Monday, October 27, 2014

An invasive species drives rapid evolution in a native

Anolis carolinensis male, dewlapping. Photo by Ambika Kamath.

In 1956, W.L. Brown and E.O. Wilson proposed the following eco-evolutionary process: two closely-related species come into contact, interact strongly (usually over food and other resources), and thereby experience natural selection to diverge from one another--ecology influences evolution. Then, if such divergence resulted in sufficient resource partitioning, the species’ population dynamics would stabilize and the two (or more) species would coexist--evolution influences ecology.

They called this particular eco-evolutionary process character displacement. During my dissertation, I spent several years investigating character displacement in Anolis carolinensis, culminating in publication last week. Thus, E-E-E-E regular Andrew Hendry asked me to describe the study for Eco-Evo-Evo-Eco.

Anolis carolinensis, marked 47 with Sharpie during a capture-mark-recapture study. Photo by Todd Campbell.
Anolis carolinensis is the only anole native to the southeast United States. Adults are about 3-5cm in length, weigh 2-5 grams, eat arthropods, and are active during the day. Males are territorial and use a dewlap along with push ups and headbobs to communicate during territorial and mating interactions.  

The sister species of A. carolinensis, called A. porcatus and A. allisoni, live in multi-species anole assemblages in Cuba today. Likely because of interspecific interactions, they are restricted in their habitat-use to high parts of tree trunks and the tree canopy. Thus, when the ancestor of A. carolinensis, also from Cuba, arrived to the US 2-3 million years ago, it probably experienced ecological release: with no other anole competitors, it shifted its habitat use towards low parts of the tree trunk and the ground. At least, that's where we find it today.

In the late 1940s/early 1950s, Anolis sagrei arrived to south Florida, likely as a stowaway in agricultural and other pre-embargo trade shipments between the US and Cuba. Like A. carolinensis, this lizard is 3-5cm long, 3-6 grams heavy, active during the day, eats arthropods, and maintains territories. Moreover, like A. carolinensis in Florida, this species likes to use the ground and low parts of the tree trunks.

Thus, where they overlap, the two species are likely to interact strongly with one another, setting the stage for character displacement.

Shortly after its colonization, A. sagrei established and spread northwards quickly. Today, it is well into southern Georgia and has even founded populations in Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii (such jump-dispersal from Florida/Georgia is likely facilitated by horticultural traffic - the best place to find A. sagrei anoles in Houston a few years ago was Home Depot's garden department).

Anolis sagrei male, dewlapping. Photo by Adam Algar.
With its colonization and spread throughout Florida, A. sagrei has become arguably the most abundant vertebrate by biomass in the state and it must therefore affect its close relative, A. carolinensis. My colleagues and I tested two predictions for how: one ecological prediction, and one evolutionary prediction.

Prediction 1: Ecology
By the time of our study, Collette (1961) and others had noted that A. carolinenis tended to perch higher in the canopy whenever it was in sympatry with A. sagrei in Florida. Collette predicted that A. sagrei was responsible for this habitat-use shift in A. carolinensis, but the definitive evidence remained elusive, as there were many alternative explanations. A field experiment was need, and in 1995, my colleague and co-author, Todd Campbell found the place to do it: Mosquito Lagoon.

Dredge-spoil islands in Mosquito Lagoon, viewed from Oak Hill, looking south towards Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Note the houseboat in the foreground for scale; larger islands are about a hectare in size. There are about 80 islands in this part of the lagoon. Photo by Todd Campbell.
In the 1950s, the US Army Corps of Engineers dredged a channel through the lagoons that line the Atlantic coast of the United States. This channel, the Intracoastal Waterway, was meant to provide a sheltered lane for shipping traffic. The dredging machines (nicknamed 'clinkers' for the sound they made) would suck material from the bottom of the lagoon and then deposit that material alongside the channel. As a byproduct (spandrel?) of dumping the dredge spoil material, an island was formed, and this process was repeated regularly every 50 meters or so for hundreds of kilometers of coastline. These islands provide a replicated system excellent for testing the effects of A. sagrei introduction on A. carolinensis.

It took until the late 1980s for A. sagrei to arrive to the mainland bordering Mosquito Lagoon, which is about halfway up the Atlantic coast of Florida. At that time, the dredge-spoil islands there had established plant communities (mostly cabbage palm, eastern red cedar, buttonwood, and mangroves) and supported multiple arthropod species. The islands also had A. carolinensis on them.

Todd wished to know what the demographic impact of A. sagrei introduction would be on those A. carolinensis island populations. In 1995, he picked three islands (one small, one medium, and one large) as experimental islands and three similar islands as controls (using a random blocked design). That May, he conducted capture-mark-recapture studies for A. carolinensis on all six islands. Then he introduced A. sagrei (collected from the nearby mainland) to the three experimental islands.* He followed the populations with capture-mark-recapture surveys for the rest of that summer as well as summers of 1996, 1997, and 1998 - a colossal effort.

At the same time, and crucial for our story here, Todd also monitored perch heights in A. carolinensis. Thus, he could ask, is there a perch height shift in A. carolinensis following A. sagrei invasion? Here's what he found.

Within a few months, A. carolinensis perched higher in the presence of A. sagrei. This provided compelling experimental evidence confirming Collette's prediction: that interactions with A. sagrei would drive a habitat use shift by A. carolinensis.

Prediction 2: Evolution
Collette also made a second prediction; he had observed that A. carolinensis, in regions with A. sagrei, had larger toepads with more specialized scales, called lamellae. Thus, Collette predicted that a habitat shift in A. carolinensis, driven by A. sagrei, would result in the evolution of larger toepads. (Anoles that have larger toepads with more lamellae are better at clinging to surfaces. Across the ~400 species of anoles, those species that live higher in the canopy tend to have larger toepads. Together, this suggests that it is adaptive to have larger toepads when living higher in the canopy.)

The right hindfoot of an A. carolinensis male. Note the expanded scales on the distal portion of the toes. These are the lamellae. Photo by Yoel Stuart.
In 2010, I went to Mosquito Lagoon to test this prediction. My plan, as proposed to my thesis committee, was to go back and compare A. carolinensis toepads on the experimental versus control islands from Todd's demographic study. This would be great experimental evidence for character displacement.

Unfortunately, this wasn't feasible, primarily because A. sagrei had naturally colonized Todd's control islands. In fact, my surveys in 2010 and surveys by Nathan Turnbough (at UT Knoxville) a few years prior showed that A. sagrei had reached all but five islands in the lagoon - more than 70 natural colonizations.

Being unable to use the experimental islands was a disappointment to be sure, but a nice long conversation between myself, Todd, and co-author Jonathan Losos convinced me that we weren't sunk yet. (We had this conversation in the field, which is I think the best place to plan such work, as you really do get a sense for the challenges you'll be facing).

We decided that though I couldn't look for evolution in a true experiment, I did have a replicated setting where I could compare A. carolinensis toepads on un-invaded islands to toepads on islands with the invader. Moreover, I could bound the invasions in time. In preparation for the 1995 study, Todd surveyed most of the islands in the lagoon for both species, finding that most islands had just A. carolinensis. My 2010 survey showed that these islands had been invaded sometime in the intervening 15 years, setting the amount of generations A. carolinensis could have been evolving with A. sagrei on those islands to approximately 20. It wasn't a true experiment, but this natural experiment was pretty darn close.

We collected our data as follows. My field help and I headed out in a small boat every morning, landing on an island as the sun was coming up. We walked through the islands slowly until we saw a lizard that was undisturbed by our presence. We noted the perch for perch height measurements and then tried to capture the lizard so that we could measure its toepads. To catch the lizards, we used extendable fishing poles with fishing-line lassos tied to the end--get that lasso around the head, give a little tug, and you had your anole. (The lizards are very light, so this doesn't injure them). In the afternoons, we returned to our lodging and collected toepad images using a flatbed document scanner available for purchase in any office supplies store, ramped up to 4800 dpi (see image above). During that process, the lizards were anesthetized; after scanning, we let them wake up and recover overnight, and then put them back where we caught them the next day. We often wondered if their friends believed their abduction stories.

Stuart (foreground) and Campbell (background) pursuing lizards on Hook Island. Note the fishing pole pointing upward from Stuart's hand. The lizard must have been high up, as the pole is nearly fully extended.
Once I had the perch height and toepad data, first, I wished to double check that A. carolinensis on invaded islands did indeed perch higher than on un-invaded islands. They did, confirming the experimental result.

Then I tested whether A. carolinensis from invaded islands had larger toepads with more lamellae. Consistent with prediction, they did, suggesting that A. carolinensis was adapting to its arboreal lifestyle!

As noted above, I knew that A. sagrei couldn't have gotten to the islands earlier than 15 years, or about 20 generations, before 2010. I calculated the rate of divergence in haldanes over those 20 generations, and found that populations on invaded islands were diverging from populations on un-invaded islands at about 0.08 standard deviations per generation for each trait. To put that in human perspective: the average height of the American male is about 5'9". If American male height were increasing at 0.08 standard deviations for 20 generations, the average American male would be 6'4", or the size of an NBA shooting guard (assuming basketball was still around). This divergence was substantial and fast.

However, because the evidence for toepad divergence was observational, there were several alternative hypotheses, other than evolution, that might explain it instead. In the interests of space, I'll just say that: (1) we used a common garden experiment to show that there is an evolved genetic component to the observed divergence; (2) we conducted random habitat surveys to show no appreciable differences in environment between invaded and un-invaded islands; and (3) we used RAD-seq data to show that the islands were evolving independently of one another, so that the observed divergence wasn't the result of ecological sorting. This was a huge amount of work to collapse to a single paragraph; one paragraph doesn't suffice to give enough credit to co-authors Graham Reynolds, Liam Revell, Paul Hohenlohe, and Jonathan Losos for all the work they did here.

Alright, we're nearing the end. Let me sum up. With experimental and comparative evidence, we showed that the arrival of A. sagrei results in a perch height shift in A. carolinensis, suggesting a strong interaction between the two species. We then ruled against many alternative hypotheses, allowing us to say confidently that this habitat use shift resulted in rapid, morphological evolution by A. carolinensis, likely as adaptation to maneuver better on small, thin, and slippery arboreal perches during feeding, mating, and anti-predator behaviors. The major step now, and a focus of my future work, will be to determine exactly what kind of interaction is happening between the two species. It's likely that they compete for food and space resources. They may also interact agonistically. Moreover, adult male A. sagrei will eat hatchlings of A. carolinensis, so perhaps there is also some intraguild predation at work here, not to mention the possibility of indirect interactions through shared predators and parasites.

Nevertheless, regardless of the nature of the interaction between the two species, the invasion of A. sagrei is driving the rapid evolution of character displacement by A. carolinensis.
The exhaust trail of the space shuttle Endeavour drifting in the skies over Mosquito Lagoon after lift-off on July 15, 2009 (STS-127). The shuttle returned on July 31, accompanied by its typical double sonic boom. Photo by Yoel Stuart.
Y.E. Stuart, T.S. Campbell, P.A. Hohenlohe, R.G. Reynolds, L.J. Revell, and J.B. Losos. 2014. Rapid evolution of a native species following invasion by a congener. Science 346: 463-466 
DOI: 10.1126/science.1257008

* Over the last week or so, I've had a number of folks inquire about the ethics of introducing invasive species. This is a very valid concern; the spread of invasive species should be limited as much as possible. In this case, however, by 1995, A. sagrei was already highly abundant on the mainland and was starting to get to the spoil islands (which, recall, are man-made and didn't exist 40 years prior). Our opinion was that the lizards were going to get to the rest of the islands eventually anyways, so we might as well learn something from the invasions in a controlled, experimental framework. In retrospect, that almost all the islands in the lagoons have A. sagrei on them today substantiates our reasoning. However, we were also lucky that there weren't any unintended consequences (unlikely as those seemed at the time)--I doubt permission from the local permitting agencies would be granted today.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

How to write/present science: BABY-WEREWOLF-SILVER BULLET

As an editor, reviewer, supervisor, committee member, and colleague, I have read countless papers and proposals and have seen similarly countless presentations. Some work well and some don’t. Beyond the picky details of slides that are too wordy, speaking that is too fast, sentences that are poorly constructed, and so on – the most critical problem is making clear why the work is interesting and important. Why should we read further rather than moving to the next paper on the pile? Why should we give you money as opposed to your competitor? Why should we listen to your talk instead of tweeting about the party last night? This simple and yet pervasive inability to engage the reader and have them buy into your work is likely the single greatest flaw in the writing of every student (and many postdocs and faculty members). In this post, I will explain a simple metaphor that can help you to solve this problem in each and every one of your papers/proposals/presentations.

The metaphor emerged from a comment by McGill’s Dean of Science, Martin Grant, about what makes a good proposal. He suggested that you need a werewolf and a silver bullet. With a werewolf, a funding agency and their reviewers can see the problem that needs solving. With a silver bullet, the agency and reviewers can see that you have a realistic chance of solving the problem. When translating this logic to my own students, I have modified it somewhat to better fit the ideal outline of a paper/proposal/talk. The basic idea is that the structure of your paper/proposal/talk should follow this sequence:
  • CUTE BABY: First explain to the reader/listener the general umbrella under which the work falls – some umbrella that will make the reader/listener sit up out of their sleep-deprived torpor and say to themselves “Oh, OK, this talk is about something that is interesting and important. I better pay attention to what new insight they might bring.” Cute babies can be things that are important, such as ecosystem health and human well-being. A common cute baby here is biodiversity and its contribution to ecosystem services. Cute babies can also be things that are interesting, such as theories, with examples from ecology and evolution being the equilibrium theory of island biogeography or the ecological theory of adaptive radiation. In developing this cute baby, it is critically important to not overtly state that the baby is cute. “One of the most important topics in ecology is the maintainance of biodiversity” – this is a “motherhood” statement ( that just annoys the reader by making them feel manipulated. Instead the reader should make up their own mind when reading about the baby that it is indeed cute. Stated another way, if you have to say that your study area/work is important, then people will think you are trying too hard. Instead, the reader should think “oh, that is important” without you having to say it.
Cute babies.*
  • SCARY WEREWOLF: Next explain how that cute baby is somehow threatened, so the reader/listener shifts forward on their seat and begins to empathetically furrow their brow in shared concern, thinking “Yes, that’s true, that really is an unsolved problem that could hurt the baby.” Scary werewolves for biodiversity and ecosystem services might be climate change and habitat loss and, well, pretty much anything. Scary werewolves for theories are things like potentially inappropriate assumptions, or the lack of empirical tests, or the failure to include an important idea, or low explanatory power. Here (as opposed to the above) it is more often OK to state that the werewolf is scary but it is still more effective to avoid motherhood statements and let the fear emerge within the reader’s mind. (How often do stories say “the werewolf was scary”? Instead they say that “a hulking beast with dark, tangled mats of hair emerged from the darkness dripping blood from its fangs with its eyes glinting in the moonlight.”)
Scary werewolf.*
  • SILVER BULLET: Finally, explain how the work that you did/will conduct has the potential to slay – or at least severely wound – the werewolf. If you do this effectively, the reader/listener will begin to unfurrow their brow and nod: “Ah, yes, that would be a great way to solve the problem.” Silver bullets can be applied solutions to problems, such as a new design for corridors that reduces the negative effects of habitat loss. Or they can be new experiments that address outstanding gaps in knowledge, or particular study systems that are ideally suited to show how some theory needs to be modified. Once again, you ideally don’t say “I have the silver bullet”; instead, the reader has this emergent thought while reading about the study system. And, of course, NEVER say your system is “ideal,” which means “couldn’t possibly be better,” as everyone who works on a different system will immediately think “no it isn’t.” Instead your system is “excellent.”
Silver bullet.*
  • DEAD WEREWOLF: For work that has already been conducted, one would ideally show that the silver bullet (new method/theory/experiment/observation) has killed the werewolf and thereby saved the cute baby. In reality, however, it is just as likely – and effective – to show how you have wounded or exposed the werewolf or how you have shown that the werewolf is scarier than originally thought or how you have found a new werewolf. These alternative end points nicely establish the need for further work. For work that has not yet been conducted, such as in a proposal, the dead/injured/new werewolf is not actually shown, but the reader has to see what it might look like. That is, they can visualize the werewolf lying dead on the ground while the cries of the baby fade into giggles while the baby bounces up and down on the werewolf’s belly. (Or alternatively, the werewolf is just a hairy uncle bouncing the baby on its knee.)
Dead werewolf.*
In implementing this schema, I suggest working from the goal that your Introduction will follow the above structure. The first paragraph (or section) describes the cute baby (the general area of research, subtly making clear why it is important), the next section describes the scary werewolf (the problem/gap/limitation of current knowledge/work), the next section suggests a silver bullet (the study system/experiment/new theory), and the final section postulates what the werewolf might end up looking like (the predictions/questions/hypotheses). In the context of a presentation, the entire talk should follow this structure, with the methods falling into the silver bullet part and the results/discussion taking the form of the dead/injured werewolf. Note also that studies sometimes examine multiple questions, in which case the baby-werewolf-bullet approach can take on a fractal appearance: the whole study, the individual components, and sometimes even within individual sections.

At this point, I am sure you have some thoughts or criticisms of the above plan. Although I presumably can’t predict all of them, here are some likely ones.
  • But my work just isn’t that important – it won’t solve world hunger, it won’t halt the loss of biodiversity, and it won’t overthrow the ecological theory of adaptive radiation. Surely I shouldn’t try to pretend it will. Indeed you shouldn’t, but don’t throw the cute baby out with the scary werewolf. Instead, you simply need to scale your baby/werewolf/silver bullet accordingly. If you have a relatively small problem, give us a clearly defined but only modestly scary werewolf. If your silver bullet is unlikely to slay the werewolf, then give us some silver pepper spray. The key point is that the above logic and outline applies regardless of the size of the problem or the actual outcome of the study – yet, it is true that you can’t oversell your baby-werewolf-bullet.
  • But I don’t want to oversell my work – reviewers will see through my attempt to make it seem more important than it is. This concern is related to the one immediately above and, again, it is correct that you shouldn’t promise something you can’t deliver or outline a werewolf you can’t kill. However, you can outline nested werewolves – like Russian doll werewolves where you can slay some small ones thus getting closer to the big one. Conveniently, the solution is the same as above – scale the baby/werewolf/bullet to the scope of your study and what you can deliver.
  • But I didn’t actually kill the werewolf. No problem. Explain how your silver bullet was tarnished (polishing will fix it up) or was made of aluminum (I need a new experiment) or how it missed the werewolf altogether (the werewolf was in our imagination or was really just a hairy uncle seen in low light). This outcome is just as satisfying in most instances.
Maybe it wasn't that scary after all.*
Or maybe it is the baby that is scary.*
Well, there it is – a suggested plan for writing every paper/proposal/presentation for the rest of your career. I hope it helps. I have certainly found it immensely helpful for improving the logical flow and engaging narrative of my students’ work, as well as my own. Of course it doesn’t always work and of course it doesn’t guarantee acceptance (rejection can occur for many other reasons), but I think it solves the problem of how to structure the presentation of ideas and how to make clear the importance of your study. And, even within this framework, many other improvements can be made to the grammer/writing/presentation. Here are my own suggestions: and I list some additional ones below.
The Science of Scientific Writing

On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?

Five ways to improve your science writing


* I did not take these photos but found them on google - the original source (and copyright holder) is not clear.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Imperfect generalism in Darwin’s finches

[ This post is by Luis Fernando De León; I am just putting it up. –B. ]

How species coexist in nature is one of the long-standing questions in evolutionary ecology. This is particularly relevant for understanding the process of adaptive radiation, which is thought to explain a large portion of the Earth’s biodiversity.

Adaptive radiation often results in a large number of coexisting, closely-related species that share (or compete for) similar resources, environments, or habitats. In these circumstances, several outcomes are possible. For instance, species could be maintained in sympatry by specializing on different portions of the resource spectrum (niche divergence), which could lead to character displacement and reduced gene flow between competing species. A second possible consequence is exclusion, in which a species is extirpated by its similar but more efficient competitor species. Finally, a third possible consequence is fusion, in which coexisting species sharing similar resources show large niche overlap that increases interbreeding between the diverging species. This suggests that the evolution of niche differences (e.g., low diet overlap) is an important mechanism maintaining divergence in sympatric, closely related species. Interestingly, this assumption of niche divergence is not always met when quantifying niche overlap in nature.

If closely related species are to persist even in the face of large niche overlaps, additional mechanisms are needed to promote coexistence while reducing the likelihood of fusion or exclusion of competing species. Some of these mechanisms include the interaction between temporal and spatial variation in niche overlap in highly heterogeneous environments.

In our recent study, published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, we set out to understand the combined role of these two factors by looking at spatio-temporal variation in the dietary niches of four coexisting species of Darwin’s ground finches from Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos, Ecuador. Specifically, we analyzed over 7000 feeding observations collected over a 5-year period (2003–2005) at three different sites on Santa Cruz Island (El Garrapatero, Academy Bay, and Borrero Bay). We also quantified available food resources at the three sites during three years.

Darwin’s ground finches on Santa Cruz Island provide a nice system to study spatio-temporal variation in diet niches within a young adaptive radiation. There are four closely-related species persisting in sympatry on the island: the small ground finch (Geospiza fuliginosa), the medium ground finch (G. fortis), the large ground finch (G. magnirostris) and the cactus finch (G. scandens). These species also show high variation, both morphological (bill size and shape) and functional (bite force), often with overlap among the species (Fig.1). These species show evidence for niche conservatism, given that they all exploit basically the same set of food resources (seeds and insects), but their niches are thought to diverge along the axes of seed size and hardness (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Darwin’s ground finches and their favorite foods.

Santa Cruz Island also presents an ideal ecological setting to test for these factors. Santa Cruz is the second-largest island of the Galápagos and probably one of the most ecologically heterogeneous of the archipelago. This island is characterized by variable climatic conditions (wet and dry periods) influenced by the wind currents and the effects of El Niño. These climatic factors, together with the geographic position of this oceanic island, promote large spatial variation in vegetation, which is expressed in the form of vertical zonification of the plant community, as well as variation among sites in the lower part of the island (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. A panoramic view of Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos, Ecuador.

Our results showed that ground finches largely overlap in their dietary niches, and this overlap is often larger than anticipated from random expectations, indicating that these birds are typically generalists or opportunists in their feeding habits (Fig. 3). However, we also found that each species frequently exploits a set of food items to which its morphology is best adapted (for some examples, see Fig. 1). We call those sets of food items “private resources”, and we argue that they could have important implications for niche partitioning in Darwin’s finches. For instance, we observed that the use of private resources increased in periods of resource scarcity (the dry season), leading to an overall decrease in niche overlap among species. We also observed that spatial variation in available resources could have a similar effect, given that species tend to exploit those private resources according to their availability in different sites on the island (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Mean niche overlap between different pairs of species of ground finches from Santa Cruz Island. The upper panel shows Pianka’s (1973) niche overlap index; statistical significance was tested by comparing observed niche overlaps with a pertinent null model (dashed line) after 1000 simulations. The lower panel shows the variation in mean niche overlap across a five-year period (2003–2007). Error bars represent standard error.

Fig. 4. Diet partitioning in Darwin’s ground finches. Symbol shades indicate different sites: Academy Bay (grey), Borrero Bay (white), and El Garrapatero (black). Symbol shape indicates different species: G. fortis (circles), G. magnirostris (squares), G. scandens (rhomboids), and G. fuliginosa (triangles). Numbers indicate different sampling years from 2003 to 2007.

We propose that Darwin’s ground finches correspond to a model of “imperfect generalists” in which species are able to converge on a wide range of easily accessible food items in times or places of high resource availability, but can also retreat to private resources in times or places of scarcity. We discuss the implications of imperfect generalism in determining regional coexistence of closely-related species sharing similar resources, and consider how a spatiotemporal approach to niche partitioning could further our understanding of species coexistence in nature.


De León, L.F., Podos, J., Tariq, G., Herrerl, A., and Hendry, A.P. 2014. Darwin’s finches and their diet niches: The sympatric co-existence of imperfect generalists. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 27:1093-1104. DOI: 10.1111/jeb.12383

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fighting the war on science

There has been a long-standing dogma within the scientific community that scientists can not, and should not, be activists. “To be effective,” my undergraduate mentor told me, “scientists need to be impartial, they need to do science and let others worry about the advocacy. If you want to go into advocacy, that’s great, but you have to choose that route or choose science.” As 120 heads of state met at a critical United Nations Climate Summit in New York last month, this dogma has never been clearly more out-dated and indeed, in need of “major revision."

On September 21st, more than 2,500 independent mobilization events were held in cities (including Montreal) across 160 countries around the world in what was collectively called the Peoples’ Climate Mobilization. The mission was this: to demand that the heads of state representing governments around the world make tangible commitments to work together to solve the climate crisis. Given the increasingly dire predictions of the international scientific community, including the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, there has never been a more urgent time for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially from the largest per capita carbon polluters in the world, which include the United States and Canada.

People's Climate Mobilization in Montreal!

In order to make these momentous changes, not only in global climate policy, but also in environmental conservation and natural resource management, an informed public needs to have access to and understand science. It does not take a scientifically literate populace to see that dramatic climate changes is already taking place, but it does take scientific literacy to understand the potential consequences of increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere and to recognize that human activities are driving these changes. However, the science that is essential to inform the public, and the scientists that provide this information, are under attack. Indeed, in Canada as well as the United States, there is a war on science on several fronts.

McGill Professor and Environment Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests, Dr. Catherine Potvin, has been a UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiator for Panama and special adviser to Indigenous communities in many parts of the world. She spoke eloquently at the protest and I had the pleasure to march beside her. 

Several well-documented examples have now been made public that demonstrate a directed political agenda to undermine research on climate change and other environmental issues in North America. The first example is of the control of scientific information through the muzzling of government scientists working for Environment Canada. Under a directive put in place in 2007, scientists are required to have permission from several government agencies to be interviewed by the media and in some cases, need written approval for answers to journalists’ questions regarding the findings of peer-reviewed research. The result, according to a leaked internal policy review at Environment Canada, was an 80% decline in media coverage on climate science (1,2) and perhaps more importantly, a mis-informed public on critically important environmental issues, such as depleting fish stocks (3), ozone-layer depletion (4) and other major environmental issues.

This war on science has not only made the science less available to the media and thus the general public, but has also made the access to the data much more difficult for scientists to obtain through systematic budget cuts to research. These budget cuts have sliced their way through scientific research through 1. termination of employment for thousands of scientists working for Environment Canada (5) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (6), 2. closure of the Polar Environment Atmosphere Research Laboratory (PEARL), a failure to renew funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Studies in 2011, and massive budget cuts to the Experimental Lakes Area, a vital program for long-term research that has been instrumental for discovering processes such as acid rain and eutrophication that elucidate the impacts of industrial processes on freshwater resources and aquatic ecosystems around the world (7).

Furthermore, these cuts to research coincided with a crushing blow to the environment in 2012 through the Omnibus Budget Bill C-38, which effectively dismantled government agencies, including The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and gutted decades worth of environmental legislation working to protect the environment and local communities (including the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Energy Board Act,  Species at Risk Act,  Fisheries Act,  Navigable Waters Protection Act, Coastal Trade Act, Parks Canada Agency Act, Canadian Oil and Gas Operations Act, Nuclear Safety Control Act, and the Canada Seeds Act, to list a few (8). Last but not least, this single piece of legislation also dismantled the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, thereby revoking Canada’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol (9). Alarmingly, these cutting attacks on science will continue, as the Toronto Star reported earlier this year that Environment Canada's plans and priorities report reveals massive budget cuts, from 1.01 billion in 2014-2015 to 698.8 million in 2016-2017 and a more immediate gutting to their climate change and clean air program, from 234.2 million in 2014-2015 to a mere 54.8 million in 2016 - 2017 (10)

Clearly, there is a war being waged on both science and scientists (so far I have focused on Canada because I live and study in Montreal, but this war on science has been widely documented in the United States as well… In fact, it took me two minutes to find important examples in the US on the war on science from the federal government on basic research and climate science (11-12), and examples of Congress’ own Science and Technology committee’s war on science policy, specifically the autonomy and impartiality of the peer-review grant approval processes of the National Science Foundation (13) and more recent news on the committee’s war on climate science (14). 

This is a very real war on science and it has gotten personal for scientists. Remember the bogus “Climategate controversy” concerning the Climatic Research Unit email on statistical transformations that were taken as tweaking the numbers? What you may not remember was that this hacking incident and subsequent media frenzy that made the scientists look like the criminals rather than the victims, was just weeks before the UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen?), the question remains… What are we to do? How can we stand by, aloft in our “Ivory Tower,” when there is a war raging below to burry us, our science and with it, the truth?

The Sustainability Canada Dialogues, an initiative spear-headed by Dr. Catherine Potvin, is a powerful group of scientists, scholars, colleagues and friends that are leading efforts to influence climate policy in Canada. Check them out!

In my view, scientists need to speak out about our science, and we need to stick up for ourselves and for each other. In my opinion, the world is not a playground full of schoolyard bullies. The world is a place where very powerful people, with vested interests and enormous concentrations of wealth and power attained by the wanton pillaging of natural resources, will subvert any and all efforts that they perceive will destabilize their position. When these activities not only endanger local communities but also reach the point where they affect the Earth’s life-support systems, an informed public needs to act. In order to inform the public, scientists need to know the facts and sound the alarm. When the alarm is silenced, scientists need to put ourselves out there, to respond. Louder.

That is why I, and thousands of other scientists, marched, and will continue to mobilize in advocacy of the science and in defense of scientists (…yes… wearing my lab-coat!!!!)

"[The federal government] is making it very difficult for scientists that are publishing on climate data, on fisheries data, on all kinds of environmental data, they are making it very difficult for scientists to make public their conclusions and their recommendations on how to move forward in a sustainable and responsible way."
 yours truly

On a personal level, I was thrilled at the chance to march in New York City and be a part of an historic event. However, I decided to organize locally and join the mobilization effort in Canada, which has a tragic recent record on environmental issues and an alarming agenda against science. To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, did not attend the UN Climate Summit even though he was in New York City, rolling through photo opportunities in an attempt to save face. Nice try, Stephen. But in effect, this attempt to save face and launch a public relations blitz (that highlights commitment to science and leadership in addressing climate change (15)…. WHAT!?!?!?!?!?!) demonstrates that he knows that people were paying attention, that Canadian citizens are alarmed and embarrassed at his lack of leadership.

In an effort to help with the mobilization effort in Montreal, I felt it was most effective for me to mobilize the academic community in Montreal and help to ensure that students, as well as faculty, were involved in the mobilization effort. In any social movement, students have always played a central role, be it in the Independence Movement in India, the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements in the United States and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa. In the mobilization effort on climate change, it is also imperative to involve scientists as these men and women can be, and should be, the most informed and thus most powerful advocates for the reality of climate change and the role of human society as the major driver for unprecedented rates of changes in climate.

Scientists representing in NYC!!! With data!!!

The Peoples’ Climate Mobilization can be deemed a success for several reasons. First and foremost, it was the single largest climate mobilization event in history, with the centerpiece being the march in New York City that gathered hundreds of thousands of people from many parts of the world. Second, the mobilization, not only in New York but around the world, highlighted the diversity of people that are part of the collective effort to build political momentum to pressure governments to address the climate crisis. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it put climate change and the environment back at the forefront of discussion and debate, not only at the local level, but at the international stage. This unprecedented level of attendance by heads of state gathered at this Climate Summit demonstrates that momentum is indeed building, and that maybe, just maybe, “a change is going to come.”

So, to make that change, will you continue to mobilize with us, and march again when we have to?

Remember to bring your lab coat!


(A special thanks to two amazing women, Dr. Catherine Potvin and Dr. Aerin Jacob for their leadership and inspiration. Please check out their initiative called the Sustainability Canada Dialogues!!! getting some press in the Guardian and the Montreal Gazette (16 - 17)!

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Carnival of Evolution #76!

It’s the beginning of October, and although here in Canada it means that winter is very, very close, it also means that it’s time for the Carnival of Evolution! In this 76th edition we have some posts, which somehow managed to have very little in common (-.-), except that they are all awesome! I’ve organized the posts in no specific order, but under three broad topics. I hope you enjoy it!

Gene expression/ gene regulation

Marine Sticklebacks have colonized many rivers all over the world, and with each colonization they adapted to the new freshwater environment. These adaptations came in many shapes and colours, including the loss of body armour, and more and stronger teeth. Robert Sanders explains how differential regulation of the Bmp6 gene in freshwater sticklebacks allows them not only to have more teeth, but also teeth regeneration! You can read the full post here.

According to the WHO, in 2012, 8.2 million people died from cancer, and 90% of these were due to metastasis: the spread of cancerous cells to healthy organs. This devastating disease has taken away many friends and family, and is in the back of the head of anybody with a family-history with cancer. However, not all is lost! Justine Alford reports on a paper recently published in Nature Chemical Biology, where the authors engineered a protein that would interfere with the metastatic process in mice. The results are amazing! The protein reduced in 78% the metastases and stopped the progression of the disease! Definitely good news. You can read more here.

Vertebrate evolution

If you’ve ever been in the jungle in the middle of the night without a light you will know the uncomfortable feeling: noises from animals moving everywhere, smells that you’ve never smelled before, and just a very unpleasant time overall. Well, this is because we, humans, are not adapted for low light conditions, and because the jungle is full of nocturnal creatures. Contrary to us, most other mammals are nocturnal, which was the main argument for their amazing flourishing after the dinosaurs went extinct. Tom Giarla talks about how a little bone (the scleral ring) brought new light, quite literally, to this assumption: the night was scary even back then! You can read the post here.

It seems that mammals are actually older than what we thought! Charles Choi talks about three species of Haramiyids recently discovered in China that revealed previously unknown similarities with modern mammals. Their skull and middle ear are so similar to modern mammals that they might be included in this group. If this were true, the origin of mammals would be 50-60 million years earlier than previously thought! Awesome. You can read the blog post here.

Somehow related to Stephen Jay Gould

Once. Yes, only once has multicellularity evolved. Isn’t it amazing that thanks to this single event we have the astonishing diversity of eukaryotic life on Earth. Me, you, my dog, your cat, trees, whales, mushrooms, carrots, and everything else that exists on earth are distant relatives. In a beautifully written post, Ed Yong describes not only this lucky event, but also the evolution of the research around it. You can read Ed’s post here

I have been to many introductory courses in Evolution – not because I failed and had to take them again, but because I was either taking the course for the first time, or because I was helping the teacher – and in every single one of them they quoted Stephen Jay Gould and his “tape of life".  Emily Singer takes on a recently published paper in Science, by Michael Desai’s group, about the predictability of yeast adaptation. Yeast actually evolved to the same evolutionary endpoint, despite evolutionary contingencies (initial genotype)!  So, going back to Gould, if we replay the tape of life, would we end up with the same life forms as today? This was actually an exam question in one of those courses, and was intended to get a feeling of student’s understanding on the mechanisms by which evolution occurs. I guess most students should’ve had that question wrong… You can read more here, or the actual article here.

Like many sciences, evolutionary biology is full of concepts, models and theories that as the science matures become more and more complex. But sometimes it is easy to take one step back, take all these concepts, models and theories, and make them more palatable – at least for the general public or people who aren’t evolutionary biologists. Bradly Alicea talks about “toy models” in Macroevolution: a “simple and intuitive (but sometimes counterintuitive) way to summarize complex and subtle evolutionary dynamics”. This post really made me think about how we teach high school and lower levels of undergraduate biology courses. Should we switch to toy models? Think about it… You can read the post here.

Many people, like myself, are huge fans of sci-fi movies with aliens, battleships and mechs – a good plot also helps. But have you wondered why most aliens are represented in a humanoid form? If, and only if, there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe, would they look a little bit like us? Well, maybe they won’t be as good looking and charming, but they could actually have many similarities with us. Charly Jane Anders explores some of the “mechanisms” that could give rise to humanoid looking aliens! Now, I wonder if I have ever met one… You can find the blog post here.
* If you think this is not related to Stephan Jay Gould, you are wrong. There is a sci-fi writer called Steven Gould:

So this is the end of the 76th edition of the Carnival of Evolution, we hope that you’ve enjoyed it and will come back for more amazing blogging about anything related to Evolution. Remember to submit your posts for the next edition of Carnival of Evolution in their Facebook or via e-mail!

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...