Monthly Archives: May 2007

Planning to check out the Creation Museum…?

… you know, the one that opened in Petersburg, Kentucky this Memorial Day, and has been all over the news? Well, you may visit that if you are in the region and want some amusement – or need to raise your blood pressure. Like that pathetic “fair-and-balanced” review in the New York Times did to me. Fortunately, there is an excellent antidote, from (who else) Dr. PZ Myers, who has waded through a flood of media coverage and blog commentary to compile a carnival: The Creation Museum. That’s the one you should be visiting this sunday.

Remembering Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson would have been a 100 years old today, had she not lost her battle to breast cancer in 1964, 18 months after publishing her seminal work, Silent Spring, which many consider the birthpoint of the modern environmental movement in the US. I remember reading it and being affected quite powerfully while I was in college in Bombay some 20+ years ago, and wondering why DDT had not yet been banned in India (it was banned, for agricultural use, in 1989, but not for malarial mosquito control). Silent Spring (like Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle), was one of the first books I had read which showed not only that science had a role in helping us understand how the world worked, and how we humans interact with it (for better or worse), but also that scientists could (and indeed should) play an active role in shaping the public discourse on the relationship between humans and nature.

And that role is even more urgent now, especially here in the US, where science and reason have been taking quite a beating lately. It shouldn’t be surprising therefore, to note that the US Senate failed to take up a measure to honor Rachel Carson in time for her birth centenary! The resolution was blocked, using senate rules, by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) who likened Silent Spring to “junk science”, no less!! These guys know all about junk science don’t they?! Anyway, I don’t want to sully my (and your) remembrance of Carson by linking to any more of these sad stories of wingnut ravings.

Instead, consider the following for your sunday morning, this May 27, 2007, and may they inspire you to more positive action, to inherit and further her legacy, follow her model as a scientist, citizen, and activist.

Let me leave you with the following quote:

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
— Rachel Carson, 1954.

Friday own-horn-tooting!

My co-author Eyal just alerted me that our paper modeling population dynamics under urbanization is finally out in print today! Its been a long haul getting this thing out, and I plan to write more about it (in non-mathematical terms) here one of these days, once I recover from this last semester…

In the meantime, here’s the full citation:

John M. Anderies, Madhusudan Katti and Eyal Shochat. 2007. Living in the city: Resource availability, predation, and bird population dynamics in urban areas. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 247:36-49.

Unfortunately the full article is behind a institutional/paid subscription firewall, but I’ll be happy to shoot you a PDF reprint. Just let me know. If you have online access to the journal, clicking the citation links above will take you to the paper. You may read the abstract here below the fold:

Living in the city: Resource availability, predation, and bird population dynamics in urban areas

John M. Anderiesa, , Madhusudan Kattib,, and Eyal Shochat

aSchool of Sustainability, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 873211, Tempe, AZ 85287-3211, USA
bDepartment of Biology, M/S SB73, California State University, Fresno, CA 93740-8027, USA
cGeorge Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center, Bartlesville, OK, 74005-2007 USA
Received 29 July 2006; revised 28 November 2006; accepted 20 January 2007. Available online 20 February 2007.


This article explores factors that shape population structure in novel environments that have received scant theoretical attention: cities. Urban bird populations exhibit higher densities and lower diversity. Some work suggests this may result from lower predation pressure and more predictable and abundant resources. These factors may lead to populations with few winners and many losers regarding access to food, body condition, and reproductive success. We explore these hypotheses with an individual-energy-based competition model with two phenotypes of differing foraging ability. We show that low frequency resource fluctuations favor strong competitors and vice versa. We show that low predation skews equilibrium populations in favor of weak competitors and vice versa. Increasing the time between resource pulses can thus shift population structure from weak to strong competitor dominance. Given recent evidence for more constant resource input and lower predation in urban areas, the model helps understand observed urban bird population structure.

Keywords: Resource dynamics; Predation; Population dynamics; Urban; Birds

“An inflorescence of males?”

A few nights ago, I joined a group of new found friends (Mikey, Matt, Ty and Ray) to grab a bite at Mimi’s Café in River Park—apparently, Chicken and Fruit is a hit specialty! I ate the Fried Chicken Salad…
Before dinner was served, I cared to notice the flowers on the table and took a closer look at them. My friends thought I was being a little weird, but I couldn’t resist a passing remark. I said something to the effect of, “this is an inflorescence of male flowers!” They got somewhat inquisitive about how I could tell a male flower from a female one. And, so I explained in introductory botany lingo the different parts of a male and female flower.

But every time I chance upon giving an explanation for such occurrences, I feel there’s always more to tell. It almost seems like there exists an imaginary divide between explaining small scale patterns and how they relate to the bigger picture. Yes, I just paraphrased Rosenzweig! After all, why must we expect people other us (the science types) to become remotely enthused about telling a male flower from a female one? I mean, seriously, there are more interesting questions, ones that would probably earn you a buck here and there—grant money. So what benefit does it serve that we know a bunch of facts but stumble when we have to relate them to the bigger picture? Wouldn’t such an approach, one that integrates small scale patterns and macro scale processes provide a richer and deeper explanation that would give people pause to reflect and appreciate the process of evolution—indeed the depth of time through which the world has evolved?
The more I muse about how to offer a succinct yet detailed insight about something as small as male and female flower structure, I find the evolutionary link is often given little or no mention. I have yet to examine how to integrate evolutionary explanations in every day observations, especially when others expect an amateur ecologist to tell them something more about nature in a more exciting almost hip style.
Those among us who teach introductory biology ought to consider, perhaps, teaching the course from an evolutionary perspective—I think such an approach would be more organic, one that integrates the various sub disciplines in biology in a way that makes sense through the process of evolution. In this way, people gain a deeper perspective on the mechanisms that drive living systems. It becomes a temptation for me to present mitosis, natural selection and biodiversity as individual, seemingly unrelated concepts when in fact the evolutionary underpinning of life itself should be accentuated within each area of biology.
Moreover, the concept of reconciliation ecology ought to permeate our own research work. Why must we expect funding agencies to care about the physiology of a weed species? Or as a matter of fact, our findings indicate that the tiger salamander is affected by urbanization in the Central Valley, but so what? When will people begin to become interested in such questions before we can demand any sort of action to the problem at hand?
Reconciliation ecology transcends our understanding of evolutionary ecology in human dominated landscapes—it should even shape how we address a research question within the context of humans and the effect our research findings will have on their lives. It becomes almost impractical to study evolutionary ecology devoid of human interactions because our species has unequivocally impacted the global ecosystem—the negative ramifications need no further mention.

Want to read Darwin’s letters?

Have you ever wondered how Charles Darwin maintained an active correspondence with some 2000 people over his lifetime in the 1800s? Do you try to imagine what he could have done (or not) with email, the internet, and all this Web 2.0 stuff? Curious to read what he wrote to everyone from the scientific bigwigs of the day to shoe-salesmen who collected beetles over the weekend? Well, now you can, for the Darwin Correspondence Project just went online today with some 5000 of his letters!

Here’s an excerpt posted as today’s Daily Quote on the site:

I have not yet got your Poultry Book; though I presume that it is lying at my Brother’s (for I have not been for a long time in London; my health having been of late very indifferent), & therefore I do not know whether you describe the plumage of chickens in their down: Dixon describes most of them; but the chicks of Gold & Silver Pencilled & spangled Hamburghs are not described, & I shd. like to know them.

One more reason to be thankful for these intertubes, eh!

Update: saving the Savannah River Ecology Lab

It appears that some people in Washington are beginning to hear the message about the importance of saving the SREL. I just received this update (below the fold) on Ecolog-L reporting that at least a couple of congressmen on relevant committees are questioning the decision to close down the SREL.

So, thank you if you responded to last week’s action alert, and I guess the message here is that we should keep up being the squeaky wheel in order to get the worm.
(OK, that’s a mixed metaphor I couldn’t resist using even though only a handful of people who ever heard Ted Case use it in his Ecology classes might get it!)

via Nadine Lymn of ESA:

Thanks to the efforts of many individuals, there seems to be a promising
development regarding the proposed closure of the Department of Energy’s
Savannah River Ecology Lab.

See below or visit:

Press Releases :: May 16, 2007

Miller and Lampson Challenge Proposal to End Funding for Savannah River Ecology Lab

(Washington, DC) The Investigations and Oversight (I&O) Subcommittee and the Energy and Environment (E&E) Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology today called on Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to continue funding for the Savannah River Ecology Lab.

The mission of the lab is to study effects of the Savannah River Nuclear Weapons facility on the surrounding environment. It has been recognized internationally as a leader in radiation ecology and a training ground for future scientists and engineers in the field.

“We are currently unsure why and how the decision was made to terminate the Department’s support for the facility,” wrote I&O Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC). “We ask that you continue to provide support to the lab until the Committee can thoroughly review the Department’s actions in this case.”

“The Subcommittees deserve a chance to review the logic that led DOE to terminate support for a lab that has been doing world-class research since 1951,” added E&E Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX). “On the face of it, this is a difficult action to understand.”

Miller and Lampson called the lab indispensable in tracking the environmental conditions around the Savannah River site and providing unbiased information to the public and the government about those conditions.

The Chairmen have asked for continued support for the lab from DOE pending further review by the Subcommittee. They have also asked that the Department provide all records since August 1, 2006 regarding the lab and the decision to terminate support.

A major benefit of the Savannah River Ecology Lab has been its long-term research and steady accumulation of detailed field records than can provide insights into, among other things, the possible consequences of climate change on the complex ecology of the region.

Read the letter from the Chairmen to Secretary Bodman by clicking here.


Some undergraduate blogging on topics evolutionary

This blog has been quiet for a few days as the semester closes with finals this week, and we see where we go from here as the class which provided the starting nucleus for us here ends. The blog will likely live on, and I’ll have more to say on that in a few days.

For the moment, as I wait here for the last of my Evolution class students to finish the final exam, it occurs to me that I should share some of the writing that has recently come out of that class. I experimented with an instructional blog for that class also this semester – but that was more a one-way blog, rather than participatory. But over the last couple of weeks, I offered students the opportunity (for minor extra credit) to contribute brief essays for the class blog. The guidelines were minimal – basically anything they have come across recently that has some bearing on evolutionary biology, and is something they want to share with others.

Their submissions are now all online, and I invite you to read them if you are looking for some interesting light reading, and a glimpse of what catches these undergrads’ attention. You may start with a summary/index I’ve just added to the blog listing list of all student posts.

Feel free to drop by – browse / read / leave feedback in the comments there for the students or myself. And let me know if you think this is a worthwhile activity for future classes!

Another Action Alert: Tell Congress to support science and education in Federal Agencies

Since it seems to be Action Alert Friday, let me share another one that just arrived in my inbox from the Ecological Society of America – this one is about urging congress to act responsibly towards science and education funding as they draft their alternative to the Bush administrations 2008 fiscal year federal budget proposal. I’m pasting the entire message from ESA below the fold.

Dear ESA Member:

The Bush Administration unveiled its budget proposal for fiscal year 2008 in February and Congress is in the process of reacting to that proposal and developing its own plans for the federal budget. That means that now is an excellent time to contact Congress and encourage support of science and education at federal agencies. By clicking on the links under each agency listed below, you may access the template letters on the ESA website.

ESA encourages you to use the template letters to contact your Representative and Senators. We recommend sending either by fax or email with ‘Constituent Letter’ on the subject line. Use the following link to determine your congressional delegation and their contact information

If you would like further information on the budget proposed by the Administration for the coming fiscal year, please see the AAAS Report at . Chapter 17 of that report provides an analysis of the biological and ecological sciences in the proposed budget.

ESA’s Public Affairs Office would appreciate a copy of your comments. Please e-mail comments or any questions to Nadine Lymn, Director of Public Affairs at

The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory’s funding from DOE will be exhausted at the end of May 2007 and as a result will likely be forced to close. SREL has worked with Savannah River Site to implement a new 5-year cooperative agreement with task-based funding, similar to what has been used for the past 20-plus years. The funds have been budgeted and are actually at the SRS to complete these tasks, however DOE has not released these funds to SREL. SREL programs are more important than ever, performing environmental evaluation for SRS programs that will process new nuclear materials.

The Administration is proposing a $8.8 million cut to the Human Health & Ecosystems Program that would nearly completely eliminate the extramural ecosystem program. Also, a $5.75 million cut is proposed to the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP) of which some $800,000 that has funded long-term surface water monitoring in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic for 20 years would be cancelled. Funding for EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) fellowship would be cut by $1.8 million under the President’s budget plan.

A $17 million decrease is proposed for the Forest and Rangeland Research budget. Fire suppression costs have been increasing and have contributed to the erosion of the agency’s R&D portfolio. The budget request does support the agency’s long-range goal of increasing extramural research.

NOAA supports intramural and extramural research related to its mission to “understand and predict changes in Earth’s environment and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our Nation’s economic, social, and environmental needs.” The majority of the agency’s research is supported through the agency’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, which would stay essentially flat funded. The National Ocean Service, a mission-driven unit, would continue its decrease in funding since fiscal year 2005 while the National Marine Fisheries Service would reflect no marked change since fiscal year 2003.

NSF is the primary federal funding source for basic, non-medical biological research, funding about 68 percent of this research at universities and other non-profit research institutions. Under the Administration’s budget proposal, the Biological Sciences Directorate would receive a 4.1 percent increase, in contrast to the proposed 7.7 percent agency-wide increase. The budget would provide $24 million for the National Ecological Observatory Network, $15.9 million of it coming from the Research and Related Activity funds.

The Administration proposes that the agency’s core education portfolio grow by 7.5 percent in fiscal year 2008 after remaining flat in 2007. But the Education and Human Resources budget would still lag 19 percent behind its 2004 funding levels. In a turn-around from its previous proposals, the Administration would keep the Math and Science Partnerships program as a multi-agency program. (Previously President Bush sought to transfer it under the sole jurisdiction of the Department of Education). However, the program is slated for flat funding.

As the science agency for the Department of the Interior, USGS provides the expertise informing conservation and management of biological species and ecosystem management. Biological Resource Discipline programs would see an increase of $8.5 million. The budget would also include funds to pay for fixed cost increases, an expense that has not been fully funded in recent years.

The Administration proposes a $10 million cut to the National Research Initiative, the nation’s premier competitive research program for fundamental and applied agriculture research.

Thinking outside the Fox?!

Has the tide of public opinion—and, perhaps more importantly, that of the opinion makers in the media—on global warming really turned here in the US in the last couple of months? Are we really past the “debate” frame and into the “what can we do about it” frame now? One has to wonder, when its not just Oprah talking about it, and ABC News covering No Impact Man (whom you may remember from this post here), but when even Rupert Murdoch launches an effort to green News Corp.’s operations and programming!

So is FOX news really going to go green? Are we going to see them stop providing a “far and balanced” platform for deniers and industry shills such as Steve “Junkman” Malloy? What about Hannity and his rants against the “liberal global-warming hysterical people“? Will FOX actually start covering science in a responsible manner, leaving aside their usual political bias? Perhaps, but don’t hold your breath just yet. It appears that at least some of the initial impetus for the greening of Murdoch comes from good-old-fashioned bottom-line concerns:

“Our advertisers are asking us for ways to reach audiences on this issue,” Murdoch said. He also argued that the new climate strategy would reduce energy costs, help the company recruit top talent, and provide “a chance to deepen our relationships with our viewers, readers, and web users.”

Well, what do you know – the public can apparently still lead these media “leaders” in the right direction! Create enough of a groundswell of public opinion, enough of a “market perception” and the money will want to (at least appear to) go towards green solutions. That’s encouraging, I suppose. So if you want to push Murdoch to really put his money where is mouth is, tell him to stop providing a platform for junk science, and start covering science in a truly fair way, without any fake “balance”. Consider signing this petition (even though I generally don’t like email petitions – but that’s another topic), and keep your eye on this fox as it now apparently wants to guard the hen house.