Category Archives: Biology Education

Wildlife Management Dilemmas

The science of wildlife management has moved from the good old days of worrying only about deer and ducks to the broader issues of conservation management of all species. But it operates in an impossible squeeze between human activities and wildlife responses. One key problem is the incremental creep of land use decisions. If we log half of the forest surely there is plenty left there for the wildlife to thrive, or so many people believe. So a central dilemma is habitat loss. The simple approach using ‘cow arithmetic’ says that if you have a farm one-third the size of what you have now, you will be able to have only one-third the number of cows. So habitat loss is critical but there seems to be no way of stopping it as long as the human population continues to expand.

To solve this problem we set up parks and reserves. That will please most of the botanists because if you have a plant species you are concerned about, you need set aside only a few hectares of land to keep it safe. This approach is at the core of wildlife management’s dilemma. You keep the plant species but lose the ecosystem. Certainly you can keep many of the small insects in a few hectares, so you protect not only the plant species but more of the biota. But you will lose all the birds and the larger species that need much larger areas of habitat. One of the defining moments in wildlife management and conservation ecology occurred when several ecologists recognized that even large national parks were not large enough for the charismatic megafauna.

Maybe we can rescue it all with metapopulations, islands of good habitat close enough to each other to permit dispersal. That will work in some cases and is a useful addition to the management arsenal of tools. But then we have to cope with additional problems – introduced pests and diseases that we may or may not be able to control, and global problems of air and water pollution that respect no neat geographic boundaries.

We cannot control species interactions so if we tinker with one aspect of the ecosystem, we find unintended consequences in another aspect of the ecosystem that we did not expect. We brought rabbits to Australia and to many islands with dire consequences no one seemed to anticipate. We also brought rats and pigs to island inadvertently with many well documented problems for bird and plants. We take predators away from ecosystems and then complain to the government that there are too may deer or Canada geese.

So part of the dilemma of wildlife management in the 21st century is that we do XYZ and then only later ask ecologists whether it was a good idea or not to do XYZ. Decisions are made by governments, companies, farmers, or city dwellers to change some element of the ecosystem without anyone asking a wildlife manager or an ecologist what the consequences might be. We love cats so we pass laws that prohibit managers from culling wild cats and only allow them to sterilize and release them. We love horses so we do the same. So wildlife management decisions are driven not by ecological studies and recommendations but by public demands and weak politicians. Wildlife management is thus a social science, with all the dilemmas generated when one part of society wishes to harvest seals and one part demands protection for seals.

Wildlife management has always been handicapped by the hunters and fishers who know everything about what management should be practiced. There is no need to have any professional training to decide management goals, management actions, and funding preferences for many of these people. I suppose we should at least be grateful that the same approach is not applied in medical science.

Wildlife management has always been a low priority activity, underfunded and moved more by political whims than by science. This is not at all the fault of all the excellent wildlife and fishery scientists who try their best to protect and manage our ecosystems. It is a victim of the constraints of making decisions on the spot about long term issues without the time or money to investigate the science necessary for knowledge of the consequences of our actions. The world changes slowly and if our memory is on the time span of 1-3 years, we are not on ecosystem time.

Much action must be spent on trying to restore ecosystems damaged by human activities. Restoration ecology recognizes that it is really partial restoration ecology because we cannot get back to the starting point. None of this is terribly new to ecologists or wildlife managers but it is good to keep it in mind as we get lost in the details of our daily chores.

Humans are destroying the earth in their quest for wealth, and simultaneously producing the problems of poverty and obesity. Led by politicians who do not lead and who do not seem to know what the problems of the Earth are, we keep a positive view of the scientific progress we generate, enjoy the existing beauty of biodiversity, and hope that the future will somehow cope with the changes we have set in motion.

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem”.   (Schindler 1997, p. 4)

 

Estes, J.A. et al. 2011. Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333:301-306.

Likens, G.E. 2010. The role of science in decision making: does evidence-based science drive environmental policy? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8:e1-e9.

Newmark, W.D. 1985. Legal and biotic boundaries of Western North American National Parks: A problem of congruence. Biological Conservation 33:197-208.

Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10:430.

Schindler, D. W. 1997. Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5:1-6.

 

When Should One Retire from a University Appointment?

In the good old days universities had a hard retirement policy that once you reached age 65 you were retired whether you liked it or not. Then in the age of entitlement it was declared that this was discrimination on the basis of age and thus could not be allowed. Universities bemoaned the fact that they had no firm financial projections under the new policy, and many different policies were introduced partly to solve this problem. In some cases you could gradually go to half-time, and then at some age to quarter time, until you eventually did retire, but most of these policies were voluntary.

It is useful to look at the broad picture that these changes produced in the university community. If there was indeed some general plan of development in a particular discipline like zoology, committees could lay out a future hiring plan but it was usually chaos because the time frame was so uncertain. So in my experience most carefully thought out hiring plans went out the window and hiring became ad hoc with the accompanying ‘departmental drift’. So, as a hypothetical example, if a professor in entomology retired, he or she might get replaced by a young assistant professor in microbial genetics.

On a larger scale, we need to look carefully at the consequences of keeping older professors on the books commandeering relatively large salaries. There are no clear rules but in general one might recognize professors that are worn out at age 55 and ought to retire, others that are happy to stop at 65 and relax more, and others who ask to stay on indefinitely. Every case is an individual one. Some of the age 55 scientists are still vigorous and any concerned department ought to work to make their life easier so they can continue to work. Others of the same age should be encouraged to go. The same should occur at age 65. The worry I have most is about those over 65. I give no names but I can list brilliant scientists who continued to be paid and work until they were 75 or 80. I can also list scientists who were brilliant in their time but had passed the gate by 65 (or even 55) but insisted in taking up a position for many years after age 65. This is a tragedy for the individual, for the department, and in particular for young scientists looking for a university position but finding none because the money is tied up in professors well past their use-by-date. I would expect that the only possible solution to this issue is for the university to evaluate every professor over 55 with strict demands of performance if they wish to remain on the payroll and to do this on a 1 or 2 year timetable. No one likes doing such evaluations so perhaps the university would have to hire one of the many hard-nosed CEOs of companies that are seen to be effective at firing all their workers.

None of this is to say that any and all professors who have retired at age 55, 65, 75, or 85 should not be encouraged to continue research work, but they must do it on their retirement savings. In my youth I met a 98 year old Drosophila researcher who was continuing to do valuable research in his long retirement. In Canada the federal research agencies do not seem to care how old you are when they evaluate the quality of your research work and contributions to science, so they at least do not appear to discriminate in awarding research funds on the basis of age. Scientific journals do not ask you how old you are when you submit a potential scientific paper.

There has always been a paradigm that scientific advances are made entirely by young scientists, so that, as the joke goes, almost all mathematicians should be shot after age 30 (that is a joke….). In at least some of the ecological sciences this age paradigm is not correct, but nevertheless I think it is morally recumbent on older professors to realize that their time on the payroll should be limited in order to release funds for the aspiring young scientists who can rejuvenate university departments.

Should All Ecologists Become Social Scientists or Politicians?

Two items this week have stirred me to write about the state of ecology. The first was a talk by an eminent biologist, who must remain nameless, about how scientists should operate. All very good, we should be evidence-based, open to falsification of hypotheses, and we should work as best we can to counter media misinformation. He/she talked about the future of biology in optimistic terms and in the entire one hour talk the word ‘biodiversity’ occurred once and the word ‘environment’ once. So my conclusion was that to this eminent biologist ecology was not on the radar as anything very important. We should be principally concerned about improving the health and wealth of humanity, and increasing economic growth.

This got me to thinking about why ecology falls at the bottom of the totem pole of science so that even though we work hard to understand the functioning of nature, ecologists seem to have value only to ourselves rather than to society. Perhaps society as a whole appreciates us for light entertainment about birds and bees, but when ecologists investigate problems and offer solutions they seem to be sidelined rapidly. Perhaps this is because taking care of the biosphere will cost money, and while we happily spend money on cars and new airplanes and guns, we can afford little for the natural world. One possible explanation for this is that many people and most politicians believe that “Mother Nature will take care of herself” at no financial cost.

If this is even partly correct, we need to change society’s view. There are several ways to do this, perhaps most importantly via education, but a more direct way is for ecologists to become social scientists and perhaps politicians. My experience with this recommendation is not terribly good. Social scientists have in my experience accomplished little for all their work on the human foibles of our time. Perhaps going into politics would be useful for our science if anyone wishes to cross that Rubicon, but there are few role models that we can put up.

So we continue in a political world where few ecologists sit in high places to challenge the modern paradigm of economic growth fuelled by non-renewable resources, and many of our national leaders see no human footprint on climatic warming. Short-term thinking is one element of this puzzle for we ecologists who take a longer view of life on Earth, but it must really rankle our paleo-ecologists who take a very long term look at changes in the Earth’s environment.

The second item this week that has encapsulated all of this was the announcement from a developed country that a new institute with over 1000 scientists was to be set up to study molecular biology for the improvement of human health. Now this is a noble cause that I do not wish to cast aspersions on, but it occurred to me that this was possibly a number greater than the total number of ecologists working in Canada or Australia or New Zealand. The numbers are hard to document, but I have not seen anything like this kind of announcement for a new institute that would address any of our many ecological problems. There is money for many things but very little for ecology.

None of this is terribly new but I am puzzled why this is the case. We live in a world of inequality in which the rich squander the wealth of the Earth while the future of the planet seems of little concern. Luckily ecologists are a happy lot once they get a job because they can work in the laboratory or in the field on interesting problems and issues (if they can get the money). And to quote the latest Nature (March 13, 2014, p. 140) “If ecologists want to produce work useful to conservation, they might do better to spend their days sitting quietly in ecosystems with waterproof notebooks and hand lenses, writing everything down.” That will cost little money fortunately.

On the Need for Ecological Meetings

Perhaps I am the only ecologist in the world who is overwhelmed by the number of conferences that go on every year. I think we need to consider why we have so many meetings and consider some of the problems of the current model for ecological scientific communication. The problems that bring this to the fore for me are five:

  • Travel in its many forms increases greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. Ecologists in particular are not supposed to be happy about that.
  • The number and frequency of meetings operate on a time scale completely inconsistent with having any new experimental data to report.
  • Large meetings operate with 6 or more concurrent sessions that cannot all be attended and there are so many people you cannot possibly talk to many you wish to meet.
  • Many of the talks at some meetings are poorly presented and a complete waste of one’s time.
  • Modern forms of electronic communication produce much more rapid and efficient transfer of scientific information than attending conferences.

I have of course left out the somewhat frivolous but true observation that really important people at meetings never go to any of the talks except their own.

The advantages of scientific meetings are many, and I am a believer in communication in person rather than via electronic media. So we must be careful here – I do not propose getting rid of all meetings. And I recognize that they are very important for young ecologists to help their careers develop.

So I think we have a problem and we need to think of possible solutions. One solution is to space meetings every 4 years instead of annually. Many societies do this already and do not seem to suffer. Even if we had an ESA meeting every second year we would have less stress. Another solution has been to divide up meetings into smaller groups, so the small mammal population ecologists meet as a unit, and the stream ecologists meet separately, and the carbon cycle ecologists meet on their own. This works to cut the size of meetings down and again they do not always need to hold meetings annually. Further reductions can occur by regional meetings, so the East Coast stream ecologists get together readily with minimal travel and so on. Much of this is already happening.

We have not yet used electronic forms of communication very effectively. Plenary lectures could be streamed on video and thus be available around the world for little cost and less CO2 emissions. I am hardly the one to tell you about modern communication but even I use Skype and other platforms to keep in touch with colleagues and ask questions.

There is a slightly frantic nature about ecological meeting e mails that reminds me of the Church in the good old days when every Saturday or Sunday you were supposed to attend for some reason never quite clear. If we are to continue to have large meetings often, we might at least have them in less developed countries that could use the economic stimulus that is clearly a large part of large scientific meetings. Which raises the issue of how much money should we spend on going to meetings versus doing some scientific work.

And my final complaint, having just witnessed the G20 Meeting in Australia, is that we should not adopt their model of meeting every year in very expensive places like Sydney and not having accomplished a single thing in recent memory except to say that they are a very important group.

How to Run a Successful Scientific Conference

Over the last 50 years I have attended about 200 ecological conferences. The best meetings have followed a series of practices that I present here. This list can be viewed as a practical example of adaptive management, since conferences that score low on the scale of suggestions here have in my opinion been less successful. Two major items drive a conference – papers and posters. Three other items are critical – good food, a spacious venue, and well organized symposia, but I will not discuss these three here.

Papers are presented at conferences largely as powerpoint talks. Most of these talks are 15 or 20 minutes but the rules for good powerpoint talks are quite simple.

  • A good slide in Powerpoint makes no more than 2 or 3 points, and these points should augment, emphasize, and explain the speaker’s words.
  • For complicated subject matter, use 2 or 3 simple figures rather than one complex, cluttered and unclear figure.  A series of slides that build on each other is very effective.
  • Effective labels for slides are briefer and larger than those for publication.  Titles should be 40-44 point font (14 mm) and text 32 point (11 mm).  Bold and italic labelling should be saved for special emphasis. 
  • Slide titles should be relatively short – 1 line only.
  • If using colour, stick to primary, bright, and clear colours.  
  • Do not use a photo as a background for the slide. It may be good artistically but it distracts from the points you are making.
  • Word slides should contain no more than 5 short statements.  The information on the slide should be simplified to the point of being skeletal.  It is up to the presenter to fill in gaps.  You should never have more than 30 words on a slide. 20 would be better.
  • Presenters should not read word slides to the audience.  The audience can read the slide faster than the presenter can speak it.
  • If all the information on a slide is not valuable to the audience, leave it out.  Take the time to adapt figures or tables for your presentation.
  • A good average is one slide per minute of talk.  If you have more, you are going too fast for the audience.
  • If people remember your presentation, they will remember only one or two key points. Summarize these at the end of your talk.
  • Never never never put 2 or 3 graphs or photos on a powerpoint slide since no one will be able to read the labels.
  • Look at your powerpoints in a bright room and in a dark room and see if you can still read them. You will not know how the conference lighting will be arranged.
  • Go to the back of the room and look at your Powerpoint presentation. If you need binoculars to read the slides, go back to step 1.

So if you are giving a 15 minute talk at the next conference you attend, prepare 15 slides in powerpoint. If you are giving a 3 minute speed talk, never have more than 3 slides. Simple arithmetic.

Posters are the next most important communication device used in scientific conferences, and unfortunately posters are typically awful as they are usually constructed with far too much detail. Here are a few rules for posters.

  • Focus on 3 points or less. If you can get across even 1 point clearly and quickly to your viewer, your poster is successful. Remember that you will be there to answer questions and fill in details.
  • Lengthy poster titles discourage viewers! Titles should be brief, informative, and interesting.
  • Text should be readable without strain from 1 m. Height of TITLE text should be about 100 point (3 cm) and height of BODY TEXT should be about 30 point (0.8 cm). Figure labels should be a minimum of 24 point (8 mm). See if you can read it from 1 m distance.
  • Use simple fonts such as Arial, Helvetica, or Univers. These are proportionately spaced and conventionally shaped so will not distract from the information they describe.
  • Avoid abbreviations and jargon. Avoid all but the simplest tables. No one will read a table with 10 columns and 25 rows.
  • Because all graphs should be large, information on graphs should be limited, and labels should be short. Specify measurement units. Provide scales on maps.
  • Plan the poster to be read in sections from left to right and top to bottom. Each section should be easily read while standing in one spot.
  • Colour keys used consistently throughout the poster make information easier to follow.
  • Avoid using photographs as a background for text or figures.
  • If your poster has more than 300-400 words, you have too much detail.
  • Give an executive summary or abstract of 50 words or less at the start of the poster. What is the question or problem, and what have you achieved in answering it?
  • Put a small, clear photo of yourself on the top right of the poster so people will recognize you.
  • Provide copies of a one-page printed summary of your poster for viewers who are interested in more detailed information or do not have time to read it, and give your contact information on this page.
  • Images should ideally be scanned at the size that they are to be used on the poster (not scanned and then dragged to the appropriate size). Most poster printers can’t process higher than 300dpi, so there’s no point scanning at a resolution higher than this.
  • Look at your poster in a bright room and see if it is readable under bright light conditions.

 

On the benefits of natural history knowledge

I am reminded today about the importance of ecologists knowing a good deal of natural history. Every species is in some sense a unique experiment in evolution, and our job as population and community ecologists is to understand how these species operate in the ecosystems in which they live. But this means we must know the details about how the species operates, what it eats and who eats it, and in some sense how it thinks about its world. I suspect that this is easier to do with higher vertebrates than it is with insects or protozoa but we need to do the same with all forms of life if we are to achieve ecological understanding.

There is in my experience a great lack of this approach in the universities I have seen. We no longer tend to teach about angiosperm systematics, or mammalogy, or ornithology. These are completely old fashioned, the world’s most condemning epithet. So we turn out biology students in British Columbia that cannot identify a Douglas fir tree (perhaps the most important forest tree in the province) and California students who think the eucalyptus trees originated in Berkeley. That would all be well if we perfected bar-coding on our iPhones for species IDs so we could spend more time learning about where and how these species live and die. But too often we seem to think there is a short cut to understanding species roles. It is always worth exploring short cuts to understanding if we can effectively make a simpler way to explain the world. But we try and fail at this enterprise again and again. Hope springs eternal. We need to know now, so let us assume that all algae can be grouped as one ‘superspecies’ in our models, and all ‘rats’ are bad and need to be exterminated, and adding CO2 to the air will make all plants grow faster. We learn by a lot of difficult and extended research that these are oversimplifications. But then the problem becomes communicating this complexity to politicians and the public who desire simplicity rather than complexity.

This whole task is much easier if you talk to a birder who being keen on birds knows that they all differ in many interesting ecological characters, that some individuals of the same species behave in quite different ways, and that the ecosystem continues to operate with this amazing complexity. So I think one solution to ecological oversimplification is to quiz those who start to tell you about harvesting whales, or poisoning rats, or bringing in genetically modified crops to find out how much they know about the natural history of the species they talk so confidently about. A dose of humility would not hurt our discussions of the current controversies of wildlife and fisheries management.