The bad green is threatening unique species to oblivion

In my last post, I shown that not all green is good. That some plant species are a threat and can even make other plant species disappear. The bad guys plants are what is called invasive alien plants, non-native plants or exotics plants.

Most people would know the problem that invasive alien animals can cause. For example, only one species of mosquito, the tiger mosquito, is responsible increasing cases of dengue, chikungunya and zika in the last decades.

aedes-albopictus-cdc-gathanysmall

A small non-native animal that causes a lot of trouble

 

But the impact of invasive alien plants is less known as fewer species can disrupt human life as quick as non-native animals. The famine weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, it is a small herb that is disrupting lives in Africa – it decreases crop yields, make meat unfit for consumption, causes health problems like asthma, among other problems.

Small herb with pretty flowers that behave like an evil outside its native environment

Small herb with pretty flowers that behave like an evil outside its native environment

 

But many invasive alien species are a slower trouble-maker. Well, slower just on our on perception of time. Large trees can survive for decades and centuries, so competition with invasive alien plants needs to be measure on larger time scales.

In the island of Mauritius, in the Western Indian Ocean, this process the very few best preserved and protected native forests are today dominated by alien species! In average, nearly 80% of the stems of these best preserved forest are of non-native species.

The main problem is that the levels of invasion is set to get worst. The invasion is progressing, slowly but surely. When comparing todays number of species, number of stems and basal area of forest on forest areas where surveys were done in 1930s and in 1980s, we see a clear tendency of the invasion getting worst making the native forest, little by little, be submerged under this tsunami of alien species.

Some endemic species have disappeared from these forests because of the invasion. The number of trees in one of these forests have more than halved in near 70 years. Also the biomass of native trees in this forest is less than half of it was in 1930s.

Once the commonest shurb in one of the studied sites, this Mauritian endemic plant, has vanished from that forest in less than 50 years

Once the commonest shrub in one of the studied sites, this Mauritian endemic plant, has vanished from that forest in less than 50 years

 

This high invasion is also seen in other forest on tropical oceanic islands around the world. The invasion is putting the planet on the way to lose many unique species, many unique interactions, many unique ecosystems. All these without even considering the effects that global warming (that is a fact and not a hoax) is and will cause.

 

 

References cited

Florens et al in press. Long term declines of native trees in a oceanic island’s tropical forests invaded by alien plants. Applied Vegetation Science. DOI: 10.1111/avsc.12273

Florens et al 2016. Invasive alien plants progress to dominate protected and best-preserved wet forests of an oceanic island. Journal for Nature Conservation 34: 93–100

Mitch Ladyman: What do mining companies do for the environment?

Mitch is out bush so he asked us to post this on his behalf.

 

I was in Bunnings the other day: Australia’s largest hardware warehouse chain with exceptionally large warehouses full of……….well, hardware (in-text footnote – I actually believe that all Bunnings stores function in a parallel universe on a different space/time continuum: men (and women) of all ages ‘pop’ in to quickly grab a hardware item and emerge three days later with a bunch of stuff they neither want nor need).

 

Accustom to the typically very friendly service I was rather taken aback by one young female employee who, upon seeing the company logo on my car and questioning me as to what I did for a living, unreservedly and assertively quipped about her ‘hatred for mining and mining companies’.

 

At this point, I had to make a choice: am I going to be dismissive of her or am I going to present her with an alternate view in an attempt to encourage her to reconsider her values. I had nothing to lose and very little to gain from either of the above.

 

I had to dig deep to muster any amount of my usual enthusiasm and effervescence. Within seconds I was waxing lyrical with countless personal experiences and examples of how the mining dollar underpins a lot of very valid ecological research and an endless array of conservation projects across this great state of ours. In a brief and fleeting display of cognizance about the subject matter this young lady rightly pointed out that mining companies are only funding said research and conservation projects because they are legally obliged to do so (though she did not put it quite so eloquently). She is correct, of course. But is it not better that the work get done out of obligation than not done at all? Moreover, there are many companies that contribute beyond their Ministerial requirements by choice. Often this results in recognition through industry environmental awards which are valued by the companies staff and shareholders.

 

The outcomes of this exchange have been threefold.

1) I may have actually influenced this young lady’s way of thinking and she has since embraced miners as conservation allies rather than enemies.

2) I have concluded that Bunnings would do well to educate their staff in communicating in a manner which is both warm and embracing, rather than abrasive, abject and affronting.

3) I am suddenly very concerned about what the nationwide slow down in mining means for conservation projects in Australia.

 

Mining companies in the Pilbara are delivering hundreds of thousands of dollars into the government coffers and that money will be used to fund many projects on Northern Quoll (a species under significant threat in W.A.), with the recent Cane Toad invasion, the Greater Bilby (threatened by feral predators), the Malleefowl (threatened by habitat loss and predation) etc etc etc.

 

Closer to home, at least for me, one of Animal Plant Mineral’s clients has spent tens and tens of thousands of dollars protecting and enhancing feeding and breeding habitat of the Gouldian Finch. That same client funded a regional helicopter survey to find new populations of a flora taxon that was thought to only exist in the Northern Territory. And while we are talking about KMG, it is worthwhile mentioning that they financed a survey to extend the known distribution of the Northern Leaf-nosed Bat, which is to this day the most exciting field survey I have ever designed and executed See this awesome clip to appreciate where I am coming from.

 

What will happen to the great work that is currently being done when the active mines shut down and no new mining proponents are seeking environmental approval for new mines. Quite simply, the research and conservation work will cease and we will see a return to the era that preceded the mining boom where the staff within government departments, such as the Department of Parks and Wildlife, are stranded at their desks sitting on their hands because they no longer have any money to go bush to do real work.

 

Taken years ago (2010) these photos capture some of the still ongoing work that APM and KMG are doing on the Gouldian Finch. But with the iron ore price in the gutter, who knows how much longer such projects will last?

 

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They are called Snappy Gums for a reason: best not lean the ladder on dead hollow limbs.

 

 

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If you were a finch, would you be happy to call this home?

 

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Yes – this looks bad. But no mine equals no money. Benefits outweigh costs.

The Grids of Nobel (Medial Temporal Lobe-rific)

This content will be cross-posted to Synthetic Daisies.

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This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine went to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard I. Moser for their work on the neurophysiology of spatial navigation [1]. The prize was awarded “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain”. Some commentators have referred to these discoveries as constituting an “inner GPS system“, although this description is technically and conceptually incorrect (as I will soon highlight). As a PhD student with an interest in spatial cognition, I read (with enthusiasm!) the place cell literature and the first papers on grid cells [2]. So upon hearing they had won, I actually recognized their names and contributions. While recognition of the grid cell discovery might seem to be premature (the original discovery was made in 2005), the creation of iPS cells (the subject of the 2012 award) only dates to 2007.

John O’Keefe is a pioneer in the area of place cells, which provided a sound neurophysiological basis for understanding how spatial cognitive mechanisms are tied to their environmental context. The Mosers [3] went a step further with this framework, discovering a type of cell that provides the basis for a metric space (or perhaps more accurately, a tiling) to which place cell and other location-specific information are tied. The intersection points on this grid are represented by the aptly-named grid cells. Together, these types of cells provide a mental model of the external world in the medial temporal lobe of mammals.

Locations to which grid cells respond most strongly.

Place cells (of which there are several different types) are small cell populations in the CA1 and CA3 fields of the Hippocampus that encode a memory for the location of objects [4]. Place cells have receptive fields which represent specific locations in space. In this case, a cell’s receptive field corresponds to locations and orientations to which the cell responds most strongly. When the organism is located in (or approaches) one of these receptive fields, the local field potential of the cell population is activated at a maximum of 20Hz. As place cells are in the memory encoding center of the brain, place cells respond vigorously when an animal passes or gets near a recognized location. Grid cells, located in the entorhinal cortex, serve a distinct but related role to that of place cells. While spatial cognition involves many different types of input (from multisensory to attentional), place cells and grid cells are specialized as a mechanism for location-specific memory.

Variations on a grid in urban layouts. COURTESY: Athenee: the rise and fall of automobile culture.

How do we know this part of the brain is responsible for such representations. Both place and grid cells have been confirmed through electrophysiological recordings. In the case of place cells, lesions studies [5] have been conducted to demonstrate behavioral deficits during naturalistic behavior. In [5], lesions (made via lesion studies) of hippocampal tissue results in deficits in spatial memory and exploratory behavior. In humans, the virtual Morris Water Maze [6] can be used to assess performance with regard to finding a specific landmark (in this case, a partially-submerged platform) embedded in a virtual scene. The recall of a particular location is contingent on people’s ability to a) find a location relative to other landmarks, and b) people’s ability to successfully rotate their mental model of a particular space.

An example of learning in rats during the Morris Water Maze task. COURTESY: Nutrition, Neurogenesis and Mental Health Laboratory, King’s College London.

As a relatively recent discovery, grid cells provide a framework for a geometric (e.g. Euclidean) representation of space. Like place cells, the activity of grid cells are dependent upon the behavior of animals in a spatial context. Yet grid cells help to provide a larger context for spatial behavior, namely the interstitial space between landmarks. This allows for both the creation and recognition of patterns at the landscape spatial scale. Street patterns in urban settlements that form grids and wheel-and-spoke patterns are no accident — it is the default way in which humans organize space.

An anatomical and functional view of the medial temporal lobe. COURTESY: Figure 1 in [7].

There are some interesting but unexplored relationships between physical movement and spatial navigation which both involve a coordinate system for the world that surrounds a given organism. For example, goal-directed arm movements occur within a multimodal spatial reference frame that involves the coordination of visual and touch information [8]. While limb movement and walking involve timing mechanisms associated with the motor cortex and cerebellum, there are implicit aspects of spatial memory in movement, particularly over long distances and periods of time. There is an emerging field called movement ecology [9] which deals with these complex interconnections.

Another topic that falls into this intersection is path integration [10]. Like the functions that involve place and grid cells, path integration also involves the medial temporal lobe. Path integration is the homing ability of animals that results from an odometer function — the brain keeps track of footsteps and angular turns in order to generate an abstract map of the environment. This information is then used to return to a nest or home territory. Path integration has been the basis for digital evolution studies on the evolutionary origins of spatial cognition [11], and might be more generally useful in understanding the relationships between the evolutionary conservation of spatial memory and its deployment in virtual environments and city streets. While this is closer to the definition of an “inner GPS system”, there is so much more to this fascinating neurophysiological system.

NOTES:

[1] Nobel Prize Committee: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014. Nobelprize.org, Nobel Media AB. October 6 (2014).

[2] Hafting, T., Fyhn, M., Molden, S., Moser, M-B., and Moser, E.I.   Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex. Nature, 436(7052), 801–806 (2005).

[3] Moser, E.I., Kropff, E., and Moser, M-B.   Place Cells, Grid Cells, and the Brain’s Spatial Representation System. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 31, 69-89 (2008).

[4] O’Keefe, J. and Nadel, L.   The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Oxford University Press (1978).

[5] For the original Morris Water Maze paper: O’Keefe, R.G., Garrud, P., Rawlins, J.N., and O’Keefe, J.   Place navigation impaired in rats with hippocampal lesions. Nature, 297(5868), 681–683 (1982).

[6] For the virtual adaptation of the water maze for humans, please see: Astur, R.S., Taylor, L.B., Mamelak, A.N,, Philpott, L., and Sutherland, R.J.   Humans with hippocampus damage display severe spatial memory impairments in a virtual Morris water task. Behavioral Brain Research, 132, 77–84 (2002).

[7] Bizon, J.L. and Gallagher, M.   More is less: neurogenesis and age-related cognitive decline in Long-Evans rats. Science of Aging, Knowledge, and Environment, (7), re2 (2005).

[8] Shadmehr, R. and Wise, S.P.   The Computational Neurobiology of Reaching and Pointing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2005).

[9] Nathan, R.   An emerging movement ecology paradigm. PNAS, 105(49), 19050–19051 (2008).

[10] McNaughton, B.L., Battaglia, F.P., Jensen, O., Moser, E.I., and Moser, M-B.   Path integration and the neural basis of the ‘cognitive map’. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 663-678 (2006).

[11] Grabowski, L.M., Bryson, D.M., Dyer, F.C., Pennock, R.T., and Ofria, C.   A case study of the de novo evolution of a complex odometric behavior in digital organisms. PLoS One, 8(4), e60466 (2013) AND Jacobs, L.F., Gaulin, S.J., Sherry, D.F., and Hoffman, G.E.   Evolution of spatial cognition: sex-specific patterns of spatial behavior predict hippocampal size. PNAS, 87(16), 6349-6352 (1990).

Fun with F1000: publish it and the peers will come

This content will be cross-posted to Synthetic Daisies. Please also see the update before the notes section.

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For the last several months, I have been working on a paper called “Animal-oriented Virtual Environments: illusion, dilation, and discovery” [1] that is now published at F1000 Research (also available as a pre-print at PeerJ). This is a paper that has gone through several iterations, from a short 1800-word piece (first draft) to a full-length article. This includes several stages of editor-driven peer review [2], and took approximately nine months. Because of its speculative nature, this paper could be an excellent candidate for testing out this review method.

The paper is now live at F1000 Research.

Evolution of a research paper. The manuscript has been hosted at PeerJ Preprints since Draft 2.

F1000 Research uses a method of peer-review called post-publication peer review. For those who are not aware, F1000 approaches peer-review in two steps: the submission and approval by an editor stage, and the publication and review by selected peer stage. Let’s walk through these.

The first step is to submit an article. For some articles (data-driven), they are published to the website immediately. However, for position pieces and theoretically-driven articles such as this one, a developmental editor is consulted to provide pre-publication feedback. This helps to tighten the arguments for the next stage: post-publication peer review.

The next stage is to garner comments and reviews from other academics and the public (likely unsolicited academics). While this might take some time, the reviews (edited for relevance and brevity) will appear alongside the paper. The paper’s “success” will then be judged on those comments. No matter what the peer reviewers have to say, however, the paper will be citable in perpetuity and might well have a very different life in terms of its citation index.

Why would we want to have such alternative available to us? Such alternative forms of peer review and evaluation can both open up the scope of the scientific debate and resolve some of the vagaries of conventional peer review [3]. This is not to say that we should strive towards the “fair-and-balanced” approach of journalistic myth. Rather, it is a recognition that scientists do a lot of work (e.g. peer review, negative results, conceptual formulation) that either falls through the cracks or does not get made public. Alternative approaches such as post-publication peer review is an attempt to remedy that, and as a consequence also serve to enhance the scientific approach.

COURTESY: Figure from [5].

The rise of social media and digital technologies have also changed the need for new scientific dissemination tools. While traditional scientific discovery operates at a relatively long time-scale [6], science communication and inspiration do not. Using an open science approach will effectively open up the scientific process, both in terms of new perspectives from the community and insights that arise purely from interactions with colleagues [7].

One proposed model of multi-staged peer review. COURTESY: Figure 1 in [8].

UPDATE: 9/2/2014:

I received an e-mail from the staff at F1000Research in appreciation of this post. They also wanted me to make the following points about their version of post-publication peer review a bit more clear. So, to make sure this process is not misrepresented, here are the major features of the F1000 approach in bullet-point form:

* input from the developmental editors is usually fairly brief. This involves checking for coherence and sentence structure. The developmental process is substantial only when a paper requires additional feedback before publication.

* most papers, regardless of article type, are published within a week to 10 days of initial submission.

* the peer reviewing process is strictly by invitation only, and only reports from the invited reviewers contribute to what is indexed along with the article.

* commenting from scientists with institutional email addresses is also allowed. However, these comments do not affect whether or not the article passes the peer review threshold (e.g. two “acceptable” or “positive” reviews).

NOTES:

[1] Alicea B.   Animal-oriented virtual environments: illusion, dilation, and discovery [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review, https://f1000r.es/2xt] F1000Research 2014, 3:202 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.3557.1).

This paper was the derivative of a Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper and several popular press interviews [ab] that resulted.

[2] Aside from an in-house editor at F1000, Corey Bohil (a colleague from my time at the MIND Lab) was also gracious enough to read through and offer commentary.

[3] Hunter, J.   Post-publication peer review: opening up scientific conversation. Frontiers in Computational Science, doi: 10.3389/fncom.2012.00063 (2012) AND Tscheke, T.   New Frontiers in Open Access Publishing. SlideShare, October 22 (2013) AND Torkar, M.   Whose decision is it anyway? f1000 Research blog, August 4 (2014).

[4]  By opening up of peer review and manuscript publication, scientific discovery might become more piecemeal, with smaller discoveries and curiosities (and even negative results) getting their due. This will produce a richer and more nuanced picture of any given research endeavor.

[5] Mandavilli, A.   Trial by Twitter. Nature, 469, 286-287 (2011).

[6] One high-profile “discovery” (even based on flashes of brilliance) can take anywhere from years to decades, with a substantial period of interpersonal peer-review. Most scientists keep a lab notebook (or some other set of records) that document many of these “pers.comm.” interactions.

[7] Sometimes, venues like F1000 can be used to feature attempts at replicating high-profile studies (such as the Stimulus-triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency (STAP) paper, which was published and retracted at Nature within a span of five months).

[8] Poschl, U.   Multi-stage open peer review: scientific evaluation integrating the strengths of traditional peer review with the virtues of transparency and self-regulation. Frontiers in Computational Science, doi: 10.3389/fncom.2012.00033 (2012).

Why isn’t there more research into my disease? What can I do about it?

(This is cross-posted to chromosomesandcancer.com)

We care about our health and the health of our loved ones. If only we had explanations and cures for all of humanity’s illnesses. But there are still many diseases that aren’t being researched, even though they cause real and obvious suffering.

Medical research is paid for in a number of ways. The obvious one is the drug companies, where there’s a cost-benefit consideration. I’ll discuss the other options, and how it works in Australia.

The biggest pool of money comes from the government. We have the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which runs several grant funding schemes each year. There are also some Fellowships that provide researchers with a secure salary for up to five years. Research grants typically last three years, and they usually include salaries for scientists working on the project. Only 16.9% of Project Grant applications were funded for this year. And the competition gets stiffer every year. So this is clearly not a reliable source of funding for most research wish lists. In the words of the crowdfunding site Microryza, “Our system for funding science is broken. Our planet’s biggest funders are so conservative that they fund … only the most obvious ideas. Discoveries that matter are languishing.”

Charitable giving picks up a lot of research that the government doesn’t fund. Besides the work they do supporting patients and their families, some patient advocate groups raise funds for research. There are private citizens who set up research trusts, and many many more who donate to research. Most of these charities and trusts pull less weight than the government grants, but there are some very large ones based overseas, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

There’s also a new movement known as crowdfunding. You may have heard of Kickstarter. There are other crowdfunding sites specifically for scientific research. Examples are Microryza, Petridish, and our own SciFund Challenge. There have been some remarkable successes like the microbiome project but most projects ask for a modest amount. Researchers are turning to crowdfunding more and more as other sources of funding become harder to get.

So there’s a limited pot of money for research. Who decides what it’s used for? Government grants are hotly contested. One of the tasks of the grant writer is to convince the reviewers that theirs is an important problem and the team has the expertise to solve it. Some charitable trusts have a similar review system, but it can also vary quite a lot and can depend on the wishes of the donors. Crowdfunding cuts out the middle man and it’s the donor who must be convinced that the project is worthwhile.

So, why isn’t there more research into your disease and what can you do about it?

You will need researchers who have an interest in your disease and some funding. Which brings us to awareness. Greater awareness by governments, policy makers, researchers, and doctors who make diagnoses will help your case.

The common and high profile diseases such as cancer get a lot of research dollars. Their severity and impact on the community are obvious.Rare diseases don’t have this advantage. Rare Disease Day is an annual event that advocates for people with diseases, syndromes and conditions that occur in fewer than one in 2,000 people. Rare Disease Day is coming up – most years it falls on the 28th February, but every fourth year or 1,461st day it falls on that rare date – 29th February.

Patient advocate groups that offer research grants can have some influence. They can offer grants that are targeted to a specific disease or question. This can help them find researchers with the appropriate expertise, and attract researchers who are looking for funding. They can use the funds that have been raised specifically to improve the lives of the people they support. Crowdfunding is also a great way to target donors who are keen to support the cause.

About 80% of rare diseases are caused by genetic errors. Humans have over 3,000,000,000 letters in their genetic makeup, and these spell out over 20,000 pairs of genes. Many genetic diseases are caused by a one letter error in one of these genes. The human DNA sequence is now mostly known, so it’s possible to read the DNA sequence of the patient and compare it to a standard to find a needle-in-a-haystack DNA error. Unfortunately not all genetic diseases are that straightforward – but it’s a start.

Recently there have been some heart-warming examples of very rare but debilitating diseases for which the causes have been found with the help of sequencing and a persistent parent, being in the right place at the right time, or scientists who were looking for a problem to solve. These are some of the good news stories of modern genetics that are starting to make an impact on rare diseases.

If you want to help make a difference my advice is to support your disease’s patient advocate group, fundraise and lobby for research. If there isn’t a support group for your disease, you could start one. If your disease is rare, Rare Disease Day is there to help. And anyone can help raise awareness about a disease. Better awareness brings better understanding.

LINKS TO PERSONAL GENOME STORIES

Cracking the code – transcript of the Australian Story episode on ABC TV

Genome maps solve medical mystery for Calif. twins – Shots – Health news from NPR

We gained hope.” The story of Lilly Grossman’s genome – National Geographic’s Phenomena – Not Exactly Rocket Science

James Lupski’s Research into His Disease Paved Way Toward Personalized Medicine – Quest (MDA Magazine Online – Fighting Muscle Disease)

The Solution to Diagnostic Delay May Be Closer Than We Think – blog post by the National Organization for Rare Disorders arguing that a rare disease app may help doctors diagnose rare diseases: “…most… rare diseases are unfamiliar to doctors… When doctors are unable to explain patients’ symptoms — as they are for at least three years in the majority of rare disease cases — psychiatric diagnosis is made by default.”

 

Living a Double Life

 

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd, or chytrid) is a fungal pathogen that causes chytridomycosis in some susceptible amphibians.  Not all amphibians are plagued by this infection, but those that are tend to show drastic population declines when exposed to chytrid.  This leaves a collection of individuals that can serve as carriers or vectors of disease, spreading it from one pond to another.  One of the interesting characteristics with chytrid is its specificity to tissues that is attacks.  Chytrid fungus only attacks keratinized tissues, thos with a certain chemical- keratin- that gives skin its waterproofing.

Since amphibians use cutaneous breathing, or getting oxygen through their skin, it should come as no surprise that amphibians’ skin is less keratinized than human skin and other organisms.  In fact, the areas of skin that are keratinized vary throughout an amphibian’s life, with tadpoles having little to no keratin outside of the mouthparts in most species.  Where we have teeth for chewing, tadpoles have rough fingernail-like ridges to scrape off their food.  Chytrid attacks on tadpoles often are not directly fatal but can lead to lower tadpole condition, smaller size, and longer time to metamorphosis.  In adults, chytrid infects far more of the skin, as there’s more keratin for chytrid to feed off of.  This leads to a more extensive infection, and more often than in tadpoles leads to death, and the skin can even slough off as the keratin is broken down so much.

For amphibians, their dual life cycle using both aquatic and terrestrial habitats can help to divide resources and lessen intra-specific competition, but it also exposes them to predators, pathogens, and pollutants in both habitats as well.  It also means that as researchers, we need to consider two functionally different groups- aquatic larvae that eat phytoplankton and detritus, and terrestrial adults who are carnivores.  Two sets of predators, two sets of prey, two sets of environmental conditions, and two sets of competitors.  We might talk about “amphibians,” but that’s not a homogeneous group by any means.

In ecology in general, organisms might be lumped into groups in different ways, either based on relationships or functional groups usually.  Our ability to construct those groups accurately plays a big role in our ability to best study the world around us.  Sometimes, we can put organisms in more than one group based on the type of study that’s being conducted and the questions that we’re asking.  With living things, there’s rarely simplicity, and making sense of that complexity helps us to find the answers as best we can.  For amphibians, that might mean treating a species as two different groups instead of one.

What biologists actually do! A perspective from the field

This week I’m paraphrasing a post of two weeks ago posted here at the Fireside Science blog by Becky Bola. You can say I’m not very creative. As biology is science that study living organisms (and there are millions of them!), biologists do their studies in different ways: by developing models and theories, by doing experiments in labs or in the field. Like with Becky, a lot of people are intrigued with my work. When I say that I’m a field biologist working with ecology and botany, most people think that I’m too frail to go to the field. Seems Becky and I do not fit the stereotype of scientist working in the lab or on the field …

 

Presentation1Stereotype of scientists: 1. Scientists are males, 2. Scientists are crazy, 3. To work in a lab a scientist must be old; 4. To work in the field a scientist must be young and muscular.

 

Becky works with cancer research and most people can relate the need of this type of research with their daily lives. Who does not know someone with cancer? Thanks to scientists cancer is not a sure death sentence any more.

Now for me, I work with plants and plant animal interactions…when I was working with Brazil nut trees, it was easier for people to understand the need of this type of research because thousands of people in the Amazon forest make a living from collecting and selling Brazil nut seeds.

Now I live and work in the tiny island of Mauritius…so small that sometimes does not even appear in some world maps. But Mauritius champions the world when mapping shows the relation of territory size and recent extinct species.

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Proportion of worldwide land mass size per country weight by species that became extinct after 1500DC. Mauritius is the large dark red island.

 

Part of my work is to document what species occur in the last areas of native vegetation on the island and how many are there. So why I would spend my time doing this, one would ask? Because  because of the dire state of many native plants on Mauritius, studies that can help to try to stop them from going extinct can contribute  substantially towards preserving this unique resource for future generations. Mauritius may also be seen as a laboratory of conservation where techniques may be developed that might be applied in other places of the world. More importantly, our own survival depends on the goods provided by biodiversity like clean air, clean water, food, etc. Each single species has the potential to have a chemical that could be useful for biofuel, or medicine or otherwise; or have a gene that can be used to improve drought or disease resistance in our crops. For example, a Madagascar plant provided a chemical that today is the most widely used medicine for treating some types of leukaemia. So, in the end, even if Becky and I are working far apart, one day our research could be given a helping hand for a better world, as the work of our fellow biologists.