Bobbi S. Low, co-author of An Introduction to Methods and Models in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology

HP_ecology Effective, accurate models matter now more than ever, especially in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology. Princeton University Press is privileged to publish the most up-to-date textbook on quantitative models and methods in these fields. Pioneering an “active-learning” approach that encourages hands-on experience, Bobbi S. Low and her co-editor Stanton Braude have assembled a top-tier group of contributors to delve into an array of topics ranging from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and population effective size to optimal foraging and indices of biodiversity. 

Biology and Earth Sciences editor Alison Kalett spoke with Dr. Low about the new textbook and the benefits of “active-learning.”


Your new book takes an “active learning” approach to teaching key ideas in biology. Can you say a bit about what that means?

There is a wealth of evidence by now that students learn better if they are engaged with the material, no matter what the topic. Rather than being talked to for an hour, if we can find ways that students can (individually, in pairs, in small groups) question and discuss the material, propose inferences from it, take apart case studies, even role play—they are likely to understand and remember the material better.

Why do you think the approach you take in this textbook is a particularly good way of teaching students ecology, evolution, behavior, and conservation?

These are some of the most “engaging” topics in all of biology. Getting hands-on experience is important, and it helps (if done right) to engage and remember the theoretical aspects correctly. In behavior, for example, you can start simply, with having students do an ethogram. They must figure out what constitutes “a” behavior, and how to describe it in a completely reliable, repeatable way. Watching, say, mallard ducks, and then discussing what everyone has seen, then collaboratively putting a “list of behaviors” together—all that engages students cognitively (and usually physically, as well). They don’t forget what they themselves have put together. It is true, tough, that almost any subject, no matter how abstract, can probably be taught this way by someone who really understands it deeply

How did you come to teach biology in this way? Why do you find it effective?

Oh, my. Well, first, the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has a number of biology/ecology specialists who really know this approach. And Stan Braude, the senior author, independently had begun to work this way. So we were both doing in-class short collaborative exercises (<5 minutes)—small inference problems like optimal group size for werewolves hunting humans or cows (the data, of course, are on wolves with smaller and larger prey). Or, though solving a problem together, to discover why a dominant Groove-Billed Ani might kick her sister out of a collaborative nest, but not evict a stranger! And in discussion, because groups are smaller, one can do even more (and more types) of collaborative work. Last week in my behavioral ecology course, for example, groups of 3-4 presented their research (begun the week before) on the life history of some particular species, and what that life history implied for management and conservation.

More broadly, it’s probably useful to know that the Ecological Society of America, and the American Biology Teacher have good resources on why active learning is a useful tool, and how to do it effectively.

Can you talk about one example from the book to illustrate your approach?

Well, each exercise is structured this way! One I particularly like is one that Stan devised: for optimal foraging, it uses Halloween trick-or-treaters. The problems are all there, but every student has been a trick-or-treater. It’s hard to discover your early foraging was sub-optimal! All the exercises begin with some individual work, then sharing and critiquing all the ideas individuals have raised. Then the group interaction expands, and students must master many details for the final part, which may be a proposal, judging proposals, role-playing as an environmentalist or a hunter, and more. We find the approach really helpful: students think it is fun, and they learn and remember a lot!

Princeton Global Science, Issue 5

With the excitement of Halloween this weekend, I am a little delayed in getting this “issue” of Princeton Global Science published, but there are plenty of goodies this time around.

Just this morning, I’ve posted two terrific math problems drawn from A Mathematical Nature Walk and Guesstimation. We had terrific feedback to last issue’s pumpkin guide, so I hope you enjoy John Adam’s ruminations about fall foliage and rain.

Thomas Seeley, author of The Honeybee Democracy, contributes the 5 rules of democracy we can learn from honeybees and Tom Tyler is interviewed about his new book Why People Cooperate.

Physics and Astronomy editor Ingrid Gnerlich provides an overview of the In a Nutshell series and we also have a relevant excerpt about global climate change from the Princeton Guide to Ecology.

Birders will rejoice because we’ve posted another sneak preview of Joseph Forshaw’s new guide to Parrots of the World.

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The Princeton Guide to Ecology, edited by Simon Levin

HP_ecology Many of the topics covered in The Princeton Guide to Ecology, edited by Simon Levin, appear regularly in the news. A good demonstration of how this indispensable resource can enhance our understanding of world issues is the Guide’s treatment of global climate change. In their article “Conservation and Global Climate Change,” Diane M. Debinski and Molly S. Cross explain some of the research methods scientists use to learn the effects of climate change, but also the questions they face in determining how to preserve biodiversity in changing conditions:


The Princeton Guide
to Ecology
Table of Contents
List of Contributors
Sample Articles

“The science of managing for climate change is currently in its infancy, and the language of this field is still developing. Strategies include whether to manage for resistance options (e.g., those that delay the effects of climate change), resilience options (e.g., those that increase the ability of the ecosystem to return to previous conditions following a disturbance), or response options (e.g., those that facilitate ecosystem changes brought about by a changing climate). Monitoring to establish baseline conditions and quantify change is a first step in providing scientists with the tools to understand how ecosystems are responding to a changing environment. Adaptive management—modifying management approaches over time as the manager obtains a better understanding of the system—will be an important approach to dealing with climate change. For example, if wildfire frequency increases with warmer temperatures, a manager might want to modify the way that wood is harvested to maximize the placement of fire breaks or minimize the amount of standing dead trees that could provide fuel for a fire. However, even if a manager knows the current status of the system, there are several challenges inherent in dealing with climate change: (1) developing a baseline for comparison; (2) understanding time lags; and (3) consideration of entirely new management approaches.”

–from “Conservation and Global Climate Change” by Diane M. Debinski and Molly S. Cross, in The Princeton Guide to Ecology, edited by Simon Levin

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Deborah M. Gordon author of Ant Encounters

HP_ecology Ants are tiny and mighty, but as Deborah M. Gordon explains in this Q&A, they are not quite the selfless, moral workers Aesop and other fablers might lead us to believe. Deborah studies ants in hopes of illuminating collective behaviors and complex systems. Here she gives us a glimpse into how and why it all works.


When did you first realize you wanted to become a scientist? How did you come to the study of ants?

I majored in French as an undergraduate and didn’t really know for sure I wanted to be a scientist until I was in graduate school. I came to the study of ants through reading about the history of developmental biology, and the debate about reductionism around the turn of the 20th century. I was looking for a system that works without central control, like an embryo, that would be easy to observe. I chose ants because it is easy to see what they are doing.

Your current book, Ant Encounters, uses ants as a model for understanding collective behavior and complex systems in general. How so?

What many biological systems have in common is that there is no central control, and the system functions because of the local interactions among parts – whether those are neurons or ants. But we still have a lot to learn about how brains or ant colonies work. We need to learn more about the details of particular systems before we can say for sure what are the properties of all complex systems.

What can we learn about human society from studying ants?

Ants have a lot to teach us about how systems of interacting agents respond to changing conditions. Throughout history we have used ants in fables with morals about hard work and selfless loyalty to the group. But we can probably learn more from ants about how our social networks function than about how we ought to behave. To be more specific, our stories about ants always have morals about how people ought to behave: soldiers should die for their country; we should conserve resources and plan for the future; a dutiful factory worker should cheerfully perform his or her appointed task. These morals come from stories about ants that are not true. Real ants do not offer lessons in behavior. They do, however, provide insight about the dynamics of networks. Ants can show us how the rhythm of local interactions creates patterns in the behavior and development of large groups. There are no morals to be taken from the ants, but there is much to learn about systems without central control.

Can you give readers a bit of a sense of what it’s like to study ants. What are some of the more surprising things you’ve observed?

The best part of field work is when the ants show me something I’ve never seen before, or when I figure out what they are up to. They often surprise me. Sometimes it’s because the colonies are doing something really clever. A few years ago, during the summer monsoon season, I realized that the ants piling twigs around the nest entrance were making a levee to keep water out of the nest. During this year’s field season I was surprised to discover that the ants construct tunnels to constrain the flow of interaction between incoming and outgoing foragers. This makes the regulation of foraging much more precise.

What is the field work like? What is the best part? The most frustrating part?

I have worked for many years in southeastern Arizona and it’s great to be outside in the desert early in the morning; I love the silence and the big sky. For the past few years I’ve also been working in a tropical forest in Mexico, and even though it’s hot and I don’t like mosquitoes, I’m fascinated by the incredible diversity, splendid colors, and rapid growth of everything, including the ants but also the lizards, butterflies, songbirds, and much more.

It can be frustrating when things don’t go as planned but I try to remember that ecology is all about change. Field work would go more rapidly if conditions stayed the same and every day was like the one before, but that never happens.



“Climate Change Is Bringing an Invasion of Parasites” by Eugene Kaplan

HP_ecology Eugene H. Kaplan is the Don Axinn Distinguished Professor of Conservation and Ecology, Hofstra University and author of What’s Eating You? People and Parasites. In this original article, he writes about a phenomenon related to climate change — the movement of parasites and their hosts beyond of their traditional geographical boundaries. As Kaplan documents, this poses a dangerous threat to the rest of the world.

A farmer is standing on a hill overlooking his parched, heat-blasted fields. He thinks, “Farmers have dealt with climate fluctuations forever. Last summer we had a lot of rain; this summer is hot and dry — those damn scientists can’t see past their noses. Common sense says that this is part of nature’s cycle.”

But he is wrong. Decade by decade, the Earth’s mean temperature has been making a jagged, but ever-ascending path to a threatening destiny — a world where all sorts of creatures are migrating from hot equatorial regions towards the ever-warming temperate zones. Unable to survive a hard freeze, the carriers of parasites are creeping north, waiting. The skeptical farmer contains a refutation inside his very body; hordes of microscopic worms slithering under his skin in an invasion of non-native parasites. He has been bitten by a blackfly, a common occurrence in his life…but this was a different kind of blackfly.

Classical picture of blind elderly men being led to river’s edge by boy, to sit all day. Caused by filarial worm Onchocerca volvulus. Adults entwine under skin and are encapsulated by host, forming prominent nodules that calcify after prolonged infection; eyes damaged by long-term allergic reaction to microfilariae.

How has he become infected? In this era of increasing international air traffic, a visitor from equatorial Africa brought with him some “illegal immigrants”. At home, a tropical relative of an American blackfly bit him, sucking his blood and repaying the red gift of life, tragically, with a gift of death. Whenever a blackfly bites an infected person it will ingest, with the nourishing blood, larval worms that will develop in its body, multiply and become a horde of infective slivers. These infective larvae migrate to the salivary glands of the fly. Then it bites the traveler, salivating all the while, pouring larvae into the wound. The introduced worms will mature and reproduce inside the traveler, living in a shadowy world of thin-walled vessels that comprise the lymphatic system, becoming threadlike adults. Eventually a contorted knot of dead and calcified adults forms a bump (nodule) on his forehead or waist that brings him to the doctor. The physician will not know what it is, never having seen one before. The traveler might go blind, because the huge wormy population in his body may cause the dreaded parasitic disease, river blindness.

The tropical blackflies that are the disseminators of river blindness will spread naturally into whatever niches are available to them. As the winters that have kept them at bay become warmer, the flies will invade more northern climes, eventually finding the habitats proven hospitable to them by American blackflies, swiftly moving wooded streams. Then they move in. Once ensconced, they can pick up the infection from subsequent visitors from Africa and spread it.

Incredibly, our farmer was infected with river blindness!

However fanciful this story seems, there is a present parasitic reality:

KISSING BUG, Triatoma spp. To 1/4 inches; blackish; red bars on sides. Bugs feed eight to fifteen minutes. Common in southern United States. It delays defecation for twenty to thirty minutes and moves off host, thus often-fatal Chagas’ disease rare in United States. Rhodinus prolixus, brownish with reddish wavy lines on back. Transmission via feces rubbed into bite wound.

An American tourist visits a rural village in Brazil. To him it appears to be just another picturesque native community – until he notices that there is an inordinate number of one-eyed children. The black, gaping holes where an eye should be are the result of the bite of a kissing bug, the transmitter of an ancient blood-borne parasite that causes the potentially fatal Chagas’ disease. The insect that transmits the parasite is not a tiny fly or mosquito, it is an inch-long blackish bug with a long snout. It comes out at night and, seeking a warm blood-rich area, bites the sleeping child on her lips or cheek. As it makes its painful blood-sucking bite, it defecates. The parasite is so primitive that it requires the child’s connivance to be transferred into her blood stream. Asleep, she feels the pain of the “kiss” and, rubbing the bite, sweeps the bug’s infective feces into the wound …or into her eye. Once inside the blood stream the parasite is free to attack any internal organ, even the heart, causing death.

Kissing bugs are here now. They are found in most southern states. The only reason Chagas’ disease is not common is that our temperate zone species has the peculiar habit of waiting about twenty minutes to defecate after its meal. This means when the sleeping child rubs the wound, there will be no infective feces to rub into it. But the sub-tropical species’ of kissing bugs, the immediate defecators, are spreading north with the rise in average temperature.

Healthy mouse; mouse infected with malaria. The infected mouse’s rbc count declined after day 3 from eight million to two million on day 14; shivered uncontrollably; somnolent; fur matted, infused with urine; eyes slits; nose pale; too weak to eat, lost 30 percent of weight. Died on day 14.

To compound the problem there is new evidence that the migration of animals and plants precedes the apparent increase of temperature. Invasive species begin to spread little by little, before meteorologists register the comparatively huge measurement of a rise of one degree.*

Malaria, the most dreaded parasitic disease, was once common in the United States, especially in New York State and along the Mississippi River. It was called “ague” and it killed a lot of people in the nineteenth century before it spontaneously disappeared. But hordes of tropical mosquitoes harboring the often fatal falciparum malaria are ready to migrate toward more temperate regions.

A real horror that dwarfs the current fad of vampire movies is also climate-related. Vampire bats are among the few species that can resist the mysterious disease that is rendering other bat species nearly extinct. They are increasing in number because of hamburgers. These tropical and subtropical blood-eaters prey on the herds of cattle living on huge ranches owned by Burger King and McDonalds that are carved out of rain forests in South and Central America. The three-inch bats are not dangerous to humans. They don’t even suck blood (they lap it up). But they can spread rabies. Thousands of cases a year of rabies in cattle have been reported on sub-tropical ranches, endangering production. No bat-borne rabies cases have occurred in Americans — yet. It is clear the border between Mexico and the US is porous – porous to kissing bugs and porous to vampire bats.

Global warming is only part of the problem. Current thinking is that climate change is redistributing water all over the Earth. Climate data show less frequent rain in the Middle East and North Africa than in the recent past. In these places, the future is now. In the North African Sahel customary rainy periods are sparse and inconsistent. Vast numbers of migrants crowd the borders of Kenya and Uganda waiting for a miracle to save them. They cannot survive without the rain that is the foundation of their culture. They live under filthy conditions – nurseries for parasites of all kinds. The seething population cannot be held back for long. Massive migrations will occur, and with them will come the parasites.

* For confirmation see Limnology & Oceanography 55 (4) 2010, 1478 -1484:

“Dip into Kaplan for a rich dose of disgust.”–Anne Hardy, Times Literary Supplement

“This is gonzo parasitology writing at its finest.”–Clint Witchalls, New Scientist

Read a sample from this humorous and grotesque book here:

New Princeton Global Science tomorrow

Check in tomorrow for Q&As with authors Deborah M. Gordon and Tom Boellstorff. Deborah tells us what her study of ants reveals about collective behavior, while Tom describes the difficulties he encountered in conducting ethnographic research in Second Life.

Also in this edition of PGS will be exclusive articles from Dan Carpenter, author of Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA and Eugene Kaplan, author of What’s Eating You? People and Parasites.

PGS Behind The Scenes: Alison Kalett, editor of biological and earth sciences

Princeton University Press has always published important biology and earth sciences titles, but it was only recently that we expanded the acquisitions department to include an editor devoted to these subject areas. Alison Kalett joined the Press about three years ago (though she was here once before as you’ll learn in this Q&A) and since then has done a stellar job of pursuing and publishing books for general readers (see Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy) and course use (Stan Braude and Bobbi Low’s An Introduction to Methods and Models in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology). Recently, we had a chance to ask Alison about her plans for these growing fields.


What got you interested in publishing, and in science publishing specifically?

I’ve been in publishing for seven years, almost all of it at PUP. I graduated from Davidson College, a liberal arts college in North Carolina, with a B.A. in history. I decided against pursuing a PhD, but was interested in staying in the world of ideas, so to speak. Ultimately, I realized that scholarly publishing was a great way to remain immersed in important and relevant scholarship. As for science, I started my career as assistant to Vickie Kearn, the PUP math editor. After that, I was a history editor for two years, but was increasingly drawn to science publishing, and specifically biology and earth science, because of the fascinating work happening on those fields, from evo-devo to climate science. It was also great that PUP already had a strong history of publishing important books in these fields.

What are the biggest areas of growth in both biology and earth sciences at PUP, and what are your plans for these lists?

I’m growing the biology and earth science list both in terms of subfields in which we publish, as well as the types of books we publish. For example, on the biology list we are publishing more textbooks. Recently we published Stan Braude and Bobbi Low’s An Introduction to Methods and Models in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology and next season we’re publishing John Kricher’s Tropical Ecology, a hugely needed textbook that also complements our strong list in ecology generally. In addition to broadening the type of books we publish, I’m also pushing into new subfields, ones that are exciting in their own right and also complement our core strengths in ecology and evolutionary biology as well as other PUP lists such as earth science, cognitive science, mathematics, and behavioral economics. For example, I’ll be publishing more books in behavioral biology, global change biology, and mathematical biology. The same can be said for the earth science list. In addition to our great popular science titles, we are publishing more textbooks and primers, most notably the Princeton Primers in Climate series discussed below.

How important is the acquisition of textbooks to your publishing program? What are the challenges you face in publishing useful textbooks—is there a lot of competition? Are these courses widespread in higher education?

Textbooks are a very important part of my publishing program, in both biology and earth science. Textbooks complement the more specialized monographs we publish and can play an important role in shaping a field intellectually and how it is taught for years to come. To give one example, in a year or so we’ll be publishing a groundbreaking textbook called Introduction to Mathematical Biology by Lou Gross, Suzanne Lenhardt, and Erin Bodine. There are some great textbook publishers out there and because writing a textbook can be a time consuming and challenging experience it’s often difficult to find authors who are interested in writing a textbook, and who are also good teachers and well known in their fields. The growth of e-publishing will also present some new challenges for textbook publishing. What makes the PUP textbook program unique, I think, is that I look for texts (mostly at the advanced undergraduate level) that fit the overall intellectual strengths of the lists and also help propel a field forward in addition to slotting into courses.

Are there any books in the works now that you’re especially excited about? Why?

Too many to mention here! For the sake of space, I’ll mention just a few and since I’ve mostly discussed textbooks and monographs up to now and I’ll speak to popular science books in the works. There’s Tom Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy, a book that not only tells a great story about honeybees but has something important to say about social behavior and how groups can work together effectively. Also coming shortly, there’s Louise Barrett’s , Not by Brains Alone: The Body, The Environment, and the Evolution of Cognition, which counters a lot of accepted wisdom on the role of the brain in cognition and behavior. I’m excited about these books because they make fascinating, cutting edge science accessible to a broad audience.

What series are you working on, and why are these important to science publishing?

Both the biology and earth science list have several key series, some well-established and others recently launched. We’re perhaps best known for our monographs in population biology series, which has published some landmark books in ecology and evolutionary biology. There’s also our new Primers in Complex Systems series which is a joint enterprise between the science and social science editors, as well as the Santa Fe Institute. The first book in that series, Deborah Gordon’s Ant Encounters, was recently published. One of our most important new series is the Princeton Primers in Climate series. The goal of this series is to publish short books on key topics in climate science written by the field’s leading scholars. I think this series will fill an important niche in science publishing because there’s a dearth of books for students and non-specialists who want to know something about this increasingly important field, but want a book more in depth than a popular book but not quite as detailed as the IPCC report or the primary literature.

What are some iconic PUP biology and earth science books?

Some of our most important books include Robert MacArthur and E.O Wilson’s The Theory of Island Biogeography, John Tyler Bonner’s Cellular Slime Molds, Peter Grant’s Ecology and Evolution of Darwin’s Finches, Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems by Robert May, and Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s The History and Geography of Human Genes. More recently, there’s Peter and Rosemary Grant’s How and Why Species Multiply: The Evolution of Darwin’s Finches, Andrew Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, T- Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez, and Theoretical Global Seismology by F.A. Dahlen and Jeroen Tromp. It’s always wonderful to walk into a professor’s office and see some of these iconic books on their shelves.