A Homage to EC Pielou: One of the 20th Century’s Most Accomplished Scientists

Post provided by Daniel Simberloff, Nathan Sanders and Pedro Peres-Neto

Evelyn Chrystalla ‘E.C.’ Pielou. © Sharon Niscak

Evelyn Chrystalla ‘E.C.’ Pielou. © Sharon Niscak

Evelyn Chrystalla ‘E.C.’ Pielou (February 20, 1924 – July 16, 2016) – a towering figure in ecology – was a key pioneer in the incorporation of statistical rigor into biogeography and ecology. She devised many important statistical hypotheses tests for spatial arrangements and patterns ranging in scale from individual plants in a field through to elevational zonation of vegetation to ranges of groups of species distributed over regional through to continental-scale ranges. Her research has provided the impetus for biogeographical analyses for generations.

She published ten books, including several long after her formal retirement in 1988. Her book Biogeography (1979) is a masterpiece. It covers historical biogeography (including inferences from cladograms, which were just beginning to be a hot topic at that time) and ecological biogeography with keen insight and treats topics like long-distance dispersal (that had largely been the subject of just-so stories) with her characteristic statistical rigor. Her books on mathematical ecology have a strong emphasis on models of spatial pattern and ways to estimate biodiversity, and her methods – including the famous Pielou‘s evenness index – are still widely used. Continue reading

Movement Ecology: Stepping into the Mainstream

Post provided by Theoni Photopoulou

“Movement is the glue that ties ecological processes together”
from Francesca Cagnacci et al. 2010

CTD-SRDL telemetry tags being primed for deployment. ©Theoni Photopoulou

CTD-SRDL telemetry tags being primed for deployment. ©Theoni Photopoulou

Movement ecology is a cross-disciplinary field. Its main aim is to quantitatively describe and understand how movement relates to individual and population-level processes for resource acquisition and, ultimately, survival. Today the study of movement ecology hinges on two 21st century advances:

  1. Animal-borne devices/tags (biologging science, Hooker et al., 2007) and/or remote sensing technology to quantify movement and collect data from remote or otherwise challenging environments
  2. Computational power sufficient to manipulate, process and analyse substantial volumes of data

Although datasets often involve small numbers of individuals, each individual can have thousands – sometimes even millions – of data points associated with it. Study species have tended to be large birds and mammals, due to the ease of tag attachment. However, the trend for miniaturisation of tags and the development of remote detection technologies (such as radar, e.g. Capaldi et al., 2000), have allowed researchers to track and study ever smaller animals. Continue reading

Carson’s Call: An Inspiration for Ecologists Working in a Post-Truth World

Post provided by Will Pearse

Rachel Carson (1940) Fish & Wildlife Service employee photo.

Rachel Carson (1940) Fish & Wildlife Service employee photo.

I can’t think of a more inspirational and influential ecologist than Rachel Carson. Nearly fifty years ago she released a book called Silent Spring, which argued that pesticides such as DDT were cascading up through food chains causing the death or sterilisation of birds and other animals. The publication of her book provoked public debate, likely in part because it was serialised in The New Yorker, and led to a paradigm shift in US and (arguably) global pest control policy.

With the full support of the scientific community to verify her facts and arguments, she was able to defeat the chemical industry’s backlash and galvanise public opinion in her favour. The 2005 Stockholm Convention, in which DDT was banned from agricultural use, would likely have never happened if it were not for her work.

“In a post-truth world where trust in the scientific process is being eroded almost daily, Rachel Carson is a perfect example of how we can speak out and be heard while still being scientists.”

Continue reading

Influential Women in Ecological Network Research

Post provided by Katherine Baldock and Luísa G. Carvalheiro


©Luísa G. Carvalheiro

Ecological networks represent interactions between different biotic units in an ecosystem and are becoming an increasingly popular tool for describing and illustrating a range of different types of ecological interactions. Food webs – which provide a way to track and quantify the flow of energy and resources in ecosystems – are among the most studied type of ecological networks. These networks usually represent species (nodes) which are connected by pairwise interactions (links) and they play a central role in improving our understanding of ecological and evolutionary dynamics.

Historically, food webs described antagonistic relationships (e.g. plant-herbivore or host-parasitoid networks) but the approach has been developed in recent years to include mutualistic networks (e.g. plant-pollinator networks, phorophyte-epiphyte networks). The development of network ecology, including ever more sophisticated methods to analyse ecological communities, has been driven forward by an enthusiastic community of ecologists, theoreticians and modellers working together to enhance our understanding of how communities interact.

In this blog post, we’ll describe the important role played by female scientists in the development of network ecology, focusing on the contributions by two ground-breaking ecologists and also highlighting contributions from a range of other scientists working in this field. Continue reading

Dealing with Variation in Hormone Metabolite Measurements: A Tale of Poop


On the Art of Collecting Faeces

Sarah Benhaiem waiting for a faecal sample from a spotted hyena in the Serengeti National Park.©Sarah Benhaiem

Sarah Benhaiem waiting for a faecal sample from a spotted hyena in the Serengeti National Park.©Sarah Benhaiem

Whether you are a laboratory or a field scientist, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty from time to time for the good of science. Sarah and I took that literally and spent a large part of our respective PhD projects handling faeces of free-ranging spotted hyenas from the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Though faeces often are underrated, they are highly valuable material to work with because they conceal the most secret details about an animal’s social and sexual life. But having the privilege of holding a still-steaming poop is something you have to earn! Continue reading

International Women’s Day: Advice for Women Starting a Career in STEM

So far this week we’ve heard why some of our female Editors chose to pursue a career in science, what the problems the push for gender equality faces in STEM fields  and where things have been improved in recent years. To close International Women’s Day our posts from the Editors we asked: What advice would you give to female students or Early Career Researchers looking to make a career in academia?

SusanJohnston2Susan Johnston: Mentorship schemes: there are many benefits from being able to have transparent, open and reciprocal discussion on career development, as well as the unwritten rules and experiences of academia. In smaller or less diverse departments, supervisors could encourage their female students to contact potential mentors (male or female) from other institutions. A quick Skype conversation every few months can benefit both the mentee and the mentor.

Carolyn KurleCarolyn Kurle: Don’t be daunted by the idea of how challenging a position in academia might be and don’t remove yourself from the path of academia just because you might be afraid of the potential demands. More and more support exists for mixing successful academic lives with also being a present and fulfilled parent and having a full life outside of research. And the more we expect that to be the case, the more it will exist as reality. Continue reading

Getting Every Last Bit Out of Dives: Data Abstraction On-board Telemetry Tags


Animal Telemetry for Air-breathing Divers


CTD-SRDL telemetry tags being primed for deployment. ©Theoni Photopoulou

Nowadays animal telemetry tags for air-breathing divers come in all shapes and sizes. In four short decades tags for diving animals have gone from prototypes like the one built by Jerry Kooyman for deployment on Weddell seals – which consisted of a kitchen timer and a roll of graph paper – to a multitude of sophisticated electronic devices, fit for just about any animal or purpose you can think of.

All this progress has meant we can collect more information than ever before and do so remotely. Nevertheless, the lives of most divers remain a well-kept secret. For tags that transmit what they collect (as opposed to those that store data until they’re retrieved), the transmission stage is usually the bottleneck. This has driven the development of energy and time efficient software and data processing.

For a tag like the conductivity-temperature-depth Satellite Relay Data Logger (CTD-SRDL) built by the Sea Mammal Research Unit Instrumentation Group at the University of St Andrews – which was designed to spend months at sea – the problem boils down to one thing. Data are collected at a high resolution on-board the tag amounting to 100kB daily, but only 1kB of this information (at best) can be transmitted to the ground station. Therefore in preparation for transmission, the data need to be chosen carefully, compacted and fitted into several satellite messages of fixed size to ensure that enough useful information is received. Each satellite message can hold up to 248bits of information. To give an idea of how limiting this is, consider that this sentence would (without compaction) take up 896bits! Continue reading

International Women’s Day: Improvements Towards Gender Equality in STEM?

Yesterday we heard about the barriers to gender equality in STEM, as well as a few things that we’re surprised haven’t been fixed yet and some ideas on how improvements could be made. Today, we’re looking at where things are getting better.

What Changes, Initiatives, Actions etc. Have You Seen that have Impressed You?

Louise Johnson: One notable change for the better is that it’s now unacceptable to invite only men as your symposium speakers – it still happens, but you’d get deservedly yelled at for it. That kind of culture change seems inevitable, but it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of people sticking their necks out and complaining (and often being ignored or called whiny or jealous), so we should thank those people. I see more childcare grants available for conference attendance too, which is great.

Luísa Carvalheiro: Important steps I have seen in some countries are extending time limits to apply to fellowships based on the number of babies a woman has had, and to provide paid maternity leave for those financially dependent on scholar/fellowships. These are steps absolutely necessary in the real world. In an ideal world though, both men and women would have the same societal pressures and benefits. Continue reading

Inferring Extinction: When is a Species as Dead as a Dodo?

Post provided by ELIZABETH BOAKES

The indisputably extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus). ©Ballista

The indisputably extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus). ©Ballista

A species is either extant or extinct – it exists or it does not exist. Black and white, a binary choice. Surely it should not be difficult to assign species to one of these two categories? Well, in practice it can be extremely challenging and a plethora of methods have been developed to deal with the problem.  This of course leads to a second challenge – which of the plethora should you use?! (More on this later…)

There are a few well-studied cases where we can assert extinction confidently. For example, the chances of the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) having existed undetected for upwards of 300 years on an island now densely populated by humans are infinitesimally small. However, many extinctions are far harder to diagnose. Species typically become extremely rare before becoming extinct. If taxa are particularly cryptic or are found across a huge geographic range it is quite plausible that the few remaining individuals may exist undetected for decades. An extreme illustration of this is the 1938 discovery of Latimeria chalumnae, a deep-sea member of the Coelacanths, the entire order of which was believed to have become extinct 80 million years earlier! Continue reading

International Women’s Day: What are the Biggest Problems Facing Gender Equality in STEM?

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on encouraging women to join STEM fields, but there is still work that needs to be done. We asked our female Associate Editors what the biggest problems facing the push towards gender equality within STEM fields today are. Here are their answers:

janaJana McPherson: My impression is that entering is not the issue. Certainly in my fields of conservation and ecology, there seem to be lots of women undergraduates and graduates and still a very decent proportion of female postdocs. I think it is beyond that level that women start to become increasingly rare. At least in part this likely reflects the fact that it is around post-doc time that biological clocks start ticking, and that it is neither easy nor necessarily desirable to combine starting and raising a family with a prolific production of publications, a heavy teaching load and the need to magic up a bustling research lab out of the blue. To reduce that hurdle, I think universities and academics have to become more accepting and accommodating of part-time effort. And I mean institutionally as well as individually. I have conducted research on a part-time basis for years now, and have seen many colleagues and collaborators in academia positively flummoxed by the concept that NOTHING (work-wise) gets done between when I leave the office on a Thursday at 2pm and when I return to work Monday morning. And yes, my life outside the office involves minutes and the odd hour here and there where I’m not directly interacting with my kids or looking after the household during which I could theoretically get the odd bit of work done. But I have tried that approach and found it rather stressful, sleep-depriving and frustrating for family members competing for my attention with whatever ‘quick’ piece of work I was trying to finish.  So now I leave work at the office and whatever does not get done within office hours just has to wait until I’m next at work, no matter how urgent.

Tamara Munkemuller2Tamara Münkemüller: I guess that the main problems are related to family planning. On the one hand, in many countries it takes long to get a permanent position and it feels like taking a risk to have children before this. On the other hand, one seemingly frequent constellation are couples of two scientists where the man is a bit older. In this situation it often happens that the older person gets a permanent position first and the younger follows and tries to adapt. Then there is the more subtle problem of different communication styles of men and women and numerous selection processes that tend to prefer a communication style that is thought to be more typical for men.

Satu Ramula: I think that one of the current challenges is to keep women in the system. Many female scientists leave academia at some point, which makes the sex ratio skewed as there are not enough qualified women to compete for academic positions at upper levels. Continue reading