When it comes to economics, diversity is key

A study published this week in Nature compared the U.S. economic downturn with a current ecological issue: a decline in biodiversity. In the study, economist Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England and zoologist Robert May of Oxford University basically described the financial system as having similar weaknesses as a monoculture. That is, if all banks are run equally, they are more susceptible to a uniform crisis; much in the way that a pest invasion would have a farther-reaching impact on a plot of land with all of the same species. According to a Scientific American article, “One way to combat this issue is to establish more self-contained “nodes” as has been employed in forest management and even computer networks, so that if one element takes a hit, it doesn’t take down the entire system.” As Sarah Zielinski explained in today’s Surprising Science post, “There are lessons to be had from the world of ecology, say Haldane and May. We could be promoting and managing ecosystem resilience better by requiring banks to have a larger proportion of liquid assets on hand in case of some sort of shock to the system. Taking a lesson from epidemiology, we could focus on limiting the number of ‘super-spreaders’ within the network; but instead of quarantining infected individuals we would somehow limit the number of ‘super-spreader institutions,’ those banks more familiarly labeled as ‘too big to fail.’” Discover’s blog 80beats implied that the current structure could be affected like a trophic cascade: “Modern ecologists recognize that the failure of key species could cause non-linear, cascading ripples that cripple a whole ecosystem.” Some might propose that these comparisons oversimplify the financial system; however, the overall recognition that industry could draw on ecological science to reevaluate such a complex network is a valid argument to make. “Whether or not experts agree that biology is a useful lens through which to study financial markets, Haldane and May suggested that financial regulation is already ‘following in the footsteps of ecology, which has increasingly drawn on a system-wide perspective when promoting and managing ecosystem resilience,’” concluded the Scientific American article. Photo Credit: Dirk...

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Ecology in pop music, comic books and foodies’ delights

Recipes for lionfish and other invasive species, the microbial communities likely inhabiting Lady Gaga and other humans, hidden ecosystems in caves and underneath Antarctica, explaining evolution through a graphic novel and the big flavor of tiny life forms. Here are the latest stories in ecology for the first week in January 2011. Invasivore’s cookbook: Discover’s Discoblog listed a couple of ways that citizens could help to manage invasive species: One idea provided by writer Jennifer Welsh was adding lionfish, kudzu and asian carp to the dinner menu. The red lionfish (Pterois volitans), for example, has been occupying reefs off of the Florida Keys and have been spotted as far north as Rhode Island. Some Florida restaurants feature lionfish dishes and The Washington Post has a recipe for lionfish romesco stew. Read more at “What to Do With Troublesome Invasive Species: 1) Eat Them, 2) Wear Them.” Lady Gaga’s life forms: According to a recent Scientific American blog post, pop musician Lady Gaga has the same life forms inhabiting her body as the rest of us. That is, Rob Dunn describes everything from the common foot fungus Tricophyton rubrum to the forehead mites Demodex spp. Dunn even explained the bacteria, protists and bacteriophages living in the human mouth. Read more at “The top 10 life-forms living on Lady Gaga (and you).” Hidden ecosystems: There were a handful of stories this week on hidden ecosystems. Wired reported on Lake Vostok underneath Antarctica and a river that runs underwater in a cave in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Also, stunning photos of the world’s largest cave–Hang Son Doong in Vietnam–show an indoor jungle and gigantic segments that could fit a skyscraper. Read more at “World’s Largest Cave Can Fit Skyscraper, Has Jungle.” Evolution in comic book form: Scientific American featured an excerpt from a comic book set to be published this year on evolution and how it shaped humanity. According to the description, the book was “written by noted comic-book author and professor of biology Jay Hosler and illustrated by the award-winning duo Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon.” It follows the characters Bloort and Prince Floorsh: time-traveling space aliens. View the excerptat “Getting a Leg Up on Evolution–the Comic Book Version.” Growing Gorgonzola: For her first blog post, biologist and journalist Claire Ainsworth provided an overview of the interactions between bacteria on various types of cheese and the effects these microbes have on the flavor, texture and nutritional value. “While ‘ecosystem’ might sound like a rather grandiose term for a common or garden cheese, it is in fact perfectly apt,” wrote Ainsworth. “The reeking slice of Camembert oozing over your oatcake has more in...

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Q&A: Ecologists assess oil spill damage

An oil slick originating from a rig about 130 miles southeast of New Orleans, which is dumping oil into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of approximately 25,000 barrels per day, is drifting toward the Alabama, Florida and Louisiana coasts, and scientists are still assessing the ecological impact that will result. In the Q&A below, three members of the Ecological Society of America’s Rapid Response Team discuss the current and possible future damage of this spill and the effects it could have on the Gulf region.

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Tracking the ecological impact of nanotechnology

Scientists are still uncovering the potential uses for nanotechnology. Just this month, researchers have reported on nanotechnology’s potential to eradicate cancer cells and blood diseases, desalinate seawater on the go and convert environmental energy waste to hydrogen fuel. With new research arising daily, it seems nanotechnology could have many applications in medicine and alternative energy.

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Biomes: Old-school?

A biome has traditionally been defined (broadly and loosely, of course) as an area that has similar plant and animal communities and geologic and climatic structures.  In recent years, the term ecosystem has come to be virtually interchangeable. But Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County believes that doing ecology by defining biomes is antiquated.  In this video by The Discovery Channel, he proposes instead the use of “anthromes” that include definitions of areas that have, as he says, “already been transformed by human activity.” Instead of the traditional biome map with no representation of urban areas, Ellis thinks maps that show “mixed” systems that include natural and human influences are more appropriate.  Check out the video (and be patient through the ad) by clicking on the photo below, and see what you think....

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Evolution and ecosystem engineers

Evolutionary biologists agree that the natural environment shapes the evolution of life. A study published in Nature today, however, finds that the evolution of a species can also have big impacts on the surrounding environment. Threespine stickleback are famous as an example of rapid, adaptive radiation. These small freshwater fish have evolved in the lakes of British Columbia to have very different lifestyles.  In large lakes, there are two varieties:  The benthic variety hangs out at the bottom of its lake and feeds on invertebrates that live in the sand, while the limnetic variety stays in the water column and eats floating plankton.  Strong competition for food is thought to have produced these two species from a common ancestor in as little as 10,000 years, which is practically light speed in evolutionary time. A third generalist variety lives in smaller lakes where the competition for food is not as vicious. Adept at both feeding strategies, these fish are thought to have undergone little adaptive evolution, and therefore are similar to the other forms’ common ancestor. Luke Harmon of the University of Idaho and his colleagues created miniature replicas of the lakes in their laboratory and observed the effects introduced fish had on their surroundings.  In experiments including the two specialized species, the researchers detected more dissolved organic carbon in the water.  They found that two parts didn’t make a whole: Even though the specialists were covering the same foraging area as the generalist species, something unbeknownst to the researchers was different about their foraging habits. This dissolved carbon inhibited light penetration through the water, disrupting the growth of aquatic plants and other carbon-producing organisms. Harmon concluded that the evolution of two varieties would likely have very different effects on the environment, and that the specialists could be seen as ecosystem engineers. The authors write that these results could have far-reaching effects on other species; they write that “adaptive radiation may modify the environmental conditions of ecosystems and shape the selective pressures of other species.” Harmon, L., Matthews, B., Roches, S., Chase, J., Shurin, J., & Schluter, D. (2009). Evolutionary diversification in stickleback affects ecosystem functioning Nature DOI:...

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