Tag Archives: ecology

Of otters and scurvygrass

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A dense patch of scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis agg.) in an area much frequented by otters based on the clear trails, spraint and crushed mollusc shells.

On a sunny February weekend I made a trip out to Bere Island (Oiléan Béarra), a short ferry-ride off the southwestern tip of Ireland, to investigate a peculiar botanical phenomenon. An old friend had called on me recently and enquired what the connection was between otters and scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis L.*). I confessed to knowing nothing about it and was slightly sceptical, but he was adamant that there was such an association, and wanted to show me in person. Any excuse for a field trip is welcomed so off I went.

Once there on the ground there’s no doubt about it. The otter haul-outs are very obvious, and invariably marked with scurvygrass. The plant does grow elsewhere, unsurprisingly, but never in such densities and with such luxuriant foliage as where they occur alongside otter signs. Whatever the otters are doing, the scurvygrass is enjoying it. A representative sample of rocky outcrops suggests that if you spot a patch of scurvygrass it’s clear indication that once you get up close there will be matching evidence of otters. Neighbouring outcrops lacking the plant are also devoid of otter signs.

It’s not only at the shoreline where otters leave the sea, and where their spraint or the remnants of smashed shells indicates favoured spots to hang out. Their tracks continue inland. Often after coming onshore the track leads directly to a freshwater pool, suggesting that they like to wash the salt water off their fur, then out the other side. They then wend their way through the grass and heather, apparently choosing to cross the island on foot rather than swim their way round.

This is where it gets even more interesting: in the midst of these fields, scurvygrass is only found on the otter trails. Elsewhere the sward is higher and there is no sign of the plant. Otters are clearly carrying scurvygrass inland and encouraging it to grow in places where it otherwise would not. This effect is only seen in fields which don’t contain livestock; cows and sheep have a tendency to share the same trails with otters and perhaps browse or beat down the scurvygrass. But on the old military firing range, where otters have the land to themselves, every one of their trails is peppered with patches of the plant.

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An inland otter track through a field with a dense grass sward. Scurvygrass can only be found along this trail.

On returning to the office I consulted the usual books to see whether I could find any record of this particular association, and drew a blank. Web searches, whether in the scientific literature or the internet at large, have also come up with nothing. So what is going on? I have a few hypotheses:

  1. It’s a coincidence. Any ecologist has to keep the null hypothesis in the back of their minds. Maybe this is pure chance, or else some unknown independent environmental factor dictates the combined presence of otters and scurvygrass. I haven’t done a randomised sampling design to demonstrate a statistical association, but often the evidence of your eyes is enough to tell you that there’s no need.
  2. Otter disturbance. Scurvygrass thrives in patches with frequent disturbance, and the constant to-and-fro of otters might open up denser vegetation in such a way that they allow it to enter. Perhaps scurvygrass is more tolerant of this kind of disturbance than other plants.
  3. Dispersal by otters. The seeds of scurvygrass don’t look like they are adapted for sticking to the sides of animals, which would be one mechanism. Do otters eat scurvygrass, and thereby carry the seeds with them, defacating them in freshly-disturbed areas that aid its germination? This is currently my favoured explanation, but I don’t know enough about the diet of otters to be sure.
  4. Saline environments. Perhaps all the salt water clinging to the fur of otters changes the soil at their haul-outs and along their trails, favouring the growth of a halophyte such as scurvygrass. This is possible, but not entirely plausible given the presence of patches quite a way inland and even after they’ve taken a freshwater bath. Soil samples might resolve this. There are also no other halophytes which show the same pattern.
  5. Otters go where the scurvygrass is. Maybe they like the feel of it on their paws? It’s unlikely to be that they’re feeding on it, otherwise you would expect to see less scurvygrass in the places they use most frequently, while the opposite appears to be true.

Have I missed anything? Is this a known phenomenon that my friend has independently discovered? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about this in the comments. For now it’s only a small mystery, but also an intriguing natural history observation, and a reminder that people who walk outdoors and watch the world around them carefully often spot patterns that professional ecologists in their offices would never find.

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Credit to Bere Island resident Maurice Neligan for spotting this interesting pattern.


* This is as close as I can get to an exact species identification. Stace notes (in the 3rd edition; I don’t have the latest one just yet) that C. officinalis is highly variable, an aggregate of several likely species, and also freely hybridises with C. anglica and C. danica, especially in Ireland.

UPDATES!

As ever, Twitter provides a wealth of insights from other botanists. Here are the pick of the suggestions:

The first can be summarised as ‘disturbance + fertiliser’, the second with the twist of extra salinity, which might not be important given observations elsewhere. But scurvygrass isn’t only found where spraint occurs. It’s also along trails, some of which are quite steep, and any spraint is likely to roll or blow away pretty quickly. Otters may be marking trails with urine which could have a similar effect. Scurvygrass is also found right at the point at which otters emerge from the sea. I can’t help thinking that there must be a dispersal element to the story as well. This seems to be supported by another sighting of scurvygrass associated with birds:

There’s only one thing for it — we need to do some experiments! This may not be the most important project on my list but it makes for an enjoyable distraction.

Ecology has a harassment problem

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Hurling rotten vegetables at a perpetrator in the stocks might make everyone else feel better, but it’s not enough on its own. Image source, original credit unknown.

The #MeToo storm has yet to fully strike in ecology, but it’s coming, and we should welcome it. There will be allegations, likely against some of the leading and pivotal figures in our field. We will have to work hard to protect and support those who come forward, while ensuring that our standards and practices change to reduce the chances of anyone else being forced to endure the same experiences. We will also need to learn as a community, and guard against the assumption that recriminations are the conclusion of the process. Calling out bad behaviour is essential, and often cathartic, but ultimately we should be judged on how we make ecology better for those who come after us.

I’m writing this in response to a recent post on the Methods in Ecology and Evolution blog, in which Bob O’Hara ponders whether ecology has a problem. This was in turn triggered by allegations made by a statistics researcher about two prominent people in her field, who were subsequently named by others, and which come at the end of a year in which many brave women have stepped forwards to speak out against the way they have been treated.* This article in Marie Claire is also essential reading, and includes comments on ecology in particular.

That it has taken an international movement to trigger recent introspection is not to our collective credit. Many of us knew about the problem earlier, and did not act. We bear responsibility for this, and the current wind of change should be seen as a long-overdue corrective.

Does ecology have a problem? Absolutely. I would go further, and say that ecology as a discipline has systematically created the conditions in which sexual harassment thrives. Like most other scientific fields, we have conferences, and research groups often contain power dynamics that favour senior figures, usually men. But there’s more to it than that.

All around the world, ecologists of various tribes have established remote research stations, observatories and camps. These in turn are often staffed by wardens or resident scientists. Due in part to the structural inequalities within science, but also to the profile of people willing to take on such roles, these staff are predominantly male.

The stations are also visited by a stream of junior researchers, sometimes formally as students, but often as volunteers or field assistants. A large proportion of these visitors are female; this again reflects the make-up of our field at the undergraduate student level. There’s no doubt that some wardens view this as one of the perks of their otherwise difficult, poorly-paid and under-valued jobs. I’ve heard them say as much.

The harassment triangle of inequality and isolation is then completed with the final element: inebriation. On an offshore island, or in the middle of a nature reserve, there’s little to do in the dark evenings other than drink, and there is usually a plentiful supply. Alcohol is an excellent social lubricant. Often it reduces inhibitions; sometimes people do things they regret. Sometimes this can be exploited.

I know personally of some appalling incidents, which I cannot share because they were told to me in confidence, and that should always be respected. Not everyone feels able or willing to speak out, and we mustn’t expect them to. Instead we should look critically at ourselves and ask how we have created a culture in which keeping quiet is seen as a necessary response. Given the sheer numbers of women who report being harassed or assaulted in the field, this is a shame we should not bear silently.

Of course the vast majority of researchers act with absolute professionalism, and many consensual, long-lasting relationships have started through fieldwork, including a few of my own. Don’t bother citing these as counter-examples though. If you believe that they negate the pressing need for action then you’re still part of the problem.

In writing this, I’m not casting stones because I’m personally blameless, or because I want to claim any moral high ground. I have said and done some extremely stupid things, usually after drinking. My only weak defence is that they were the result of being oblivious, not through exploiting my status. Nevertheless, I have implicitly contributed towards an atmosphere which has not always been as inclusive and protective as it should have been. Where I have gone wrong, please tell me, both so that I can apologise and also so that I can improve. In a community that has clearly failed many of its members, none of us should escape without taking responsibility.

What can we do to prevent further harassment happening? Calling out past behaviour and signalling that our community will not tolerate it is a vital step. Policies and statements are important indicators; these are valuable but also need to be enforced and reflected in behaviour. There is evidence that harassment occurs less frequently at field sites where such policies both exist and are respected. Most of all, we need to listen. I have a lot more to learn in this area, and will be grateful for any comments on this post that help me (and others) to do so.**

Finally, if you are one of the people directly culpable of harassing junior researchers, know this: we are watching you. The scandals are coming to ecology. I just hope that we are not found wanting in our response.


* This is of course not exclusively an issue affecting women, and the same power dynamic can lead to harassment and abuse in a variety of contexts. Any action we take collectively must be fully inclusive and respect the rights of all members of our community. Here are some numbers:

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Respondents to survey by Clancy et al. (2014), their experiences, and who were aware of, made use of, and were satisfied by mechanisms to report unwanted physical contact while on fieldwork. Figure 3 from original paper.

** As an established male researcher, who is implicitly responsible for creating the present culture, how can I feel any right to write this post? My answer is that we all have a part to play in demonstrating that we have taken notice and are willing to change. Further reading from people who know a lot more than me:

Clancy, K. B. H., Nelson R. G., Rutherford J. N. & Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLOS ONE 9, e102172. link

Nelson R. G., Rutherford J. N., Hinde, K. & Clancy, K. B. H. (2017). Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories. American Anthropologist 119, 710–722. link

How representative of ecology are the top 100 papers?

The publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution of the 100 most important papers in ecology has led, inevitably, to a fierce debate. Several rapid responses are already in review. The main bone of contention has been that not only were the first authors of 98% of the papers male, but the only two papers written by women were relegated to the very bottom of the list. In a generous reading this reflects implicit biases at every stage of their compilation, rather than any malign intent on the part of the authors*, but I’m sure they’ve received plenty of feedback on this oversight.

Pretty soon after it came out, Terry McGlynn on Twitter asked:

If you want a guide to all the essential papers that didn’t make the list, and happen to have been written by women, this thread is a good place to start. I’m not going to fan the flames any further here, but it’s important that this glaring omission remains the headline response. Instead I’m going to respond to another observation:

This pricked up my senses, given that I am also an undergraduate textbook author. In writing the Natural Systems book (published 2016) I made a deliberate attempt to not cite the same things as everyone else, and to emphasise promising directions for the future of the field of ecology. That made me wonder: how many of the 100 most important papers in ecology did I manage to cite? Note that I had no input into the Nature Ecology & Evolution article, and the book only includes references up to the end of 2014, so these form entirely independent samples. Without formally counting, I estimate that I’ve read around 80% of the top 100 papers, and I’m aware of almost all of them.

How many? Only 17/100 papers.** That raw figure disguises some interesting discontinuities within the list. Of the top ten I actually cited six, and a total of nine from the top twenty. This indicates a reasonable amount of agreement on the most important sources. But of the bottom 80 I only managed another eight (10%). This comes from a total of over 800 sources cited in the book.

Why did I cite them? The main reasons:

  • Posing an important question we have since spent a long time trying to answer (Hutchinson 1957, 1959, 1966, Janzen 1967).
  • Defining a new idea which remains relevant (Grinnell 1917, Gleason 1926, Janzen 1970, Connell 1978).
  • Creating a framework which has been elaborated since (MacArthur 1955, MacArthur & Wilson 1963, Tilman 1994, May 1972, Chesson 2000, Leibold et al. 2004, Brown 2004).
  • Reviewing the evidence for an important principle (Tilman 1996).
  • The first empirical demonstration of an important idea (Tilman 1977).

In many cases I have cited the same authors from the top 100 multiple times, but not necessarily for the original or classic piece of work; often it’s a later review or synthesis. This is because I deliberately chose citations that would be most helpful for students or other readers, not always on the basis of precedence.

The aim of this post is not to argue in any way that the authors of the paper were wrong; this is only a reflection of my personal opinion of what matters in the field. Theirs was generated through the insights of 147 journal editors and a panel of 368 scientists from across the discipline, and is therefore a much more genuine representation of what opinion-makers within the field of ecology believe (although there are better ways to conduct such an exercise). Mine is only one voice and certainly not the authoritative one.***

Writing a textbook is something like curating an exhibition at a museum or art gallery. It bestows on the author the responsibility of deciding which pieces to show in order to tell a particular story. Of necessity this becomes a very personal perspective. I’m amused to find that my view of ecology overlaps by only 17% with the leaders in my field.**** That doesn’t make either of us right or wrong, only that we must be looking in very different directions.

As for their aim of creating an essential reading list for post-graduates or those wishing to learn the foundations of the field, here I profoundly disagree. The best way to learn about current practice in ecology is to start with a good core textbook (and there are lots more out there), read recent synthetic reviews, or pick over the introductions of papers in the major journals. In the same way that you don’t need to read Darwin to understand evolutionary theory, or Wallace to understand biogeography, it’s not strictly necessary to read Grinnell, Clements or Gause to get to grips with modern ecology. Fun if you have the time but most people have more important things to do.

One final comment: three of the top ten papers in ecology were written by one man, G. E. Hutchinson. There is no doubt that his work was highly influential, and I agree that these are important papers to read. What I find most interesting though is that all of them are essentially opinion pieces that frame a general research question, but go little further than that. None of them would get published in a modern ecological journal.

Where would you find similar pieces of writing today? On a blog.

 

UPDATE: Dr Kelly Sierra is soliciting suggestions for a more inclusive list. Whether or not you feel that such lists have any inherent value, if we’re going to make them then they should at least represent the full diversity of our scientific community.


* In the comments below, Jeremy Fox points out that this isn’t very well worded, and could be read as a suggestion that I think there was some malign intent. So, to be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting that the authors made a deliberate choice to exclude or devalue papers written by women. If anything this was a sin of omission, not of commission, and we all need to learn from it rather than attribute blame to individuals.

** As an aside, 16 of the 17 were sole-authored papers. Only Leibold et al. (2004), which defined the metacommunity concept, had more than one author.

*** Nor do I think it’s healthy for there to be a voice of authority in ecology, or any other academic field. We make progress through testing every argument or piece of evidence, not by accepting anyone’s word, however senior or trustworthy. If there were an authority figure you can almost guarantee that I would disagree with them.

**** I’m more in line with the recent attempt to define the 100 most important concepts in ecology, although a little peeved that so many people dismissed Allee effects given my recent work on them.

How to survive the BES Annual Meeting

I’ve attended pretty much every BES since 1999, during which time the meeting has massively increased in size; we now attract over a thousand delegates, making it the largest gathering of ecologists in Europe. There has also been an overall increase in quality of presentations, accompanied by stiff competition for slots. With so many people and so much awesome science to see*, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.

This post is aimed at people attending the BES for the first time, and gives some suggestions for how to get the most out of it. If you’re a student then some of these tips will be especially helpful. Older hands can check whether they agree and add their own thoughts in the comments.

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A stranger is just a collaborator you haven’t met yet. Or more likely a reviewer that you already hate, but only they know it.**

  • Pick a session and stick with it. With 12 parallel sessions, you’re not going to be able to see everything. Or even most of it. One way to guarantee missing even more is to run between sessions to catch particular talks. With the best will (and chairs) in the world, sessions do not run exactly to time, and getting between them often takes longer than you think. The end result is that you have to dash out as soon as one speaker finishes (disrupting the questions in the process), run to another lecture theatre, then miss the start of the next one. Often you’ll end up stood at the back, crammed on the end of a row, or waiting in the corridor. A better strategy is to choose the session that sounds most fun, pick a good seat, then just embrace whatever comes along. Take a gamble and discover something new rather than listen to work you’ve already heard about.
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Ooo, colourful! Pick one you like then just sit through the whole thing. The dark green is particularly recommended.

  • No-one has read your abstract. Back in August you had a tentative idea about what your results might show, once you’d finished collecting and analysing the data. By the time you put everything together for the meeting, the conclusion has probably entirely changed. This is not a problem, because no-one will notice. The title you gave was indicative of the content. Treat your talk as a fresh start. No-one is assessing how closely your actual talk or poster follows the abstract in the meeting program.
  • Posters can be skimmed. Good posters, that is. Even yours. Don’t try and read every one and absorb the information (unless you’re marking them), because your brain will be full after the first five. Better to find one with an interesting title or concept, then ask the person presenting it to talk you through. Conversations about posters are always more rewarding than standing in silence while the author nervously watches you. If they’re not there then find them later or send a message.
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You’re not going to read all those posters unless you’re really trying to avoid social interaction.

  • E-mail the people you want to meet. If you have a hit-list of people to whom you really want to show off your research, send them a quick message beforehand. Best of all is to say “I’m giving a talk on helicopter weevils in the east stairwell on Thursday at 8:30pm and I’d really appreciate if you could make it.” Most will be flattered and make an effort to come along, thereby finding out who you are so they can recognise you later. It also helps to prompt conversation. If you don’t do this then expect to spend the whole meeting in a futile effort to spot the right name on the tags worn by total strangers. And failing.
  • Having said that, it’s even more important to make contacts in your own peer group. Meeting the stars of your field is often invigorating, but if you’re a PhD student then others like you are the people who, in future, you’ll be collaborating with and seeing at the next conference. I would argue that these are the most important connections you can make — in time they will become your friends. Try not to hang around with people from your own institution too much, you’ll see them again next week anyway. If you’re already an established ecologist then make an effort to talk to younger people, and if they’re on their own, to introduce them to others.
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This is the BRITISH Ecological Society. We do not slavishly follow the Americans and their ways.

  • Go to the Specialist Interest Group meetings. They’re the best way to meet like-minded ecologists, and also a great way to get more involved with the society. It’s not well-known enough that the SIGs have access to money, and are always looking for ideas from members for events that they could run. Tell them what you would like the society to put on, and best of all, offer to run an event yourself!
  • Find a conference buddy. The ideal person will be at the same career stage, from a different place, working in a related but slightly different field, and who you’ve only just met. Arrange to catch up regularly, perhaps at breakfast to compare what sessions you’re going to, or at coffee time to swap notes. This doubles your potential to find out about interesting people and science, because they can look out for things on your behalf. The welcome mixer on Sunday night is a good place to recruit one. Also, when you go down for breakfast wherever you’re staying, look out for the tell-tale tags and bags of fellow delegates and approach anyone who looks like they’re alone.
  • Steal stuff. Not valuable infrastructure. But all the stalls will  be giving away a wide variety of useful things: pens, USB sticks, post-it notes, mugs, fridge magnets… Harvest them. I haven’t needed to buy a pen in years. The recent redesign of the BES logo means they’re bound to have a whole load of fresh tat. My family always know what to expect for Christmas. “An Oxford University Press beermat? You’re too kind!”
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Quick, no-one’s looking after the stand, STEAL ALL THE PENS.

  • Watch out for the drinking. There’s no getting round it, British people do like to drink, more than most nationalities. Add to this the lethal combination of it being right before Christmas, at the end of a draining academic semester, and it’s inevitable that we flood to the bars. Most of the evening social events involve alcohol. If you’re a non-drinker then don’t worry, you won’t be a pariah, just be aware that others will be drinking around you. My main warning is to the drinkers though. It’s easy to slip into a cycle of filling up on booze in the evening, staying out late, hardly sleeping, then sustaining yourself on endless cups of coffee throughout the day. This is not healthy. It’s ok to sometimes drink something that doesn’t contain alcohol or caffeine.*** Really, the water is completely safe.
  • Talk to people! One of the best things about BES, and which we work hard to encourage, is that it’s welcoming and informal. That’s also a British thing; we’re not good at massaging big egos, or letting people take themselves too seriously. This means that if there is someone who has been particularly influential or inspirational for you, or whose advice you’d like, just walk up and say hello. Seriously. Even the plenary speakers would be glad to speak to an enthusiastic student. If you’re not sure then ask me to introduce you. I don’t get embarrassed.

On which note, if you’re stuck for someone to talk to, and you happen to spot me, please come up and say hello! I don’t care whether you’re a keen undergraduate or an embittered old prof, whether you work on foraminifera or velvet worms. I’m always happy to meet new people, and, if I can, to introduce you to lots of other cool ecologists. The one place you’re guaranteed to find me is the Forest Ecology Group mixer. We know how to party.

I love the BES. Forget Christmas, this really is the most wonderful time of the year.


* Although apparently one person only used to come for the meat sandwiches. Each to their own I suppose.

** Thanks to Richard English for the photos, which are all from the amazing BES centenary meeting with INTECOL in 2013. I was there, but too preoccupied to take any pictures.

*** I don’t follow my own advice. You’ll find me a pale, trembling wreck by Wednesday morning, and it takes a few days to recover. No loud noises or rapid movements please.