I just won second place in the Faces of Biology contest, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). They focus on showcasing the broader impacts of science in society, and this contest was a way for them to present the different aspects of science to policymakers. I’m very proud to have contributed an image. It, and the other winners, will be featured in an upcoming issue of BioScience.
The photo shows my collaborator Percy Orlando Chambi Porroa measuring the branching architecture of a plant sample in Manú National Park, Peru. We’re sitting in a small wooden house, deep inside the cloud forest. Better measurements of branch architecture may be useful for making better models of carbon storage and growth in plants. The overall project is led by Yadvinder Malhi out of the University of Oxford and is focused on understanding the carbon dynamics of tropical forests. One of the best things about the project, in my mind, is that it brings together researchers from a range of countries and enables students (like Percy, and like me) to have much richer experiences than they ever would get otherwise.
Below is a scene from the forest, as branch samples are collected and tagged to be measured.
Percy was kind enough to pose for several pictures. Here’s one of the other candidates – a nice memory of some beautiful weeks in the field.
The value of wild landscapes is a theme that has preoccupied me for the past weeks. A stream of coincidental experiences have contributed to this focus: the Wilhjelm+12 rewilding conference at the University of Copenhagen, a recent PNAS publication by my collaborator Greg Asner on elevated rates of gold mining in the western Amazon, a Science paper documenting global patterns of deforestation, and a screening of the (in my opinion, strongly environmentalist) film Koyaanisqatsi.
I have written before about the ‘last of the wild’ and the consequences of its loss, but never about my personal opinions. I have a conflicted view of things, made no more simpler by the experiences of the past weeks. While thinking about these ideas, I have also been spending my days exploring European landscapes, protected and unprotected. The past few weeks have seen tours through a national park in Denmark (Mols Bjerge), a national park in Spain (Monfragüe), and protected areas west of Prague in the Czech Republic. It was hard to escape from the patchwork landscape of agricultural usage and old settlements, to the point that the very idea of wilderness seemed alien. I felt a deep sadness inside, and it took me some time to understand the reason. It was because these landscapes had not been wild in thousands of years, and so no one could see the absence of wilderness. I felt like something had been lost, and nobody knew. This, of course, is an oversimplification of the important and ongoing conservation efforts in these places, but represents accurately how I felt. And feeling it brought conflicting thoughts, which I want to share here.
On one hand, wilderness has inherent value for all the non-human living things there, as well as value for the humans who depend on it indirectly for the ecosystem services (water, clean air, biodiversity, and so on) it provides. But non-wild landscapes also have immense value. They represent thousands of years of human efforts and human success, our domination of the planet that enables us to feed billions of people and control our environment, to harness resources unavailable to any other species. Every cornfield and railway represents civilization and progress, health and prosperity, the conquering of uncertainty, long hours of toil. Destroying wilderness means freedom from predators, a consistent source of food, the stability to build cities and capital.
So here is the conflict: I love a part of the world that is largely incompatible with our modern world. My desire for wild landscapes may deny others the opportunity to prosper, and imposes values that are at odds with the reasonable value of others to use land in the service of their prosperity. I want to feel at peace in wild places, yet cannot live in them, and my life depends heavily on the exploitation of resources in other parts of the world. I mourn the loss of wilderness in Europe yet celebrate its cultural achievements made possible by this growth.
But the situation is not actually so simple, because wilderness and prosperity are not necessarily opposite each other. Many clever people and the governments of many countries and are trying to find ways to meet development goals without the exploitation of more land, or are finding ways to improve or expand conservation efforts that are supported by local populations. I am not offering any insights into this complexity.
Instead, I do want to suggest one thing: that all people, whether they be ardent environmentalists or businessmen, urbanites or farmers, rich or poor, learn the value of both wild landscapes and conquered landscapes.
To illustrate the problem, here is an example from the United States, where thinking about conservation issues is heavily biased by socioeconomic factors. Visitors to national parks are over eighty percent ethnically white (disproportionately to the general population, and forestry or natural resource jobs are taken by over ninety percent whites. Every person depends on our collective usage of natural resources, yet a very biased subset of people are involved in the conservation. I am sure the same issue (with different labels, different specifics) applies in other places.
I fear most a world in which we depend increasingly heavily on the exploitation of natural resources, yet do not appreciate the scope of this dependence or its true price.
My friend and collaborator, Naia Morueta Holme, just had a paper come out in the scientific journal, Ecology Letters. The study is about the distribution of rarity in the New World – where are the endemic species, and where are the large-range species? Surprisingly, this is the sort of basic question that you might imagine had been answered long ago, but hasn’t been. She found that most of the New World’s rarity is in Central America, the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest, and the Andes. Why does that matter? One of the big ideas in ecology is that the present is only a shadow of the past, such that paleoclimate leaves a strong signal on present-day distribution of biodiversity. The study found that regions with more unstable climates over time (for example, in lowlands where post-glacial climate change velocity was high) have few endemic species. Thus, this study is a hemisphere-scale demonstration that rapid climate change poses a particularly large problem for these rare species. You can read a press release about the article or download the journal article.
Scientific journals often feature a different image on their cover each month to highlight the most exciting research they are publishing. The authors of the articles can submit candidates, and Naia asked me for an image of a transition between a mountainous area (with more rare species) and a lowland area (with more large-range species). I gave her a photograph of the transition between the high Andes and the Amazon basin, and we were lucky enough to have it selected for the cover.
You can see a larger version below. The photo is taken in southeastern Peru, half an hour before sunrise. You’re looking from Tres Cruces, at an elevation of approximately 3900 meters, down into the cloud forest and lowland tropical forest of eastern Peru and western Brazil.
Earlier this spring we were doing fieldwork at high elevation in this region, and decided to wake up one morning to see the sun come up over the Amazon. Our field camp was several kilometers’ walking from the best vantage point, so we had to have an early start.
I still remember waking up at a little before four-o’clock in the morning, shivering in the cold air, looking up at a clear sky, navigating a ridgeline in the dark to await the beginning of the day. The sky was full of stars, and the only other light was from an occasional headlamp.
A magical morning, and a pleasure to see this moment, and this image, find a home as advertisement for a new scientific discovery.
In the two weeks since my last post, the US government shutdown has not ended. Federally funded science is slowly winding down as programs spend their last allocations. Less money means fewer discoveries, but exactly how many fewer? How much knowledge will not be created because of the shutdown?
It is hard to measure the relationship between a society’s investment in science and that society’s improvement because of those discoveries. There are a few reasons. First, the impact of any one discovery is hard to predict, and may only become clear in the long term. A mathematical advance written on a napkin with pencil may have negligible cost, but lead to applications in other fields in the following decades. On the other hand, billions of dollars invested in human disease research may lead to negligible improvements in public health. Second, measuring improvement is a difficult task – is it increase in human lifespans or income, prevention of war, or something less definable? For these reasons, funding agencies typically focus on target areas (e.g. cancer treatment, nuclear weapons, biodiversity conservation) and spend widely and broadly until the aim is achieved, or until societal interest refocuses on other topics. It’s not easy to guess how much money will be needed to solve a given problem.
But one way to measure societal benefit is by scientific publication rates. More publications presumably mean more discoveries. How much money does a new publication cost society? Scheiner and Bouchie, who are officials at the National Science Foundation, just answered this question. In their paper, they took the total amount of funding for environmental biology research (ecology) and divided it by the numbers of publications resulting from this work, a number which all federally-funded researchers have to report. A scientific publication costs approximately 34,000 US dollars. In contrast, the state of California pays approximately 47,000 dollars per year for each prison inmate, and 8,700 dollars per year to educate each student.
When I read their number, I thought it was high – surely the average study doesn’t require so many resources. But many kinds of expenses are factored in to the NSF number. For example, most universities take approximately 50% of each federal grant in overhead, to pay for administration, pensions, building upkeep, utilities, and so on. That means the $34,000 represents something closer to $20,000 in ‘actual’ expenses. Salaries also come out of this number, leaving something probably closer to $10,000 in research money, based on allocations in grants that I’ve seen funded. So where does the rest go?
An ecological theorist may appear to not need any more resources than a pencil and paper (and generously, a wastebasket). However, they still have costs. Attendance at conferences requires registration fees and travel expenses; publication in open-access journals can cost multiple thousands of dollars. Computers and software resources have to be purchased. Student researchers have to be paid.
For field or experimental ecologists, the biggest source of expenses for ecologists is in the prosecution of their work. Field trucks, station fees at biological field stations, chemicals, glassware, notebooks, GPS units, plane tickets to remote parts of the world, research permits, and the list goes on. Here are two examples from my recent work in Peru paid by Yadvinder Malhi:
First, weather stations – here, an aerial tower installed in a remote location in the eastern Andes, probably costing several thousand dollars to build, more to ship to this country, and even more to transport and install on the side of a lonely mountain and maintain each year.
Or second, a large pile of timber, purchased to build a research platform, plus the services of dozens of people to carry that timber miles into the forest, and then later to assemble the structure.
These expenses all add up, and get us closer to the $34,000 number. To me, as a finishing PhD student, the numbers seem large, but I suspect they will begin to seem smaller as I dream up increasingly complex and large-scale projects. I also don’t know how they compare to other fields. My intuition is that fields like molecular biology, genomics, and experimental physics have far higher per-publication costs, but I don’t know for sure.
The next dangerous questions then become: how much impact do publications in each field make? Would it be worth refocusing research spending on low-cost, high-impact science? Does scientific spending produce more benefit per cost than my other two examples (prison incarceration or K-12 education)? Or are there some areas worth investing in, whatever the cost? I’ll leave that more complex issue for another post, and instead hope that there will soon be federal money for any of these areas.
Reading the news after being off-grid for a few days rarely brings pleasant surprises. I just came back from a hiking trip in southern Sweden to find that my country’s government had been shut down until budget and debt issues could be resolved. I understood that the overall impact on our country’s administration and economy would not be insignificant, but I also naively thought that the immediate impact on me, as a scientist living abroad, would be minimal. Not so.
Every summer in my part of Colorado there is a ‘chainless race’, where people race several kilometers down a mountain on a bicycle with no gears (and sometimes no brakes). Gravity pulls everyone inevitably downward. Some contestants steer their way safely to the finish line, while others lose control and crash in bloody spectacles. This shutdown’s impact on science feels somewhat similar.
The first thing I realized was that my educational outreach programs were going to face challenges. We are currently building the University of Arizona’s Sky School, a residential science education program with a campus on the summit of Mt. Lemmon in the Coronado National Forest. The forest is administered by the US Forest Service, which has now furloughed its employees. We have a large group of students coming next week, and it was not immediately clear if we would legally be able to take a group up the Forest Service road to the mountain, or even access any trails in the forest. Our director had a difficult time getting in touch with a ranger to have these questions answered, since the agency is closed, but we just found out that we will still be able to run a restricted set of programs for a large school group coming next week. The longer-term situation remains very unclear.
The second thing I realized is that I can’t easily get in touch with other scientists. I am leading a climate change project that involves the Smithsonian Institution – and they are now also closed until further notice. Work emails don’t reach my collaborators, and it’s unclear that even if they did, those people should still be spending time on these projects.
The third thing I realized is that the National Science Foundation is no longer operating. That means they are no longer funding new research, reviewing proposals, or making payments on existing research grants. I am lucky and unlucky here. On one hand, my NSF grant has already been disbursed to my university and is still being administered by that non-federal organization. This means I can still spend money and conduct research. But on the other hand, I was planning to apply for a three-year postdoctoral fellowship sponsored by NSF. The shutdown means that this application can’t be submitted, and depending on the timeline, may be cancelled entirely. There are many other funding proposals for scientists at all levels with deadlines this time of year, and I imagine that there will be ripple effects on research for the next year or two as these delays and cancellations propagate.
These are just a few personal examples of the trickle-down effects of the shutdown. More established scientists and larger institutions are obviously facing more serious challenges. National Institutes of Health – funded hospitals are turning people away, for example. The relationship between money, science, and societal benefit is not simple, but I think it’s clear that spending more money creates more benefit, and spending no money creates no benefit at all.
In the chainless race, the losers, who crash, are the ones who want to win too badly. The winners enjoy the ride and have a friendly time with the other participants. I hope our politicians can also find a more friendly way forward that will benefit our country and also our science.
Cycling home on Tuesday afternoon, the asphalt of the bike path was slick with rain and shimmering with the last light of the afternoon filtering in beyond the clouds. My route home takes me west, so I didn’t have a chance to look east until I was walking to my building – and there, in the light, was a double rainbow. Of course, I ran up to my building’s roof to take this photograph.
Standing on the roof, I saw all of Frederiksberg below me, with the spires of the center city further in the distance and the suburbs of Brøndby and Hvidøvre lying behind. It was a landscape of buildings, an artificial ecology punctuated only by a few occasional trees. Looking out, I began thinking about how small and how fragile this city really is.
A thought experiment. Freeze time, then begin to remove objects from the city, one by one. Take away a brick from a church, a wheel from a train of the Metro, an apple from the fruit stand. Eventually, everything will be gone. What does that landscape look like? The impermeable surface of the city is gone, leaving behind holes in the ground, exposed soil. There are tunnels deeper still, empty and collapsed. This negative shape extends in a reticulate pattern across the landscape, leaving behind pockets of agricultural fields, parks, and bits of forgotten land. The negative shape is probably no deeper than a few meters in most places, a few tens of meters in the inner city. We are surface-builders, layering cities on top of earlier cities, but never delving deep. From this perspective, the impact of a city is quite minor. The structures removed, the filamentous scar is removed and the land can recover.
But I think that this story is too simple. First, think of all the objects that were imagined away. Imagine now sorting these objects into their places of origin. Think of the the tons of rock from nearby quarries, the countless beams of wood from local forests and further afield, the metal wiring and plumbing mined from deep places, the fruits and animals from all around the world, the artifacts from other countries hidden in storage-rooms of the museums… and so on. The city reflects the combined efforts of millions of people over hundreds of years – efforts that have caused these particular objects to be brought together and arranged in just the right way to build a city. The impact of the city is not just in its self, but also in its origin, through the many lands it depends on for its existence.
The idea of an ecological footprint reflects this notion – cities are resource-concentrators, requiring vast areas of land to subsidize their continued existence. Sanderson et al. (2002) summarize this impact – we use more than 40% of all plant productivity and 35% of coastal shelf productivity, as well as more than 60% of freshwater runoff each year. Usage of these resources is by far the highest in cities, but the source of these resources is far away from cities, leading to footprints for individual cities that are a patchwork of landscapes (Luck 2001). This patchwork is likely to expand and converge over the next century – more than half the world’s population now live in cities, and the number is likely to reach 80% by the end of the century (Grimm 2008). This growth will inevitably lead to an increasingly large fraction of the Earth’s surface being built into cities, and the capture of an increasingly large fraction of the earth’s resources.
The natural question is then the same thought experiment, but in reverse. How many resources are available globally, and how much negative space can be transformed into the built environments of cities before the resources run out? Now the city becomes more like an infectious diseases, using up all the land to fuel its own growth. The projections are not so encouraging – macroecology puts hard limits on the amount of natural resources available (Burger 2012), ultimately constraining economic growth (Brown 2011).
And we are living on borrowed time. Cities are not only resource concentrators, but also resource dissipators. The food demands of a city must be met by agriculture – and the agriculture we depend on requires large nutrient inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. Once these fertilizers are used, they dissipate into the environment and are nearly impossible to recapture. Nitrogen fertilizers are renewable, insofar as we have the fossil fuel energy to synthesize them from atmospheric sources, but phosphorus is not. Most phosphorus comes from mineral sources, and these will likely be depleted within a century (Cordell 2009), with no feasible alternative. Conservation measures only put off the inevitable decline in resource availability. Continued urbanization depends on these resources, but our cities are rapidly exhausting them.
So it was with mixed emotions that I looked into the city on that rainy Tuesday afternoon. Building a city is a marvelous achievement, but it is an achievement bought with exploitation of lands far away, and an achievement reflective of a future trajectory we cannot afford to sustain.
To close, a recent New York Times editorial by Ellis paints a different picture of the situation, arguing that greater efficiencies (not lower populations) are the key to the earth’s future. It is an optimistic viewpoint that suggests transformation of landscapes has been an ongoing and necessary fact of human civilization. This latter point is true, but I don’t think the editorial provides a convincing argument against the hard limits to growth we are rapidly reaching. Efficiency gains put off the inevitable problem we are still very far away from solving.
When is the last time you saw a purple organism? Green, brown, grey, these are common – but purple is reserved for an odd leaf, a strange fruit (eggplant, maybe), some algae and bacteria, and the odd marine animal. That’s one of the reasons I so enjoy spending time in the subalpine zone. Purple flowers are readily seen. Delphinium, Gentiana, Geranium, and of course, Castilleja – the paintbrush.
My favorite is Castilleja rhexifolia, the alpine paintbrush. I took a photo of one two summers ago, and just found out it won the Colorado Native Plant Society‘s annual photo contest.
The image is a simple way to share the joy in one beautiful part of the world, but also a chance to explore the origin of purple coloration, and why it is so rare. It’s a topic I’ve never thought about much before, and the first thing I learned is that it isn’t actually so rare. Flower coloration primarily comes through the synthesis of anthocyanin pigments. Before the evolution of flowers, anthocyanins had already been evolved in other species and functioned to deter insect herbivores and prevent sun damage in young leaves. Anthocyanins are all synthesized through a core set of pathways (precursors including DH-kaempferol, DH-quercitin, and DH-myricetin) that can yield red, blue or purple coloration. Blue/purple is the most complex to synthesize, but also the most common and the most evolutionarily basal within the flowering plants. The short version of this biochemical digression is that I should actually be more surprised by red flowers than purple ones.
That answer is only part of the mystery, however. What determines the color of any given species? There are two plausible possibilities. The first is pleiotropic selection – if flower color is genetically linked to other traits, then selection on those other traits can lead to inadvertent changes in flower color. The second, and more popular, is pollination syndromes. If certain species are more sensitive to some wavelengths of light, then species should evolve flowers that are easily seen by these pollinators. In this theory, the flower’s color indicates the evolutionary ‘best guess’ of what the plant ‘thinks’ the pollinator wants to see. This idea was first proposed by Raven, and later modified by Possingham and Rodriguez-Girones.
The evidence for what drives flower coloration is unfortunately less clear. A recent review of the topic by Rausher found no clear support for any of the two possibilities. On the other hand, there is more recent evidence from Shrestha et al. in Australia that birds and bees see blue and red differently, consistent with the species they pollinate. Rausher did document an intriguing pattern – evolution often transitions from blue flowers to red flowers, but not the other way round. This should make sense – red flowers involve loss of function in the anthocyanin pathway, and it’s hard to recover function once it’s been lost. (There are a small quantity of possible mutations that can recover function, while there are a much larger number that can make the problem worse. Think of trying to fix your car.) But what this means, overall, is that coloration may be somewhat random over long evolutionary times. Genetic drift – that is, changes in phenotypes simply due to sampling effects and random mutations – may be a sufficient explanation for the whole problem, with pollinators being an effect rather than a cause of the pattern.
This answer may not be satisfying. It depends entirely on us assuming the structure of the anthocyanin synthesis pathway, and of the vision systems and very existence of birds and insects. Asking why questions in evolutionary biology can take one down a long tunnel from which there is no easy exit. It is a lot to think about when just appreciating an image of a purple flower on a midsummer’s afternoon.
N.B. – Nature’s Palette by David Lee is an excellent popular book that touches on this topic and many others.