An Interview with Alan Gelfand

David Warton interviews Alan Gelfand, a keynote speaker at the Statistics in Ecology and Environmental Monitoring (SEEM) conference in Queenstown, NZ. Alan is best known for proposing Bayesian estimation of a posterior distribution using Gibbs sampling, in his classic papers ‘Sampling-Based Approaches to Calculating Marginal Densities‘ and ‘Illustration of Bayesian Inference in Normal Data Models Using Gibbs Sampling‘.

David and Alan discuss the origins of the idea that revolutionised Bayesian statistics, Alan’s current research, and his passion for ecology.

Check out David’s other interviews on the Methods in Ecology and Evolution YouTube channel.


Phylogenies, Trait Evolution and Fancy Glasses

Post provided by Daniel S. Caetano

Phylogenetic trees represent the evolutionary relationships among different lineages. These trees give us two crucial pieces of information:

  1. the relationships between lineages (which we can tell from the pattern of the branches (i.e., topology))
  2. the point when lineages separated from a common ancestor (which we can tell from the length of the branches, when estimated from genetic sequences and fossils).
Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

As systematic biologists, we are interested in the evolutionary history of life. We use phylogenetic trees to uncover the past, understand the present, and predict the future of biodiversity on the planet. Among the tools for this thrilling job are the comparative methods, a broad set of statistical tools built to help us understand and interpret the tree of life.

Here’s a Tree, Now Tell Me Something

The comparative methods we use to study the evolution of traits are mainly based on the idea that since species share a common evolutionary history, the traits observed on these lineages will share this same history. In the light of phylogenetics, we can always make a good bet about how a species will look if we know how closely related it is to another species or group. Comparative models aim to quantify the likelihood of our bet being right and use the same principle to estimate how fast evolutionary changes accumulate over time. Continue reading

Accompanying Marine Mammals into the Abyss: The Benefits of Electronic Tag Data for Undersea Tracking

Post provided by Christophe Laplanche, Tiago Marques and Len Thomas

1km Deep

Most marine mammal species spend the majority of their lifetime at sea… underwater. Some species (like sperm whales, beaked whales, and elephant seals) can go routinely as deep as 1000m below sea level. To mammals like us, these incredible depths seem uninhabitable. It’s cold, dark, under high pressure (100kg/cm²) and 1km from air! Yet deep-diving marine mammals thrive there and have colonized every deep ocean on the planet. They have developed amazing capabilities for that purpose – including efficient swimming, an advanced auditory system, sonar (in some cases), thermal insulation, extreme breath holding abilities and resistance to high pressure.

How is that possible?

Spending most of their time at depth makes them quite difficult to study. And we have a lot of questions to ask them. How do they balance swimming cost versus food intake? Do they forage cooperatively, in groups? For those with sonar, how does it work? With increasing human activities (oil exploration, military sonar, sea transport, fishing etc.) an important new question arises: how do they cope with us?

Researchers tagging a Cuvier's beaked whale with a DTAG sound tag ( in the Ligurian Sea (© T. Pusser)

Researchers tagging a Cuvier’s beaked whale with a DTAG sound tag ( in the Ligurian Sea (© T. Pusser)

Continue reading