Marilyn Roossinck: 101 viruses

Viruses are seldom considered beautiful, though visually, many are in fact stunning. While the sheer mention of them usually brings on vigilant hand-washing, some are actually beneficial to their hosts, and many are crucial to the health of our planet. Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes by Marilyn Roosinck offers an unprecedented look at 101 incredible microbes that infect all branches of life on Earth—from humans and other animals to insects, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Recently, Roosinck answered some questions about her gorgeously illustrated new book.

How did you come to study viruses?

MR: I started college at the Community College of Denver as an adult student (I was 22 years old), with a plan to go take two years of courses and then transfer to nursing school. I took a Microbiology course and when we studied bacterial viruses, I was totally smitten by how amazing viruses were, these very small and simple entities that could change everything! I ripped up my application to nursing school and instead transferred to the University of Colorado to pursue a degree in Biology. There were two biology departments at that time: Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; and Environmental, Populational and Organismal Biology, so I did a double major and got a degree in both programs. As an undergraduate I did an independent study in a lab working on SV40, a model for many studies on mammalian viruses. I applied to the University of Colorado School of Medicine for graduate school, and I received my Ph.D. from that institution in 1986, doing a thesis on Hepatitis B virus.

Why 101 viruses?

MR: The original plan was to include 100 viruses, a nice round number and enough to allow a broad range of viruses, including those infecting all the major host groups, from bacteria to humans. Near press time the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil was attracting a lot of attention in the press, so we felt it was important to include Zika. We did not really want to remove one of the viruses that were already in the book, because these were chosen carefully, and each entry seemed important for the complete picture, so, borrowing from Hollywood, we decided 101 would also have a nice ring.

How did you choose the viruses described in the book?

MR: Making up the list of viruses to include in the book took a lot of thought. I wanted to cover every type of virus and every type of host. I also wanted to include some viruses that people would be very aware of, like influenza and Ebola. There are more human viruses in the book than those that infect any other host, because they are more thoroughly studied, and most of them are familiar to people. I also wanted to include viruses that were pathogens and those that were not. It may come as a surprise to many people that some viruses benefit their hosts, and several of these are included in the book too. I also got some help from colleagues. After making up the initial list I sent it out to a large number of virologists for comment, and I took these ideas into consideration too. Of course many people were sure that the virus they were studying was the most important virus and should be included, but I tried to ignore this as a basis for inclusion.

Do you have a favorite virus?

MR: It is hard to pick a favorite, there are so many viruses that have a fascinating natural history, or that can dramatically affect their hosts. One of my students in a Virus Ecology course that I teach at Penn State summed it up pretty well. I was introducing the topic of the how poliovirus became a serious problem in the 20th century due to changes in water treatment, and I said, “this is one of my favorite virus stories”. The student replied, “you say that about everything”.

What viruses do you work with in your own lab?

MR: I have spent about 30 years working on Cucumber mosaic virus, a serious crop pathogen that has the broadest host range of any known virus: it can infect 1200 different plant species! This means it has been very successful from an evolutionary point of view, so it is an excellent model for studying virus evolution. For the past decade I also have been studying viruses that infect fungi. My interest in these viruses began when we discovered a fungal virus in Yellowstone National Park that was beneficial to its host, allowing it to survive very high temperatures found in the geothermal areas of the park. This sparked an interest in viruses that help their hosts adapt to extreme environments, and we do a lot of work now on beneficial viruses in plants and fungi. We also are interested in the diversity of viruses, and we have done some studies looking for viruses in wild plants: there are a lot, and most of them are novel.

virus roossinck jacketMarilyn J. Roossinck is professor of virus ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Roossinck is the author of Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes.

A look at avian intelligence with Nathan Emery

EmeryWhat really goes on inside the mind of a bird? Are these creatures as simplistic as the expression “bird brain” would have us believe? In Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, Nathan Emery shines new light on the minds of birds, offering insight into their sophisticated neurological functions and the diverse behaviors these functions give rise to. An extraordinary work of cognitive biology, Bird Brain uncovers an array of unexpected abilities including mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight. Recently, Emery took the time to talk with us about avian intelligence, why it has long been misunderstood, and how he first became hooked on birds.

Can you tell us something about how you go into studying avian intelligence?

NE: I completed undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire in the northwest of England. Then I moved north of the border to do my PhD studying face responsive neurons and social signals in primates at the University of St Andrews. After that, I moved to UC Davis in California for 3 years to work on an animal model of autism, that didn’t exactly work out as expected, but it did result in me meeting my future wife, Nicky Clayton. We moved to Cambridge in 2000, me continuing my neuroscience research at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, where both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did their PhDs; Nicky as a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. It was at Cambridge that I started getting focusing on birds instead of monkeys.

How did you become interested in birds?

NE: My wife Nicky got me hooked on birds. I was never a birdwatcher, I didn’t keep a pet parrot, and it would be fair to say that I’d never really considered them, except as a tasty meal at Christmas. Nicky has worked with birds for her entire career, first studying bird song for her PhD, then concentrating on spatial memory and caching behaviour. I was writing a review paper on how different animals use eye gaze as a social signal. I didn’t know what to say about birds, as my knowledge up to that point had been entirely about primates. She made me see the light! She told me dozens of fascinating facts about birds. I was hooked and haven’t turned back. My review completed from a new perspective, Nicky and I collaborated on a project looking at whether scrub-jays appreciated that others were watching where they cached, and whether they protected their caches from these potential thieves. This lead to our first joint paper, which we were lucky enough to get into the highly prestigious journal Nature a few months after we got married. It was published on our joint birthday, probably the first, and possibly the last occasion this happened to a paper in Nature! In the 15 years since, I’ve not looked back on either front, and now my research is entirely on birds.

How did you get involved in writing Bird Brain?

NE: I’ve wanted to write a popular book on avian intelligence for about 10 years, but things always seemed to get in the way. Then I was approached by Ivy Press to write a chapter on avian brains for an edited book they were putting together. My wife was asked to edit it, but she didn’t want to do so, so suggested me. I was keen, but then thought ‘why don’t I just write the whole thing myself?’ Ivy agreed, so that’s what I did. I had already arranged a year long sabbatical from work, so switched focus from the experiments I’d planned, to writing the book.

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. Did you have any input into how it looks?

NE: One of the reasons I was excited to be working with Ivy Press (the UK publisher of Bird Brain) was their reputation for producing beautiful books with a specific focus on design.

They were producing some very attractive nature and science books for a popular audience, and I really liked what they had planned for this project as it tallied with my own ideas. I’ve always been interested in illustration. At that crucial point in my life when I had to choose what I was going to study, I had to decide between science and science illustration. I chose science, but have always tried to incorporate illustration into my science work – whether the design of my lectures or talk slides, the illustrations in papers or even the design of problem-solving tasks. This project was a dream come true. I designed and drew all the illustrations in the book (except for three) using Photoshop, but they were then changed into a style more consistent with other Ivy books by three great illustrators. I do get credited for Illustration Concept, but would love to illustrate my own books in the future.

It’s quite unusual to see detailed brain wiring diagrams and experiments illustrated in a popular science book. Was this something you had in mind from the start?

NE: Yes. Jacqui Sayers, the book’s original editor was very keen on doing something visually different with the book, to try and make some of the arcane aspects of science more accessible to the public. I tried to illustrate the various steps in an experiment in a way that could be easily understood. We also tried not to dumb down how the information is presented, which is why there are quite a few complex diagrams detailing the avian brain’s wiring patterns. Also, it is called Bird Brain! However, the brain is said to be the most complicated object in the known universe, so it would be a travesty to present it too simply. We think we’ve achieved the right balance.

Why do you think birds have been maligned for so long?

NE: The term ‘birdbrain’ is part of our language. Our ancestors knew more about the capabilities of our feathered cousins than we did, until very recently. They feature as the clever protagonists of many fables and legends, including origin stories concerning the beginning of the world. Although somewhat fanciful, there is a lot of truth – at least in terms of their behaviour and intelligence – about these birds. A bigger issue is that most people have little experience of birds, outside of pigeons, chickens, ducks and sparrows, and they wouldn’t know what constitutes intelligence. You see an animal using a tool, such using a stick to move food into reach, and it is easy to use your own experience to understand that this requires some intelligence. This is possibly why a video of a New Caledonian crow solving a problem requiring 8 different steps has received over 10 million hits on YouTube. It just looks clever. Compare that to a study of long-term memory, such as remembering where something was hidden 6 months ago. This doesn’t translate very well to a single video. All the relevant information about what maybe going on in the bird’s mind when it’s recovering a memory of a past caching event, such as ‘where or when did I hide that worm?’ is hidden in the details of the experiment rather than a video clip. Our perception of all animals is guided by what we see in front of us, and its relationship to our past experiences. Unfortunately, our day-to-day view of the natural world is not enhanced by a Sir David Attenborough voice over. This clouds our view of an animal’s intelligence more than any particular aspect of their behaviour.

What would you say were your most important findings about clever birds?

NE: There are three pieces of research of which I’m the proudest. The first is the study that I mentioned earlier, that scrub-jays are protective of their caches by implementing different strategies to reduce the chance of them being pilfered. The most intriguing fact about this, is that not all scrub-jays do this. It’s not an innate response to being watched. Only birds that have previous experience of being thieves protect their caches – it takes a thief to know a thief! Birds without such experience, do not protect their caches. They are too naïve to know that the world is a bad place until they experience otherwise. This finding has been proposed as evidence that jays have a theory of mind – thinking about another’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that this is akin to human theory of mind or a process that is special to creatures who cannot speak.

The second finding is a series of studies on tool-related cognition in rooks; namely whether they are capable of creating novel tools to solve unique problems, such as bending a wire to reach and pull up a bucket containing a treat, or placing stones into a water-filled tube to raise the water level to reach a treat floating on the surface. There is no evidence that rooks use tools in the wild, so it is striking that in captivity they can do things that great apes have yet to demonstrate. One of my greatest loves is designing experiments, especially new cognitive tasks. I have notebooks filled with my experimental designs, and we’re currently testing the problem-solving abilities of the famous ravens at the Tower of London using some of these new designs. It’s extremely rewarding when others adopt your tasks, especially when they add their own improvements and test them on their own species. One case is the Water Displacement Task, my ex-PhD student Chris Bird and I adapted from Aesop’s Fable ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’, that has now been used to test rooks, New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, western scrub-jays, grackles and young children. It’s one of the challenges of comparative psychology to develop tasks that assess cognitive differences across species that aren’t based on simpler factors, such as visual acuity or manual dexterity. Certainly for birds, the Aesop’s Fable Task appears to be achieving this aim.

The final contribution for which I’m proudest is not the result of an experiment, but an idea. Nicky and I wrote a review paper in the journal Science in 2004 in which we proposed that crow and ape intelligence is an example of convergent evolution – namely that complex cognition evolved in these distantly related animals due to facing similar selection pressures, such as living in complex social groups or having to find and process a range of foods, some that are difficult to acquire or with external defences. This idea lead to me coining the term ‘feathered apes’ for corvids. It is gratifying to see this has become part of the scientific furniture where the general public just accepts that crows are smart, and just as smart as apes, dolphins and elephants.

Nathan Emery is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Biology at Queen Mary University of London, UK has studied the intelligence of corvids, and parrots, as well as apes and monkeys for the last 20 years. Emery is the co-editor Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture and The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, and is on the editorial board of the journals. He is the author of Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, a visually stunning guide to the brain, behaviour and cognition of our feathered friends. Emery’s work has been extensively covered by international newspapers and magazines, in books, and on TV. He is currently working with the ravens at the Tower of London.

The bright world of fireflies: photographs from Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketCharismatic, admired, and endlessly mysterious, fireflies have long been a source of intrigue. Sara Lewis has spent nearly thirty years examining the lives, surprising habits, and habitats of these beloved and frequently romanticized insects. As Memorial Day weekend winds down and fireflies start to make their debut in summer skies, take a peek inside the new book, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

 

 

 

Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Ten weeks, ten states, and a symphony of birdsong

listening to a continent sing kroodsma jacketTake a journey across ten weeks and ten states,  from one coast of America to another, as Donald Kroodsma and his son bike 5,000 miles and record birdsong along the way. In Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Kroodsma  provides a written account of this inspirational adventure that is one part personal memoir, one part guided history, one part invitation to pursue your own dreams. The book is beautifully illustrated, incorporating images of the vast terrain and animals the pair encountered on their trip. QR codes link to audio of birdsong throughout.

Click through to enlarge some of the book’s images here.

Stephen Heard: Write like a scientist

the scientist's guide to writing heardScientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed to answer a few questions about his book.

What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing?

SH: I think the first spark was when I realized I give the same writing advice to all my students, over and over, and caught myself thinking it would be easier to just write it all down once. That was foolish, of course: writing the book wasn’t easy at all! But before long, my rationale shifted. The book became less about stuff I wanted to tell everyone else, and more about stuff I wished somebody had told me. A lot of us get into science without much writing experience, and without thinking much about how important a role scientific writing plays – and when we start doing it, we discover that doing it well isn’t easy. It took me many years to become a reasonably competent scientific writer, and the book includes a lot of the things I discovered along the way. I was surprised to discover that writing the book made me a better writer. I think reading it can help too.

Surely there a bunch of other scientific-writing books out there? What do you do differently?

SH: Yes – and some of them are quite good! But I wanted to write something different. I’m not sure my book says anything that no one else knows about outlining or paragraph structure or citation formatting (for example). But I thought there was a lot of value in a book that pays attention to the writer as much as the writing: to the way writers behave as they write, and to ways in which some deliberate and scientific attention to our behavior might help us write faster and better. I’ve also discovered that knowing a bit about the history and culture of scientific writing can help us understand the way we write (and why). Just as one example: knowing something about the history of the Methods section, and how it’s changed over the last 350 years as scientists have struggled with the question of how scientific studies gain authority, can help us decide how to write our own Methods sections. I also tackle the question of whether there’s a place in scientific writing for beauty or for humor – something that gets discussed so rarely that it seems almost like a taboo.

Finally, I wanted to write a book that was really engaging: to show that thinking about writing (as we all need to) needn’t be dry and pedantic. So readers might be surprised, in a book about scientific writing, to find mentions of Voltaire’s lover, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the etymology of the word fart. But I hope they’ll also find that there are lessons in all those things – and more – for scientists who want to write better and more quickly.

You also go into a lot of depth about the review and publication process. Why are these things important to cover alongside the writing process?

SH: Well, maybe that isn’t “writing”, strictly speaking – but it’s an essential part of getting one’s scientific writing in the hands of readers. All of us want our scientific writing to be read, and to be cited, and to help move our fields forward. So it’s not enough to write a good manuscript; we have to be able to shepherd it through the process of submission, review, revision, and eventual acceptance. Early in my own career I found this process especially mysterious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about it – by publishing quite a few papers myself, but also by reviewing hundreds of manuscripts and acting as an Associate Editor for hundreds more. So I have a pretty good overview of the publishing process, from both the writer’s and the journal’s perspective. There’s no particular reason that process has to be mysterious, and I thought it would be helpful to draw back the curtain.

Is scientific writing really that different from other kinds of writing?

SH: Both yes and no! Of course, there are technical issues that matter in scientific writing, like ways of handling text dense with numbers, or ways we handle citations. There are also more cultural ways in which scientific writing is its own thing. One of them is that we’ve developed a writing form that efficiently conveys material to other people who are familiar with that form. Our conventional division of papers into Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion is a piece of that. Our writing (and our publication process) have evolved in many other ways that aren’t quite the same as you’d find in the humanities, or in writing about science for the public. That’s why there are books about scientific writing, not just about writing. But on another level, good scientific writing is like most other good writing: clear, concise, engaging whenever possible, and did I mention clear? Nothing is more important than clarity! As a result of this similarity, people who learn good scientific writing are well positioned for any career that involves writing – which is to say, pretty much any career.

Do you think of yourself as a good writer?

SH: No! And to loop back to the first question, that’s a big part of why I wrote the book. There are a very few natural writers out there – geniuses – for whom good writing just seems to come naturally. But these are rare. I’m like nearly everyone else: writing is hard work for me. It’s a craft I’ve learned over the years by practicing, by thinking deliberately about how I do it, and by reading advice from books that have gone before mine. It’s still hard work, but that’s OK: I’m willing to put in the effort for my writing product to seem pretty good, even if my writing process is laborious. If I’d understood earlier in my career that most writers are just like me, I would have been less crushed by the discovery that my papers didn’t just write themselves! Every scientific writer can do what I’ve done: practice the craft and improve at it. I hope my book can help.

Stephen B. Heard is professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and associate editor of the journal American Naturalist. His most recent book is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career.

Follow the wild bees with Thomas D. Seeley

following the wild bees seeleyBee hunting—in which one captures and sumptuously feeds wild bees, and then releases and follows them back to their secret residence—is virtually unknown today, though it was once widely practiced. Thomas D. Seeley, world authority on honey bees, vividly explores the exhilarating pastime in his new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. A unique meditation on the natural world as well as a how-to guide, the book provides history and science about the craft alongside gorgeous photos and helpful diagrams.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Seeley’s essential tools for bee hunting as well as fascinating photographs captured during the hunt.

Mark Denny discusses Ecological Mechanics

According to Mark Denny, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. In Ecological Mechanics, Denny explains how the principles of physics and engineering can be used to understand the remarkable ways plants and animals interact with each other and their surroundings, and how this controls where species can survive and reproduce. Recently, Denny shared some thoughts on the emerging discipline and his new book:

Ecological MechanicsEcological mechanics is not something I’ve heard of. Is it a new field of study?

MD: Yes and no. Biomechanics, the field in which I was raised, has traditionally focused on trying to understand how individual plants and animals work: how they are shaped to perform certain functions, what materials they are constructed from, how they interact with wind and moving water. But this biomechanical perspective has matured to the point where it can now be productively applied to questions of how individuals interact. In other words, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. That’s the basic idea of the book: to reveal to ecologists can they benefit from incorporating some physics and engineering in their approach, to challenge biomechanics to extend their expertise beyond the individual, to bring two well established disciplines together.

Can you give me a good example of ecological mechanics in action?

MD: I’d be delighted to! Let’s take coral reefs. They are an iconic example of how an assemblage of plants and animals interact to build a community that can grow and persist in a physically stressful environment, in this case the wave-beaten shores of tropical islands. But coral reefs exist in a delicate balance. Fish that shelter among branching coral colonies eat the seaweeds that otherwise would outcompete corals for space on the reef. If too many of the branching corals are broken by waves, the fish population declines, and the seaweeds take over. So, the state of the reef is a complex interaction between fluid mechanics (which governs wave forces), solid mechanics (which governs the ability of corals to resist those forces), and ecology, (which accounts for the community-wide consequences of coral breakage). But ecologists have had no way to predict how these interactions will play out as climate changes. Fortunately, ecological mechanics can now provide the answer. By taking into account both the predicted increase in intensity of tropical cyclones and the reduction in strength of corals due to ocean acidification, we can use the principles of engineering to accurately predict the change in species composition on a reef, and, from that, to use ecological principles to predict the change in competitive interactions between corals and seaweeds.

What’s the scope of the subject matter?

MD: Broad! In the first section we cover basic concepts from the physics of diffusion to fluid mechanics. We then use those concepts to understand the forces that plants and animals encounter both on land and in water, how animals move, and how the environment affects the temperature of everything, both living and dead. Then there’s a section on the mechanics of materials: how the chemical composition of a structure determines its stiffness and strength, how the shape of the structure affects the forces imposed on materials, and how structures interact in dynamic fashion with their surrounds. We then finish up by tying together the information from the previous sections. We explore how variation in the environment affects the plants’ and animals’ performance, and how that variation changes through time and space. We delve into the statistics of extremes (which can be used to predict the likelihood of ecological catastrophes), and we see how physics causes ecological patterns to emerge even in physically uniform habitats. There’s plenty here for both terrestrial and aquatic biologists, at scales ranging from the molecular to the global.

What tools will I take away from reading Ecological Mechanics?

MD: Great question. In a nut shell, you should come away with enough practical knowledge not only to understand the ecomechanics literature, but also to start working as a practicing ecomechanic. The chapter on thermal mechanics, for instance, teaches you how to construct a head-budget model for an organism that you can use to predict body temperature in any environment. The chapter on scale transition theory provides a recipe for predicting how the average performance of a population will change as the population spreads through space.

Sounds pretty technical, though. How much of a background in physics, math, and engineering would one need?

MD: Not much, actually. If you’ve had a course in basic physics somewhere along the line, and remember a reasonable amount of the algebra you learned in high school, the ideas presented here are should be easy to absorb. My own formal background in math and physics is absolutely minimal. Most of what I know about engineering I learned by explaining it to myself, and I think that has put me in a good position to explain this material to others. Readers are likely to be pleasantly surprised at how far a little bit of mathematics and basic physics can take them.

Given the scope and level of the discussion, what do you see as the audience for Ecological Mechanics?

MD: I wrote this text with several audiences in mind. First, there are ecologists and biomechanics actively involved in research, everyone from undergraduates on up. I feel certain that the breadth of information presented here will provide them with new perspectives on their subjects, new ways of thinking about the ways in which plants and animals interact with each other and with their environment, and the tools to explore those thoughts. The text can also be used as the basis for an upper-level undergraduate course. Combining as it does biomechanics and ecology, it could easily fit into a general curriculum in biology. It could equally well provide accessory information for other courses; various chapters could be used in isolation in a general biomechanics course, for instance, or a general course in ecology. And lastly, I hope there is an audience among folks who are just interested in science. Ecological mechanics involves such a compelling mixture of physical and biological science; I’m hoping that people will pick up this book just to scratch the itch of curiosity.

How did someone with little background in math and physics end up in a field like ecological mechanics?

MD: Pure serendipity. Like so many people, I went to college planning to go to medical school. I majored in zoology, avoided math, and put off taking physics until my senior year, and even then I took it pass/fail. But I found that physics offered a different (and intriguing) way of thinking about the world. And that really clicked into place when, in my final semester, I took a biomechanics course from Steve Wainwright and Steve Vogel. They showed me how the physics perspective could be applied to biology, and I’ve been riding that wow!! feeling ever since. I’d love to pass that excitement along to others, and books like this are best way I know to do that.

Mark Denny is the John B. and Jean DeNault Professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. His books include Biology and the Mechanics of the Wave-Swept Environment, Air and Water, and How the Ocean Works.

#MammothMonday: PUP’s pups sound off on How to Clone a Mammoth

The idea of cloning a mammoth, the science of which is explored in evolutionary biologist and “ancient DNA expert” Beth Shapiro’s new book, How to Clone a Mammoth, is the subject of considerable debate. One can only imagine what the animal kingdom would think of such an undertaking, but wonder no more. PUP staffers were feeling “punny” enough to ask their best friends:

 

Chester reads shapiro

Chester can’t get past “ice age bones”.

 

Buddy reads shapiro

Buddy thinks passenger pigeons would be so much more civilized… and fun to chase.

 

Tux reads shapiro

Tux always wanted to be an evolutionary biologist…

 

Stella reads Shapiro

Stella thinks 240 pages on a glorified elephant is a little excessive. Take her for a walk.

 

Murphy reads shapiro

A mammoth weighs how much?! Don’t worry, Murphy. The tundra is a long way from New Jersey.

 

Glad we got that out of our systems. Check out a series of original videos on cloning from How to Clone a Mammoth author Beth Shapiro here.