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Ecologists: Wading from nature to networks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“I’ve always thought of myself as a wader due to my size,” said 6’5” Bob Paine, professor emeritus in the University of Washington’s Department of Biology.  Paine is considered by many to be the founder of experimental ecology. He has produced some of the nation’s top marine biologists. He has also spent 45 years knee-deep in kelp and invertebrates on Washington State’s coast.  

Four floors up from Bob Paine’s office is U.W.’s Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist who works with computer code, not crabs and chitons. He also explores ecology – but of cells and immune systems — and he seems equally interested in the digital tools he needs to study problems at that scale. Bergstrom is a brainiac, as well as personable. Parts of him remind you of a naturalist (he rock climbs, kite surfs, and hates his cell phone).  But he’s not — at least not by today’s standards.  The future, however, might consider Bergstrom differently.  

Nature

“All animals weren’t created equal.”  This sums up Bob Paine’s most famous idea.

Paine knew in less than a minute and half on Washington’s outer coast that it was where he wanted to work.  Tatoosh, an island just off the Olympic Peninsula, is rich with life yet sparse with humans. It is exposed to elements serious enough to capsize a zodiac as well as Paine and his team into the frigid Pacific (“It ended our November trips.”)  

Paine’s most famous experiment involved the removal of purple sea stars (many Northwesterners can recite the ditty: goodness gracious, it’s Pisaster ochraceus) from large sections of the intertidal zone.  He’d visit the site every two weeks and toss any five-legged invaders as far away as possible.   By suppressing the population of the purple carnivore, areas that were once rich with diversity became overwhelmed with mussels.  Pisaster had a disproportionate impact relative to its abundance, and the keystone species concept was born.  

The tide pools seemed to have an impact on Paine, as well.  His stories pulse with Man versus Nature themes. A map of Tatoosh is always at hand.  One gets the sense he would get along with Charles Darwin. And that he doesn’t get cold easily.  

“Whether I was stupid or foolhardy, I spent my first ten years in the intertidal in sneakers – cheap as possible,” Paine said.  He wore wool socks, which would get steamy after a couple hours steeping in the northwest waters. “I have too good peripheral circulation.”  

Paine’s field notebooks (32 volumes; 300 pages each) are a high school biology teacher’s dream (see photo).  He draws and records data on white tiles in pencil.  When he returns to UW, he photocopies the tiles and puts his observations into elegant hardbound notebooks.  He wipes the tiles clean for his next time in nature. In his day, Paine was one of an army of soldiers out in the field, hands dirty and wet, studying everything from mountain tops to sea floors. Today he is part of a dying breed of biologists: the natural historian who can speak intimately about anything you pick up on the seashore.

The Machine  

At the center of the Bergstrom lab is a 27” cinematic display Mac Pro, referenced frequently by both Bergstrom and his students (who are equally sharp, stable, and wilderness seeking; in fact, one student’s middle name is actually ‘Darwin’).  Bergstrom talks about “the trance” that takes over while doing research on a computer.  Software boxes sit open.  Bergstrom’s lab Web site makes it clear to prospective students: “I do not operate a wet lab or field research program – strong mathematical and/or computational skills are essential.”

The Bergstrom lab is more likely to reference a map of Twitter, not Tatoosh.  Conversations converge more often on Facebook functions than kelp spores. Technology is preferred to tide pools and it’s being put to some very cool uses. Their team has modeled the complex relationships between scientific disciplines. For instance, this figure, which maps citations to and from the Journal of Biological Chemistry, you see connections to almost everything in the sciences—except for one big hole (Rosvall M, Bergstrom CT 2010). That big hole turns out to the Astronomy and Astrophysics, for obvious reasons: no biological chemistry there that we know of, yet:

In other cases, this modeling has illuminated deficiencies in interdisciplinarity, like how the field of economics talks mainly to itself. The Bergstrom lab also generated this "alluvial diagram" using a network of millions of citations among thousands of journals to show how the field of neuroscience has transitioned from an interdisciplinary specialty to a stand-alone discipline over the past decade:

This is a different type of ecology, one facilitated by the digital universe. And I begin to wonder if Bergstrom is the naturalist of the future, and if we’ll simply come to rely on studies of nature from the past. Perhaps this is how the identity of biology departments change.  Subtly.  Quietly.  Naturally. Machines have conquered nature in brutish ways but have used an elegant means: by making themselves so darn interesting to us.

References:

Paine, R.T. (1969). A Note on Trophic Complexity and Community Stability. The American Naturalist 103 (929): 91–93. doi:10.1086/282586

Rosvall M, Bergstrom CT (2010) Mapping Change in Large Networks. PLoS ONE 5(1): e8694. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008694

Further reading:

Dyson, G. (1998) Darwin among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence. Basic Books: New York.

Paine, R.T. (2010) Macroecology: Does It Ignore or Can It Encourage Further Ecological Syntheses Based on Spatially Local Experimental Manipulations? 174(4): 385-93.

Image credits: Photo 1: Bob Paine, Professor Emeritus, UW (credit: Jennifer Jacquet), Photo 2: Paine’s field notebook (credit: Jennifer Jacquet), Photo 3: Carl Bergstrom, Professor, UW (credit: Noah Kalina), Photo 4: Well-Formed.Eigenfactor.org, Photo 5: credit: Rosvall & Bergstrom 2010

About the author: Jennifer Jacquet is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia, where she also completed her PhD in 2009. She is working with Daniel Pauly’s Sea Around Us Project as well as Christoph Hauert in the Mathematics Department.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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