Absolute Joy in Domains of True Uncertainty

After getting irritated at humankind’s inability to accept that some things are genuinely uncertain, I open my podcasting device and hey presto:

Resilience: Adaptation and Transformation in Turbulent Times — A World Of Possibilities, May 6th

It opens with Buzz Holling (who NRE 580 alumnus will remember for panarchy theory) on adaptation, uncertainy, adeterminism, non-equilibrium, and such like in the general world. Then it moves onto Brian Walker talking about much of the same in ecosystem management, plus control fetishism. Then it moves on from there. Recorded at a Stockhlom conference on applying biology-based resilience theory to social systems. The idea of which is now creeping me out. Except that maybe, just maybe, this is a group of people that can be trusted to think rationally across disciplines. Maybe. Anyhow, it’s good listening.

Brian Walker’s talk reminded me of a lecture on conservation management from my undergrad, wherein Thom Nudds announced that if you manage to get an ecosystem to not cycle you’ve flatlined it, so congratulations on that.

Google Earthing Cow Directions

Here’s a fun bit of Google Earth-utilizing research:

Magnetic alignment in grazing and resting cattle and deer, Begall et al, PNAS

“We demonstrate by means of simple, noninvasive methods (analysis of satellite images, field observations, and measuring “deer beds” in snow) that domestic cattle (n = 8,510 in 308 pastures) across the globe, and grazing and resting red and roe deer (n = 2,974 at 241 localities), align their body axes in roughly a north–south direction.”

Apparently this work follows on from previous research the team has done on the sensing of magnetic fields by naked mole rats. In this case, they used Google Earth to scroll around looking for cows, then once they had documented 8510 of them, decided they tend to lie down facing north-south. And likewise for deer.

Here’s some more
from NPR.

“Holland says that other researchers should confirm the finding. One way of doing that would be to “start going out and putting magnets on the heads of cows and horses and deer, to see how that affects them,” he says. “That’s one of the more traditional ways of testing if they have a magnetic sense.”

If they really do have an internal compass, he says, the magnet would mess it up.”

A Pareidoliac Quest for the Southwest

I’m back from my two-week ramble through the public lands of Arizona and New Mexico. This was an ideal destination for me: I’ve been in the area a few times before, just enough to begin to know what to seek out and what sorts of landscape patterns might be waiting for me, but not nearly enough for it not to seem entirely exotic and impossible to my boreal-based brain. Well, I’ve only now scratched the variations on landscape and vegetation and physiognomy of the great American southwest. But I did get to run down some old leads and spend some really solid time in a couple of regions I’ve long wanted to. And do so with the wonder of ignorance.

And oh yes, I was there to do some research reconnaissance. Looking to see what vegetation pattern looks like from side-on and roots-up instead of from above. I have a lot of digesting to do, but I suspect the trip was successful on that criterion. For sure I had great meetings with people who really do know the ecology of the magnificent semi-arid zones: Dave Breshears (who made time for me the day his right-hand-guy was leaving for a faculty position), Neil Cobb (who made time for me the week he was prepping for his wedding celebration) and Michaela Buenemann (who made time for me in between settling into her new faculty position and road tripping to Dr. Cobb’s wedding celebration). The reflexive generosity of time and ideas that researchers have for each other is one of the things I love about working in the sciences. It seems the best people are the ones who are the most giving of their resources. (Including data! Thanks guys. Thanks also to Dr. Alfredo Huete, whom I now really regret not having been organized enough to ask for a meeting with.)

Thanks also to this guy, whose website drove home the point that, unless it specifically says “no camping”, you can pretty much camp anywhere you want in the southwest. This turned out to be a key idea in my trip. There were a lot of places I wanted to camp, and did. And while I’m at it, thanks also to Enterprise, for not freaking out when I brought some rental cars back with a little dust in the wheel-wells.

Much of the point of being there was to take photos I could later reference while taking the remote-sensing god’s eye view of the same landscapes. So I had my camera in my hand a lot, and I’ll post some photos as I work through them.

Hunting for Pattern in the South West

I’m leaving today for 2 weeks of field work in Arizona and New Mexico.

I’m doing some field reconnaissance in support of my weird thesis research on self-organizing plant patterns in the semi-desert. That mostly means I’ll be driving around in rental cars, looking to see what the places I’ve been peering at from above actually look like in person. Also camping out in the high desert at night, looking to see what patterns the stars have. I’ll be in the Tucson/Sierra Vista region, then north of Flagstaff and up to the rim of the Canyon, then training into Santa Fe/Los Alamos area. I’m taking the Southwest Chief back to Chicago and Ann Arbor on the 23rd.

no pattern in central texas
Do you see a pattern? I don’t see a pattern.

Attempting to Enlist Google Earthers for My Research

I’m trying to find some additional study sites for my research. I’ve recently realized how stupid I’ve been by not using Google Earth as my main exploratory site-search tool. Way way waaay faster than trying to download overview imagery raw from USGS or wherever. It also occurred to me that there are thousands of people who cruise around in Google Earth every day, looking for interesting things and talking about it in the forums. So I posted there, in case anybody might have seen the kinds of semi-arid plant patterns I’m looking for. I’m interested to see if there will be any response.

update: the post has been moved to the “Moderated” section of the Nature and Geography forum. The above link has been updated.

study site in Arizona
A study site in Arizona.

RollTube/Fragility of the System

Somebody had to do it: a firefox extension to make every youtube video Rick Roll instead.


I recognize there has been a lack of substantive posts around here lately. Several good ones have come and gone in my head, but it’s been a busy time and there hasn’t been an opportunity to type them down. If you want interesting substance, I’d recommend reading this Q&A regarding the Bear Stearns situation and contemplating how a system that is so fragile that a single failed node in the network can threaten its total collapse is going to fare when the recursive effects of global climate change perturb it from many angles simultaneously.

Or just install that rolltube extension and surf the video net!

The Death of Two Legends

Two good stories:

The passing of a Yellowstone Cinderella, High Country News

“She was one of the original 31 Canadian wolves transplanted to Yellowstone to kick off the wolf restoration effort in the Northern Rockies. Much of the park’s spectacular wolf recovery can be attributed to her breeding success: At least three of her daughters have gone on to form their own packs. And not only was she the alpha female of the largest wolf pack ever recorded — the Druid pack numbered 37 wolves in 2000 — but she also contributed mightily to our knowledge of wolf behavior and pack dynamics.
Doug Smith, the Wolf Project biologist for Yellowstone, says, “None of the other wolves liked 40 so they would hang out with 42 instead. In fact, the only wolf to visit 40’s den was 21.” When the aggressive 40 threatened her sister again, Smith said, “This time 42 said, ‘forget it’ and attacked 40, defending her pups. At least two other wolves joined in and left 40 a bloody mess.”
The next day 42 moved her pups clear across the Lamar Valley, took over 40’s den and raised her sister’s pups along with her own. She quickly assumed the alpha role, which she held until her untimely death this winter.”

Jump the Shark, New York Times, about the demise of professional pool sharking.

“But that’s just gambling,” Mr. Bell says wistfully. “Real hustling — driving to a pool room in another state, walking in, setting the trap, busting the local guy and then heading to a new town — is different. That’s what ain’t there any more.”

Paul Watson, Ecowarrior At Large

The New Yorker has a gigantic piece up on Paul Watson, the former Greenpeace cofounder who is now the generalissimo of the Sea Shepherds. Watson is possibly the last of the fully mobilized alpha-male environmentalists that roamed the heroic early age of the green action movement. His ego spreads out across the sea, like a living shield for the dieing oceans. Say what you want about him and his mythic vigilantism, ramming a decrepit Norwegian trawler with a jagged cutting boom welded on the side into an active whaling ship denormalizes the situation for everybody. And I think we need a lot of that. It’s not real clear that many people have actually gotten hurt by his actions (although some certainly could have, and apparently some have come awfully close). Anything that slows up the sterilization of the oceans, which may be heading towards an unrecoverable threshold, or at it, or just possibly past it, is a good way to spend a life.

Neptune’s Navy, Paul Watson’s wild crusade to save the oceans

I also thought this was an interesting point:

It was not until the mid-nineties that fisheries scientists turned their attention to the spiral of exploitation and attempted to gauge its consequences. They discovered that their discipline had been measuring biodiversity with a very narrow lens: looking, for instance, at habitats only in a particular region of the ocean, or at the rise or decline of a particular species, and usually with respect to benchmarks that had been set just decades earlier. No one had tried to determine what the full spectrum of life in the ocean looked like a hundred years or five hundred years in the past. “We forgot the wonder and splendor of a virgin nature,” Watson wrote recently. “We revise history and make it fit into our present perceptions.” In 1995, the process of forgetting was given a name—“shifting baseline syndrome”—by Daniel Pauly, a scientist at the University of British Columbia. “Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes,” Pauly argued in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. He concluded, “The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species.”

Insightful Analysis: Wardle’s Field Patches

This week we gave the insightful analysis treatment to Wardle et al’s 1994-97 experiment in a New Zealand pasture, in which they removed all the species from 360 20cm patches and allowed them to grow back in, while selectively pruning out different mixtures of functional species groups. Good stuff. Especially cool was their careful measurment of below-ground biota and below-ground ecosystem functioning. Especially especially cool was the fact that they collected a time series of data across the 3 year times span of the experiment. Most of these diversity experiments have to destructively sample to collect their data and so they end up with a single snapshot of the state of the ecosystems at the arbitrary end. These folks sampled just a few of their plots per time step over a bunch of steps, so they had lower sample sizes at any time but a real dynamic story to study.

The paper itself is a whopper, 34 pages in Ecological Monographs.

David A. Wardle, Karen I. Bonner, Gary M. Barker, Gregor W. Yeates, Kathryn S. Nicholson, Richard D. Bardgett, Richard N. Watson, Anwar Ghani. Plant Removals in Perennial Grassland: Vegetation Dynamics, Decomposers, Soil Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Properties. Ecological Monographs, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Nov., 1999), pp. 535-568, doi:10.2307/2657230

scholar.google link

Thankfully the insightful analysis is the usual one page, below the fold.

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Insightful Analysis: Hodgson Calls Out Naeem and His Box-Ecosystems

This week’s insightful analysis: from 1997, Michael Huston critiquing Naeem et al’s ecosystems-in-boxes experiments (insightfully analyzed here). Huston claims that the Ecotron experimenters dropped the ball by building in an inevitable bias towards a wide range of plant sizing in their high-diversity boxes, and further claims that debunks the diversity-ecosystem function link. He brings some big-gun databases of plant survey data into the act, and proposes the way forward. I think he’s got some good fundamental points, but then goes too far. Mostly I think he’s got a pretty trivial idea of what “function” means, which makes his claims that Naeem et al‘s results are trivial sound a bit whiny. But I don’t say that in my analysis, because I’m nice. Is there anything more heart-pumping than scientific debate?

The paper:

Hidden treatments in ecological experiments: re-evaluating the ecosystem function of biodiversity. Huston MA. 1997 Oecologia 110:449-460. (Don’t issue and volume citations look weird on the internet?)

Text of the analysis after the fold.

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