Christmas is upon us, what field guide, obscure tome and biography of Darwin would you bring to a far away island?

I’ve been looking through my bookshelf and would like your help with a bit of a thought experiment. In evolution and ecology we are often concerned about when we can see past the complexities of the natural world and get to general, reliable knowledge. In a sense this is a matter of taking lots and lots of information and boiling it down to a small set of facts that we think “really” matter. Due to a recent job change I’ve had to get rid of a large section of my book collection and I would like chat with you guys about which pieces of biology were “general” enough to take on a long voyage.

Sure the question “what book would you take to a far away island” is supposed to be clichéd, but this June the question became quite literal for me. I was working at a post doc at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (USA) and was offered a job as a lecturer at the at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch New Zealand. The job had a lot of what I was looking for, a chance to do research, some teaching and an amazing local to think about biology. The one thing that this job did not include was a hefty budget to move my huge collection of books to a distant hemisphere.

Me tramping in New Zealand.

People who know me well will realize how painful this would have been. I am a compulsive buyer of field guides and if I spend more than a day or two in some new place I immediately track down the nearest visitor center and pick up a copy of any field guide I can find. When Jeremy Yoder found out I was moving to Tennessee he gave me (not entirely in jest) a guide to an obscure group of algae in Great Smoky Mountains National park as a going away present. That book (and many more) are now residing in my parent’s basement separated from the few biology books that I thought would help me when I moved to a new hemisphere. Let me tell you about how useful I have found nature guides, hefty biology books and Darwin biographies.

First, two examples of field guides:

WEEDS- Sadly enough it is pretty easy to transfer knowledge of weedy plants to my new home in New Zealand. I didn’t take a field guide to the weeds of North America with me, but inside the city of Christchurch this would have been quite in handy.  I now have a student working on mallows, a plant I recognized immediately from North America. Mustard plants, docks and invasive garden species like the mint in my garden are all thriving here as they would in many parts of North America. I would argue that this is not because ecologists have a great general understanding of weedy biology, rather it is because humans have now moved a massive number of weedy plants throughout cruddy sites in cities throughout the world.

TREES- The native trees here blow my mind. I’ve bought a few beautiful guides to the trees of New Zealand, but they are so different from everything I’ve ever seen before that no field guide from North America will be any help. The best I can say is that there are rhyming patterns in the trees here. In dry sites you will find Cabbage Trees, which looks surprisingly like the Joshua trees I’ve studied in North America. When you climb up in the mountains here you get into beautiful southern beech forests that remind me just a bit of the Douglass fir forest in the Pacific Northwest.

Cabbage tree, Canterbury New Zealand

Joshua Tree, California

Now for the heft:

To be a scientist means reading a huge number of books on seemingly arcane topics. Let me give you some preliminary notes on whether these books have helped me to make sense of biology in my new home.

COEVOLUTION- I’ve spent a lot of my research time trying to understanding when reciprocal adaptation between species (coevolution) matters in nature. As a result I’ve brought a copy of John Thompson’s The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution with me. The first thing that strikes me about this subject is that many of the examples John uses are not from this part of the world. New Zealand has no Yucca moths, no super toxic newts, and no colorful Heliconia butterflies. The natural history of New Zealand is amazing but fewer people have studied coevolution here (note however that contributor Devin Drown has done super cool stuff on this topic in New Zealand). As a result I am really not sure how to apply thinking on coevolution to what I see around me. What this book might help me to do is to expect the unexpected. Reading this academic work you get the sense that under every log, and inside every bog there is some bizarre way that one species evolves to deal with another species. The book makes me feel like the world is a very noisy place and that can at least be an incentive to get messy and closely watch the happenings of the natural world.

SPECIATION- I’ve brought a copy of Coyne and Orr’s book Speciation that is a fairly recent synthesis of what we know about the origin of new species. I actually think some of the arguments in this guide are a handy starting point for thinking about diversity in an unfamiliar part of the world. To take one example, as I learn more about the species in New Zealand I keep in the back of my head one of the main theses of this book, that newly formed species tend to occur in somewhat different geographic regions. I don’t want to go into all the technical details in this book, but I do think there are a number of generalizations in this book that will come in handy as I start to think about the nitty gritty of differences among species in my new home.

For the record I also brought the first volume of Janet Browne’s biography of Charles Darwin Voyaging. I won’t claim that this has done much for my biology, though it is an affecting portrait of biologists. I enjoy both the stories of Darwin as a quirky kid going on natural history expeditions, and the text on Darwin’s worldwide exploration, to localities that include New Zealand. I would guess that I am not the only biologist who sits at a whiteboard/computer screen/thermo cycler and dreams about some hiking trip looking at actual living things. Also any one looking for a last minute Christmas present I still don’t have volume two…

That makes up a snappy list of some of the books that made the cut and are still sitting on my shelf. I think my takeaway is that most things in biology don’t make sense… but some do. Some of the things we learn about biology in one place are worth carting to the far edges of the word. In other cases there is nothing to do but stand back and be amazed at how dramatically different living things are in each new place. Does any one else want to join me in this navel gazing? Which biology books do you guys sling around with you on adventures? Any books that help things make sense? Any one want to make a case that the next time I travel I should ensure I’m carrying a copy of your research with me?

The Kea, the world's only alpine parrot... only in New Zealand

‘Tis the season


For taking a break, that is. Those of us on the academic calendar (which is all of us, actually) are wrapping up a fall semester, and this seems like a good time to take it easy for awhile. There may be some intermittent, maybe even relevant, activity over the Saturnalia hiatus, but we’re not committing to anything while there’s eggnog to be had and carolers to be heckled. Look for regular science posts to resume in the new year!

Friday coffee break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Sarah: Yeti crabs deliberately cultivate bacteria on their claws.

The hairy claws of these crabs are covered with bacteria. With every swing of their arms, they mix up the water column and provide their homegrown bacteria with additional nutrients.

From Noah: Corn-feeding insects have evolved resistance to genetically-engineered Bt corn in the United States, and it’s because a lot of folks didn’t take basic population genetics into account.

… a scientific advisory panel urged the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen the second line of defense against resistance, and demand large refuges on non-Bt corn. They proposed that farmers be allowed to plant Bt corn with this new gene on no more than half of their corn acres.

Monsanto argued that such a large refuge wasn’t necessary, and the EPA agreed. In 2003, the agency decided to allow farmers to plant this new product on 80 percent of their corn acres.

The scientists who called for caution now are saying “I told you so,” because there are signs that a new strain of resistant rootworms is emerging. [Links sic.]

From CJ: Close examination of ostrich penises clarifies the evolutionary history of birds.

“Our findings reveal that the evolution of a lymphatic erection mechanism likely occurred in the ancestor of all birds rather than within birds,” says Patricia Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and one of the authors of the study.

And, from Jeremy: New fossil collections reveal the ancient origin of high-resolution compound eyes.

Here we report 2–3-cm paired eyes from the early Cambrian (approximately 515 million years old) Emu Bay Shale of South Australia, assigned to the Cambrian apex predator Anomalocaris. Their preserved visual surfaces are composed of at least 16,000 hexagonally packed ommatidial lenses (in a single eye), rivalling the most acute compound eyes in modern arthropods.

Estimating dates using HIV evolution patterns

In this post we see how we can track mutation rates to estimate when people were infected with HIV and even when the virus first crossed over into humans.

HIV is an evolution machine

Its polymerase enzyme is pretty sloppy and has an error rate of about 1 mistake for every 10 thousand nucleotide bases copied.

For a virus with a genome about 10 thousand bases in length, that means that basically every time HIV replicates itself, it makes a mistake.

Sometimes these errors result in a defective virus, but sometimes they give the virus some new property its predecessor didn’t have, such as resistance to an antiretroviral agent (the drugs we use to treat HIV). The high mutation rate of HIV has also led to extensive worldwide diversity in the epidemic, leading to groupings of related viruses called clades that are named with the letters A through K, and sometimes with two letters where it looks like two clades have recombined into a spliced version of HIV. The different clades are shown in this phylogenetic tree. Also shown are how they relate to other immunodeficiency viruses that infect other primates, as well as how HIV (more precisely, HIV-1) is related to a distinct virus that also infects humans and causes AIDS, called HIV-2, which is mostly confined to west Africa.

This extensive diversity also makes it very difficult to develop an HIV vaccine.

Although the high mutation rate makes things difficult for scientific and medical advances in HIV, it does allow us to see evolution in action, and can lead to some pretty interesting discoveries.

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Diversity in Science Carnival No. 11: Native American Heritage Month edition

There’s a new edition of the Diversity in Science blog carnival out today, too: Urban Scientist DNLee rounds up stories of Native Americans in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines for Native American Heritage Month. It includes meditations on the value of cultural diversity in science, celebrations of individual scientists, and discussion of scientific insights from Native cultures that we’re still just beginning to recognize.

Carnival of Evolution for December 2011

The new Carnival of Evolution, freshly posted over at the Ocelloid, is the forty-second iteration of the monthly roundup of online writing about evolution, the universe, and everything. Well, maybe not everything.

Highlights include, but are not limited to, Larry Moran illustrating the difference between census population size and effective population size, Hannah Waters on the evolutionary context of grieving, and Jenna Gallie’s description of her own research on rapid adaptive evolution by E. coli. There are also multiple contributions from right here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Go read the whole thing, and don’t forget your towel.

Friday coffee break


Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Sarah: When scientific results have political implications, harassment of scientists is on the rise.

Climate science is just the tip of the iceberg. Seismologists are looking worriedly toward Italy, where six scientists were indicted and prosecuted for failing to adequately warn people prior to the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, which killed more than 300 people. Given that timely earthquake prediction is currently impossible, it is unclear how any scientifically justifiable statement could be considered “adequate.” But whatever the outcome of the trial, the end result will almost certainly discourage geologists from making any public statement about future earthquake hazards, resulting in a less-informed and less-well-prepared public, more at risk from future earthquakes. [Link sic.]

From Devin: Spider silk contains chemical agents to defend against ants. The methods section of this paper gets pretty wild.

Spider webs are made of silk, the properties of which ensure remarkable efficiency at capturing prey. However, remaining on, or near, the web exposes the resident spiders to many potential predators, such as ants. Surprisingly, ants are rarely reported foraging on the webs of orb-weaving spiders, despite the formidable capacity of ants to subdue prey and repel enemies, the diversity and abundance of orb-web spiders, and the nutritional value of the web and resident spider.

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