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,

Stick insects can disperse like plant seeds: in bird poop

June 1, 2018 • 12:45 pm

One of the striking observations about life on oceanic islands—those islands, like Hawaii and the Galapagos, that arose, bereft of life, from volcanic activity below the sea—is the prevalence of native birds, insects, and plants, and the paucity of native reptiles, mammals, and amphibians. (Continental islands, like Great Britain, that were once connected to larger land masses, don’t show this pattern.)

Darwin was the first to make this observation and show that it supported his theory of evolution. Plants, insects, and birds can more easily get to islands, where they evolve in relative isolation into new species, while mammals, reptiles, and amphibians can’t easily cross large expanses of seawater to colonize distant islands. His view could be summed up as biogeographic patterns = dispersal + evolution.

One of the ways that plants get to islands (besides via their seeds floating in seawater) is through bird movement: birds eat fruit and seeds, fly to an island, and the seeds germinate from the bird’s post-migration poop. In fact, I think a lot more plants have arrived on islands this way than by seed flotation, but don’t quote me on that.

But more than plants can get to islands in bird poop. A new short paper in Ecology by S. Kenji et al. (reference below, free pdf here) shows that stick insects (phasmids) produce hard-shelled eggs that can remain viable and hatch after they pass through a bird’s digestive tract. Moreover, since the eggs don’t require fertilization (they’re from “parthenogenesis”), they don’t have to be fertilized right before being laid, as most insect eggs are. They can simply be nommed by the birds right after being laid, or ingested by gobbling a pregnant female.

The eggs of many stick insects are sculptured like seeds and, more important, have a hard layer of calcium oxalate on the outside that is dissolved only by acidic environments like bird stomachs (this layer appears unique to phasmids). You can see some of these tough eggs in part “B” of the figure below, taken from the paper.

The authors fed eggs of three species of phasmids, mixed with an artificial diet, to Japanese brown-eared bulbuls (Hypsipetes amaurotis), which they claim is one of the main predators of stick insects. They then collected fecal pellets of from the birds when they were pooped out within three hours, and measured hatchability of the eggs. Those hatchabilities were 5%, 8.3% and 8.9% (sample sizes between 40 and 60 eggs per species).

The figure below shows bulbuls eating a phasmid, the eggs, and a nymph of one phasmid species:

(From paper): FIG. 1. (A) The parental brown-eared bulbul Hypsipetes amaurotis feeding the stick insect Ramulus irregulariterdentatus to its chicks. (B) Intact Ramulus irregulariterdentatus eggs defecated by the brown-eared bulbul Hypsipetes amaurotis. Bar = 2 mm. (C) First instar nymph of R. regulariterdentatus hatched from the egg defecated by H. amaurotis.

One obvious conclusion is that, given that bulbuls can fly about 40-60 km/hour, they could disperse phasmid eggs over a hundred kilometers (eggs are produced at about the time the Japanese brown eared bulbuls migrate). The authors fed eggs excised from adult phasmids to the birds, which suggests further that the birds could ingest a bunch of eggs at once simply by eating a pregnant female (they didn’t do this test).

The next questions are these:

1.) Did the eggs evolve that hard coat to facilitate dispersal? There are advantage to dispersing your offspring widely, especially if local predation is high or environments uncertain, and many species of animals have evolved elaborate dispersal mechanisms. (Fruits with seeds inside are one of these!). This is possible, but the authors prefer the idea that the tough eggs evolved to reduce parasitism by wasps. But of course the coat could have evolved for several “reasons” (and by that I mean there could have been more than one reproductive advantage to toughening up your eggs).

2.) Have phasmids actually dispersed this way? We don’t know, as the biogeographic studies haven’t been done. As the authors note, this should show up as evidence for wider dispersal of parthenogenetic phasmids than of their sexually-reproducing relatives:

If avian dispersal is important to stick insects, the phylogeographical patterns should reflect occasional long‐distance dispersal events (e.g., Miura et al. 2012). In addition, the patterns of spatial genetic structure will differ among stick insects with parthenogenetic reproductive capability (and hence potential avian dispersal) and non‐parthenogenetic stick insects. The phylogeographical patterns in these stick insects thus deserves further studies.

Further, stick insects themselves should in general show dispersal different from non-stick insects (I don’t mean Teflon ones!), since some of the former have the ability to get their eggs dispersed hundreds of kilometers. But all this awaits further study, as there was no reason to investigate those patterns before this new paper appeared.

h/t: Dom


Kenji, S., F. Shoichi, T. Asuka, I. Katsura, and Y. Takeshi. 2018 Potential role of bird predation in the dispersal of otherwise flightless stick insects. Ecology. doi: 10.1002/ecy.2230

Should we bring wolves back to Scotland? A video and a questionnaire

March 29, 2018 • 10:30 am

by Matthew Cobb

It used to be standard practice for final year science students to do a lab-based research project. At the University of Manchester we have broadened the choice of final-year projects so that biology students can also choose to do a Science Media Project. This involves creating a portfolio of writing and other work around a scientific topic. Last year we featured films made by two of my students, and the comments from readers were invaluable.

I’d like to for you help again, by watching this 20-minute video by my student, Kirsty Wells, on the topic of ‘rewilding’. As she explains:

I have produced a short documentary exploring the possibility of wolves being reintroduced into the Scottish Highlands. Having extensively reviewed the literature surrounding the impacts of re-established wolf populations in other parts of the world (Western Europe and Yellowstone National Park), I decided to investigate how these impacts may apply in the context of Scotland. I ventured up North to meet with a few people to discuss what wolf reintroduction would mean to them, and what it could mean for the people of Scotland and Britain more broadly.

Please have a look at her video, and then fill out the quick questionnaire – no personal data are collected! Your comments below would also be greatly appreciated.

This is what’s happening…

January 3, 2018 • 12:00 pm

by Matthew Cobb

Earlier I posted this photo and asked readers to describe what’s going on.


Here’s my answer: a worker honeybee was visiting a white flower to get nectar. She was attacked by a white crab spider who was remarkably camouflaged (probably chemically, as well as visually). The crab spider had another, brown, crab spider sitting on it.

Now for the bit you may have missed – no sooner had the deed been done than a kleptoparasitic fly turned up and landed on the poor bee’s abdomen (you can just make out its red eyes), hoping to slurp up some juices from the corpse. So we have two kingdoms (plants, animals), two classes in the arthropod phylum (chelicerates and insects), two orders of insect (Hymenoptera and Diptera) and two members of the chelicerate family Thomisidae (probably both in the same genus, Thomisus). If you want to know more about crab spiders, I highly recommend Douglass H. Morse’s 2007 book “Predator Upon A Flower”.