Some fellow grad students in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department here at University of Arizona recently shared this link with me on Facebook:
The site posts fantastic close ups of exotic animals (mostly) that look like something Dr. Seuss or Salvador Dali would draw. I love these examples of the diversity of life.
My own silly nature photo to add to the conversation is one I took yesterday in Chaos Canyon, at UA’s Desert Station research site in the Tucson Mountains. The saguaros, which puff out like plump Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dums during the summer, have contracted into wrinkly, shriveled posts, despite the recent winter rainfall (nearly an inch only five days ago!). Perhaps it was too cold for them to take advantage of the water? All that remains of their monsoon water stashes are small bulges in their midsections, like snakes after a snack of baby packrat.
Why do we conduct fundamental biological research? Why do researchers devote miserable hours in dark basements to what a fellow graduate student describes as rather unglamorous data crunching and document editing? Why participate in a Ph.D. program and career that even the successful survivors describe as traumatic and soul crushing? Why should a cash-strapped government invest in genotyping grizzly bears or getting monkeys high on cocaine?
I recently wrote a statement aimed at my representatives in Congress on the importance of such research. I cited drug development, wild land firefighting, tourism, and other applications that rely on discoveries regarding the fundamental nature of the biological systems we seek to manipulate. I invoked the percentage of GDP other countries are spending on scientific research, the economic impact of good jobs and skilled workers that has led Tucson to brand itself as a Science City.
These are the metrics and tools a harried official or her or his staff might provide a skeptical constituent to defend a press release or vote. But arguments relying on applications of discovery kind of miss the point. The point is not discovery, but the search itself.
The point is often to better understand the world around us: how it works and why. The mysterious “life force” that many cultures have speculated philosophically about is relevant to our very sense of self, and to making decisions on the morality of what constitutes life. I could branch off here into discussing the way answers to these questions can be applied to decide when to continue life support, or to support the human need for spiritual fulfillment by providing perspective on what it means to be alive. It is so easy to get sucked in to relating results back to life in justifying the time, money, and angst required for fundamental biological research.
Biologists trying to explain the importance of fundamental research without relying on direct benefits of discoveries can sound as cheesy or flippant as rock climbers trying to explain our adventures. The sense of curiosity and the desire to meet the challenge issued by the remaining unknown is similar. Until we explore a little further, we don’t know what we don’t know.
As Carl Sagan put it in Cosmos, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
And really, that is the point of fundamental research. All those benefits I cited are just a bonus.
Monday set a record low temperature in Tucson for this date: 17 degrees Fahrenheit at the airport. And this just after we learn that most of us younger than 28 have never been alive for a month that was globally colder-than-average! (I say most because this consistent streak of hotter-than-average months started in April 1985, so my first two months were pre-heat wave.) What are we to make of it? What does it mean for future biodiversity?
First, we have to unpack variability in time and space versus trends over larger temporal and spatial scales. Variability is pretty important for maintaining biodiversity. This is obvious if you look at large scale variability: Tucson may have had a low of 17 degrees, but Greer, Arizona, near Sunrise Ski Resort is expected to have a low of 0 degrees Fahrenheit tonight. Pine trees grow thick between the chairlifts there, as opposed to our saguaro forests in Tucson.
On a finer scale, if you garden, you may know that some of your plants prefer one side of your house or another, to get sun or shade or different soil. In time, you might know that some years are colder or drier than others. This affects what wildflowers come up.
And you know that even within a season, some days you need your puffy jacket and some days just a sweater. Some days are powder at the ski resorts, some days are sunny.
So it may be no surprise that temperatures averaging out over the globe or even continent may be warmer-than-usual, while individual valleys, in which cold air sinks in an inversion, might experience colder-than-average months. And that the cold days within a season come on different dates, so because Tucson often freezes for only a few days every winter, it had never done so on January 14 specifically.
But what does this mean for biodiversity? And how might that diversity be affected if we have a general trend of warming, or a general trend of increased variability? Dr. Peter Adler and his colleagues gave this question a thought back in 2006. First, they summarize a key reason environmental variability (in this case, how the environment changes in time) can help to stabilize biological communities:
” ‘Storage effect’ theory derives the conditions under which climate variability will have stabilizing or destabilizing effects on species coexistence (10). The temporal storage effect… requires that three conditions be met. To satisfy condition 1, species must have long lifespans to buffer their populations against unfavorable years. For condition 2, species must differ in their response to climate variation. These species specific responses to climate cause each species to experience relatively more intraspecific competition during its favorable years and more interspecific competition during its unfavorable years. Condition 3 requires that the effect of competition on each species must be more severe in years favorable for that species than in unfavorable years. When condition 2 is present, intraspecific competition will be more severe than interspecific competition. As a result, climate variability gives species an advantage when they become rare—the signature of stabilizing coexistence mechanisms. The size of this advantage when a species is rare (i.e., the strength of the storage effect) can be quantified by comparing species’ average low-density growth rates in variable vs. constant environments, in the presence of competitors (11, 12).”
(As a side note, I would be very grateful if you would leave a comment oh how clear that explanation of the storage effect is! Our lab constantly struggles with how to clearly explain the concept.)
The authors then present some evidence that interannual climatic variability is important to maintaining the diversity of grasses in a Kansas prairie. As a second side note, I’m not convinced their Figure 2 really demonstrates a condition for the storage effect. Please leave a comment whether you think it does, and why it might not! Don’t be fooled into thinking they correlated strictly individual grass blade growth rates with density, though – there is a statistical model fitted to a spatial data set used to generate these plots, as described in the Methods section at the very end.
So how might a diversity maintenance mechanism like the storage effect change with an increased greenhouse effect? That depends largely on how the species in the community respond to the increase in temperature, or new species invading, or increase in variability. It also depends on how all the other species they interact with respond to those changes. One thing we know: it’s complicated.
Just this afternoon, Dr. David Inouye gave a talk to University of Arizona’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department on the variability of interacting populations of alpine wildflowers. He also mentioned the many observations on mammals and insects that have changed their phenology (seasonal timing) or the altitude at which they are found. These rich data sets may provide fertile ground for further understanding how variability will change with the increased greenhouse effect, and how that may affect biodiversity.
Why does Biosphere 2 not sport an alpine environment, or a polar environment? That would be a lot of fun. I mean, if you’re going for rainforest, ocean, desert, savanna… what’s the next epic, exotic ecosystem to include? Mountains, clearly.
(For those of you not fortunate enough to have visited the large, glass structure outside Tucson, it’s a combination space fantasy and tree fort for scientists. Originally constructed as a venture to practice colonizing Mars, it now houses a host of interesting and interdisciplinary science research projects. I have never been bored there. They have pretty cool faculty and outreach fellows, as well.)
Well, if the researchers there don’t have simulated high alpine environments in which to grow mountain microbes, they have to send mountaineers out to collect samples. One of my favorite new finds online is Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. This organization partners accomplished mountaineers like Lonnie Dupre with Biosphere 2 researchers like Dr. Dragos George Zaharescu to collect those samples.
“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.”
I can only aspire to inspire as many explorers of science and the earth and space as have Cherry-Garrard and Dupre.
Marketplace has a story today about cell phone apps that can help everyday people become citizen scientists. They highlight one really popular app called Project Budburst that allows people everywhere to contribute to databases tracking the phenology, or seasonal timing, of plant activity.
Several other apps out there can help adventurers, parents, or bored socialites interpret and collect data on the natural world. I purchased iBird Pro, which is an interactive bird guide featuring not just drawings and photos of species, along with their ranges and habitats, but even plays their calls! That has been a lot of fun to use to identify the hawks that hang out near my office.
One other app, EpiCollect, is a more general platform that allows researchers to develop their own projects for others to submit data to. How cool is that? The developers describe uses from the ecological diversity of suburban neighborhoods to epidemiological observations for disease control.
Have some biodiversity questions you’re wondering about? Let’s design a protocol and get our friends, students, anyone with a smartphone collecting data for us!
Answer: it depends. I had the great fortune to encounter two different, but spectacular, green rims in the last week.
If you are an astronomer, you might look for the green rim on the trailing (upper) side of the sun as it sets. It helps to be at high altitude on a clear day with a good set of binoculars. This green rim, which can be seen as a green flash reflected across the ocean as the sun sets over water, is a result of the way our atmosphere scatters light of different wavelengths. Scattering of light is also why the sky appears blue on earth. Shadows on Mars are red because their atmosphere scatters light differently.
After at least three tries at observing sunset with binoculars from the top of Mount Lemmon, last night I finally saw the green crescent that lasted for the final seconds as the sun sank below the horizon! I was at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center with a number of Tucson area science teachers and MLSC Director Alan Strauss. It was a fantastic night to observe the sky, animals’ tracks in the snow, and to explore future collaborations to bring more K-12 students up the mountain to observe these same things.
Speaking of snow, I believe that was the attraction that packed the highway to the top of Mount Lemmon yesterday. Mount Lemmon, one of an archipelago of Sky Islands, provides a taste of weather rarely experienced in the Sonoran Desert. Sky Islands are mountain peaks sporting environments, plants, and animals more expected in the Rocky Mountains or Canada than Mexico. The Madrean Archipelago of Sky Islands, a collection of mountain ranges whose diverse landscape provide a network of interconnected habitats for montane species, stretches from the Sierra Madres in the south to the Mogollon Rim in the north.
The Mogollon Rim creates a very different kind of Green Rim. This line across eastern central Arizona is the edge where the Colorado Plateau falls off into the Sonoran Desert. One week ago, I drove east and north on Highway 77 through the towns Show Low and Pinetop to ski in a foot of new powder at Sunrise Ski Resort. As we climbed in elevation, bare ground shrank as shrubs and grass cover increased. Saguaro cactus and agave were replaced with pinion pine and juniper trees, and, ascending into the mountains, taller, more majestic conifer forests.
The variable environments provided by the Mogollon Rim, the Colorado Plateau and Sonoran Desert, and the archipelago of Sky Islands, increases the biodiversity of this spectacular region.
The title comes from a poem written by a 13 year old hiker.
One of the most important investments I can in biodiversity being around in the future make is to share the fun, the memories, the games I played outdoors in the Salt Lake City foothills with kids growing up in a world dominated by video games and urban surroundings. So I volunteer with Sierra Club’s Tucson Inner City Outings, a nonprofit that takes kids hiking who might not otherwise have the chance.
One of our favorite things to do on any hike is five minutes (or even ten, or more!) of silence, spread out and listening and looking around like a wild animal. During a recent hike’s quiet time with ICO leader Deborah Vath, participants had the opportunity to record their experiences as poetry, which was published in the local Sierra Club chapter’s winter newsletter:
We’ll have a far more diverse and beautiful world if every thirteen year old can let their mind enter the whispers of trees, like Julia.