February 27, 2010

Criticisms of video art: A forced march

Part two of two.

I got an e-mail update from The Art Blog this morning. They reviewed the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Of course, like in years passed, chock full of video art. Jeremy and I decided to write a little bit of our views on video art in response.

Hear ye hear ye! All hail video art, it’s the next big thing, it’s the wave of the future, it’s going to revolutionize the art world! Blah Blah Blah! If the revolution consists of me walking through white walled mazes of video projections, then no thank you. Museum goers can’t have missed the gradual takeover of art spaces by video, and it’s not new. It’s been happening for a while now.

About 13 years ago my brother Paul and I went on a series of college field trips to New York City. We were just taken on a bus and released in the city, with total freedom over where we went. Of course we went to The MOMA and The Guggenheim, but we also went into Chelsea and ventured into some small galleries. This was my intro to the hilarity that’s video art. One of the first galleries we went into had a room with a television, suspended screen facing down, at about chest height. It was a tube TV (remember this is pre flat screen) so we had to stoop and shift ourselves, to look up at the screen from underneath. What we were greeted with, after our contorting efforts, was the view, from the interior of a toilet bowl, of a man’s ass. He was shitting. So after we looked at each other like WTF?!? we continued watching. The man unloaded, turned around, faced the camera in the bowl, smiled and flushed. Ah sweet, sweet, video art. Besides “Shitfaced” (which is what the name of that work became to me and my brother) I’ve seen: vigorously hair brushing while shrieking woman, Barbie doll bad acid trips, silent scenes of headless people sitting and shifting, old home movies set to ominous music…etc etc etc.

So what do I do? I laugh, I audibly laugh, out loud while viewing the ridiculous ones. Other museum goers look at me like “omg silence please, this is serious business”. I sigh, I see a darkened room and hear the telltale projector heart clicking away in its recesses, and I walk on by. I feel guilty after passing by endless corridors of darkened rooms, so I go in, “give it a chance Heather.” I say to myself. I have no choice, the videos are becoming all there is to look at.

I think video artists are presumptuous. They really feel that my time is theirs. I will invest 5-10 minutes watching each video in a show of 30-50 artists. It’s expected of me because I can’t absorb the gist at a glance, like when viewing paintings or sculptures. I have to watch in totality if I care to know what they want me to know. I realize that all art requires extended perusal, but video art is a forced march, instead of a gradual unfolding at my own leisure.

I know not all video artists are jerks, I’ve seen a few examples of video art, that really made me happy. There was one in the lobby, at a previous Whitney Biennial, of penguins with weird lighting. It had a 2001 obelisk feel to it, and it was cool. I’ve seen numerous animated videos, and they too were really cool, and interesting to watch. I’ve seen video included in installations, as an artistic element, both interesting, and engaging. But come on. When do I get to stop hearing this wave of the future nonsense?

Criticisms of video art: Sensory deprivation

Part one of two.

I usually skip video art in museums, particularly the so called “single-channel” format, screened or projected films that contain the entirety of the piece. Here’s an example by Josephine Meckseper from this year’s Whitney Biennial, which started on Thursday (and I dearly wish I could attend):

It’s kind of cool, kind of dramatic, but is it really art? Sure, it’s art. But I don’t appreciate it like I would other types, and it’s not because I’m a curmudgeonly hater of the newfangled, mostly because video art isn’t new. At all.

We are so inundated with digital imagery that it makes pieces like the video above commonplace, no big deal. But let me make this clear: It’s not because of the content, it’s because of the inherent lack of faceted interaction in the work.

The creation of a film is an intensive process. Establishing your set, your performance artists, your shots, the scope, etc. Dozens, hundreds of hours of film is recorded. It’s edited, pieced together. The desired effect is refined. They watch it over and over, changing little details here and there. It takes months to create one six minute reel for assholes like me to say “No thanks, that‘s crap.”

It’s filtered, second-hand. Take the video above as an example. Think about the stairwell and that blistering light above, how it washes out the stairs and the people walking up and down, how it penetrates and obscures the camera lens. Imagine how much more interesting it would be if that light was penetrating your eyes, washing out parts of a real stairwell that you were truly climbing. Perhaps you wouldn’t even need an actual light to get that feeling across. The stairwell could be built to simulate that light, creating stairs that are physically deconstructed. It’s really there, I’m touching it with my hands and feet or imagining that I am. I can walk all the way around it. It is a physical reality filtered by my own perception with no trace of a heavy hand.

When I go to an art museum I want to have an experience. I want to see objects and images that challenge my perceptions; part of that challenge is using unique and interesting materials, not the fodder of my everyday digital life. I sit and watch screens enough during my day. I want to lean in and see brush strokes, imagine the feel of rough stone or smooth veneer and have a real experience with something that truly exists in the space I’m occupying. Single-channel art is sensory deprivation, in a sense.

I’m being very specific with my terminology. That’s because I’ve seen some really excellent installations that use video as an element to varying degrees. In some, the video is dominant, but the artist was careful enough to include items that rounded out the experience, that incorporate those necessary grounding elements of touch and smell and presence. It’s all care and attention. Skill is apparent in the aesthetic choices made, and that does not exclude the choice of medium.

February 26, 2010

My Tracks: Fort Yargo State Park

View Fort Yargo State Park in a larger map

About a month ago I realized I was up for a new phone with Verizon. I had been debating about the value of a smartphone for some time, weighing the extra 30 bucks a month for internet services against my curiosity. Would it actually be useful? Is it a toy or tool? I was thinking both; we spend a lot of time away from home on the weekends and I'd love to have a way to write (electronically) while I'm away, take pictures, records, etc.

So I picked up a Droid Eris. It's been remarkably fun to use for news and Twitter in particular, as well as useful for synching notes on the go with my Google Docs account and I'm starting to really get the hang of it. My Tracks is the application that generated the map above, allowing you to record your trips along Google maps (it's network independent, can use GPS). It's an interesting way to log ours hikes and incorporate photos describing specific locations. Most of the waypoints I added as I took the photo.

Fort Yargo was the first experiment. It doesn't work when we walk at home because of the electromagnetic clusterfrak created by the local military airport I'm assuming. It can't get a GPS signal 80 percent of the time. But the Yargo trip was mostly accurate. I had the sensitivity and recording frequency set too high, which created the jagged pathing you see and effectively doubled the distance traveled (and messed up speeds and other measures). Originally, it said we hiked 19 km in 3 hours. Next time I'll see if the new settings help, especially when transversing wooded areas where the signal can get disrupted.

The best part about it is that the program runs in the background and needs little attention, only when you're setting a waypoint. I think there's a camera sync too, where you can take the picture and immediately set it to be incorporated with the map. I'll have to play with it some more.

Fort Yargo is more of a recreational park. The walk was nice and long and it was a beautiful day, but the lake was drained for construction purposes and there were very large corridors of cleared forest, some of which seemed to be in the process of growing back, like at the "Clearing" waypoint.

The park is named for a fort built in the area in 1792. There were reenactors bustling around bonfires and black kettles up by the log cabin at the beginning of the trail, but Oscar isn't the biggest fan of strangers in weird clothes (much barking at the mountain bikers we shared the trail with).

I think we're going to head over to Hard Labor Creek next, maybe this weekend or the following.

TVG named a finalist in Research Blogging awards, and other site news

I was very surprised to find out yesterday that we've been listed as finalists for Best Blog - Conservation or Geosciences for the Research Blogging Awards 2010. A big thank you to the readers that nominated TVG to be considered and to the judges for the honor of being chosen among so many excellent blogs. In about a week, voting begins within the community. I'm looking forward to voting for my favorite blogs in the process.

Other big news: Next week, on March 1st we'll be hosting the 45th edition of the Festival of the Trees. Heather and I are cooking up what we hope is an interesting presentation, a tribute to a long and dedicated tradition (kudos to Dave and Jade in particular for keeping it alive when so many carnivals have perished), so be sure to get your entries to me by tomorrow evening. Entries have been piling up in my inbox for a few weeks now and I'll try to get everyone included that I can. Mail them to me at: thevoltagegate at gmail dot com.

My final tidbit I'm going to leave a bit of a mystery. TVG will be expanding a little bit in the next week. I'm pretty sure I'll have all the details by the end of the weekend, but I'm excited about expanding our horizons, I'll put it that way.

February 24, 2010

Ancient caribou DNA suggests replacement triggered by climate change and/or volcanic eruption


ResearchBlogging.orgI’ve become increasingly interested in the practice of paleoecology of late, trying to find and gather bits and pieces when I have time. This study from Molecular Ecology came to me, which, based on the probability that you can assign probabilities to cosmic events, I’m going to carefully and tentatively (and gentlemanly) attribute to Providence, or Wiley Interscience press releases.

In the Yukon, there are several distinct caribou herds that inhabit and move within certain, definable regions. The authors wanted to use DNA sampled from living caribou in the different regions and compare it to that of ancient caribou, using well-preserved soft tissues and bones excavated from scattered ice patches, in order to determine the historic ranges of these animals and the level of gene flow between herds. Establishing these genetic/ecological reference points and comparing modern data to them can provide administrators with more accurate data which can be used to create more effective management plans.

When Kuhn et al. compared the modern caribou DNA from the Southern Lakes region to that of caribou living in that area over 1,000 years ago, they found that the historic residents were more closely related to herds in the northwest than the existing population of caribou in the region. In other words, the caribou currently living in the Southern Lakes region did not descend from the animals that lived there over a millennium ago.

So what happened to the ancient caribou? How were they displaced completely by these genetically dissimilar animals? There are two suspects that might have worked together in purging these animals from the area.

The first is climate change (Clade 1 is the clade accounting for the Southern Lakes herds):

The appearance of Clade 1 in the Southern Lakes region at ~1000 BP follows a 400 year period during which no remains were preserved within the sample ice patches (1440–1030 BP, Farnell et al. 2004).

Coincidently, this was concurrent with the Medieval Warming Period, where temperatures increased globally. This would produce negative ecological circumstances for the caribou like frequent thaws and loss of snow patches that could have cut their numbers.

But there was another, much more sudden event that could have affected these animals. Mt. Churchill in the Wrangell Mountains erupted twice between ~1200 and 1900 years ago; the second time created the so called “eastern lobe” of the White River Ash (noted as "2" in the illustration), covering an area of over 300,000 square kilometers with tephra, which has been shown in studies to be deadly to both livestock and caribou.

When the dangers began to disappear and the cold temperatures returned, the area was re-colonized, but not by the herds in the surrounding regions. Most likely the modern Southern Lakes caribou are descended from herds farther to the south riding the sweep of the Little Ice Age that returned optimal temperatures to the area.

KUHN, T., MCFARLANE, K., GROVES, P., MOOERS, A., & SHAPIRO, B. (2010). Modern and ancient DNA reveal recent partial replacement of caribou in the southwest Yukon Molecular Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2010.04565.x

February 20, 2010

Give me your virtual beads and blankets

Earlier this week I participated in a little debate on Southern Fried Science. The original post, Twilight, Forks, and the Quileute - cultural identity theft? discussed cultural sensitivity, cultural property, and the negative impact of tourism on natural and native owned lands, in reference to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight book series.

I took some of the points and ran with them (see the comments section) definitely using the opportunity to herald artistic freedom. Facing governmental regulations determining who’s property my thoughts on someone else’s culture are, and where collective human experience begins and ends, made me turn slightly, uncharacteristically, Libertarian. Ugh…

As an afterthought, I wanted to see what these Quileute peoples had to offer. What’s their art even look like? Could I even buy art from them if I wanted to? I started by googling teh interwebz for “Native American arts”. There were a lot of good quality sites that featured the artists, and told about the cultures they were representing. That being said, when I googled "Quileute art", the only options were movie promo crap, mostly made in China. I searched through pages of goofy t-shirts and crappy nickel and plastic necklaces. I started really wondering just how much fans would pay to have something more authentic, something made by the actual people, something their friends might not have, something original. I think they would pay significantly more and they would actually buy it in large amounts. This is definitely a missed opportunity, on the part of the Quileute, in my opinion.

Selling things online is definitely something that native peoples and craftsmen should have long been on the ball about. For example, I may not be able to go to Africa in my lifetime, but I purchased two baskets from Botswana this past Christmas as gifts, and feel good that my money went directly to the people who made them. I would much rather buy things directly from people who put their all into creating, I don’t think I’m the only one. If environmental and social pressures are a problem to your small nature oriented culture, giving people what they want (stuff) while keeping them at UPS-able distance, could be your solution.

February 19, 2010

Island biogeography: State and case of spider diversity in Macaronesia

ResearchBlogging.orgSome of the first organisms found on a newly risen or recently destroyed island are spiders. On mainlands, spiderlings of smaller species weave a tiny drag chute, perched atop the highest point in their immediate area – the leaf of an herb or the very tip of a blooming meadow grass – and let the breeze, even the slightest one, carry them away. Most only travel short distances, remaining in the ecosystem in which they were born, but some are spun upwards in varying winds, and swept into jet streams carrying millions of aerial plankton that sometimes happen upon bare, isolated earth of an island. Insects, birds and driftwood carry seeds and other organisms and their larvae which chances upon the island. The fertile soil provides a foundation for the burgeoning community of explorers and hitchhikers. The original inhabitants evolve and diversify, adapting to the alien and continually changing young environment. Immigration slows, mitigated by extinction, reaching an equilibrium point. Creative forces converge, proceed and decline on a tiny speck of land beaten by endless currents, forces described by island biogeography.

E.O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur first outlined the theory of island biogeography, publishing the dynamic model of equilibrium in 1967, which basically says that immigration, speciation and extinction will determine the number of species present in relation to area (more area, less extinction) and isolation (greater isolation, less immigration). As the number of species present increases, immigration rates decrease and extinction rates increase. There is a “dynamic” theoretical equilibrium point where these rates meet. Wilson and MacArthur’s theory is as influential and essentially applicable as any in ecology. The model is not only used for actual islands, but also in other isolated systems.

Ecologists and biogeographers have been trying to build on the theory for some time. A recent study published in the Journal of Biogeography tests a recent synthesis of island biogeography theory based on the equilibrium model, the general dynamic model of oceanic island biogeography (or GDM), along with other factors like area, elevation and distances between islands in the Canary and Azores archipelagos and the mainland in an attempt to find an adequate predictor of spider species diversity and endemism in those chains, diversity that was initiated by ballooning spiders from the mainland millions of years before.

Macaronesia* the “islands of the fortunate” is a general term applied to five chains of volcanic islands off the western coasts of Europe and Africa: Azores, Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Madeira and the Savage Islands. The results of the study focused on the Canary Islands and the Azores.

The Canary Islands exhibited the greatest richness with the highest numbers on Tenerife: 84 single-island endemics, 145 archipelago endemics and 230 indigenous spider species (Macaronesian total was 255, 370, 584 respectively). The numbers in the Azores were significantly lower (from 0% – 9% of the total); on Corvo, for example, the researchers found no single island endemics, only one archipelago endemic and five indigenous. There are different factors at work in these numbers and the researchers found that this wasn’t a one size fits all situation.

From Whittaker et al. 2008 doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2008.01892.x

The GDM seemed to apply to main islands according to the authors, producing the notable hump-shaped curve pictured above. The GDM was proposed by Whittaker et al. in 2008 and incorporates geologic succession and time into determining species diversity on islands. Like Wilson and MacArthur’s model, immigration (I) decreases and extinction (E) rates increase through over the course of island development (time performs the same function as species number here). But notice the extra parameters. As succession proceeds, speciation (S and therefore richness (R) increases as the environment diversifies (niche opportunity/allopatry) and decreases as the island ages and becomes smaller and more homogenous, eventually disappearing into the sea, marking the end of its lifespan. The decreasing curve of richness in the chart is not as steady as its increase; that represents the progression of niche adaptations along the rise of environmental diversification, followed by interactions among and between trophic levels on the decline.

One genus in particular displayed this “deceleration” of speciation:

Maximum likelihood-based analysis of patterns of diversification in the Dysdera species endemic to Lanzarote and Fuerteventura revealed that diversification in this lineage has decelerated through time, which is consistent with an increase in extinction rates due to ecosystem transformation driven by island ageing.

The Dysdera species began this decline between 5 and 2 mya.

The Azores have very different environmental circumstances than the Canary Islands. First of all , they’re more isolated, farther west off the coast. Wind and sea currents in the area seem to be a barrier to all but the most mobile species, circulating north and south in the area, which favors deposition in the islands closer to the mainland more or less along that axis. The researchers believe that highly mobile spiders colonized the Azores and spread across the archipelago, which would allow for a high level of gene flow and ultimately low species richness. This contradicts the idea that more isolated archipelagos will always have more endemic species.

Habitat loss seems to be a more powerful predictor here. The Azores archipelago has retained only 2% of its natural forests after 400 years of deforestation. Anthropogenic changes have prematurely homogenized the environments, removing mass amounts of vegetation useful to spiders for web building and providing transportation for invasives. It’s been shown that habitat loss tends to more greatly affect organisms at higher trophic levels, and spiders in Macaronesia are historically the main terrestrial predator on those islands. This situation seems to fall in line with that observation. Since spiders exhibit this level of sensitivity, the authors suggest that these animals may be a good indicator species for future study.

As a side note, the laurel forests (laurisilva) are exceedingly beautiful. The trees are relicts of the Pliocene era, representational of the forests that once covered a warmer, more humid Mediterranean. I have that scrawled in the notebook in the hopes that I have time to write a series about relict and perhaps even prehistoric ecosystems.

*I didn’t know this before researching this article, but Macaronesia is the true spelling of the area, not Macronesia, which is how it’s spelled in the paper.

Whittaker, R., Triantis, K., & Ladle, R. (2008). A general dynamic theory of oceanic island biogeography Journal of Biogeography, 35 (6), 977-994 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2008.01892.x

Cardoso, P., Arnedo, M., Triantis, K., & Borges, P. (2010). Drivers of diversity in Macaronesian spiders and the role of species extinctions Journal of Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2009.02264.x

February 18, 2010

The day we defended Twilight and Stephanie Meyer

It was a dark day indeed.

Heather and I spent much of our writing energies yesterday at Southern Fried Science in a healthy debate with the good folks over there about Meyer's responsibilities in publishing a novel using the culture of a local native tribe, cultural capital, the free flow of ideas, the absolute value of art, crediting work, marketing and all kinds of other lovely philosophical things. I'm sure there is still much to discuss, so weigh in if you feel like you have something useful to add. I may write something a bit more cohesive if I find the time in the future.

Cheers to Amy, Andrew and David for being so welcoming and engaging.

February 16, 2010

Road on the Ridge

There was a time, my grandmother told me, when dad would grab the stack of thin metal buckets by the cellar doors and drag each one through the deeper parts of the stream out back, carrying them two by two, staggering back through the cellar and up the wood plank steps. The kitchen was the dining room, split from the living room by a thin wall of rough cut timber. In four pots, covering the stove, Nana boiled the water dad dredged out back just so they could take a bath for the week. The tubs were small and none of them really fit, but it worked for what it was, scrubbing off the dirt you gathered.

Nana remembered when they put that road in, the one that runs along the ridge into town. Used to take the old horse path through the wood, she said. Never needed a damn road up there, just kicks up the dust and sets it on my furniture, she’d say. It’s all I remember. We would slap the cellar screen door behind us on the way out back, bare feet sifting through the long grass between mowings and take our shovels and hoes down to the stream, digging through the rusty pebbles and thick brown slop that hid slimy amphibians. The trees above kept the stream ice cold and the summer sun from burning. The path my father beat to the stream was still there in a deep line further up, to that deep natural well. The challenge was constitution and balance, to step foot over foot between the grass trying hard to cover that soft trench my father wore with his own feet.

Down by that stream out back you couldn’t hear the road. It still ran above us, up on that ridge, lording over the landscape view from the front porch. Cars ran by on in to town, mostly tourists antiquing in sedans, mute and modestly colored, pointing at the homes by the stream in a line, quaint little houses with mown front yards that rolled down from the asphalt. They had it backwards, of course. The lawns rolled from our feet, from the roots and foundations up to be broken, split by the road that ran up and over and through. Once they had continued on into the forest beyond, and the ridge was not a pinnacle or barrier. The road obligated us to slap a mailbox along it to the left of our driveways and walk up there to pay daily respects, looking down its black line, winding into the town we rarely visited.

You walk back and sit by the well, the pool water in which dad bathed and wish the forest would wrap the house, that the stream would delve and expand its noisy boundaries to mitigate that oppressive ridge. You piece together fantastic geologic events that would wall off the places and moments you call home from invasion and bring back the hot days and cold feet by the stream out back, where your family finds itself solace.

February 12, 2010

For Darwin Day: The Biogeography of Darwin's Gourd

ResearchBlogging.orgIn September of 1835, Charles Darwin was visiting an island of Floreana, one of the smaller islands in the Galapagos archipelago where he came across crawling beds of Sicyos villosus, a fairly typical member of the squashes and cucumbers (Cucurbitaceae). Darwin noted that the cucurbit was "injurious" to the surrounding vegetation, referring to its prolific takeover of the landscape nearby.


Darwin sent a sample of S. villosus (pictured above) back to Great Britain along with 209 other plants from the Galapagos, where Joseph Hooker described it and since then, it's been sitting in one receptacle or another for the past century and a half. The desiccated cucurbit was recently pulled out of storage at the University of Cambridge for a bit of molecular analysis. Why this plant in particular? S. villosus hasn't been found in the Galapagos islands or anywhere else since Darwin plucked it from those infectious beds nearly 175 years ago.

The analysis of the cucurbit's DNA, extracted from the seed samples taken by Darwin, revealed that S. villosus is closest in relation to cucurbits in North America and Mexico. The species probably diverged roughly 4 mya, when the Galapagos were still geologically young. Dispersal was not human in origin, meaning long distance from the mainland, potentially from its spiny fruits stuck to birds, the authors suggest.

As far as why it disappeared and so quickly, there's no way of knowing for sure, but it's likely that the settlement of the island was to blame. Cucurbit-specific viruses could have been carried from the mainland and transferred to the natives, or the plant could have been grazed to extinction. When Darwin was on the island in 1835, there were already 2,000 head of cattle and later in the 19th century, it was reported that agriculture had wrecked much of the ecology.

These exact processes - divergence via evolution, dispersal and extinction - were described and linked in The Origin of Species, bolstered by experiments that Darwin himself carried out; they also happen to be the central tenets of modern biogeography.

He called it Geographical Distribution in Origin, and there are two chapters toward the end that delve into his thoughts regarding these tenets, particularly dispersal:

If the difficulties be not insuperable in admitting that in the long course of time the individuals of the same species, and likewise of allied species, have proceeded from some one source; then I think all the grand leading facts of geographical distribution are explicable on the theory of migration (generally of the more dominant forms of life), together with subsequent modification and the multiplication of new forms. We can thus understand the high importance of barriers, whether of land or water, which separate our several zoological and botanical provinces. We can thus understand the localisation of sub-genera, genera, and families; and how it is that under different latitudes, for instance in South America, the inhabitants of the plains and mountains, of the forests, marshes, and deserts, are in so mysterious a manner linked together by affinity, and are likewise linked to the extinct beings which formerly inhabited the same continent.

John C. Briggs wrote a paper last year on Darwin's contribution to biogeography, and how his ideas on dispersal - a cornerstone of biogeography and ecology - were challenged in the 1970's.

Darwin was necessarily focused on dispersal in his exploration of species. The ocean, in particular seemed impassable, and yet somehow animals and plants were able to transverse these inhospitable environments and establish themselves and their descendants on far away land masses like islands. He immersed seeds in seawater and found that 14% of them were still viable after 28 days of exposure. He found seeds in bird pellets and on muddy bird feet. In the soil caked to the leg of partridge long dead he found the seeds of 82 different plants. They clung to anything they could, even turning up in the dung of flying insects like locusts. Darwin was curious about how land snails turned up on islands so far away from continental land masses, so he tested how resilient their hibernation techniques would be on an oceanic voyage, surmising that their operculum could be a sufficient barrier to immersion for up to a week. It was clear to him that species originated from central points and found ways to transverse environmental barriers via their own dispersal abilities and subsequently diversify. For the next century or so, this was plainly accepted.

Following the development of plate tectonic theory in the late 1960's, there was a push to bring vicariance, the idea that geological boundaries have caused allopatric speciation, to the forefront of biogeography. Some even went so far as to discount dispersal as the main shaper of diversity and distribution:

From Croizat et al. in 1974:

We reject the Darwinian concept of the center of origin and its corollary, the dispersal of species, as a conceptual model of general applicability in historical biogeography.

Now, vicariance was always acknowledged as a potential factor, but it was always considered a relatively minor one. The idea had its proponents and its proponents had - what else - a prioi assumptions. According to Briggs:

Thus, vicarianists came to rely on a model that did not permit them to consider all aspects of the distribution puzzle, and their work was therefore handicapped. As time went on and more works indicating dispersal were published, this handicap became more obvious and contributed to a gradual loss of confidence in the method.

The ease of molecular analysis in the 1990's vindicated Darwin's initial ideas regarding evolution and dispersal, according to Briggs. S. villosus tells the story of its origins, its journey and its life through its DNA and that story shows us that it ended up on Floreana as a stowaway on an unsuspecting seabird, not as splintered remnant from the remains of supercontinents. So it was a quiet battle for footing, virtually unknown outside of this specific scientific community, but proof again of Darwin's extraordinary problem solving abilities and intuition.

Sebastian, P., Schaefer, H., & Renner, S. (2010). Darwin’s Galapagos gourd: providing new insights 175 years after his visit Journal of Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2010.02270.x

Briggs, J. (2009). Darwin’s biogeography Journal of Biogeography, 36 (6), 1011-1017 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2008.02076.x

Briggs, John C. 1987 Biogeography and plate tectonics / J.C. Briggs Elsevier ; Distributors for the U.S. and Canada, Elsevier Science Pub. Co., Amsterdam ; New York : New York, NY, U.S.A.

February 8, 2010

The Expanse: Vertigo

It took a couple of days to adjust to the that enveloping mass of sky that gated the grasslands horizon to horizon. If any fear made itself apparent along his journey it should have been the close discomfort of the forest he left behind, the cramped darkness and ignorance of one's surroundings. His senses were suppressed in such a place, but he felt no inordinate fear until he crossed that small river at the forest edge and clambered up and over the far bank. The vast plains stretched long and treeless before him and he cowered among the grasses, forcing his hands and feet to the ground, processing the heady, agoraphobic vertigo that crippled him in those first moments.

The traveler made little progress after crossing the river boundary; his first hurdle was trying to suppress the feeling that at any moment he could lose cohesion with the earth and fly uninhibited up, or whatever direction sucked him into the heart of that cold, blue, nebulous sky. His unease faded in a day or so, leaving him with the profound homogeneity and a distressing lack of natural direction. He kept his compass close.

February 5, 2010

Defining the tick marks on your life line

I wrote this last March, and forgot about it until the other day. Thought it deserved a migration from notes:

I was sifting through my notes early this morning and came across a few sentences scrawled in the margin, just a random snippet that, at the moment, I thought was worth jotting down: Life has two definite, unavoidable points that we all share in common – birth and death. I drew a number line and put tick marks at the beginning and end of that line, then habitually filled in tick marks between without even thinking about why or what purpose they would serve.

The birth and death marks are certain. But what do the tick marks in the center represent? Why are they uniformly distributed? If I’m to carry this metaphor beyond its simplistic, trite “meaning” (going against my usual distaste for life analogies using mathematical or scientific models), then those tick marks are what distinguish us from one another.

February 3, 2010

Forest fragmentation and the isolation of the giant panda (a goodbye to Tai Shan and Mei Lan)

ResearchBlogging.orgTwo of the cities I’ve called home in the past 10 years – DC and Atlanta – are each sending a panda home to China tomorrow. Mei Lan and Tai Shan were both born in captivity and both a huge boon for conservation and science education on the east coast. I watched Tai Shan grow up along with other zoo goers in the DC area.

They’re returning to their ancestral home in China, where wild pandas are still endangered. Fossil records show us that giant pandas had a much wider range in Asia, inhabiting subtropical and warm temperate forests. Now, mostly because of human encroachment, they are restricted to 24 isolated populations in China’s fragmented mountain forests where bamboo dominates the understory.

In recent surveys, researchers have shown that the number of individual pandas has increased due to conservation efforts in the country, but the populations remain disparate. A recent study published in the Journal of Biogeography takes a look at how exactly these pandas are distributed in the forests of Southwest China, in relation to the level of fragmentation.

Forest fragmentation is a term we read a lot in newspapers and magazines listing the numerous causes of a population decline or a biological invasion, but it’s rarely fleshed out, so I’m going to take the opportunity to briefly describe its most important aspects.

You’re standing on a rock at the edge of a large stream or small river. A forest stretches from the banks of this stream to the faint peaks of mountains far in the distance. You turn around, looking across the stream to the other bank. There’s a stone like the one you’re standing on, and beyond that an identical forest running seamlessly from river to mountains in the other direction. Where the forest ends, at the bank, it changes from one ecosystem to another. In the river itself, another ecosystem, with microhabitats. On the other bank, a replica, then the forest again.

Now imagine you’re standing in a gravel patch on the side of a highway. There is a forest in front of you with no shrubby transitional area. On the other side, a replica: a gravel patch and a wall of trees extending to the mountains in the distance, or so you assume. You see the difference in the split. One is natural and supports a diversity of dovetailing ecosystems, the other is anthropogenic, effectively splitting one forest “patch” into two patches.

As these forest patches are further split, metapopulations form: smaller, per-patch assemblages of the populations found in the once contiguous forest patch. As land is developed, the patches shrink, becoming more and more isolated until migration and dispersal between them becomes strained due to a lack of food and shelter in the developed land. In the process of development, a higher ratio of forest edge to core is created, a drier, sunnier habitat that supports a different network of organisms. The extension of the forest patch edge also means more access for predators and parasites living outside.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that dense forest (defined as forests with canopy cover > 30%) is “essential” for giant panda survival in the wild. The highest densities of pandas were found in the Qinling Mountains, which also happened to be an area with low relative fragmentation. Broken down, the most important factors for pandas turned out to be patch area, edge density (distance of edge per unit area) and patch “clumpiness” or how close patches are from one another.

Large mammals like the giant panda are particularly sensitive to fragmentation due to their need for space within a preferred habitat, the dense forest. It’s not just territorial; it has a lot to do with biodiversity. The size of these patches determines the diversity of the forest, which creates these smaller habitats like core or dense forest. In this current situation, where forest has been significantly reduced, pandas are forced to transverse long stretches of alien landscapes, which requires more energy despite the lack of food and exposes them to human influences.

Instead of establishing new reserves for other isolated populations, the authors recommend that future conservation efforts should be focused on creating corridors between the disparate patches. It’s great that the conservation efforts to bolster and protect populations are starting to work and the number of individuals is increasing, but the population needs to be considered as a whole. That means trying to reconnect forest patches and expanding the gene pool.

So as we say goodbye to Tai Shan and Mei Lan, it’s important to recognize just why they’re here in the first place. They’re ambassadors for conservation, for the reestablishment of their species in the wild, not in zoos.

The last time I saw Tai Shan, he was doing this:

It made me smile. The interest he generated, that oblivious little panda cub, just by doing what young mammals do – eating, sleeping, playing, sleeping some more – is remarkable. The crowds that lined up in front of that panda enclosure were enormous; so big, in fact, that they had to expand the area to compensate. Dads of every nationality held their squirming little ones on sweaty shoulders during the summer. In the fall, hundreds of school kids – in uniform and out – would pack in for the keeper’s lecture. And in the winter, after the New Year, Heather and I went to the zoo one weekday afternoon between semesters and had Tai Shan completely to ourselves for almost an hour. You can’t help but vicariously reach out to that little life, stumbling along with him as he paws and climbs and sniffs. It’s our proper place in stewardship. From a distance, we’re touched by the clear, oblivious innocence of nature.

Wang, T., Ye, X., Skidmore, A., & Toxopeus, A. (2010). Characterizing the spatial distribution of giant pandas (

) in fragmented forest landscapes
Journal of Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2009.02259.x

February 2, 2010

Questioning our fathers: More on the perception of women and environmentalism

Just to recap quickly: I think the judgment of environmentalism as a weak philosophical position is because of the same framework that placed women in the domesticated maternal role. Women were and are still in some societies/subcultures expected to stay home, have children, handle the domestic obligations in the home and most importantly, leave the big stuff – any professional pursuit - to the men. Their life was their home, nurturing, feeding and giving affection emotionally and biologically to children and husband.

With women missing from the workplace, any “meaningful”, professional work was truly “manly.” The nurturer doesn’t work in the sense that the professional does; the nurturer’s attributes lean on softness and delicacy, while the professional relies on his strength of arm or mind to organize and solve problems. This is all nonsense of course. The work of raising children and managing a home is just as tedious and difficult as any profession I can think of. Beyond that, there were innovators in the workplace that happened to be women; it wasn’t only men in every field, but it was mostly men in industry.

In a male dominated workplace, they are considered responsible for the innovations of every generation. The Industrial Revolution, World War II and the Green Revolution changed America, made the country comfortable through clever machinations dreamed up by a network of predominantly male minds. There is a shared pride in this perception, in the resilience and strength of this work.

A few links this morning

The 47th Circus of the Spineless is up at Beetles in the Bush.

At Kind of Curious, check out the Science Pro Public #20.

Today is World Wetlands Day, marking the day in 1971 when the Ramsar Convention was signed in Iran. I'm going to see what I can scrounge up for the day, but for now, here's a video and a couple of links:

The Ramsar Convention
Australian Dept of Environment