, I took a camping and photography trip out on the Olympic Peninsula. Sometimes blogs become travelogues (trlogs?) and this will be one of those cases, plus some Toblerone and heterozygosity thrown in for fun – as you will see should you dare (or are bored enough) to continue.

Stickleback 2012 was a real treat, thanks largely to organizer Katie Peichel. It was in a beautiful and private setting with a bunch of like-minded folks who were always up for a wild time: the nightly party in the appropriately-named Ichthyology Inn got bigger and later day after day. The talks themselves were excellent and several cool themes emerged. Perhaps my favorite – if only for the metaphor – was the Toblerone of Speciation. In essence, full genome sequencing and high-resolution genome scans are repeatedly revealing that most of the genetic divergence between stickleback populations is in the centers of chromosomes. If you then line up a bunch of chromosomes one beside the other you have pseudo-predictable divergence reminiscent of the peaks and dips of Toblerone. Marius Roesti showed data to this effect and coined the term, Felicity Jones showed (among many things) that this pattern was at least partly the result of reduced recombination in chromosome centers, and Julian Catchen showed that reduced recombination was often (but not always) the result of inversions.

I had a great many vigorous liquid-enhanced arguments at the meeting – and many of these focused on how to infer the genetic basis for adaptive divergence and speciation. As just one example, a very popular theme these days is to use F2 hybrid crosses (which show recombination between parental chromosomes and thus allow genetic mapping) to infer the genetic basis for adaptive divergence and – in experiments – selection on those markers. But how is this best done? In order to have high power and a consistent and simple set of alleles to analyze, the typical approach is to work with a single F2 cross – but this only captures a maximum of four possible alleles at every locus (two from each of the two grandparents). Given that essentially all stickleback populations/genes do not show fixed differences, this means that what these studies are really examining is the effects of a very limited set of alleles at any particular locus. But studying/analyzing more families reduces power, introduces variation, and is more expensive. Sigh.

And the debates were endless: they raged all day, then all through the parties (interspersed with crazy arguments about human behavior – particularly with Gina Conte, Matt Arnegard, and Matt McGee), and long into the night. My roommate was Patrik Nosil and we would often get to bed around 2-3 am and then start arguing about something instead of sleeping and have to get up at 4 am to drag out a computer and look at relevant data. Speaking of Patrik, he was the token external speaker, although he had also worked on stickleback previously. He gave a plenary talk that walked the fine line of talking about his own work while also trying to integrate the themes and results emerging from the daily stickleback talks. In fact, half way through the meeting he threw away his originally planned talk and wrote a new one that was inspired by the ongoing presentations and debates. It could have failed miserably but instead it did a great job of adding more fuel to argumentative fires.

The institute: note the respect afforded to graduate students.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the meeting is that we have decided to create an “institute of our friends” (thanks to Ben Letcher for the idea). Endowed by a rich and visionary donor, it will be an invitation-only institute that conducts cool research with cool people in a cool facility in a cool place. One key design feature of the facility will be a whisky bar that opens after 8 pm (otherwise we would be drunk all the time) and another will be an extensive bouldering wall. To try out possible wall designs, the founding members of the institute (me, Katie Peichel, Jenny Boughman, and Patrik Nosil) used the meeting’s free afternoon to visit a climbing gym in Seattle, where we “crushed” as honorary institute graduate student Phillip Cleves so aptly put it. Then it was back to the meeting venue for the “friendship circle” party, with a roaring fire and live performances of two classic stickleback videos: “I’m Bringin Stickleback” (performed by the original artists Phillip Cleves and Andrew Glazer) and “I’m in a Pond” (performed by the Schluter lab, yes including Dolph). The studio versions can be found here and here.

Moose Lake in the Olympics.
Although the stickleback meeting eventually had to end, ESA didn’t start for another three days, so I headed off for a short camping trip on the Olympic Peninsula. Despite having lived in Seattle for 6 years, these were the best two days of weather I had ever experienced here – warm and sunny all day long with spectacular views of the mountains and accommodating marmots and bears to photograph. (Some photos are posted here.) Then it was off for Cape Flattery on the very northwestern tip of the peninsula to check out some marine critters. The big fuzzy stuff, such as sea otters, was cool of course but my favorites were some crazy 1-cm long amphipods.
A marmot surveying his domain.
And a bear surveying his.
In a particular location on one beach, these amphipods were running across the sand (looking like little armadillos) and periodically hopping great distances. In between, they would stick their heads down holes in the sand and then pull them back out again for more running and hopping. I had never seen this before and I just had to sit down and watch and photograph for a while. I first noticed that when they entered a hole, they stuck their long red antennae down inside and seemed to be tugging at something. One time I saw a large one sort of explode backward out of the hole and fall precipitously on its side –like a tug of war game where your brother lets go just when you are pulling your hardest. So what were they pulling on? I eventually saw one of the intruding amphipods yank another amphipod out of the hole. Was it a male that they were trying to remove from a hole that had a female? Was it a competitor for the best holes? Was it a female that they wanted to mate with? I never figured it out (perhaps some reader can tell me) but I later noticed a number of the big amphipods holding something underneath them. Blowing it up on the camera screen, I could see it was a smaller amphipod – a female holding a male? And what about that crazy hopping? I had initially assumed that it was an attempt to get away from me as potential predator but it turns out that the putative males holding the putative females were beset by tiny flies and when too many accumulated they would do a huge hop and leave the flies behind. Were they parasitic flies that they were trying to escape? Ever since seeing these amphipod trials and tribulations, I was thinking ahead to my next contribution to the “what did I learn today”game that my family plays at dinner (see this older post for more details).
Crazy amphipods.
Then I was off for ESA at Portland, where I was in a symposium on “Contemporary Evolution Amid the Human Enterprise.” Steve Brady and Dave Skelly had organized a series of talks by people who study evolution in natural populations, thus bringing some much needed evolution into the normally evolution-free zone that is ESA. I gave the first talk and the first question I got was so off the wall that I initially hesitated. Dave jumped right into the breach with an “I’m sorry Andrew but we’re out of time” – I think I owe him a beer. The symposium talks were great and led to my second favorite metaphor of the trip. After his talk on how altered selection environments might cause evolution in salmon, Robin Waples was asked about the best strategy for restoring populations to places from which they have been extirpated (or just helping them to persist under environmental change). Does one attempt to pick particular genotypes/phenotypes best suited for a given restoration site or does one just mix up a bunch of genotypes/phenotypes into a great big ball of heterozygosity and let selection sort it out.

Dinner that night allowed us to test the great big ball of heterozygosity idea – although not in the way that might immediately leap to mind. We ate at the Doug Fir, a bar with the weirdest bathroom I have ever seen. A bunch of us (from the UK, various parts of the USA, Canada, Finland, and several other countries) tried out the bathroom, and if survival depended on a quick pee, we would all be selected against. Instead it seemed that phenotypic plasticity – particularly learning – was the key: navigation was a lot easier as they night drew on, opposite to the usual progression.

In a random act of bizarre coincidence that ties together my two conferences, one of the advertisements on the tables at the bar had a background painting of a bunch of mating stickleback. I furtively stole some, then fessed up to a waiter who then told me to help myself to a huge stack they had by the entrance. I grabbed about 20 and they have already almost all been snapped up by my lab and other folks. After the Doug Fir, it was off to a series of other bars for a drink here and there for drinks with Kathryn Turner and Juha Merila. I ended the night at a bar with a ping pong table. Several drinks and games later I was the champion – at least I think I was.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Evolutionary biology applied to medicine and agriculture

[ This post is by R. Ford Denison of the University of Minnesota; I’m just posting it. –B. ]

Evolution happens.  Careless use of antibiotics selects for antibiotic-resistant pathogens, careless use of insecticides (including crops that make their own insecticides) selects for pesticide-resistant insect pests, and careless use of herbicides selects for herbicide-resistant weeds.

Many people seem to assume that this well-known problem, evolution of resistance, is the core of “Darwinian medicine” or “Darwinian agriculture.” But check the tables of contents of the books above. You’ll only find one chapter on the “arms race” between pathogens and their hosts and one chapter (titled “Stop Evolution Now!”) that focuses on slowing the evolution of resistance to pesticides and other pest-control measures.

Both books (Nesse and Williams, 1994, Denison, 2012) and the earlier review articles on which they were based (Williams and Nesse, 1991, Denison, et al., 2003) devote much more space to the implications of past evolution.
“If evolution by natural selection can shape sophisticated mechanisms such as the eye, heart, and brain, why hasn’t it shaped ways to prevent nearsightedness, heart attacks, and Alzheimer's disease?”
Similarly, biotechnology allows us to increase the expression of crop genes that enhance drought tolerance, but
“mutations that increase gene expression happen all the time, and natural selection maintains those that are beneficial to the plant.  So why does corn normally have lower expression of this gene than was obtained by genetic engineering?”
We don’t have definite answers to these questions.  Both books present hypotheses with various amounts of supporting data, but additional research is needed.  With aging populations and rising food prices, maybe there will even be some money available to fund that research.  If you are an evolutionary biologist who mostly works on fundamental problems and/or wild species, should you consider adding an applied component to your research portfolio?  If so, you might get some useful ideas from Williams and Nesse or from my book, just published by Princeton University Press.

Literature Cited

Denison RF. 2012. Darwinian agriculture: How understanding evolution can improve agriculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Denison RF, Kiers ET,  West SA. 2003. Darwinian agriculture: when can humans find solutions beyond the reach of natural selection? Quarterly Review of Biology 78: 145-168.

Nesse RM, and Williams GW. 1994. Why we get sick: The new science of Darwinian medicine. New York: Vintage Books.

Williams GW,  Nesse RM. 1991. The dawn of Darwinian medicine. Quarterly Review of Biology 66: 1-22.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hamgel field station, Trinidad

Hi!  I am Nigel Noriega, the director of Sustainable Innovation Initiatives (, and I’d like to introduce you to the Hamgel field station for ecology and sustainable land-use.

Hamgel field station (click to enlarge all photos)

Hamgel is a newly constructed (May 2012) station intended to provide lodging, workspace and logistical support for researchers and enthusiasts doing fieldwork in Trinidad. The station is at the end of Sar sar trace in Manuel Congo, on the north bank of the Caroni river, and a mile north of the Arena forest reserve, in a multi-use region with heterogeneous habitat and multiple ecotones (see photos below and also (Note: The Google map links can be unreliable depending on Google’s annotation update state. For example, some of the nearby highways and roads have recently been un-labeled or mislabeled on Google. For the most reliable results, please paste "10.589000,-61.246083" into the Google maps search box.)

The location of the field station

The Sar sar trace

The Arena forest reserve

The Caroni river

The station can house up to 12 people in six double-occupancy rooms, each of which is equipped with a shower and toilet (floor plan). There is a wet-room with rubber-tiled floor, which is reserved for animal husbandry. Currently there are two refrigerators for human use and a chest freezer (9 cu. ft.) for specimens.

The station is on four acres of property which can be used by researchers for long-term studies according the nature of the project, maintenance needs and collaborative potential.

Nearby habitats include patches of primary and secondary forest, in riparian and flood plain settings. Land surrounding the station has been previously used for plantations (cacao, coffee, citrus), short crops and livestock farming. Trinidad's larger mammals (agouti, peccary, anteater, and armadillo) use the area, as do local Trinidadians who hunt them. Boa constrictors, Ameiva spp., terrapins, multiple gecko and anuran species are commonly observed on the premises. Bird diversity is high and includes parrots nesting in the taller trees of the Caroni river riparian zone. Rivulus hartii is a common visitor to many of the small streams and drains in the area, and several of Trinidad’s larger edible freshwater fish are captured by locals from nearby larger waterways.

A juvenile Ameiva

A juvenile iguana

A juvenile Boa constrictor

The nearest major city is Arima, about 8km to the north. Trinidad’s small size makes any location on the island accessible from Hamgel within one day of travel. Hamgel is 10 minutes away from the major East-to-West road (Churchill Roosevelt Highway). Although westward travel times can be highly traffic dependent, Hamgel is typically:
  • 20 minutes away from Piarco international airport
  • 30 minutes away from Simla
  • 40 minutes from the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies
  • Within an hour of the Nariva swamp, Aripo savannah, and Caroni swamp
  • Within 90 minutes of the north coast and east coast.
The speed of westward travel can be highly traffic dependent, but major roadways to the south are readily accessible.

The location provides access to a wide range of habitats, particularly useful for people needing to work in multiple locations while avoiding some of the rapidly increasing vehicular congestion in the western half of the island.

While Hamgel is accessible to researchers working in northern forests, ecological and evolutionary studies conducted in areas immediately surrounding Hamgel may represent a significant departure from the concentration of ecological research conducted in Trinidad's northern range and biological reserves. Exploration of this region can represent important steps in characterizing the heterogeneous, human-influenced patchwork of habitats more typical of the Caribbean than contiguous forest. Use of this region is also important for understanding the adaptation, introduction and departure of species from refugia. Work in regions such as Manuel Congo and surroundings is critical for development or improvement of urban, suburban and agricultural biodiversity corridors compatible with high human activity and rapid re-colonization. In a two-mile radius from Hamgel, one can find primary forest, former plantations, forest in all stages of regeneration, farmland (crops and livestock), rivers, streams, floodplains, and quarried land. The land immediately surrounding Hamgel also allows for comparison of aquatic organisms in relatively undisturbed environments vs. systems receiving heavy silt and runoff from human habitation. Introduced/invasive species such as bamboo and mongoose are also common, and there are opportunities to assess their interaction with native species in a variety of habitats.

Canopy layers from clearing

Farm meets forest edge

Graded shortcrop

Video tours of the station and surrounding regions are being uploaded at

Hamgel field station is being run under the umbrella of Sustainable Innovation Initiatives (SII), a nonprofit organization formed in May 2012. SII’s current focus is the development of educational media designed to bridge communication gaps between academic scientists, agribusiness, industry and voting populations. SII's current film documentary (Home of the Guppy) highlights the ways evolutionary ecology field research is redefining paradigms in biology. A trailer for the documentary can be found at, and viewers are welcome to share the link.

SII was constructed to address the notion that the behavior of humans, as a species, is a major influence on all aspects of evolution and ecology. The goal of SII is to more effectively disseminate the information used in the value-assessments of functional ecological systems. For example, the stream structure in the northern mountain range of Trinidad has created a "natural laboratory" where evolutionary ecology scenarios are replicated numerous times in close proximity with species from both similar and divergent genetic stocks. This scenario has created one of the most thorough evolutionary database linkages in existence, where data for physiological traits such as burst speed, pigmentation, brood size, lifespan and growth characteristics can be traced through up to 15 generations of individual genealogy as well as closely matched with detailed data for habitat and the species composition of ecological communities. In addition, the nature of the streams naturally separates communities and provides unmatched opportunities for comparing evolution in longstanding and newly founded communities in naturally occurring habitats.

Because of these characteristics, the northern range of Trinidad has an extraordinarily high global scientific value as measured in terms of information output. However, the value assessment of businesses and the voting public is limited to recreation, tourism and cheap resource extraction. One of the goals of SII is to help voters, businesses and governments better understand and assess the value of ecosystem information such as described above.

Hope to see you in Trinidad!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Carnival of Evolution #50

Another month, another Carnival.  Carnival of Evolution #50 is hosted by Teaching Biology, with an education-oriented theme.  Our contribution is Andrew's recent post on the standards for evolutionary inference.  Lots of other good stuff in the Carnival to keep your eyeballs busy!

Given the monthly theme of education and evolution, here's an article I read recently about Texas, textbooks, and teaching that I thought was pretty interesting.  But that's got nothing to do with the Carnival really.

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...