Change the language of ecology and evolutionary biology! An example from sickle-cell anemia.

March 8, 2023 • 9:00 am

I may have mentioned this article from Trends in Ecology & Evolution before, as it outlines all the possible harms that the language of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) can cause. Click to read:

Here’s one bit:

In recent years, events such as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and waves of anti-Black violence have highlighted the need for leaders in EEB to adopt inclusive and equitable practices in research, collaboration, teaching, and mentoring.

As we plan for a more inclusive future, we must also grapple with the exclusionary history of EEB. Much of Western science is rooted in colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, and these power structures continue to permeate our scientific culture.

Here, we discuss one crucial way to address this history and make EEB more inclusive for marginalized communities: our choice of scientific terminology.

By now you should be familiar with this kind of writing, which can be simply copied from one scientific field practicum to another. Chemistry and physics have their own papers calling for a new inclusive terminology, too.

And once again we see the unproven assertion that the “colonialist, white supremacist, and patriarchal” nature of EEB has excluded minorities, and also that the language of the field practicum has been partly responsible for that exclusion.

This is doubly fallacious. It is neither the nature nor the language of science that has kept minorities out of the EEB pipeline, but racism in the past, bigotry whose effects have never been repaired, creating a longstanding underclass. It is change in the nature of society, not in the nature of science, that will create the equal opportunity allowing oppressed people access to careers in science.

And frankly, I consider the claim that the language of our field has contributed to that exclusion a risible proposition. “Field”, for example, which refers to an area of study, has been deemed racist because it harkens back to the days of the plantation. The folks at Stanford have decreed that it’s to be replaced by “practicum.” Thus the age-old ecological tradition of “fieldwork” is now supposed to be “my practicum of studying ecology in the outdoors.” That suggestion would be hilarious if it weren’t true.

Further, the journal American Naturalist has suggested that EEB is ridden with ableist terms, including the population-genetic concept of “fitness”. (By the way, that is my most-viewed post of all time, with nearly 150,000 views.) If any disabled person has been kept out of EEB by this term, or any others, I’d like to know about it, for of course this article gives no such instances.

The article above links to a fill-in form in which you can suggest your own inclusive or innocuous term to replace harmful ones.  Go to this page by clicking on the screenshot:

This is part of “The EEB Language Project,”  which aims to increase equity in the field practicum by changing words. You are invited to note your own “harmful term”, suggest a more inclusive replacement term, and then give comments. In this way the language of EEB will be Newspeaked into equity.

Now despite the patronizing nature of this project, much less its futility, it’s amusing for those of us in EEB to think of such terms. A colleague and I came up with half a dozen in just five minutes. Here’s one that, I’m sure, has stifled diversity in the field greatly. But to explain it, I must give a biology lesson.

Harmful term:  “Heterozyote advantage”.

What it means: This is an example of where the genetic constitution at a single locus (chromosome site) is such that the heterozygote, containing two different gene forms, has a “fitness advantage” (substitute your own less ableist language) over either of the two homozygotes.  The classic example (and one of the few we know of) involves the genetic disease sickle-cell anemia.

There are two forms at this gene, which produces the beta chain of hemoglobin: “S“, the so-called “normal allele” (substitute more inclusive language), and the mutant form (you can say “alternative allele”) s, responsible for causing the debilitating disease sickle-cell anemia.

The “s” allele arose when a mutation in the DNA coding for the beta chain (in the genetic code, GAG—>GTG), changed the amino acid in position six of the Hb β chain from glutamic acid to valine. That changes the charge of the hemoglobin molecule, affecting its behavior in the presence of the parasite. If you have only one copy of the mutant form (allele), ergo are a heterozygote with the genetic constitution Ss, you produce half normal and half abnormal hemoglobin, but half is good enough to allow you good health. And if you have two copies of the normal allele (SS), you’re of course also fine.

But if you have two copies of the sickle-cell allele (ss); you get sickle-cell disease, and will have a painful illness and in all probability die young.

The twist in this story is that if you are a heterozygote in West Africa, where malaria is prevalent and often fatal, the heterozygote has both good health and protection against malaria compared to the normal and abnormal “homozygotes”, SS and ss. We’re not sure why this is, but the presence of the single sickle-cell allele in a carrier makes its blood cells break open prematurely when infected by the malarial parasite. This impedes reproduction of the sporozoan parasite that causes malaria so Ss “carriers” gain some protection against the infectious disease. Normal homozygotes (SS) have blood cells that rupture on schedule, so if you’re SS, you can get malaria and die.

Thus we have a situation, but only in areas with malaria, where the normal homozygote is healthy but prone to malaria, the sickle-cell homozygote (ss) gets the genetic disease and dies young, but the heterozygote (Ss) is protected from both malaria and from sickle-cell disease. This is the classic case of heterozygote advantage (also called “heterosis”, “balanced polymorphism,” or “overdominance”).

If you measure the relative reproductive output of the three genotypes, giving the fittest one (Ss) a fitness of 1.0, you get these figures

SS = 0.85 (they produce 15% fewer offspring than Ss genotypes because of malaria)

Ss = 1.0. (genotype with highest production of offspring)

ss = about 0 (they don’t survive to produce any offspring).

Geneticists love this case because when the heterozygotes have the highest fitness, it actually maintains both alleles at stable frequencies in the population. Heterozygote advantage is a way to keep genetic variation in a malaria-ridden population. You can show that this fitness scheme will result in stable equilibrium allele frequencies of S = 0.87 and s = 0.13. As I said, this is a stable frequency, and if the gene frequencies deviate from it, they will return to the equilibrium.

In west Africa, the frequencies of the two alleles in fact match these predicted frequencies very well, supporting the value of mathematical population genetics. The frequency of homozygous ss individuals is the square of the frequency of the s allele, or about 1.7%.  It is a sad but ineluctable result of population genetics that because heterozygotes are the fittest genotypes, roughly 2% of the offspring will be born with a fatal disease, and this is simply because the individual with two different alleles has the highest fitness. There is no single allele whose homozygote has the highest fitness, and so, generation after generation, this fitness scheme above produces a large number of doomed infants. (One could take the absence of such an allele as evidence against God, who could have created one. Apparently the death of genetically diseased infants serves some purpose in the deity’s scheme.)

In the U.S., where malaria is almost unknown, the fitness scheme above reverts to one in which the SS genotype has the highest fitness, Ss is a tiny bit lower (Ss individuals can have occasional sickling “crises”), and that of ss remains zero. Eventually, in areas lacking malaria, every individual will become SS and the “s” allele will be eliminated.

It is because of the ancestry of many American blacks from West Africa that one sees sickle-cell anemia almost exclusively in the offspring of two individuals descended from that area (Ss X Ss, one-quarter of whose offspring will have the disease). But in the U.S., lacking malaria, natural selection will eventually eliminate the “s” allele. It will, however, be very slow.

One last note: sickle-cell anemia was the first “molecular disease” ever discovered: a disease caused by a mutation in a single gene that alters the protein it produces. And it was discovered by none other than Linus Pauling and his colleagues, who published this famous paper in Science in 1949 (click screenshot to read, or go here if you’re paywalled).

Now, on to the language issue:

Why the term “heterozygote advantage” is harmful. You notice in the above discussion I’ve used several verboten terms in EEB, including “normal allele”, “mutant allele”, and “fitness.”

To that I will add the term “heterozygote advantage” itself, which is harmful in two ways. First, the term “hetero” privileges heterosexual individuals over other LGBTQ+ individuals. And the idea that Ss individuals have a “fitness advantage” is doubly harmful, for it not only incorporates the ableist term “fitness,” but suggests that one genotype has an “advantage” over the other two. In reality, the SS and ss individuals are to be seen as “differently abled”, although I can’t manage to find a way that ss individuals with sickle-cell disease are “abled”. Some deep thought may suggest a way.

What the term should be replaced with.  This is dead obvious: “diversity advantage“.  The Ss genotype is best because it has the most diverse allelic constitution, possessing two alleles instead of one.  It privileges diversity over boring homogeneity, a result that is also a bonus.

From now on I suggest that my new term, which is mine, replace “balanced polymorphism,” “heterozygote advantage” (ableist), “overdominance” (that’s wholly offensive, conjuring up eugenics and superiority), and “heterosis” (again with the offensive “hetero”).

This is my contribution to inclusive language in EEB, which is mine. Lest you think the suggestion is dumb, remember that it’s no dumber than the notions of “relative fitness” and “fieldwork”, all slated for erasure in the new woke dictionary of EEB.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 2, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have the first contribution of the year by Athayde Tonhasca Júnior: one of his patented word-and-photo stories. His text is indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest


Mr McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr McGuire: Plastics.

Mr McGuire was prescient in his advice to young Benjamin Braddock about his career options (The Graduate, 1967): the plastics industry has since expanded to levels unimaginable then. Cheap, versatile, resistant and durable, plastic products are essential in today’s society. They are everywhere. So, unsurprisingly, they are an ever growing environmental problem: land, waterways and the oceans are stuffed with discarded plastic.

Plastic rubbish is a blight on the landscape, but some birds and mammals have taken advantage of this abundance of material. Squirrels and opossums have learned to use straws, string and plastic bags for nest building; plastic fragments were present in about 14% of surveyed nests of the brown booby (Sula leucogaster), a seabird found around the world. So, diligent nest builders such as leaf-cutter bees (genus Megachile) were bound to join this team of opportunists.

Most leaf-cutter bees cut pieces of leaves or petals to build their nests; some use mud, pebbles or resin as construction materials. These bees usually nest in sheltered natural cavities such as burrows, crevices and hollow twigs. They are important pollinators, and a few species have been reared commercially for crop production, such as the alfalfa leaf-cutter bee (Megachile rotundata).

A Megachile centuncularis at work. This is one of seven megachilid bees in Britain © Line Sabroe Wikimedia Commons:

A leaf-cutter bee nest © Subbu Subramanya, Wikimedia Commons:

In Ontario, Canada, alfalfa leaf-cutter bees have been creative and resourceful by using pieces of polyethylene-based shopping bags as a building material. Another local species, the bellflower resin bee (Megachile campanulae), constructs nests with plant resins instead of leaf and stem segments. It has no use for plastic bags, but polyurethane-based sealants, which are applied to the exteriors of buildings, offer a handy and abundant alternative. Some bellflower resin bees mixed this plastic product with natural resins to build their nests.

Brood cells partially constructed with polyethylene plastic bag fragments (L,) and polyethylene resin © MacIvor & Moore, 2013. Ecosphere 4: 1-6

Rural areas are not exempt from the plastic deluge. In the Argentinian countryside, bits of greenhouse covers, agrochemical containers, fertilizer bags and irrigation hoses combine with the ubiquitous shopping bags to deface the landscape. One bee, possibly an alfalfa leaf-cutter bee, took advantage of this clutter to do away with leaves or petals completely: she built an entire nest with pieces of two types of plastic.

A plastic nest of Megachile sp. built in a nest trap © Allasino et al., 2019. Apidologie 50: 230–233:

We don’t know whether plastics have any effect on leaf-cutter bees. They may be neutral, or even beneficial; plastics may act as a barrier against fungi and parasites, which are important mortality factors for solitary bees. On the other hand, these impermeable materials may trap water and thus increase the brood’s susceptibility to diseases.

By using plastics, bees have demonstrated their ability to identify alternative and convenient resources, and to adjust to changes in their environment. All the same, plastic nests are another troubling sign of a world living in the Anthropocene. From the Greek anthropos (man) and cene (new or recent), this unofficially labelled geological epoch applies to Earth’s history since humans started to have a significant impact on climate and ecosystems. It’s a new world of mass extinctions, deforestation, pollution, fossil fuels, and climate change. Perhaps leaf-cutter bees can adapt and even flourish in this world. We may do the same. Or not.


In 1926, the British government’s Central Electricity Board set out to create a nationwide electrical grid to bring cheap power for everyone. This was the biggest building project that Britain had ever seen, and soon steel pylons and transmission lines began popping up all over the landscape. And many people didn’t like what they saw. In 1929, Rudyard Kipling and John Maynard Keynes co-signed a letter to The Times objecting the construction of pylons, noting they were ‘the permanent disfigurement of a familiar feature of the English landscape.’ The pylon’s designer, architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, fired back: ‘Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills – one may not like it, but the world moves on.’

You may side with Kipling and Keynes or Blomfield in this aesthetics vs utility debate, but transmission lines are here to stay, for a while at least. The British grid of high-voltage lines from power stations alone runs for ~25,000 km; adding to that several thousand kilometres of regional networks, power lines have become part of our landscape.

Transmission corridors, similar to roadsides and railway embankments, are routinely mowed, clear-cut or treated with herbicides to prevent the encroachment of trees and dense vegetation. These practices are viewed as necessary evils by the public and some conservationists; but, with the right touch, they create opportunities for bees and other pollinators.

In ecology, ‘succession’ is the process by which a natural area changes after a disturbance or following the initial colonization of a new place. In terrestrial habitats, early succession refers to the period before they become enclosed by trees’ canopy. Weedy areas, grasslands, old fields or pastures, shrub thickets and young forests are all examples of early successional habitats. And so are transmission corridors, where maintenance crews prevent succession from reaching its equilibrium point or climax by cutting down the vegetation.

Plant succession © CNX OpenStax, Wikimedia Commons:

It turns out that habitats in the early successional stages are excellent for bees. These areas offer a steady supply of nectar and pollen over much of the year, as opposed to forested areas where blooms peak in spring and are limited by the shaded canopy from midsummer on. The large majority of bee species nest in the ground; they need patches of bare soil of the right texture and moisture levels, and close to their food plants. Successional habitats are just the right place for this combination of features. So it’s not surprising that bee abundance and species richness decreases with increasing forest cover.

Lots of flowers, nesting/hibernation sites & sunshine: perfect for bees © Mick Garratt, Wikimedia Commons:

In the north-eastern United States, energy companies have been maintaining power lines under Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) since the 1950s with the objective of protecting the grid while providing habitat for threatened plants and animals. It sounds fancy, but essentially IVM comprises five-year cycles of selectively killing trees (mechanically or with herbicides), with no mowing or widespread spraying of herbicides. These simple techniques create a mosaic of meadow, herbaceous plants and shrubs, which have proved to be good for many reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, and bees. A comprehensive survey along 140 km of a transmission line in New England revealed that the sunny, open corridors held nearly 10 times the number of bees and twice the number of bee species as compared to adjacent forested areas. Not only that, about half the known species for the region, including some rarities, were found in the survey (Wagner et al., 2019.  Biological Conservation 235: 147-156).

A power line corridor, great habitat for bees © Mark Nenadov, Wikimedia Commonns:

Not everybody likes the sight of a transmission line. But these ugly and gloomy steel towers and cables can be turned into pollinator and wildlife havens. All it takes is goodwill and some imaginative work. The lights will stay on, and there will more bees around.


The Milky Way galaxy has awed civilizations and inspired many philosophical thoughts about mankind’s insignificance, our place in the big scheme of things, the fleeting nature of life, and what it’s all about. But if young Europeans or Americans are asked to share their impressions about the Milky Way, responses are likely to be limited to a shrug or a puzzled look: about 60% of Europeans and 80% of North Americans have never seen it. When Los Angeles went through a blackout in 1994 because of an earthquake, emergency services received several calls from nervous citizens about a giant, strange, silvery cloud in the dark sky. These Angelinos were seeing the Milky Way for the first time.

The Milky Way, unseen by many © Oliver Griebl, Wikimedia Commons:

As the human population increases and concentrates more and more in cities, the world becomes more illuminated. Artificial light at night (ALAN) is an ever-growing phenomenon because of the lighting of streets, parking lots, roads, buildings, parks, monuments, airports, stadiums – basically any manmade structure. This artificial light is scattered into the atmosphere and reflected back, particularly by clouds, creating a nighttime sky luminance known as ‘sky glow’. Excessive illumination and artificial sky glow spread way beyond urbanized areas, essentially contaminating the whole landscape with light: nighttime darkness is disappearing.

Glow in the sky from Helsinki seen in Estonia © Bilovitskiy, Wikimedia Commons:

Light pollution is an ecological disturbance with multiple consequences. ALAN disrupts natural day-to-night rhythms such as singing and migration of birds, the activity period of small mammals, mating of frogs, nesting of bats and the orientation of sea turtle hatchlings. There is increasing evidence that humans are also sensitive to ALAN: it affects our circadian rhythm (the sleep–wake cycle repeated approximately every 24 hours), resulting in irregular hormone production, depression, insomnia and other maladies.

Insects couldn’t be immune to the effects of ALAN since much of their behaviour is dependent on light. We don’t know how insects see the world, but they recognize forms, detect movements and discern colours based on lighting patterns. Insects can monitor the position of the sun by the polarization of light, so they can navigate with precision. Light detection helps them to keep track of the photoperiod (day length), which is fundamental to preparing for the winter months.

Many beetles, flies, lacewings, aphids, dragonflies, caddisflies, wasps and crickets are drawn to light, but moths’ compulsive and apparently suicidal attraction to lightbulbs or flames is the most familiar case of positive phototaxis (moving towards a light source) among insects. Moths are important pollinators, so naturally their possible vulnerability to killer lights is a matter of concern.

A fatal attraction © Fir0002, Wikimedia Commons:

It turns out that moths’ fatal attraction doesn’t seem to be that fatal because they are only drawn to light at relatively short distances. A few moths come to a blazing end, but most of them are beyond light’s dangerous pull. This is not to say that moths are safe from ALAN. When the night is not sufficiently dark, egg-laying and production of sex pheromones are inhibited for some species, so that their reproduction is affected. Also, the window of time for courtship and mating can be severely reduced. Light pollution interferes with moths’ perception of colours and shapes, signals necessary for flower location. It also makes them more vulnerable to parasites and predators, either because they are easier to find, or their defence mechanisms (e.g., bat avoidance manoeuvres) are less effective in over-illuminated environments.

Light pollution disturbs many aspects of moths’ physiology and behaviour, although we can’t tell whether whole populations are being harmed: not all species respond equally, and there are many variables to be considered about the light source, such as wavelength, intensity, polarization and flicker. But from the little we know, excessive illumination can be added to the list of pressures on our moth fauna and consequently on pollination services.

At a time of growing concern about global warming, light pollution may sound like a secondary problem. But the more researchers look into it, the more they learn that this is a serious environmental threat. And while sorting out the climatic mess will be tricky and complex, the light pollution problem is relatively easy. The first, obvious and straightforward measure is to turn off unnecessary lights. When illumination is needed, it could be dimmed, shielded or limited to specific areas such as pavements or roads. Light dimming is good for the environment and for the economy too. When in 2018 the city of Tucson, USA, converted nearly 20,000 of their street lights to dimmable LEDs, £1.4m were saved from its annual energy bill.

Preserving and protecting the nighttime environment is an important but neglected aspect of conservation. A darker world would benefit moths and other species, and it would be good for us as well. We could sleep better or go stargazing again.

World map of light pollution: colours show intensities of sky glow from artificial light sources © David Lorenz, Wikimedia Commons:

Ancient ecosystem reconstructed using fossil DNA

December 9, 2022 • 10:30 am

The oldest DNA sequenced up to now was from a mammoth molar preserved in permafrost, and was dated about 1.2 million years ago. Now a group of scientists, excavating a 100-meter-thick layer of frozen soil in the “polar desert” of northern Greenland, not only found short stretches of DNA that identified the plants, animals, and algae present a long time ago, but also showed that that the time was at least two million years ago.

This is the oldest fossil DNA ever sequenced; it was preserved because it had been adsorbed to minerals in frozen soil. And although the stretches of DNA had degraded into short bits—about 50 base pairs long—they were sufficiently similar to modern taxa that they could identify the groups from which they came. In fact, they could reconstruct the whole ecosystem of that area 2 million years ago. It was much richer in flora and fauna than today’s polar desert, for at that time Greenland wasn’t covered with ice, it was much warmer (mean summer temperature about 10°C), and organisms could migrate to Greenland over land bridges. This might give us a hint of what kind of ecosystem could develop (minus the animals, which are largely gone) should global warming melt the ice presently in Greenland.

You can read the Nature paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below (the pdf is here, reference at the bottom). Below that is a clickable and short popular account of the findings, also published in Nature.

The News article for tyros (short; click to read):

Here’s the location of the area analyzed in northern Greenland, Kap København, where the layer of soil occurred (yellow star). The layer’s presence was already known, and some of the samples had been dug up in 2006 and had been sitting in a Copenhagen freezer for 16 years. Somebody had a bright idea to see if they could identify and sequence the DNA in that soil, and it worked!

(from the paper): a. Location of Kap København Formation in North Greenland at the entrance to the Independence Fjord (82° 24′ N 22° 12′ W) and locations of other Arctic Plio-Pleistocene fossil-bearing sites (red dots). b, Spatial distribution of the erosional remnants of the 100-m thick succession of shallow marine near-shore sediments between Mudderbugt and the low mountains towards the north (a + b refers to location 74a and 74b).

Small stretches of DNA were sequenced and compared to modern DNA as well as DNA inferred in ancestors of modern taxa. The DNA had of course degraded, but they found stretches about 50 base pairs long. Comparisons were mostly to mitochondrial DNA for animals and to conserved chloroplast or other plastid DNA from plants. (They also found ancient pollen that they used in conjunction with the DNA data.)

On the right you can see what animals were found, mostly identified to genus or family because there wasn’t enough DNA to do a finer analysis. I’ll put a list of what they found below this figure:

(from paper): Taxonomic profiles of the animal assemblage from units B1, B2 and B3. Taxa in bold are genera only found as DNA

Here’s what they found from the DNA; these were all organisms living roughly at the same time about 2 million years ago. And remember, that area now harbors very little life.

A mastodon! The figure below shows its placement on the phylogenetic tree of elephants.

70 genera of vascular plants, including sedges, horsetails, willows, hawthorns, spruce, poplars, yew, and birch. Some of these no longer grow in Greenland, but the mixture of plants includes those found in much warmer habitat. See the paper for a full list.

Algae, fungi, and liverworts

Marine phytoplankton and zooplankton

A hare

A caribou-like cervid (caribou are another name for reindeer). How did they get to Greenland? Presumably it wasn’t an island then, but we don’t know for sure.

A bird related to modern geese

A rodent related to modern lemmings

Reef-building coral

An ant

A flea

A horseshoe crab (identified as Limulus polyphemus, the modern horseshoe crab, regarded as a living fossil). These days Limulus doesn’t breed north of the Bay of Fundy (about 45° N), while the location of this site was 82° N. That shows how much warmer it was in Greenland then, though of course the crabs could have evolved in the last several million years to be acclimated to warmer waters.

There were no carnivores found; all the animals were herbivores. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t carnivores there, but I doubt it.


(From paper): b, Phylogenetic placement and pathPhynder62 results of mitochondrial reads uniquely classified to Elephantidae or lower (Source Data 1). Extinct species as identified by either macrofossils or phylogenetic placements are marked with a dagger.

The upshot: Well, we know how that DNA sequences can be preserved for twice as long as we thought, though it has to be under very special circumstances. More important, if you find areas (and they’ll have to be in cold regions) where you can extract even small sequences of fossil DNA, you might be able to reconstruct whole ecosystems. What we’ve found are animals and plants that weren’t expected to be there (reindeer, horseshoe crabs, hawthorns) and so on—species adapted to warmer habitats or now found in areas not in Greenland.

There are two explanations for this: the related today have lost their adaptations to cold habitats when they were forced out of Greenland as the ice caps formed, or the climate was simply warmer. (Of course, both could apply.) But know the latter is surely a contributing factor from independent evidence about climate. Still, there could have been some evolutionary change in thermal tolerance as well, something for which we can’t really get evidence.

But these different explanations aren’t that important: what is important is that we’re able to reconstruct entire ecosystems from fossil DNA—DNA twice as old as previously known. I’ll let the authors have the last word (from the paper):

No single modern plant community or habitat includes the range of taxa represented in many of the macrofossil and DNA samples from Kap København. The community assemblage represents a mixture of modern boreal and Arctic taxa, which has no analogue in modern vegetation. To some degree, this is expected, as the ecological amplitudes of modern members of these genera have been modified by evolution. Furthermore, the combination of the High Arctic photoperiod with warmer conditions and lower atmospheric CO2 concentrations made the Early Pleistocene climate of North Greenland very different from today. The mixed character of the terrestrial assemblage is also reflected in the marine record, where Arctic and more cosmopolitan SMAGs of Opistokonta and Stramenopila are found together with horseshoe crabs, corals and green microalgae (Archaeplastida), which today inhabit warmer waters at more southern latitudes.

. . . In summary, we show the power of ancient eDNA to add substantial detail to our knowledge of this unique, ancient open boreal forest community intermixed with Arctic species, a community composition that has no modern analogues and included mastodons and reindeer, among others. Similar detailed flora and vertebrate DNA records may survive at other localities. If recovered, these would advance our understanding of the variability of climate and biotic in

Will northern Greenland be like this again should global warming continue? I doubt it, for many of the species, like caribou, can no longer get there, and some, like mastodons, are simply extinct. But it’s enough to know what was there two million years ago.


Kjær, K.H., Winther Pedersen, M., De Sanctis, B. et al. A 2-million-year-old ecosystem in Greenland uncovered by environmental DNANature 612, 283–291 (2022).

Does anybody want to read a long paper?

August 27, 2020 • 11:00 am

I really did try to read this Science paper about urban ecology and systemic racism, first reading it quickly, as I’m wont to do, and then starting to delve in, “perusing” it in the proper sense. But I had to give up on several grounds:its  length (18 pages, one of the longest papers I’ve ever seen in Science), terrible academic writing in a postmodern style (dry as dust), an absence of original data, and, apparently, an explicitly political agenda that comes out in the end.

Given that I didn’t read the entire paper carefully, I can’t really assess its value, but I provide a link to the free paper below (pdf here, link at the bottom).  If you’d like to see it, I’ll send a pdf, but perhaps at least one reader can plow through it and put its message into plain English. To me the message seems to be: “Structural racism in America has affected minority communities in a way different from white communities with respect to their ecology (heat distribution, tree cover, etc.), and we need to take this into account this when doing urban ecology. And this also means that ecologists need to become anti-racism activists.”

Click on the screenshot to read it:

The abstract:

Here are two bits that put me off. The first is about intersectionality, which I don’t see as relevant to their question (bolding in text is mine).

Intersecting forms of inequality

Understanding the mechanisms shaping urban inequality and thus urban eco-evolutionary patterns and processes requires incorporating intersectional theories of inequality and evaluating accessibility to different spaces (34138139). The term “intersectionality” emphasizes that various marginalized identities of an individual or community more broadly intersect, compound, and interact, which ultimately impact the magnitude and severity of experienced social inequities (Fig. 1) (57). For example, discrimination for a queer Black woman in the United States may be intensified relative to individuals with similar racial, gender, and sexual orientation identities alone. Translating the concept of intersectionality onto the urban landscape can provide a more holistic understanding of the patterns and processes shaping urban ecosystems. For instance, we may hypothesize that characteristic differences between Indigenous ecological practices and forestland managers may contribute to variance in native species richness and community complexity. (140141). Similarly, we may predict that gender differences in land cultivation and homeownership shape plant species assemblages and species turnover rates. Further, vegetation removal and increased nighttime lighting to deter LGBTQIA+ communities (95) may have subsequent effects on disturbance regimes and local biodiversity that reduce habitat value for multiple species. Though such empirical links are currently speculative and not well established, integration of various inequities in cities may provide additional resolution to understanding how social drivers impact urban ecology and evolution. While our focus has been on racism and classism, we recognize the need for and encourage intersectional approaches in urban ecology.

It’s not clear to me that intersectionality as defined in the article has anything to do with the three hypothetical analyses they propose.

The bit below seems to me one of the real auns of the paper—to call for political change. That’s very different from doing the science, i.e., trying to understand how racial oppression, poverty, and class have affected patterns in urban ecology. One can say, for instance, that there are real effects, but ecologists might respond that there are other problems on their minds, like global warming and extinction of species outside of urban environment, that are also important, and reject the argument about what their activist priorities should be.

As urban ecologists and evolutionary biologists, we have a responsibility to implement anti-racist strategies that interrogate systems of oppression in how we perform our science. This necessarily means eradicating efforts that perpetuate inequities to knowledge access, neglect local community participation, or exploit community labor in the pursuit of academic knowledge (i.e., the practices of colonial and parachute science). Concurrently, increasing representation of individuals of diverse identities is inherently just and enhances our scholarship (166167). By directly including a diversity of scholars and incorporating an understanding of systemic racism and inequality, we can more holistically study urban ecosystems. We will not be able to successfully assess how racism and classism shape urban ecosystems – nor address their consequences – without a truly diverse and inclusive scientific community.

Again, I haven’t read the whole paper carefully, though I have read it quickly. I’d welcome anybody biting the bullet here.



Schell, C. J., K. Dyson, T. L. Fuentes, S. Des Roches, N. C. Harris, D. S. Miller, C. A. Woelfle-Erskine, and M. R. Lambert. 2020. The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments.  Science,Published online 13 August, 2020. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay4497

ZeFrank on snails that surf (and his Earth Day Awards)

May 3, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Is it my imagination, or is ZeFrank getting more biology into his posts than before? This is a good one, with a lot of good biology but also with the usual humor. It’s also scary!  Look at that radula!

The species at issue is the suspension-feeding and surfing sea snail Olivella semistriata and its predator Agaronia propatula.

I suppose ZeFranks gets his videos from others (there are some credits at the end), but I don’t know for sure.

And another recent ZeFrank video, this time highlighting the “Earth Day Awards” for the most “special” animals.

h/t: Rick

In a ludicrous attempt to combat the coronavirus, Spain bleaches an ecologically important beach

April 30, 2020 • 9:15 am

You can argue about which pandemic precautions taken by national governments are superfluous or overreactions, but this one definitely falls into the last class. The BBC reports (click on screenshot):

This is a really boneheaded move, especially in light of the site’s ecological importance (see Adam Rutherford’s remarks below). The BBC says this:

Zahara de los Atunes, near Cadiz, used tractors to spray more than 2km (1.2 miles) of beach with a bleach solution a day before Spain allowed children out of lockdown for the first time.

Environmentalists say the move caused “brutal damage” to the local ecosystem.

Spain has been badly affected by the coronavirus, with 23,800 deaths.

It recently announced a four-phase plan to lift its stringent lockdown measures and return to a “new normality” by the end of June.

María Dolores Iglesias, who heads an environmental volunteer group in the Cadiz region, said she had visited the beach at Zahara de los Atunes and seen the damage for herself.

She said the bleach “killed everything on the ground, nothing is seen, not even insects”.

The beach and its dunes are protected breeding and nesting places for migratory birds and Ms Iglesias said she had seen at least one nest with eggs destroyed by the tractors.

. . .Local official Agustín Conejo admitted it was “a wrong move”.

“I admit that it was a mistake, it was done with the best intention,” he said.

Mr Conejo said they had wanted to protect children who were coming to see the sea after six weeks in confinement.

The Andalusian regional government is now considering fining the local authority for its action, El Pais newspaper reports.

Had they asked the government, or any scientist or rational physician, they would have been told that there is no danger in people contracting coronavirus from a beach itself, particularly one that has been closed down for several months. Yes, you can get it from other people on the beach, but bleaching a beach is not going to help that.

Think of all the animals killed by this ridiculous move.  Biologist, geneticist and writer Adam Rutherford, who spent some of his formative time as a biologist on that beach, and reported this article to me, gave me permission to quote his email, which he signed “In despair”:

Jerry, here’s a thing that might grind your gears. Steve Jones has been running a field trip to a little village on the very southern coast of Spain for second-year undergraduates for decades now, called Zahara de los Atunes. You can see Africa on a clear day. It’s a place where they have fished tuna for centuries as they migrate in and out of the Med using this brutal but effective technique called Almadraba.

I went in ’95; it is the highlight of the evolution undergraduate experience at University College London: field work on Aquarius, mark-recaptures on beetles, various snails, and our first taste of our own research projects – mine was a rather naive observation of how manipulating floral symmetry affected pollinator visits (and I continued on symmetry in stalkies for the next couple of years). More important, as I’ve said dozens of times, learning statistics on the roof of a hotel on the beach with a beer, is by far the best way to make it stick. I’ve been back twice now when travelling round Andalusia.

Steve will fill you in on the details. Anyway, the Spanish authorities bleached 1.2 km of the beach to combat coronavirus. Absolute batshit insane lunacy.

I knew of that course well. It was originally co-taught with Nick Barton before he moved to Edinburgh; and the course had a terrific reputation. Steve Jones, emeritus professor at UCL, snail researcher, author, and one of my collaborators on fly work, added his own comment about the bleaching of the place where he taught:

It strikes me as a potty idea. They probably killed a few hundred thousand snails, and perhaps ten times as many beetles (we used to do mark-recapture experiments to count the numbers, which were always huge, with most of the animals below the surface). I can’t imagine that the spray did much good to the lilies, cistus and other flowers we did experiments on, but this is the Mediterranean/Atlantic spring, and I think that the plants will bounce back pretty quick. Most of it seems to have gone onto the dunes, with lots of migratory and nesting birds at this time of year (it’s a major fly-way across from Africa). One thing it will not damage will be the coronavirus for that has its reservoir in people and not on sand.


New movie by Michael Moore on our despoliation of Earth

April 24, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Michael Moore has put his latest movie, “Planet of the Humans” free on YouTube. It’s directed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs (Moore is the executive producer) and is 1 hour and 40 minutes long: just right for quarantine watching. I have to admit that I haven’t yet seen it, but I surely will. (I regard watching videos, or television, as luxuries that induce in me a sense of guilt.) But what I gather is that—as with all Moore’s films—it’s Manichaean, and two of the villains here are the mainstream environmental movement and “green energy”. The lesson seems to be that we’re doomed unless we practice stringent population control.

Here are the YouTube notes:

Michael Moore presents Planet of the Humans, a documentary that dares to say what no one else will this Earth Day — that we are losing the battle to stop climate change on planet earth because we are following leaders who have taken us down the wrong road — selling out the green movement to wealthy interests and corporate America. This film is the wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement’s answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids. It’s too little, too late.

Removed from the debate is the only thing that MIGHT save us: getting a grip on our out-of-control human presence and consumption. Why is this not THE issue? Because that would be bad for profits, bad for business. Have we environmentalists fallen for illusions, “green” illusions, that are anything but green, because we’re scared that this is the end—and we’ve pinned all our hopes on biomass, wind turbines, and electric cars?

No amount of batteries are going to save us, warns director Jeff Gibbs (lifelong environmentalist and co-producer of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine”). This urgent, must-see movie, a full-frontal assault on our sacred cows, is guaranteed to generate anger, debate, and, hopefully, a willingness to see our survival in a new way—before it’s too late.

Featuring: Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Richard Branson, Robert F Kennedy Jr., Michael Bloomberg, Van Jones, Vinod Khosla, Koch Brothers, Vandana Shiva, General Motors,, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Nature Conservancy, Elon Musk, Tesla.

Music by: Radiohead, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Blank & Jones, If These Trees Could Talk, Valentina Lisitsa, Culprit 1, Patrick O’hearn, The Torquays, Nigel Stanford, and many more.

I’ve put some links to reviews below the video:

Rotten Tomatoes: Based on only a handful of reviews, this site gives the movie a critics’ rating of 80% and an audience rating of 70%.

Gizmodo says the movie starts out well, but then goes “full ecofacism”, by which the critic means “population control” An excerpt:

What’s most frustrating about Gibbs’ film is he walks right up to some serious issues and ignores clear solutions. The critique of the compromised corporate philanthropy model is legit. We should absolutely hold nonprofits to account when they don’t live up to their missions. But the solution isn’t to take the leap to population control. It’s to tax the rich so they can’t use philanthropic funding as cover for their misdeeds while simultaneously filling government coffers to implement democratic solutions.

The Guardian gives it four stars out of five, calling it “refreshingly contrarian”, but short on solutions:

Most chillingly of all, Gibbs at one stage of the film appears to suggest that there is no cure for any of this, that, just as humans are mortal, so the species itself is staring its own mortality in the face. But he appears to back away from that view by the end, saying merely that things need to change. But what things and how?

It’s not at all clear. I found myself thinking of Robert Stone’s controversial 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise, which made a revisionist case for nuclear power: a clean energy source that (allegedly) has cleaned up its act on safety and really can provide for our wholesale energy needs without contributing to climate change, in a way that “renewables” can’t.

Gibbs doesn’t mention nuclear and – a little lamely, perhaps – has no clear lesson or moral, other than the need to take a fiercely critical look at the environmental establishment. Well, it’s always valuable to re-examine a sacred cow.

The Hollywood Reporter gives it a basically neutral review with some criticism:

Planet of the Humans certainly makes many important and illuminating points, especially about the co-opting of environmental causes by corporate interests who use it mainly for positive branding purposes. But its despairing tone and overall atmosphere of purity testing may have the counterproductive effect of making you want to throw up your hands and ignore the environmental movement’s significant progress in recent decades. The loosely structured assemblage of damning information eventually proves more numbing than illuminating.

“Now, I know this all might seem overwhelming,” Gibbs tells us near the end of the film, and he’s right. His ultimate solution to what he describes as a “human-caused apocalypse” is to stem population growth. Presumably, a global pandemic isn’t what he had in mind.

Variety, though calling it “cluttered and ungainly”, recommends it nevertheless:

But that is the point, insofar as there is a clear one here: Gibbs says “the elephant in the room” isn’t climate change or any other individual factor, but humanity itself. With our species’ population having skyrocketed in the last 200 years, we are simply in denial that mankind’s needs are exhausting Earth’s resources. “Infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide,” he says, as bleak footage of rampant deforestation (in large part to supply the dubious “clean energy” source of biomass) provide just one vivid proof. There is no obvious solution, save a massive scaling-back that capitalism-driven societies don’t even want to think about.

There’s nothing particularly elegant about the way “Planet of the Humans” arrives at that downbeat thesis. Though well-shot and edited, the material here is simply too sprawling to avoid feeling crammed into one ungainly package even narrator Gibbs admits “might seem overwhelming.” Still, medicine is medicine, and if these 100 minutes leave a bitter taste, you’re still probably better off for having swallowed their dose of sobering awareness.

So watch it if you want, leave any comments below, and be aware that this isn’t light entertainment!

Now they come for Smokey Bear. . .

November 12, 2019 • 9:30 am

If I tell you that the following article is from HuffPost (yes, I’m cooling my heels on a docked ship), could you tell me whether the answer is “yes” or “no”?

The answer, of course, is “yes”, as you probably guessed. As cultural icons are “canceled” one by one, Smokey (remember: it’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey The Bear) was doomed. Why? According to HuffPost, the subheading gives the reasons: “his advice is outdated, incomplete, and ignores climate change.”

But if you grew up with the 75-year old ursine icon, and often saw signs like the one below, you’ll be puzzled. For Smokey’s job was to keep humans from being careless about fire in the wilderness, that, is, he was created to prevent anthropogenic fires, not fires by lightning or other natural causes. After all, you can’t prevent a fire caused by lightning. But being sure that you’re careful with campfires and matches is not outdated advice, nor does it ignore climate change!

But is Smokey’s advice incomplete? Apparently so, for it lacks nuance (always run when you see that word!).  Why? Because, as scientists have known for a long time, some ecosystems depend on regular natural fires for their maintenance, and when those are prevented, the ecosystem changes.

Many conifer forests, for example, depend on fairly regular natural fires to prevent overgrowth (see more in this article), to retain some fire-dependent species (i.e., red pine) from being displaced by deciduous trees, and to create a mixture of live and dead trees essential for some wildlife. The red-cockaded woodpecker and black-backed woodpeckers are fire-dependent bird species. Nowadays controlled fires are often set to keep ecosystems as natural as possible.

And so HuffPost calls out Smokey for his ignorance:

The aggressive fire exclusion Smokey championed proved detrimental to long-term ecosystem health, leaving forests choked with a dangerous amount of vegetation that can fuel catastrophic fires ― a phenomenon that scientists have dubbed “the Smokey Bear effect.” Climate change is only making these infernos worse, with year after year of bigger, more erratic and highly destructive wildfires.

In other words, Smokey ― the most important figure in fire prevention and the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history ― may be a net negative for the environment.

. . .Smokey’s enduring legacy is, well, complicated. In a 2013 paper titled “Be careful what you wish for,” two Forest Service researchers wrote that Smokey’s success in preventing fire “has come at considerable cost,” including a “decline in forest health, an increase in fuel loads in some forests, and wildfires that are more difficult and expensive to control.” 

And yet aggressive fire suppression remained “the order of the day.”

Two responses. First, the suppression of natural forest fires in habitats where they are needed to maintain ecosystem health is not Smokey’s fault! This came from a general scientific ignorance about fire-dependent habitats. I seriously doubt that firefighters put out such fires because of Smokey. Further, even natural fires were, and are, still being extinguished when they endanger human habitation. That’s what happens when humans infringe on natural habitat. Further some natural fires occur in habitats that don’t depend on regular burning for their maintenance. Those, too, should be controlled.

Further, Smokey’s dictum has always been directed toward campers and hikers, not at firefighters. To several generations of Americans, it was “be very careful with matches and campfires in the wilderness.” That was good advice, and remains so.

Now comes the bit that makes me laugh. It’s not just individuals who cause fires by ignoring Smokey’s message. It’s those blasted corporations! Where is Bernie when we need him? So the word “you” in Smokey’s message “Only you can prevent wildfires” is misguided. “You” can be Pacific Gas and Electric, and so Smokey lacks nuance!

Yet Smokey Bear’s message has remained largely the same. The only change to his signature catchphrase came in 2001, when it was updated from “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” to account for the fact that fire is not limited to forests. But while about 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States are human-caused, some of the worst fires in recent years, including last year’s Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history, were started not by careless individuals but by California’s investor-owned utility.

Perhaps his name should be changed to Bernie Bear! (The “Burn” homonym would be a nice touch.)

Finally, Smokey’s message has been updated to reflect fire-dependent ecosystems! HuffPost mentions the extensive information on Smokey’s website about fire-dependent ecosystems (see the piece below as well as this one on the “Benefits of Fire“), but largely ignores it, so intent are they on demonizing this poor ursid.

Global warming will worsen the probability of wildfires, both natural and anthropogenic, but Smokey’s message to humans remains relevant regardless of climate change. Yes, Smokey’s message can be updated, but how often does anybody really see a Smokey Bear ad these days? Here are some suggestions about how to update him:

Sarah Berns of Winthrop, Washington, has worked on both sides of wildland firefighting, first as a Forest Service smokejumper and later in fire prevention. In August she published a piece in Outside magazine arguing that Smokey “desperately needs a makeover.”

. . . Berns says Smokey’s transformation should be drastic. In her Outside piece, she calls for swapping Smokey’s “dad jeans for green firefighting pants and a yellow shirt,” giving him a new voice that appeals to a younger, more diverse audience, and putting him to work on prescribed burns. “Smokey, pick up a drip torch and lead by example,” she wrote.

Yep, Smokey is bad because he’s a Boomer Bear! Dump those dad genes! I’m not sure what voice would appeal to a “younger more diverse audience” since Smokey’s already a bear of color, but I’ll leave that to the ad people.

It’s certainly important to educate the public about the positive role of wildfires, but more important to educate the firefighters and naturalists, who, of course, are already learning. Smokey’s influence has waned, and I haven’t heard of him in years. But his message—to be careful about fires in the wilderness—has stayed with me since I was a kid. This whole article could have been written without the extensive attacks on a lovely and useful symbol, but that’s now how the kids roll.

A lovely video about Arctic animals

July 25, 2019 • 2:30 pm

As reader Michael notes, this 11-minute National Geographic video on Arctic animals (released just today) gives too much time to the cameraman, but is well worth watching to see the polar bears, arctic hares, lemming, snowy owls, ptarmigans, and—my personal favorite—the adorable, cat-sized Arctic fox. The fox does its famous acoustically-oriented snow dive (note its reddish-brown feet), and a silent snowy owl picks off a hapless lemming. It’s a land of white animals (except for the lemmings, who suffer for their coloration).

Lagniappe: a lovely Aurora Borealis appears at the end.

You can see part 1 here and part 2 here. Polar bear fight club!


What was the animal that inspired Dr. Seuss’s lorax? Biologists suggest a hypothesis

July 25, 2018 • 10:45 am

The New York Times from two days ago has an article about one of Dr. Seuss’s most famous books, The Lorax (you can see a preview of the book’s contents at the Amazon site). Here’s the article:

And the book at issue:

The book’s plot involves a man called the Once-ler visiting a beautiful forest of Truffula trees inhabited by the Lorax and many other species. Sensing a mercantile opportunity, the Once-ler cuts down the trees to manufacture “Thneed”, apparently a fabric used to make beautiful clothes. The Thneed factory expands, polluting the air and water, and eventually they cut down all the Truffula trees, putting themselves out of business. According to Wikipedia, the story ends like this (I haven’t read it):

Without raw materials, the factory shuts down and the Once-ler’s relatives leave. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air “by the seat of his pants” and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS”. The Once-ler ponders the message for years, in solitude and self-imposed exile.

In the present, his buildings falling apart around him, the Once-ler at last realizes out loud what the Lorax meant: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” He then gives the boy the last Truffula seed and urges him to grow a forest from it, saying that, if the trees can be protected from logging, then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.

The Lorax was published in 1971, when the U.S. environmental movement was getting underway, with the National Environmental Policy Act passed in January, the first Earth Day celebrated in April, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in December. It was also the year that Joni Mitchell released her musical equivalent of The Lorax, the environmentalist song “Big Yellow Taxi.”

Dr. Seuss, too, was peeved as, according to the New York Times article, he was upset that a development project in San Diego proposed to cut down the eucalyptus trees around his home.

Seuss (real name: Theodore Geisel) wanted to write a children’s book about environmentalism, but got writer’s block, so his wife suggested they chill out at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, a fancy resort with plenty of animals and forest around. That lifted the block, and Seuss wrote most of The Lorax, a perennially popular book (over a million copies sold in 15 languages) in just one afternoon.

Now the book has been impugned for making The Lorax into a domineering and obnoxious sort of environmentalist (“ecopolice”), the argument being that he was the master of the forest and could decree its fate. But a new paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution (reference at bottom, free link here, free pdf here) suggests this interpretation is wrong: the Lorax was really based on two species that are part of Kenya’s ecosystem, and The Lorax simply an animal activist calling for the preservation of entire ecosystems, whose parts are interdependent. (This “reinterpetation” of the book seems to me largely a distinction without a difference, and thus not that exciting, as well as virtually untestable.)

What’s more interesting, as detailed in the paper, is that the Lorax and the Truffula trees might have been inspired by real animals and plants that Seuss saw in Kenya. The authors’ hypothesis is that the Truffula tree is the whistling thorn acacia (Acacia drepanolobium), a tree on which lives the patas monkey (Erythrocebus patas). The monkey gets over 80% of its diet from the gum and leaves of the tree, and the monkey’s depredations don’t hurt the tree. This is then an example of a commensalism: a relationship between two species in which one benefits and the other isn’t harmed. If you wipe out the tree, the monkey goes with it. (As I mention below, this is in fact happening.)

The Truffula trees do look, to the authors, like the spindly whistling thorn acacia. You can see a Truffula above, and here’s the acacia:

Here’s a photo of various parts of the story, including E. patas in the acacia, from the Nature paper:

(From the paper): a, Location of the Mount Kenya Safari Club together with data on the patchy distribution of patas monkeys (E. patas) in Kenya. A comparison of historical records (pre-1996) and surveys between 1996 and 2004 indicates that the range of E. patas has declined by 46% in Kenya24. b, The Lorax in the crown of a silk-tufted Truffula tree. c, Spindly tree that resembles the whistling thorn acacia (A. drepanolobium). d, Male patas monkey; the subspecies in Kenya (E. patas pyrrhonotus) is distinguished by its black facial skin and white nose25. e, Female patas monkey feeding on A. drepanolobium.


But what is the lorax? The authors further suggest that the lorax was modeled on E. patas, and test this by using fancy “eigenvalue decomposition methods” to compare the Lorax’s face to that of three primates (see photo below) as well as another Seuss character that looks similar: a “control” creature in The Foot Book. They find that the Lorax clusters with two cercopithecine monkeys: the patas monkey and the blue monkey (C. mitis). The comparison:

(From the paper’s Figure 3): We used a characterized camera19 to photograph every forward-facing image of two Seussian creatures, the Lorax (n = 13) and the bipedal creature in The Foot Book (n = 13). We calculated the mean face of each creature19 and projected it into a space containing the faces of every cercopithecine monkey in Kenya: the patas monkey; the tantalus monkey (Chlorocebus tantalus); the red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius); the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis); and the De Brazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus). We used eigenface decomposition methods to calculate facial similarities19 and we generated the plot with t-distributed stochastic neighbor embedding (t-SNE)26, an iterative algorithm that down-projects multidimensional information into two dimensions for visualization.

The authors have other “evidence:”

Dates, physical similarities and probable encounters underlie our proposal that patas monkeys inspired the Lorax. His physical appearance postdates Geisel’s trip to Kenya, evolving into a short, “sort of man” with a signature moustache; his mossy pelage was blue before it was orange (Fig. 2). Many of these final traits are shared with patas monkeys and it is probable that Geisel encountered them at the Mount Kenya Safari Club (Fig. 1a). Even the voice of the Lorax (a “sawdusty sneeze”) resembles the ‘whoo-wherr’ vocalization of patas monkeys; the ‘whoo’ is a loud, wheezing expiration of air. It appears to be an alarm call issued in response to predators and human observers.

From this the author’s conclude that “Geisel drew inspiration from a ceropithecine monkey and its ecology” when writing The Lorax in Kenya. That’s possible, although the Lorax is most facially similar to the blue monkey, which is neither blue nor commensal with the acacia, but has a wider diet. If that’s the case, then the similarity between the Truffula tree and the whistling thorn acacia falls apart. The hypothesis is semi-interesting, but there’s no way to test it given the lack of verification from Seuss, and I’m not convinced by the author’s arguments that the lorax is really based on the patas monkey.

I’m even less convinced by the authors’ rewriting of the book’s interpretation, which is almost postmodern:

If this natural commensalism [between acacia and patas monkey] informs The Lorax, it challenges traditional interpretations of the Lorax as an ecopoliceman asserting his authority. If the Lorax is based on the patas monkey, he can be seen as a sustainable consumer dispossessed of his commensal partner and an equal victim of environmental degradation.

Well, yes, all this is as possible as anything else. And the authors do point out that this commensalism is endangered, as the acacia is being heavily browsed by giraffes, rhinos and elephants, and that, combined with its use as charcoal, is bringing the tree toward extinction. Likewise, the range of the patas monkey is said to have “collapsed” recently, so Seuss’s lesson, even if not drawn from this system, still applies: stop destroying ecosystems by removing an important element.

Granted, this short (three-page) paper is in the “books and arts” section of the journal, and it’s a semi-fun read, but to me doesn’t make a convincing case. And I’m not sure why Joanna Klein wrote a longish piece about the paper for The New York Times. The source of the lorax remains, at least to me, a mystery. Whether an eco-policeman or part of an endangered ecosystem, the Lorax has brought joy to children for fifty years.

h/t: Bruce Lyon


N. J. Dominey, S. Winters, D. Pease, and J. P. Higham. 2018. Dr. Seuss and the real Lorax. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2:1196-1198,