Category Archives: Biology Education

Have We Lost the Plot?

The decisions we make as a society depend directly on what knowledge we have achieved through our educational system. Two major problems the Earth faces occupy the day – the Covid epidemic and climate change. In both major emergencies, a significant fraction of humanity seems to have completely missed the plot and I would like to ask a few simple questions about why this might be.

The Covid epidemic is indeed a global emergency, and if you do not recognize this you should stop reading here. We have had major human epidemics in the last 1000 years so we might start by asking what knowledge we have garnered from past events. Epidemics occur because a particular disease is transmissible among people, and the three most obvious observations that could be made from previous epidemics are that large groups of people should not congregate, travel should be restricted, and that people should always wear a mask, a point made very clearly in the 1918 flu epidemic. More recent medical studies since the 1940s have shown conclusively that immunity to any particular disease can be achieved by vaccination programs, and many people have been vaccinated over their lifespan to reduce greatly the chance of infection. So, to make the point simple, many people are alive today because of the vaccinations they have received over time.

Vaccine hesitancy at this time with respect to the Covid epidemic has been decreasing, and as more of the population becomes vaccinated, disease incidence should decline. My question is how did many people become educated in our schools about these general points and then join the anti-vaxxers? I do not know the answer to this, but at least part of the answer might be a failure of our education systems.

A second emergency over climate change will probably be with us for a much longer time than the Covid pandemic, so we need to think very clearly about it. The problem in part is that climate change is long term (10-100+ years) and it is difficult to change human behaviour in a short time. Consequently, advances like renewable energy, solar panels on roofs, electric cars, and good insulation in houses need to be pushed by government policies. Since governments are too often concerned only about the next 4 years, and all the good policies will result in rising taxes, there is much talking but little action. Longer term issues like population control are too often swept under the table as too hot to handle. News outlets push panic buttons over reduced birth rates in the world today and translate this into immediate population collapse. Elementary issues of human demography that ought to be part of any curriculum are not understood, and the failure to appreciate the consequences of continued growth seem lost on much of the population. Consequently, part of our current problems involving action on the climate emergency must be laid to poor education about these simple matters.

We have gone through a long period when economics triumphed over ecology and sustainability, but that problem is rapidly being rectified. More people are recognizing that a single country cannot ignore global problems, conservation is strong on the agenda of many governments, although again these issues emit more talk than actions.

I certainly do not know the solution to these current issues but the polarization in the world today is strong enough to prohibit many policies being achieved that would improve and overcome our present emergencies. Unless we can achieve agreement on sustainable goals for all of society these emergencies will continue to build. Thinking that I could fly to Mars and get away from these problems is something even the British royalty recognize as ridiculous.

A few possible ideas:

  1. Call out and protest as much as you can about uninformed pseudo-scientific comments on ecology, economics, medical science, and sustainability. Demand political action on these two global emergencies now.
  2. Improve our education systems to demand a curriculum that addresses current problems of climate change and agriculture, population growth, medical history, disease, and the history of the biosphere.
  3. Get accurate data on global change and Covid from reliable sources.
  4. Never give up. Present scientific truth to counteract nonsense.
  5. And use social media effectively to improve communication of the science that speaks to the solution of these major problems.

Kolata, Gina B. (2019) Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that caused it.’ Atria Books: New York. 352 pp. ISBN: 978-0743203982

MacKenzie, Debora (2020) COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. Hachette Books: New York. 304 pp. IBN: 978-0306924248  (Published in North America in 2021 as Stopping the Next Pandemic, 339 pp. ISBN 978-036924224.)

Piketty, Thomas (2021). Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021
Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut. 360 pp. ISBN: 978-0300259667

Salamon, Margaret Klein (2020). Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, B.C. Canada. 160 pp. ISBN: 978-0865719415

Whither the Big Questions in Ecology?

The science of ecology grows and grows and perhaps it is time to recognize the subcultures of the discipline which operate as nearly independent areas of science. Few people today would talk of the science of physics or the science of chemistry, but rather the subcultures of physics or chemistry in which critical problems are defined and tested. In a sense this has already been recognized in ecology by the increase in specific journals. No one goes to Conservation Biology to look up recent studies in insect pest control, and no one goes to Limnology and Oceanography to research progress in theoretical ecology. So, by default we ecologists have already subdivided the overall broad science of ecology into subcultures, and the problem then arises when we must consider major issues or big questions like the ecological impacts of climate change that encompass multiple subcultures, and the more specific issue of how we educate students of all ages about the broad problems of ecology and the environment.

The education issue ought to be the easiest part of this conundrum to deal with. The simple rule – Teach the Principles – is what textbook writers try to do. But this is easier said than done. Jim Hone et al. (2015) took on the problem of defining the principles of applied ecology and consolidated these into 22 prescriptive and 3 empirical principles that could serve as a starter for this area of general ecology. The same compilation could be done in many subdisciplines of ecology and there are many good examples of this (e.g., Lidicker, 2020, Ryo et al. 2019). A plethora of ecology textbooks exist to pull the broad subject together, and they are interesting themselves in what they emphasize.  

The larger problem is in the primary literature of ecology, and I pick here four big questions in ecology in which communication could be improved that would be useful both to educators and to the public.

  1. Sustainability of the Earth’s Ecosystems. This broad area covers human population dynamics, which can be generalized to many other species by the principles of population ecology. It would include agricultural issues and the consequences of soil erosion and degradation and cover the basics of atmospheric chemistry at least to question whether everyone going to Mars is particularly useful. Where relevant, every ecological publication should address how this research addresses the large issue of sustainability.
  2. Climate Change Effects. There is a general understanding of the geographic distribution of vegetation communities on Earth, how these have changed in geologic time and are changing now but projections for the future are vague. Much research is ongoing, but the ecological time frame of research is still too short (Hagerman and Pelai 2018). Teaching what we know now would include the essential physics and chemistry of sea level rise, changes in the distribution of good and bad species, including human diseases, and simple warnings about investing in real estate in Miami Beach. Every prediction about climate change effects should include a time frame at which the predictions could be accepted or rejected. If ecologists are to affect government policies, a testable action plan must be specified lest we keep barking up the wrong tree.
  3. Current conflicts in managing the Earth’s natural resources. The concern here is the social and economic drivers of why we continue overfishing and overharvesting resources that result in damage to local environments, and how we can manage conflicts over these resources. To manage intelligently we need to understand the interactions of the major species involved in the ecological community. Ecosystem dynamics will be the central set of concepts here, and the large topic of the resilience of our Earth’s ecosystems. Ecologists are clear that the resilience of ecosystems is limited but exactly where those limits are is far from clear at the present time.
  4. Conservation of Biodiversity. The ecological factors that limit biodiversity, and the consequences of biodiversity loss are major areas of current research and communication to the public. While the volume of concern is high in this subdiscipline, advances in understanding lag far behind. We operate now with only the vaguest of principles of how to achieve conservation results. The set of conservation principles (Prober et al. 2019) interacts strongly with the 3 big questions listed above and should cover advances in paleoecology and the methods of defining ancient environments as well as current conservation problems. Understanding how social conflict resolution can be achieved in many conservation controversies links across to the social sciences here. 

The key here is that all these big questions contain hundreds of scientific problems that need investigation, and the background of all these questions should include the principles by which ecological science advances, as well as the consequences of ignoring scientific advice. For educators, all these big questions can be analysed by examples from your favourite birds, or large mammals, or conifer trees, or fishes so that as scientific progress continues, we will have increased precision in our ecological understanding of the Earth. And more than enough material to keep David Attenborough busy.

For ecologists one recommendation of looking at ecology through the lens of big questions should be to include in your communications how your findings illuminate the road to improved understanding and further insights into how the Earth’s biodiversity supports us and how we need to support it. Ecology is not the science of the total environment, but it is an essential component of it.

Hagerman, S.M. and Pelai, R. (2018). Responding to climate change in forest management: two decades of recommendations. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 16, 579-587. doi: 10.1002/fee.1974.

Hone, J., Drake, A., and Krebs, C.J. (2015). Prescriptive and empirical principles of applied ecology. Environmental Reviews 23, 170-176. doi: 10.1139/er-2014-0076.

Lidicker, W.Z. (2020). A Scientist’s Warning to humanity on human population growth. Global Ecology and Conservation 24, e01232. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e01232.

Prober, S.M., Doerr, V.A.J., Broadhurst, L.M., Williams, K.J., and Dickson, F. (2019). Shifting the conservation paradigm: a synthesis of options for renovating nature under climate change. Ecological Monographs 89, e01333. doi: 10.1002/ecm.1333.

Ryo, M., Aguilar-Trigueros, C.A., Pinek, L., Muller, L.A.H., and Rillig, M.C. (2019). Basic Principles of Temporal Dynamics. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 34, 723-733. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.03.007.

Why Science is Frustrating

Many people train in science because they are convinced that this is an important route to doing good in the world. We operate on the simple model that science leads to knowledge of how to solve problems and once we have that knowledge the application to policy and management should be reasonably simple. This model is of course wildly incomplete, so if you are a young person contemplating what to do with your life, you should perhaps think very carefully about how to achieve progress. I review here three current examples of failures of science in the timely management of acute problems.

The first and most complex current problem is the Covid-19 pandemic. Since this virus disease became a pandemic more than a year ago, many scientists have investigated how to thwart it. There was spectacular success in developing vaccines and advances in a basic understanding the virus. However, some proposals had no value, and this was often because the scientific papers involved were not yet peer reviewed but were released to the news media as though they were the truth. All the common mistakes of scientific investigation were in clear view, from simple hypotheses with no testing to a failure to consider multiple working hypotheses, to a failure to evaluate data because of non-disclosure agreements. Speed seemed to be of the essence, and if there is a sure way to accumulate poor science it is by means of speed, including little attention to experimental design, probabilities, and statistical analysis. Many books will soon appear about this pandemic, and blame for failures will be spread in all directions. Perhaps the best advice for the average person was the early advice suitable for all pandemics – avoid crowds, wash your hands, do not travel. But humans are impatient, and we await life going “back to normal”, which is to say back to rising CO2 and ignoring the poor.  

A second example is the logging of old growth forests. Ecologists all over the world from the tropics to the temperate zone have for the last 40-50 years decried logging practices that are not sustainable. Foresters have too often defended the normal practices as being sustainable with clever statements that they plant one tree for every one they cut, and look out your car window, trees are everywhere. It is now evident to anyone who opens their eyes that there is little old growth left (< 1% in British Columbia). But why does that matter when the trees are valuable and will grow back in a century or two or four? Money and jobs trump biodiversity and promises of governments adopting an “old-growth logging policy” appear regularly, to be achieved in a year or two. The tragedy is written large in the economics where for example in British Columbia the local government has spent $10 billion in the last 10 years supporting the forestry industry while the industry has contributed $6 billion in profits, not exactly a good rate of return on investment, particularly when the countryside has been laid waste in the process. Another case in which economics and government policy has trumped ecological research in the past but the need to protect old growth forests is gaining with public support now.

A third example comes again from medicine, a fertile area where money and influence too often outrace medical science. We have now a drug that is posed to alleviate or reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s, a tragic disease which affects many older people (Elmaleh et al. 2019, Nardini et al. 2021). A variety of drugs have been developed in an attempt to stop the mental deterioration of Alzheimer’s but none so far has been shown to work. A new drug (Aducanumab) is now available in the USA for treatment of Alzheimer’s but it already has a checkered history. This drug seemed to fail its first major trials yet was then approved by the Federal Drug Administration in the USA over the protests of several doctors (Knopman, Jones, and Greicius 2021). Given a cost of thousands of dollars a month for administering this new drug to a single patient, we can see the same scenario developing that we described for the forest industry and old growth logging – public pressure for new drugs resulting in questionable regulatory decisions.

There are several general messages that come out of this simple list. The most important one is that science-on-demand is not feasible for most serious problems. Plan Ahead ought to be the slogan written on every baseball hat, sombrero, Stetson, toque and turban to remind us that science takes time, as well as wisdom and money. If you think we are having problems in the current pandemic, start planning for the next one. If you think that drought is now a problem in western North America, start hedging your bets for the next drought. Sciences moves more slowly than iPhone models and requires long-term investments.

I think the bottom line of all the conflict between science and policy is discouraging for young people and scientists who are doing their best to unravel problems in modern societies and to join these solutions to public policy (González-Márquez and Toledo 2020). Examples are too numerous to list. Necessary policies for controlling climate change interfere with people’s desires for increased global travel but we now realize controls are necessary. Desirable human development goals can conflict with biodiversity conservation, but we must manage this conflict (Clémençon 2021). The example of feral horses and their effects on biodiversity in Australia and the USA is another good example of a clash of scientific goals with social preferences for horses (Boyce et al. 2021). Nevertheless, there are many cases in which public policy and conservation have joint goals (Tessnow-von Wysocki and Vadrot 2020, Holden et al. 2021). The key is to carry the scientific data and our frustration into policy discussions with social scientists and politicians. We may be losing ground in some areas but the present crises in human health and climate change present opportunities to design another kind of world than we have had for the last century.

Boyce, P. N., Hennig, J. D., Brook, R. K., and McLoughlin, P. D. (2021). Causes and consequences of lags in basic and applied research into feral wildlife ecology: the case for feral horses. Basic and Applied Ecology 53, 154-163. doi: 10.1016/j.baae.2021.03.011.

Clémençon, R. (2021). Is sustainable development bad for global biodiversity conservation? Global Sustainability 4. doi: 10.1017/sus.2021.14 2021.14.

Elmaleh, D.R., Farlow, M.R., Conti, P.S., Tompkins, R.G., Kundakovic, L., and Tanzi, R.E. (2019). Developing effective Alzheimer’s Disease therapies: Clinical experience and future directions. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 71, 715-732. doi: 10.3233/JAD-190507.

González-Márquez, I. and Toledo, V.M. (2020). Sustainability Science: A paradigm in crisis? Sustainability 12, 2802. doi: 10.3390/su12072802.

Holden, E., Linnerud, K., and Rygg, B.J. (2021). A review of dominant sustainable energy narratives. Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews 144. doi: 10.1016/j.rser.2021.110955.

Knopman, D.S., Jones, D.T., and Greicius, M.D. (2021). Failure to demonstrate efficacy of aducanumab: An analysis of the EMERGE and ENGAGE trials as reported by Biogen, December 2019. Alzheimer’s & Dementia 17, 696-701. doi:/10.1002/alz.12213.

Nardini, E., Hogan, R., Flamier, A., and Bernier, G. (2021). Alzheimer’s disease: a tale of two diseases? Neural Regeneration Research 16, 1958. doi: 10.4103/1673-5374.308070

Tessnow-von Wysocki, I. and Vadrot, A.B.M. (2020). The voice of science on marine biodiversity negotiations: A systematic literature review. Frontiers in Marine Science 7, 614282. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.614282.

What does Ecology have to offer for Covid pandemic response planning?

It has already occurred to many ecologists that Covid pandemic management could obtain some useful advice from ecologists in many subdisciplines. Yet there is apparently no clear use of established ecological idioms for Covid planning that I can find in the literature. No doubt there were many informal meetings among ecologists and medical scientists, and epidemiology is an ecological subdiscipline. Some papers have been published about the behavioural ecology of individual interactions that could lead to infection spread (e.g., Shaw et al. 2021) and books and symposia will no doubt appear once the pandemic is over. But I can find no direct evidence that ecologists were consulted in the early days of the pandemic for ideas about disease spread in spite of an abundant literature on the subject (e.g., Jones et al. 2008, Halliday et al. 2017 and many others). Let us try to list some of the ecological principles that might have been useful if they were injected into the Covid pandemic planning and discussions from the start.

I can see six ecological principles that could be useful for any disease planning:
(1) Invasion ecology
(2) Island eradications
(3) Biosecurity considerations
(4) Pest control
(5) Population regulation.
(6) Evolutionary ecology.

Invasion ecology provides many examples of the clear principle that avoiding the introduction of a new species or disease is the simplest way to avoid potential future issues. Once a species is introduced it is typically impossible to get rid of it or alternatively very expensive.

Island eradications have given us several lessons in the difficulties of eradication of a pest once it is established. The best examples come from introduced rats on islands (Russell and Broome 2016, Wheeler et al. 2019) and cat eradication on Macquarie Island (Dowding et al. 2009). Advances are being made in eradication on islands but to achieve this on a continental scale eludes us unless the species is caught very early in its establishment.

Biosecurity considerations flow from the trade in illegal drugs but of late have focused on endangered wildlife. The principle is to prevent the entry or exit of dangerous or threatened organisms. ‘Do not let the organism in’ seems to be a message lost on most countries during the Covid pandemic.

Pest control has been a major issue both in conservation, in agriculture, and in epidemiology. It is the one ecological principle that has occupied 95% of the energy and the funding for Covid problems that have arisen partly from ignoring the precious three principles. Our success in dealing with Covid is about on par with our success in pest control, which is not a compliment.

Population regulation would seem to be an issue far from a pandemic, but it is an essential feature of the spread of the virus in densely populated areas. Much attention has been paid to social interactions and their behavioural consequences (e.g., Xu and Cheng 2021), but the matter has emerged again as ‘hot spots’ of viral infections and the discussions of whether vaccine availability should be prorated to these areas to reduce contagion or given to more susceptible older people or to essential workers however defined. Individual differences are a major area of behavioural ecology and there is an extensive literature that I think has not been mined for ideas of how to respond to a pandemic.  

Evolutionary ecology is another critical area of great interest in disease management because of the speed of mutational changes in disease organisms. Much of the current discussion is about virus variants that are ‘of concern’ and those that are variants ‘of interest’. Distinguishing these is relatively simple but has not been used as much as it should to prevent continued outbreaks from the new mutations by widespread testing. Much modelling has been done but too little empirical work to trace these invasions in detail from one continent to another.

The bottom line of this discussion is a plea for medical specialists to talk to ecologists and other natural scientists. I suspect too few medical people feel that biologists would have any insight to pandemic management decisions, and I am certain that many or most politicians have no idea of the complexities of the ecology of pandemics. So, this is a plea following Haley et al. (2021) and Shaw et al. (2021) for more cooperation and consultation between scientists who have knowledge of details that might help us in keeping ahead of the next wave.

Dowding, J.E., Murphy, E.C., Springer, K., Peacock, A.J., and Krebs, C.J. (2009). Cats, rabbits, Myxoma virus, and vegetation on Macquarie Island: a comment on Bergstrom et al. (2009). Journal of Applied Ecology 46, 1129-1132. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01690.x

Haley, D., Paucar-Caceres, A., and Schlindwein, S. (2021). A critical inquiry into the value of systems thinking in the time of COVID-19 crisis. Systems 9, 1-14. doi: 10.3390/systems9010013.

Halliday, J.E.B., Hampson, K., Hanley, N., Lembo, T., Sharp, J.P., Haydon, D.T., and Cleaveland, S. (2017) Driving improvements in infectious disease surveillance through locally relevant capacity strengthening. Science 357:146–148. doi:10.1126/science.aam8332.

Jones, K.E., Patel, N.G., Levy, M.A. et al. (2008) Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature 451: 990–993. doi:10.1038/nature06536.

Russell, J.C. and Broome, K.G. (2016). Fifty years of rodent eradications in New Zealand: another decade of advances. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 40, 197-204. doi: 10.20417/nzjecol.40.22.

Shaw, A.K., White, L.A., Michalska-Smith, M., Borer, E.T., Craft, M.E., Seabloom, E.W., et al.  (2021). Lessons from movement ecology for the return to work: Modeling contacts and the spread of COVID-19. PLoS ONE 16, e0242955. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0242955.

Wheeler, R., Priddel, D., O’Dwyer, T., Carlile, N., Portelli, D., and Wilkinson, I. (2019). Evaluating the susceptibility of invasive black rats (Rattus rattus) and house mice (Mus musculus) to brodifacoum as a prelude to rodent eradication on Lord Howe Island. Biological Invasions 21, 833-845. doi: 10.1007/s10530-018-1863-4.

Xu, P. and Cheng, J. (2021). Individual differences in social distancing and mask-wearing in the pandemic of COVID-19: The role of need for cognition, self-control and risk attitude. Personality and Individual Differences 175, 110706. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.110706.

On the Focus of Biodiversity Science

Biodiversity science has expanded in the last 25 years to include scientific disciplines that were in a previous time considered independent disciplines. Now this could be thought of as a good thing because we all want science to be interactive, so that geologists talk to ecologists who also talk to mathematicians and physicists. University administrators might welcome this movement because it could aim for a terminal condition in which all the departments of the university are amalgamated into one big universal science department of Biodiversity which would include sociology, forestry, agriculture, engineering, fisheries, wildlife, geography, and possibly law and literature as capstones. Depending on your viewpoint, there are a few problems with this vision or nightmare that are already showing up.

First and foremost is the problem of the increasing amount of specialist knowledge that is necessary to know how to be a good soil scientist, or geographer, or fisheries ecologist. So if we need teams of scientists working on a particular problem, there must be careful integration of the parts and a shared vision of how to reach a resolution of the problem. This is more and more difficult to achieve as each individual science itself becomes more and more specialized, so that for example your team now needs a soil scientist who specializes only in clay soils. The results of this problem are visible today with the Covid pandemic, many research groups working at odds to one another, many cooperating but not all, vaccine supplies being restricted by politics and nationalism, some specialists claiming that all can be cured with hydroxychloroquine or bleach. So the first problem is how to assemble a team. If you want to do this, you need to sort out a second issue.

The second hurdle is another very big issue upon which there is rarely good agreement: What are the problems you wish to solve? If you are a university department you have a very restricted range of faculty, so you cannot solve every biodiversity problem on earth. At one extreme you can have the one faculty member = one problem approach, so one person is concerned with the conservation of birds on mountain tops, another is to study frogs and salamanders in southern Ontario, and a third is to be concerned about the conservation of rare orchids in Indonesia. At the other extreme is the many faculty = one problem approach where you concentrate your research power on a very few issues. Typically one might think these should be Canadian issues if you were a Canadian university, or New Zealand issues if you were a New Zealand university. In general many universities have taken the first approach and have assumed that government departments will fill in the second approach by concentrating on major issues like fisheries declines or forest diseases.

Alas the consequences of the present system are that the government is reducing its involvement in solving large scale issues (take caribou in Canada, the Everglades in Florida, or house mice outbreaks in Australia). At the same time university budgets are being cut and there is less and less interest in contributing to the solution of environmental problems and more and more interest in fields that increase economic growth and jobs. Universities excel at short term challenges, 2–3-year problem solving, but do very poorly at long-term issues. And it is the long term problems that are destroying the Earth’s ecosystems.

The problem facing biodiversity science is exactly that no one wishes to concentrate on a single major problem, so we drift in bits and pieces, missing the chance to make any significant progress in any one of the major issues of our day. Take any major issue you wish to discuss. How many species are there on Earth? We do not even know that very well except in a few groups, so how much effort must go into taxonomy? Are insect populations declining? Data are extremely limited to a few groups gathered over a small number of years in a small part of the Earth with inadequate sampling. Within North America, why are charismatic species like monarch butterflies declining, or are they really declining? How much habitat must be protected to ensure the continuation of a migratory species like this butterfly. Can we ecologists claim that any one of our major problems are being resourced adequately to discover answers?

When biodiversity science interfaces with agricultural science and the applied sciences of fisheries and wildlife management we run into another set of major questions. Is modern agriculture sustainable? Certainly not, but how can we change it in the right direction? Are pelagic fisheries being overharvested? Questions abound, answers are tentative and need more evidence. Is biodiversity science supposed to provide solutions to these kinds of applied ecological questions? The current major question that appears in most biodiversity papers is how will biodiversity respond to climate change?  This is in principle a question that can be answered at the local species or community scale, but it provides no resolution to the problem of biodiversity loss or indeed even allows adequate data gathering to map the extent and reality of loss. Are we back to mapping the chairs on the Titanic but now with detailed satellite data?

What can be done about this lack of focus in biodiversity science? At the broadest level we need to increase discussions about what we are trying to accomplish in the current state of scientific organization. Trying to write down the problems we are currently studying and then the possible ways in which the problem can be resolved would be a good start. If we recognize a major problem but then can see no possible way of resolving it, perhaps our research or management efforts should be redirected. But it takes great courage to say here is a problem in biodiversity conservation, but it can never be solved with a finite budget (Buxton et al. 2021). So start by asking: why am I doing this research, and where do I think we might be in 50 years on this issue? Make a list of insoluble problems. Here is a simple one to start on: eradicating invasive species. Perhaps eradication can be done in some situations like islands (Russell et al. 2016) but is impossible in the vast majority of cases. There may be major disagreements over goals, in which case some rules might be put forward, such as a budget of $5 million over 4 years to achieve the specified goal. Much as we might like, biodiversity conservation cannot operate with an infinite budget and an infinite time frame.

Buxton, R.T., Nyboer, E.A., Pigeon, K.E., Raby, G.D., and Rytwinski, T. (2021). Avoiding wasted research resources in conservation science. Conservation Science and Practice 3. doi: 10.1111/csp2.329.

Russell, J.C., Jones, H.P., Armstrong, D.P., Courchamp, F., and Kappes, P.J. (2016). Importance of lethal control of invasive predators for island conservation. Conservation Biology 30, 670-672. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12666.

On an Experimental Design Mafia for Ecology

Ecologist A does an experiment and publishes Conclusions G and H. Ecologist B reads this paper and concludes that A’s data support Conclusions M and N and do not support Conclusions G and H. Ecologist B writes to Journal X editor to complain and is told to go get stuffed because Journal X never makes a mistake with so many members of the Editorial Board who have Nobel Prizes. This is an inviting fantasy and I want to examine one possible way to avoid at least some of these confrontations without having to fire all the Nobel Prize winners on the Editorial Board.

We go back to the simple question: Can we agree on what types of data are needed for testing this hypothesis? We now require our graduate students or at least our Nobel colleagues to submit the experimental design for their study to the newly founded Experimental Design Mafia for Ecology (or in French DEME) who will provide a critique of the formulation of the hypotheses to be tested and the actual data that will be collected. The recommendations of the DEME will be nonbinding, and professors and research supervisors will be able to ignore them with no consequences except that the coveted DEME icon will not be able to be published on the front page of the resulting papers.

The easiest part of this review will be the data methods, and this review by the DEME committee will cover the current standards for measuring temperature, doing aerial surveys for elephants, live-trapping small mammals, measuring DBH on trees, determining quadrat size for plant surveys, and other necessary data collection problems. This advice alone should hypothetically remove about 25% of future published papers that use obsolete models or inadequate methods to measure or count ecological items.

The critical part of the review will be the experimental design part of the proposed study. Experimental design is important even if it is designated as undemocratic poppycock by your research committee. First, the DEME committee will require a clear statement of the hypothesis to be tested and the alternative hypotheses. Words which are used too loosely in many ecological works must be defended as having a clear operational meaning, so that idea statements that include ‘stability’ or ‘ecosystem integrity’ may be questioned and their meaning sharpened. Hypotheses that forbid something from occurring or allow only type Y events to occur are to be preferred, and for guidance applicants may be referred to Popper (1963), Platt (1964), Anderson (2008) or Krebs (2019). If there is no alternative hypothesis, your research plan is finished. If you are using statistical methods to test your hypotheses, read Ioannidis (2019).

Once you have done all this, you are ready to go to work. Do not be concerned if your research plan goes off target or you get strange results. Be prepared to give up hypotheses that do not fit the observed facts. That means you are doing creative science.

The DEME committee will have to be refreshed every 5 years or so such that fresh ideas can be recognized. But the principles of doing good science are unlikely to change – good operational definitions, a set of hypotheses with clear predictions, a writing style that does not try to cover up contrary findings, and a forward look to what next? And the ecological world will slowly become a better place with fewer sterile arguments about angels on the head of a pin.

Anderson, D.R. (2008) ‘Model Based Inference in the Life Sciences: A Primer on Evidence.‘ (Springer: New York.) ISBN: 978-0-387-74073-7.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2019). What have we (not) learnt from millions of scientific papers with P values? American Statistician 73, 20-25. doi: 10.1080/00031305.2018.1447512.

Krebs, C.J. (2020). How to ask meaningful ecological questions. In Population Ecology in Practice. (Eds D.L. Murray and B.K. Sandercock.) Chapter 1, pp. 3-16. Wiley-Blackwell: Amsterdam. ISBN: 978-0-470-67414-7

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science 146, 347-353. doi: 10.1126/science.146.3642.347.

Popper, K. R. (1963) ‘Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.’ (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London.). ISBN: 9780415285940

On Logging Old Growth Forests

Old growth forests in western Canada and many parts of the Earth are composed of very large trees whose diameters are measured in meters and whose heights are measured in football field lengths. The trees in these forests are economically valuable for their wood, and this has produced a conflict that almost all governments wish to dodge. I do not want to speak here as a terrestrial ecologist but as a human being to discuss the consequences of logging these old growth forests.

As I write this there are a mob of young people blockading the roads into old-growth forest stands in southwestern British Columbia to prevent the logging of some of the largest trees remaining in coastal western Canada. Their actions are all illegal of course because the government has given permission to companies to log these large trees, the classic case of ‘we need jobs’. We certainly need jobs, and we need wood, but if you ask the citizens of British Columbia if these very large trees should be logged you get a resounding majority of NO votes. The government is adept at ignoring the majority will here, it is called democracy.

My simple thought is this. These trees are 500 to 1000 years old. Cut them all down and your children will never see a big tree, or their children or perhaps 25 generations of children, since the foresters say that this is sustainable logging because, if left alone, the forest will regenerate into large old growth trees again by the year 2900. A splendid program for all except for our children for the nest 800 years.

The other ecological issue of course is that these forests form an ecosystem, so it is not just the loss of large old trees but all the other plants and animals in this ecosystem that will be lost. To be sure you can argue that all this forest management is completely sustainable, and you will be able to see this clearly if you are still alive in 2900. Sustainability has unfortunately become a meaningless term in much of our forest land management. Forest management could become sustainable, as many ecologists have been saying for the last 50 years, but as with agriculture the devil is in the details of what this actually means. And if the forest management plan to retain old growth is to keep 6 very large trees somewhere in coastal British Columbia, each one surrounded by a fence and a ring of high-rise hotels for tourists of the future to see “old growth”, then we are well on our way there.

Guz, J. and Kulakowski, D. (2020). Forests in the Anthropocene. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 110, 1-11. doi: 10.1080/24694452.2020.1813013.

Lindenmayer, D.B., et al. (2020). Recent Australian wildfires made worse by logging and associated forest management. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4, 898-900. doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1195-5.

Thorn, S., et al. (2020). The living dead: acknowledging life after tree death to stop forest degradation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18, 505-512. doi: 10.1002/fee.2252.

Watson, J.E.M., et al. (2018). The exceptional value of intact forest ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 599-610. doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0490-x.

On a Department of Monitoring Biology

Begin with the current university structure in North America. Long ago it was simple: a Department of Biology, a Department of Microbiology, a Department of Forestry, and possibly a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Management. We could always justify a Department of Microbiology because people get sick, a Department of Forestry because people buy wood to build houses, and a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Management because people fish and hunt. But what are we going to do with a Department of Biology? It rarely deals with anything that will make money, so we divide it into interest groups, a Department of Botany, and a Department of Zoology. All is well. But now a new kid appears on the block, Molecular Biology, and it claims to be able to solve all the issues that were formerly considered the focus of Botany and Zoology and probably several other departments. Give us all the money, the molecular world shouted, and we will solve all your problems and do it quickly. So now we get a complete hassle for money, buildings and prestige, and the world turns on which of the bevy of bureaucrats races to the top to make all the major decisions. If you wish to have proof of concept, ask anyone you can find who teaches at a university if he or she was ever consulted about what direction the university should take.

At this point we begin to proceed based on ‘follow the money’. So, for example if the Department of Forestry gets the most money from whomever, it must get the biggest buildings, the largest salaries, and the newest appointments. So soon you have a system of intrigue that would rival the Vatican. The winners of late are those departments that have most to do with people, health, and profit. So Medical Schools march on, practical matters like economics and engineering do well, and molecular biology rises rapidly.

What has happened to the old Departments of Botany and Zoology? They make no profit; their only goal is to enrich our lives and our understanding of the world around us. How can we make them profitable? A new program races to the rescue, a Department of Biodiversity, which will include everyone in plant, animal and microbe science who cannot get into one of the more practical, rich, existing departments. The program now is to convince the public and the governments that biodiversity is important and must be funded more. David Attenborough to the fore, and we are all abandoning the old botany and zoology and moving to biodiversity.

Now the problem arises for ecologists. Biodiversity includes everything, so where do we start? If we have so far described and named only about 15% of the life on Earth, should we put all our money into descriptive taxonomy? Should we do more biogeography, more ecology, more modelling, or more taxonomy, or a bit of all? So, the final question of our quest arrives: what should we be doing in a Department of Biodiversity if indeed we get one?

If you have ever been involved in herding cats, or even sheep without a dog you can imagine what happens if you attempt to set a priority in any scientific discipline. The less developed the science, the more the arguments about where to put our money and people. Ecology is a good example because it has factions with no agreement at all about what should be done to hasten progress. The result is that we fall back on the Pied Pipers of the day, form bandwagons, and move either forward, sideways, or backwards depending on who is in charge.

So, let us step back and think amid all this fighting for science funding. The two major crises of our time are human population growth and the climate change emergency. In fact, there is only one major crisis, climate change, because as it apparently progresses, everything will be overwhelmed in a way only few can try to guess (Wallace-Wells 2019, Lynas 2020). After some discussion you might suggest that we do two things in biology: first, get a good grip on what we have now on Earth, and second, keep monitoring life on Earth as the climate emergency unravels so that we can respond with mitigation as required. This is not to say we should stop doing other things. We should be more than unifactorial scientists, and it may be a small recommendation to the world of thinkers that we consider endowing at least some universities with a Department of Monitoring Biology and endow it with enough funding to do the job well. (Lindenmayer 2018; Lindenmayer et al. 2018; Nichols et al. 2019). It might be our best investment in the future of biology.

Lindenmayer, D. (2018). Why is long-term ecological research and monitoring so hard to do? (And what can be done about it). Australian Zoologist 39: 576-580. doi: 10.7882/az.2017.018.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Likens, G.E., and Franklin, J.F. (2018). Earth Observation Networks (EONs): Finding the Right Balance. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 1-3. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.10.008.

Lynas, Mark (2020) ‘Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency’. 4th Estate, Harper Collins, London. E book ISBN: 978-0008308582

Nichols, J.D., Kendall, W.L., and Boomer, G.S. (2019). Accumulating evidence in ecology: Once is not enough. Ecology and Evolution 9, 13991-14004. doi: 10.1002/ece3.5836.

Wallace-Wells, David (2019) ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming ‘ Tim Duggan Books: New York. 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0-525-57670-9.  

How should biodiversity research be directed?

There are many scientific papers and news reports currently that state that biodiversity is in rapid decline on Earth. No evidence is usually cited for this statement – it is considered to be self evident. What follows from that is typically a panic request for more work on declining populations, more money for conservation NGOs and national parks. Political ecology statements that request more money for ecological research are certainly on the right track if we are to understand how to achieve conservation of our biota. But the question I want to raise here is how to proceed on this broad issue in a logical manner. To do this I will not discuss political ecology or how to gain more donors for conservation agencies, valuable services to be sure. But behind all this advertising is a scientific agenda which needs careful consideration.    

Problem #1 is to determine if there is a problem. In some areas of conservation ecology there is much agreement on principles – we all agree that we are losing natural areas for urban and agricultural development, that we need more protected areas, that most protected areas are not large enough, that there are serious problems with poaching of wildlife and lumber in some protected areas, and that global pollution is affecting much of our biodiversity. In other areas of conservation ecology there is much controversy about details. Is global biodiversity in rapid decline (Vellend et al. 2017, Cardinale et al. 2018)? How can we best identify species at risk, and once we identify them, what can we do to prevent population collapse?

The answer to Problem #1 is that there are problems in some areas but not in others, in some taxonomic groups, but not in others, but overall the data are completely inadequate for a clear statement that overall biodiversity is in global decline (Dornelas et al. 2019). The problems of biodiversity conservation are local and group specific, which leads us to Problem #2.

Problem # 2 is to go back to the ecological details, concentrating on local and specific problems, exactly what should we do, and what can we do? The problems here relate almost entirely to ecological methods – how do we estimate species abundances particularly for rare species? How do we deal with year to year changes in communities? How long should a monitoring program continue until it has reliable conclusions about biodiversity change? None of these questions are simple to answer and require much discussion which is currently under way. How long is a long-term study? It might be something like 30 generations for vertebrate species or even longer, but what is it for earthworms or bark beetles? How can we best sample the variety of insects in an ecosystem in which they might be in decline (Habel et al. 2019)?

We need to scale our conservation studies for particular species, and this has led us into the Species-At-Risk dilemma. We can gather data for a specific geographical area like Canada on the species that we deem at risk. Typically, these are vertebrates, and we ignore the insects, microbes, and the rest of the community. We try to identify threatening processes for each species and write a detailed report (Bird and Hodges 2017). The action plan specified can rarely be carried out because it is multi-year and expensive, so the matter rests. For many of these species at risk and for almost all that are ignored the central problem is action – what could you do about a declining species-at-risk, given funds and person-power? We do what we can on a local scale on the principle that it is better to do something than nothing (Westwood et al. 2019). But too often even if we have a good ecological understanding of declines, for example in mountain caribou in Canada, little or nothing is done (Palm et al. 2020). Conservation collides with economics.

I will try to draw a few possible conclusions out of this general discussion.

  1. It is far from clear that global biodiversity is declining rapidly.
  2. On a local level we can do careful evaluations for some species at risk and take possible action if funding is available.
  3. Setting aside large areas of habitat is currently the best immediate conservation strategy. Managing land use is critical.
  4. Designing strong monitoring programs is essential to discover population and community trends so that, if action can be taken, it is not too late.
  5. Climate change will have profound biodiversity effects in the long run, and conservation scientists must work short-term but plan long-term.

As we take actions for conservation, we ought to keep in mind the central question: What will this ecosystem look like in 100 or 200 years? Perhaps that could be a t-shirt slogan.

Bird, S.C., and Hodges, K.E. (2017). Critical habitat designation for Canadian listed species: Slow, biased, and incomplete. Environmental Science & Policy 71, 1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2017.01.007.

Cardinale, B.J., Gonzalez, A., Allington, G.R.H., and Loreau, M. (2018). Is local biodiversity declining or not? A summary of the debate over analysis of species richness time trends. Biological Conservation 219, 175-183. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.12.021.

Dornelas, M., Gotelli, N.J., Shimadzu, H., Moyes, F., Magurran, A.E., and McGill, B.J. (2019). A balance of winners and losers in the Anthropocene. Ecology Letters 22, 847-854. doi: 10.1111/ele.13242.

Habel, J.C., Samways, M.J., and Schmitt, T. (2019). Mitigating the precipitous decline of terrestrial European insects: Requirements for a new strategy. Biodiversity and Conservation 28, 1343-1360. doi: 10.1007/s10531-019-01741-8.

Palm, E.C., Fluker, S., Nesbitt, H.K., Jacob, A.L., and Hebblewhite, M. (2020). The long road to protecting critical habitat for species at risk: The case of southern mountain woodland caribou. Conservation Science and Practice 2 (7). doi: 10.1111/csp2.219.

Vellend, M., Dornelas, M., Baeten, L., Beauséjour, R., Brown, C.D., De Frenne, P., Elmendorf, S.C., et. al. (2017). Estimates of local biodiversity change over time stand up to scrutiny. Ecology 98, 583-590. doi: 10.1002/ecy.1660.

Westwood, A.R., Otto, S.P., Mooers, A., Darimont, C., Hodges, K.E., Johnson, C., Starzomski, B. et al. (2019). Protecting biodiversity in British Columbia: Recommendations for developing species at risk legislation. FACETS 4, 136-160. doi: 10.1139/facets-2018-0042.

On Ecological Models and the Coronavirus

We are caught up now in a coronavirus pandemic with an unknown end point. There is a great deal now available about COVID-19, and I want to concentrate on the models of this pandemic that currently fill our media channels. In particular I want to use the current situation to reflect on the role of mathematical models in helping to solve ecological problems and make predictions of future trends. To oversimplify greatly, the scientific world is aligned along an axis from those supporting simple models to those tied up in complex multifactor models. To make this specific, the simple epidemic model approach provides us with a coronavirus model that has three classes of actors – susceptible, infected, and recovered individuals, and one key parameter, the relative infection rate of one person to another. If you as an infected person pass on the disease to more than one additional person, the pandemic will grow. If you pass the disease on to less than one person (on average), the pandemic will collapse. Social distancing will flip us into the favourable state of declining infections. There is a similar sort of model in ecology for predator-prey interactions, called the Lotka-Volterra model, in which one predator eating one prey species will change the population size of both depending on the rate of killing of the predator and the rate of reproduction of the prey.

So far so good. We can all have an intuitive understanding of such simple models, but of course the critics rise up in horror with the cry that “the devil is in the details”. And indeed this is also a universal truth. All humans are not equally affected by COVID-19. Older people do poorly, young children appear to be little bothered by the virus. All prey individuals in nature are also not equally susceptible to being caught by a predator. Young prey may not run as fast as adults, poorly fed prey in winter may run more slowly than well fed animals. The consequences of this ‘inequality’ is what leads to the need for an increasing investment in scientific research. We can pretend the world is simple and the virus will just “go away”, and a simple view of predation that “larger animals eat smaller animals” could fail to recognize that a small predator might drive a dinosaur species extinct if the small predator eats only the eggs of the prey and avoids the big adults. The world is complicated, and that is what makes it both interesting to many and infuriating to some who demand simplicity.

One of the purposes of a mathematical model is to allow predictions of coming events, and we hear much of this with the COVID-19 models currently in circulation. A simple principle is “all models are wrong’ but this must be matched with the corollary that in general “the simpler the model the more likely it is to provide poor forecasts. But there is a corollary that might be called the “Carl Walters’ Law” that there is some optimal level of complexity for a good result, and too much complexity is also a recipe for poor projections. The difficulty is that we can often only find this optimal point after the fact, so that we learn by doing. This does not sit well with politicians and business-people who demand “PRECISE PRECISION PROMPTLY!” 

These uncertainties reflect on to our current decision making in the coronavirus pandemic, in issues to fight climate change, and in the conservation of threatened species and ecosystems. Our models, our scientific understanding, and our decisions are never perfect or complete, and as we see so clearly with COVID-19 the science in particular can be pushed but cannot be rushed, even when money is not limiting. The combination of planning, judgement and knowledge that we call wisdom may come more slowly than we wish. Meanwhile there are many details that need investigation.  

Adam, D. (2020) Modelling the Pandemic: The simulations driving the world’s response to COVID-19. Nature, 580, 316-318. Doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01003-6 

Neher, R.A., Dyrdak, R., Druelle, V., Hodcroft, E.B. & Albert, J. (2020) Potential impact of seasonal forcing on a SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Swiss Medical Weekly 150, w20224. Doi: 10.4414/smw.2020.20224.

Xu, B., Cai, J., He, D., Chowell, G. & Xu, B. (2020) Mechanistic modelling of multiple waves in an influenza epidemic or pandemic. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 486, 110070. Doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2019.110070.