Author Archives: jcvf

CSU’s Graduate Degree Program in Ecology gets high marks!

New data from the National Research Council evaluated Ecology graduate programs in the United States.  A web site offering those rankings is at Because programs differ in facets of their faculty research and training, there are a number of ways that programs could be ranked.  Using the NRC’s ranking system with equal ranking of their survey and regression data, CSU’s GDPE lands at the #18 spot (see the list here).  Great recognition for a program that we think is outstanding!

How does science progress?

We had an interesting discussion in Ecosystems Ecology today (ECOL 610) on how science progresses.  We listed the following processes by which science makes incremental changes.  These include:

  • Testing hypotheses.  Sometimes these results can weaken existing paradigms.
  • Development of new theories, hypotheses, paradigms or predictions.
  • Synthesis of previously disconnected sub-disciplines or of existing data
  • New observations
  • Acceptance of a new view (almost a social dynamic)
  • Emergence of “rogue” personalities who press a new agenda
  • Communication of ideas
  • New technologies for: observing nature, analyzing data, reducing the cost/difficulty of doing science, increased accuracy/precision in observation, conducting new experiments.

I had not previously considered the social factors.

Expert credibility in climate change

In the popular press, you often hear about climate change skeptics who are scientists.  But do these skeptics really know what they are talking about?  Are they high-profile scientists with legitimate doubts or do they quacks?  Today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists contains a new analysis by  Aneregg and colleagues showing 97% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the IPCC conclusions.  They also find that the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers!

Spotlight on Archaea

In her NY Times blog, Olivia Judson gives an ovation to Archaea.  This domain of organisms gets none of the recognition of their more famous kin, Bacteria and Eukaryotes despite their unusual biology.  As she describes, some members of the group Archaea have extreme tolerance to temperature and pH, thriving in the boiling acids found in hot springs and the bottom of ocean vents.  All known methane producing microbes are found among the Archaea.

E.O. Wilson as a Microbial Ecologist?

Cornell colleague Steve Zinder quotes Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson

“If I could do it all over again, and relive my vision in the
twenty-first century, I would be a microbial ecologist. Ten billion
bacteria live in a gram of ordinary soil, a mere pinch held between
thumb and forefinger. They represent thousands of species,
almost none of which are known to science. Into that world
I would go with the aid of modern microscopy and molecular
analysis. I would cut my way through clonal forests sprawled
across grains of sand, travel in an imagined submarine through
drops of water proportionately the size of lakes, and track predators
and prey in order to discover new life ways and alien food

from Wilson’s 1994 autobiography, quoted by Zinder and Salyers Microbial Ecology chapter in the 2005 edition of Bergey’s manual.

Zinder later pointed out a quote by Gould from a 1994 Scientific American article

This is truly the “age of bacteria” – as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

Birds & Wind Farms

There is a lot of concern about birds being killed by wind turbines.  In 2007, the National Research Council put out a report on the Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects that identified a small general risk to birds & bats (at least compared to house cats!), but that some specific locations and species were at risk.  Yesterday, a student in my Global Change Ecology class sent a video link about how some wind farms along a major migratory flyway along the Texas coast are using a Merlin Radar System to detect when large flocks of birds are present.  The system stops the wind turbines when large flocks are in the vicinity of the turbines.

Barrow, Alaska

In August of 2008, I met a journalist in Alaska named Bob Reiss who was doing a story on Barrow, Alaska for Outside magazine.  That article mostly covered why the Coast Guard is expanding its presence along the Arctic coast.  In the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine, Bob has another nice article covering Barrow as “Ground Zero for Climate Change.” Here he focuses more on life in Barrow, both for scientists and residents.

Here are links to photos from my 2006 and 2008 expeditions to Barrow.

A tradeoff between plant growth & herbivory defense

A new report in Science provides a textbook example of how plants can either be good at growing (taking advantage of nutrient resources) or be good at resisting herbivores, but not both.  The experiment was conducted by comparing growth and herbivory on 16 species of milkweed.  The article is by Mooney et al. and there is a perspectives article as well.