Interview with Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules

CarrollIn the fields of biological and environmental studies, Sean B. Carroll has made a name for himself not only as a scientist, writer, and educator, but as a storyteller. In his newest book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, Carroll argues that the most critical thing we have learned about human life at the molecular level is that everything is regulated.

Carrol uses medical analogies, comparing the current blight on nature to a disease that ravages the body. The book will leave readers considering life on several scales, both personal and global. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about the book:

One of the central themes of your book is that “everything is regulated” in life. What does that mean?

SC: What it means is that at all scales of life the numbers of things are controlled. For example, in our bodies, the concentration of every kind of chemical – hormones, salts, enzymes and fats, and the numbers of every kind of cell –red cells, white cells and so on, are maintained within certain ranges by regulation. Similarly, in nature, the numbers and kinds of animal and plants in a given place are regulated.

Why is all of this regulation important?

SC: Regulation is very important because diseases (heart disease, cancer and so on) are generally abnormalities of regulation, when too little or too much of something is made. Likewise, in nature, when key species are lost or removed, too many or too few individuals of other species persist, and that habitat becomes unhealthy and may collapse. So learning the “rules of regulation” is very important to both medicine and conservation.

What have we learned about those rules?

SC: A century-long quest of biology has been to discover how life works, and that entails the deciphering of the “rules of regulation” in the body and in nature at large. The stories that make up the book are about those pioneers who tackled the mysteries of regulation and discovered important rules that have had huge impacts in medicine, ecology and conservation.

The scientists portrayed in The Serengeti Rules are admirable, sometimes heroic figures. Why did you choose to organize the book around their stories?

SC: I am a firm believer in the power of stories. Science is far more enjoyable, understandable, and memorable when we follow scientists all over the world and share in their struggles and triumphs.

You use an analogy from sports to explain how scientists have figured out how to treat many diseases. How does that analogy apply to medicine?

SC: In the body, the key “players” are molecules that regulate a process. To intervene in a disease, we need to know what players are injured or missing or what rules of regulation have been broken. The task for biologists is to identify the important players in a process, figure out the rules that regulate their action, and then design medicines that target the key players. In the book, I tell the stories of just how that was done to make such dramatic progress against heart disease and cancer.

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CC Image courtesy of Celso Flores on flickr

Your book is called The Serengeti Rules. What are those rules?

SC: Just as there are rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place. I have called these the “Serengeti Rules” because that is one place where they have been worked out and they determine, for example, how many lions, or buffalo, or elephants live on an African savanna.

But these rules apply all over the globe, in oceans, rivers, and lakes, as well as on land.

Do these rules apply then to conserving and restoring species?

SC: Absolutely. But in contrast to the considerable care and expense we gladly undertake in applying molecular rules to human medicine, we have done a very poor job in considering and applying these Serengeti Rules to human affairs. For centuries we have hunted, fished, farmed, forested, and settled wherever we could, with no or very little grasp of altering other species. For a long time, we did not know any better, but now we do. So minding these Serengeti Rules may have as much or more to do with our future welfare than all of the molecular rules we may ever discover.

But as you describe in several chapters, there have been some encouraging successes in restoring species and habitats

SC: Yes, and I thought it was very important to tell those stories, to show that even war-torn and devastated places like Gorongosa National park in Mozambique could rebound given time, protection, and the efforts of just a small band of extraordinarily dedicated people.

You visited Gorongosa in the course of writing this book. What was that experience like?

SC: Life-changing. The people behind the Gorongosa Restoration Project are so inspiring, and the magnitude of the recovery in just ten years is astounding and so encouraging. If Gorongosa can be rescued from utter disaster, we should all take heart that we can restore other places and species.

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CC image courtesy of F Mira on Flickr

When readers close The Serengeti Rules after finishing it, what do you hope they will be feeling?

First of all, I hope that they feel inspired by the stories of some exceptional people who tackled and solved great mysteries. Second, that they feel enriched with fresh insights into the wonders of life at different scales. Third, that they feel more hope for the future — that there is time to change the road we’re on. And finally, that they can’t wait to tell their friends to read the book!

You have had a very distinguished career as a molecular biologist. What inspired you to delve into ecology and conservation and write this book?

First, a desire to explore the bigger picture of life. When I gazed upon the Serengeti for the first time, I was as enchanted as any tourist, but I did not understand what I was looking at. For someone who has spent decades figuring out how complex, invisible things worked, that was a bit unsettling and embarrassing. So I dove into what was known and realized that the rules of ecology and even how they were discovered had some parallels to what we understood about life at the molecular level. These parallels had never been drawn; this book is an attempt to do that in the context of explaining why understand all of the rules matters.

And second, a sense of urgency. The disappearance of nature is an existential crisis for biology and humanity. As much as I love the world of DNA and cells, it felt a contradiction – to care so much about life at one level and to ignore what was happening to life at large. It is time to look up from the microscope.

Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, writer, educator, and executive producer. He is vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Brave Genius, and Remarkable Creatures, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Bird Fact Friday – Incredible diversity in southern Africa

From page 10 of Birds of Southern Africa:

More birds breed in southern Africa than in the U.S. and Canada combined. There are approximately 950 different species of birds in the region, of which about 140 are endemic or near endemic. One of the reasons for this is the climatic and topographical diversity of the region. The climate ranges from cool-temperate in the southwest to hot and tropical in the north. The southwest of the region experiences a winter rainfall regime, the north and east have summer rains, and some of the central parts have aseasonal rainfall. Additionally, rainfall increases from west to east. Winter snows are regular on the higher mountains, which rise to 3,500 meters above sea level.

Birds of Southern Africa
Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton & Peter Ryan

BirdsBirds of Southern Africa continues to be the best and most authoritative guide to the bird species of this remarkable region. This fully revised edition covers all birds found in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and southern Mozambique. The 213 dazzling color plates depict more than 950 species and are accompanied by more than 950 color maps and detailed facing text.

This edition includes new identification information on behavior and habitat, updated taxonomy, additional artwork, improved raptor and wader plates with flight images for each species, up-to-date distribution maps reflecting resident and migrant species, and calendar bars indicating occurrence throughout the year and breeding months.

• Fully updated and revised
• 213 color plates featuring more than 950 species
• 950+ color maps and over 380 new improved illustrations
• Up-to-date distribution maps show the relative abundance of a species in the region and indicate resident or migrant status
• New identification information on behavior and habitat
• Taxonomy includes relevant species lumps and splits
• Raptor and wader plates with flight images for each species
• Calendar bars indicate occurrence throughout the year and breeding months.

For a limited time, get 30% off on this title!

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Weekly Wanderlust: Africa

photo 4Africa has long been an object of fascination for travelers. When Herodotus wrote his Histories, the Pyramids and burial complex at Giza were already ancient, extraordinary monuments to the power and engineering capabilities of Egypt in the age of the Pharaohs. The natural wonders of the continent are no less impressive: thousands travel every year to attempt the challenging ascent of snow-capped, volcanic Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, at nearly 6000 meters in elevation the highest in Africa. Separating Zambia and Zimbabwe, the magnificent Victoria Falls are the largest in the world, more than double the height of Niagara, and over a mile in width. But perhaps the greatest natural wonder of Africa is its wildlife, which includes many rare and endangered species. The name Africa conjures visions of lions, giraffes, gorillas, rhinoceros, elephants and countless other beautiful animals known to most only through the world’s zoos. For many, a safari through the Serengeti in Tanzania is the vacation of their dreams.

The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals book jacket The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals is the essential companion for anyone going on safari or interested in African mammals—no other field guide covers the whole continent in a portable format. Now fully revised and updated, it covers all known species of African land mammals and features 780 stunning color illustrations. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, distribution, habitat, food, behavior, adaptations, and conservation status. This new edition includes many newly recognized species, and classification has been fully updated.
Birds of Botswana book jacket Covering all 597 species recorded to date, Birds of Botswana features more than 1,200 superb color illustrations, detailed species accounts, seasonality and breeding bars, and a color distribution map for each species. Drawing on the latest regional and national data, the book highlights the best birding areas in Botswana, provides helpful tips on where and when to see key species, and depicts special races and morphs specific to Botswana. This is the first birding guide written by a Botswana-based ornithologist and the only one dedicated specifically to Botswana.
Animals of the Serengeti book jacket Containing 146 stunning color photos, Animals of the Serengeti is a remarkable look at the mammals and reptiles most likely to be encountered in the world-famous Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. With an eye-catching layout, accessible text, and easy-to-use format, this detailed photographic guide includes 89 species of mammal and reptile. Useful “Top Tips”—shared by local Tanzanian guides that work in the region—provide visitors with insights into behavioral habits and how to locate specific animals. Filled with vivid anecdotes, Animals of the Serengeti will enable any safari traveler to identify the area’s wildlife with ease.

A bird book goes to Africa

[Updated: read Part 2 of this story http://blog.press.princeton.edu/2014/04/15/a-bird-book-goes-to-africa-part-2/]

When Rick Ludkin reached out to us about purchasing a quantity of The Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania for an upcoming trip he had planned, we dutifully took his order, wished him safe travels as one is supposed to when a person is flying halfway across the world, and scarcely gave it another thought. Well, Rick has returned from what must be, from all accounts, the trip of a lifetime and he is blogging about the experience at his Ruthven Park Nature Blog:

My prime “project” in Matangwe was to teach the students about their birds. I had a couple of reasons for doing this: general appreciation of their wildlife; awareness of the region’s various habitats and how they relate to bird populations; identification skills for their own injoyment but also for possible future work as tourist guides and/or field assistants; use of nets and traps for banding with a view to the possible establishment of a banding program for research into African birds and for the development of an eco-tourism destination (this would be a long-term goal).

Source: Ruthven Park Nature Blog, February 28, 2013: http://www.ruthvenpark.ca/natureblog/?p=6374

It is thrilling, as a publisher, to see our books being put to such wonderful, educational use in the field. Rick taught several hundred youngsters how to read a field guide, how to use binoculars, and how to set up mist nets to trap and band birds.

The children review the weavers in Zimmerman, et al's    Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, Photo credit: Rick Ludkin

The children review the weavers in Zimmerman, et al’s
Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania
Photo credit: Rick Ludkin

To illustrate the challenges Rick faced, here is a short excerpt:

Remember: up until this point, birds were primarily thought of as a food source. To highlight this, there are over 30 species of Weavers at least 10 of which occur in their area. But they had just one name for them: Osogos. Not Jackson’s Golden-backed Weaver or Yellow-backed Weaver or Spectacled Weaver or Black-headed Weaver….just Osogo. Sort of like beef rather than Angus or Hereford or Holstein or Ayrshire. Once they “got” the concept of species they were away to the races….but that took awhile.

Source: Ruthven Park Nature Blog, February 28, 2013: http://www.ruthvenpark.ca/natureblog/?p=6374

However, thanks to Rick’s efforts, he soon had hundreds of students assisting him in setting up and banding birds. The initiative was so successful in fact, he writes:

I had close to 300 bands. I figured this would be plenty (and so did Titus Imbomo at the National Museum who supplied me with them). But I ran out by the third week – I could have banded twice as many if I had had more bands. Oh well….next year.

Source: Ruthven Park Nature Blog, February 22, 2013: http://www.ruthvenpark.ca/natureblog/?p=6342

Hopefully Rick will manage to return next year and he and his students will find our field guide as useful a second time around. In the meantime, you can check out his blogs and photographs of birds he banded while in Africa.

February 21, 2013: http://www.ruthvenpark.ca/natureblog/?p=6306

February 22, 2013: http://www.ruthvenpark.ca/natureblog/?p=6342

February 28, 2013: http://www.ruthvenpark.ca/natureblog/?p=6374

Safari Time: B is for Bee-Eater

 

This post is part of a Safari Series to celebrate the publication of Birds of Masai Mara by Adam Scott Kennedy and Animals of Masai Mara by Adam Scott Kennedy and Vicki Kennedy.

Check out additional Safari photographs of birds and animals here.

Animals of the Masai Mara
Adam Scott Kennedy & Vicki Kennedy

Birds of the Masai Mara
Adam Scott Kennedy