Tuesday, October 29, 2013


0.4% of the world's European bison in one field.

This week, we are in Białowieża** National Park in Poland. Yesterday, we saw about 0.5% of the world's population.

**I've been pronouncing this name wrong for years. The ł is pronounced like a w, the w like a v and the ż like a zh. Bi-ah-wo-vay-zhuh. 

It's amazing the bison are not extinct.

Białowieża was the last wild refuge of the European bison. In 1914 there were over 700 here. In 1919, there were none. A hungry army extirpated it.

After WWI, the diaspora of bison gifted to zoos and kings, were brought together to repopulate Białoweiża.

Effective population size then: about 12.

Today, there are over 4000 European bison from that original group.

About a fourth of them are in Białowieża or the part of the old Białowieża that is now on the Belarussian side of the fence.

The animals are magnificent and so subtly different than North American Plains Bison. Stalking up to them through the forest was a rare treat...

The fundamental question about these animals these days is whether to think of them as forest animals that come out into open areas, or open area animals that take refuge in the forest.

As has been done for centuries in one way or another, hay is provided for the animals in pastures adjacent to the forest. They spend November – April eating here and then move back into the forest during the summer.

One important question is whether managers have set a trap for themselves. Hay is provided in the winter, which pulls animals out of the forest. This reduces pressure on the forest, which keeps the forest closed and filled with trees. The closed forest supports less bison, which necessitates more winter feeding.

It's a stable relationship, but the supplementing increases parasite transmission and messes with the animals' oestrus cycle, causing calves to be born too late (which necessitates further culling).

What scientists need to understand is whether a natural, non-supplemented system is possible. Can the forests be opened up, allowing bison to forage all year long in a more open forest system, eliminating the need for supplementation?

The system has been in place, no one knows if the alternative is possible.

There are stories of times when the forest was "overstocked" which opened up glades in the system. But was this overstocking? Or just a different system equilibrium?

Rafał Kowalczyk has done a great job finding out basic information about the bison, like what they eat. His graduate student Emilia Hofman-Kamińska is doing a great job looking at isotopes in bison skulls collected over the past 10K years to see if there were habitat shifts in the animals.

Still, large ideas like this need a lot more help. We need people to test alternative forest management practices. We need more measurements of diet. We need paleoecologists to reconstruct past animal numbers and diet.

The more we know about the ecology of the animals like this, the more secure is their future.

It seems like they (and us) deserve a secure future with more bison.

Friday, October 25, 2013

On the responsibilities of a first author

We know that the most tenuous of ecological strategies is cooperation. It can break down quickly and devolve into competition among potential partners to the detriment of everyone.

Writing a paper together is one of the highest forms of scientific cooperation. And its the first author that is responsible for maintaining that cooperative environment. The guidelines for leading a paper are rarely codified. In part, there are too many types of coauthorship relationships and too many types of papers.

That may be true, but I see a lot of the same mistakes made over and over again across a wide variety of types of papers** that make me think it might be better to try to lay these out and then work off of exceptions.

**the use of the word "my" is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Referring to a multi-author paper as "my paper" is warning sign #1 for bad collaborator. 

So, there might be better treatments of this out there, but I thought I would take a few moments to rough some of the responsibilities of being a first author.

1) Generate a clear vision for the paper. 
This is where leadership on a project generally begins. A vision for the paper is a reference point for people to make decisions against. It's a broad goal for what the paper will accomplish and to a degree how it will accomplish it. Of course, writing a paper is the terminus of a project, not its beginning, but by the time the manuscript has begun, coauthors need a point on the horizon to which they can refer. This point is rarely handed down by the first author to the others and often is generated with discussion. It is also not inflexible, but too much inconstancy, and coauthors will have difficulty tracking new goals. Part of this vision includes which journal to send the work to, which is often apparent early on in the process. A vision for an Ecological Monograph is much different than a Letter in Science.

2) Secure coauthors
Additional expertise is occasionally needed. The first author's responsibility is to solicit whether different expertise is needed and lay out a process to find them. On the flip side, the first author may also be responsible for determining whether a potential coauthor has made a significant intellectual contribution to the paper and deserves coauthorship or should be acknowledged only.

3) Coordinate the contributions of co-authors
All coauthors should share a common vision for a paper, but their contributions to realizing that vision will not be equal. The first author needs to make sure that the responsibilities of each coauthor are agreed upon and clear. In the best of situations, this is an easy process and everyone has a team approach. In other situations, the first author has to be initiate a process whereby everyone knows their role. Dictating is one process, but not the only way. Sometimes the first author writes 99% of the paper and they can just say to the other co-authors, chip in where you can. In many cases, co-authors need a structure to know where to contribute. Especially on revisions. Make sure they know what type of feedback you are looking for.

4) Provide an open process for progress
Managing the writing of the paper requires a great deal of transparency. Co-authors need to know what their contributions should be, but the process of making decisions needs to be open. If some co-authors are excluded from a decision, they will feel excluded and that's not good. Co-authors need to know what is happening and what is likely to happen next in the process. No paper runs this smooth, but it's a goal. Seek advice, but don't peel away individuals to secretly make decisions. One of the best ways to insure transparency is to have a central repository for all drafts and make all comments available to everyone. Periodically update coauthors on what has happened, what comments have been made, and how things have progressed.

5) Minimize the effort spent by co-authors
This may seem minor, but it is your job as first author to oversee an efficient process. You have to strive for constancy in goals. Minimize the numbers of drafts that coauthors must comment upon. No yo-yo-ing of responsibilities where coauthors perform tasks and then products are removed. This also means condensing the length of time over which a paper is developed. You can't sprint through things in 48 h, but 48 months is too long. Make sure the coauthors know your goal for how quickly you expect to progress through the paper. It might be hard to realize this early in one's career, but it's incredibly hard to pick up a paper after not seeing it for a few months.

6) Hear all suggestions
Part of the open process is to make sure that all coauthors get a chance to voice their opinions, and that their opinions are heard and seriously considered. If a coauthor raises a concern, do not sweep it under a rug. Consider it and provide an explanation for the decision. I remember as a graduate student voicing a concern on a paper that I was a minor coauthor on and feeling that the concern was not seriously considered. I look back 15 years later and having the same concern about the work to this day. It's always in your best interest to fully explore concerns by coauthors.

7) Defer personal goals to the benefit of the paper
If you give the impression to coauthors that your personal goals for the paper are overriding the group goals, coauthors are less likely to trust you to make sound decisions and less likely to work hard to contribute selflessly. Here's a tip. Never refer to the paper as "my paper". As soon as you have coauthors, it's "our paper".  As first author, you will likely get a disproportionate amount of the credit anyways so emphasize the team. Along those lines, first authorship generally represents the individual with the majority of the scientific input to the paper.

Sometimes the person who initially takes the lead of a project may have a smaller role leader. For example, on an earlier paper on bison, I started leading the paper, figured out I needed help, talked Sandra Hamel into helping, but then it was clear that she was leading the paper more than I. I continued to do as much as I could to help the paper, but she deserved to be first author. Because we had a team approach, the order of authorship was flexible, which benefitted progress.

8) Make ultimate decisions
As first author, ultimately it is your responsibility to make the ultimate decisions where there may be conflict. Making an ultimate decision to resolve a point on which two people disagree, one of whom may be you, should be considered a last resort. What constitutes good judgment is beyond a simple blog piece like this, but it needs to take into consideration a number of things. People have different intellectual stake in a paper. The benefits of being right need to be assessed against costs of being wrong. The ramifications of decisions can extend beyond the current paper to longer working relationships.

9) Coordinate revisions
Revisions are inevitable and the first author is in charge of coordinating these revisions generally (in some cases it is the corresponding author). Just like writing the paper, this stage needs to be done transparently and efficiently with clear division of labor.

All of this seems like a lot to coordinate and impossible to be done in a flexible manner.  I remember asking Terry about whether paper ever required contracts. He said that you could do them, but why would you want to work with anyone who required them? There is always a need to assume that people will act reasonably and a responsibility to act reasonably.

Friday, October 18, 2013

One of the simple pleasures...

...of being in England is watching David Attenborough on the BBC in his native land. 

It might sound silly, but there is something special about having just passed through the Natural History Museum in London and watch him walk the same halls to show the world a fossil. 

Or walk one of the canals near Oxford and see him punt along a similar-looking canal to find a lamprey.

When people ask me my scientific goals in life, my answer has been the same for a long time:

Do something that David Attenborough would care about. 

He is 87 now. His gait is more labored, but his shirts are still blue and his curiosity is unabated.

As inspiring as ever.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

GD3D: Grass and Drought in 3 Dimensions

We just found out a bit ago that NSF is funding us** for a Dimensions of Biodiversity grant on grasses and drought.

**Mel Duvall, Lynn Clark, Mark Ungerer, Jesse Nippert, Chris Still, and me.

Overall, the GD3D project will be an ambitious attempt to weave together multiple dimensions of understanding about drought and grasslands. We'll tackle their genetics, phylogeny, and function in parallel.

Over the next 3 years, we’ll set out to do a few things:
--The most advanced phylogenetic reconstruction of the grass phylogeny ever.
--The first global comparison of the anatomical adaptations to drought
--Examine the genetics of how grasses have evolved to respond to drought.
--Feed the findings into global models of ecosystem function to predict how grasslands around the world will respond to an increased severity and frequency of droughts.

At the heart of the project is to grow a lot of plants. We might shoot for 1000 species of grass, which is almost 10% of the world’s grass flora.

There are a lot of interesting questions that we’ll tackle here—I’m curious about whether we can measure a thousand species—but the grandest questions are the costs of drought tolerance.

Why aren’t all grass species tolerant of drought?

What tradeoffs did grasses face in developing drought tolerance?

Thinking about the story of grass evolution, grasses started in the shade and began to move out into open environments. Some of the adaptations they had to a life beneath trees would have been liabilities out in the open. 

Grasses likely would have had to have lost their tolerance of shade before “grasslands” could emerge.
The tradeoffs between shade and sun, wet and dry are the most interesting in understanding what shaped the radiation of grasses.

Although just one aspect of drought tolerance, we know we can quantify physiological drought tolerance:

Grow plants. 
Stop watering them. 
Measure their water potential when they stop transpiring. 

The tricky thing on this is actually shade tolerance. We know that physiologically drought tolerant grasses do not have wide leaves and species found in the understory tend to have wider leaves, but that's about it. Determining minimum light levels for growth has really never been done before. 

It seems like it should be straightforward, but differences in minimum light levels are more subtle than we thought. And it's tricky to generate even shade--light from the side messes things up.**

**Note to self: cover the walls of the growth chamber with black paper to reduce reflections.

We'll see if we can tackle this question on the side, but it's a broad canvas waiting to be painted.

In the meantime, there is a lot to learn about drought itself.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: Nature's Fortune

Incorporating the economic benefits of Nature--ecosystem services--into economic calculations has been difficult to do. We can come up with numbers for how much it would cost us to provide the services that ecosystems already provide, like clean water and pollinators. Yet, determining how much to invest in Nature is difficult.

Mart Tercek (with science writer Jonathan Adams) tackle the question of the benefits of investing in Nature in their book "Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature".

The advance praise for the book is an amazing list of individuals. It's hard to ignore a book like this considering how important the question is.

Mark is CEO of The Nature Conservancy. I feel some affinity to the author. His background is pretty similar to mine. We both grew up in Cleveland and shoveled snow and delivered papers as kids.

Our paths diverged somewhere around college, though. He went to business school and on to Goldman Sachs. I went to graduate school and on to...well not Goldman Sachs.

The heart of the book are case examples of where investing in the natural world pays economic dividends.

The examples are timely and pertinent to understand.

For example, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi found benefits in investing in their water supplies, just like New York City did, for example.

The book is tricky though. Depending on how you read it, it is less a directive to the business community to begin to invest in nature than it is for governments to do so.

What is clear from almost every example is that the dividends in investing in Nature are reaped most by societies. It's governments, not businesses that are best suited to generate this investment.

The commons can have tragedies, but also generate fortunes** for the common folk.

**How often do you hear about the "fortunes of the commons"?

What I read is that businesses should invest only when governments fail to do so. Every example of businesses investing just show where governments had failed to do so.

So now where is the call from this book (and the TNC by proxy)? Is it for greater self-interest in investment by corporations, taking over the purview of government? Or is it a call to invigorate government to invest as it should?

Where this book fails to transcend is in its end, for it does neither.

The conclusion can be summarized as "Nature has value, people need to be exposed to Nature, Nature is resilient." The final paragraph has words like hope, renewed, care, stewardship, respect.

That ending, to me, is a very soft thud of a promising start to a book.

A truly transcendent book would lay out a plan only like an investment banker can do for governments and corporations to invest.

Corporations have formula they use for R&D investment. Why not nature investment?

And governments? They decide the level of funding for military security. Why not natural capital security?

Any book should be a call to action. Its rhetorical purpose should not just be to inform, but to compel and guide into action.

End a book with "The continued resilience of many threatened ecosystems gives us hope."?


Lay out a global plan for investment by governments and corporations to protect and develop?


Let's hope the 2nd edition can accomplish this.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Just a note to myself to figure out how to write about this...without sounding like Bill Cosby when he gets cranky...

Style and substance are generally considered orthogonal, but style, in the broad sense, can impede substance.

When I listen to talks, I invariably write DLB in my notebook.

When I read papers, I write DLB in the margins.

When I review proposals and my eyes start to unfocus, I put DLB in my notes.

I write and think DLB a lot.


Do Less Better.

I'm not a natural at DLB, but I've learned.

I've learned to minimize the amount of information I put on my slides. I've learned to finish a talk early, rather than run over.

I've learned to write papers with an economy of introduction and discussion (sometimes to a fault).

I've learned to write proposals with just enough proposed work**.

**At least I've learned to try

I've learned to leave space open for discussion to develop, for people to think about a few key ideas rather than attempting to absorb everything.

We have to learn to do less better.

...more later...

Monday, October 7, 2013

Bold review on climate change and grasslands...

Another review on climate change and grasslands just published. This one is fairly bold.

The review was not bold for its findings. It mostly repeats findings from IPCC and national assessments. CO2 concentrations and temperatures are rising. Precipitation patterns are shifting.

The consequences listed can also be a bit opaque. Responses to grasslands and grazers will vary regionally. Plant species composition will shift.

Some findings are rarely found in climate change syntheses. How many people thought about the winter survival of horn flies, no less that they can reduce cattle weight gain by 4-14%?

Instead, the review is a landmark for where it was published: Rangeland Ecology and Management, a place that publishes relatively few papers on climate change**.

**(But not none.)

It is safe to say that the livestock community has not been at the vanguard of documenting and understanding climate change. Some of the strongest strongholds of what is referred to as "climate change denial" are there, leaving an important socio-economic sector vulnerable while preventing progress for other sectors.

Another reason it is bold: the review was not submitted from outside the society. It came from within**. Authors hail from USDA-ARS, Texas A&M, NOAA, and New Mexico State University.

**The paper was "commissioned by the board of directors of the Society for Range Management in support of the society’s position on climate change.

Here are some of statements that are in the review:

"Directional change in climatic means and increasing climatic variability and extreme events indicate that a ‘‘business as usual’’ approach to rangeland management is no longer viable. Previous climatic and weather patterns may no longer serve as a reliable guide to future conditions."

"A compelling footprint of climate change has been emerging since the mid-20th century that lends tremendous credibility to model projections of increased deviation from mean climatic trends and greater climatic variability."


And finally, the last paragraph...

"We contend that an unrealistic perception of climatic consistency has hindered the development and implementation of sufficient contingency planning to manage for current weather variability and that it poses a major impediment to recognition of the emerging consequences of climate change as well as development of effective strategies to contend with these consequences. It is essential for the rangeland profession to recognize that 1) shifts in mean climatic trends have already been documented, 2) accelerated rates of climate change will have dramatic effects on the provisioning of rangeland services and human well-being, and 3) many of the adverse consequences of climate change may be effectively confronted with the proactive development and implementation of appropriate adaptation and transformation strategies"

If this review is read at all, it either signals a categorical shift in climate change in the US, or will cause one of the largest schisms in the rangeland science communities we've seen in awhile. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Base Force Assessment in environmental research

Environmental research is a continuously expanding discipline. 

This is a good thing. 

Ecologists are often exhorted to leave their academic silos and they often have, making important contributions to understanding the functioning of our planet and society. 

But the discipline expands faster than it grows leaving its core thin. 

I would be less worried about the trend, if we had a quantitative assessment of how many environmental researchers we need in different areas. 

Academic search committees are not the best determinant of this. State and federal legislators seem to take the 5% approach. Increasing budgets by 5% in good years, decreasing it by 5% in bad years until something seems to break.  

Somehow, we can determine how many military members we need. How many police officers and firefighters are required. How many teachers should be in the classroom. 

Why not environmental science?  

To some it would seem self-serving for one group to make these recommendations about themselves...


The US Department of Defense conducts the Quadrennial Defense Review, which sets out the military doctrine and has been accompanied by a Base Force assessment to match how many military members are required.

Police chiefs often set their own assessments of how many officers are required. 

The Association of American Medical Colleges makes assessments of how many doctors will be required in the future. 

These recommendations are made in every quasi-public arena...

not ours, though.

If we are going to meet the challenges of solving present environmental problems, no less future ones, we are going to need a lot more people. 

How many researchers are working on the environmental consequences of novel compounds? How many are documenting changes in global biogeochemistry? How many are working to integrate ecological understanding into political or corporate decision making? How many research the population biology of our wildlife? Or the spread of invasive plants?

Not enough.

My back of the envelope assessment is that the base force of environmental researchers would need to at least quadruple to begin to answer the problems we face. 

How many researchers does it take to work on a topic? How many topics should we be working on?

Determining the precise metrics to back this up would take time, but it is a lot more effective than relying on shifting around the relatively few researchers we have by exhortation.