Category Archives: Uncategorized

The rise and fall of science blogging

There was a time when I was a science blogger. Not a big deal, not a famous one, but my blog got a fair amount of traffic, and the occasional link from the bigger players. And though it’s been a decade, many of the people I met through science blogging continue to be part of my social media world.

Over the years, I gradually lost sight of the world of science blogs. When I created this site, I tried to set up a blogroll; since I no longer read blogs, I tried instead to create a list of ecology blogs. How times have changed. A decade ago, ecology blogs were very few on the ground, and plant ecology even more so. Now everyone has a website, and their website includes a blog. Few people update their blogs though, and by the time you discover something cool, it has probably gone quiet.

ScienceSeeker is a science blogging aggregator. The post, “On the evolution of the science blogosphere” was an interesting read about the rise and fall of science blogging. There was less decline than I had expected, which proved a pleasant surprise. But we’re not about to see a second golden age of the science blog.

New Year’s resolutions

I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. They seemed a silly habit; for most people they were an admittedly pointless joke, made with the full knowledge that they would be abandoned in weeks, while for others they were a boast, a way of showing off their superior abilities at getting things done, at changing their lives. And for me, they seemed obvious – do the things I’m supposed to be doing, but don’t. Why bother to enumerate one’s own shortcomings?

Gradually, I’ve changed my position. I think they may be useful.

If you plan nothing, there’s a good chance you’ll achieve what you plan, so it makes sense to make a plan for your life, both professionally and personally. For me, the first week of January seems like the ideal time to do that – it’s the beginning of a relatively quiet time at work. Granted, it would have made sense to plan this time months in advance, but those are the times that are just too busy.

And while making plans for your professional life, why not make some plans for your personal life, some plans for self-improvement? While making short-term plans, why not stop to consider the longer term?  Well, maybe it isn’t a good idea to get ahead of yourself. Maybe planning for the longer term is something that’s worth making a short-term goal.

Will I achieve any of this? I have no idea. But one of those items on my yet-to-be-completed list – or plan – is to use this blog. After all, if I hit “publish” right now, I’ve beat my record for 2016.

What can I do with maps…?

I’m trying to learn a little about Github (because, well, I don’t know. I feel like I should). A few random clicks brought me to the Leaflet project. And it got me thinking about what I could – and should – be doing with maps.

As I child I drew maps constantly. Imaginary maps, around which I concocted stories – usually of the rise and fall of empires, but also about the migrations of tribes and peoples. It was fed by my fascination with history (especially my historical atlases) and Tolkien. It was a great form of expression. Today, while I have used maps for research, I have never managed to use maps to tell a story very effectively. I really should. There are tools today that would make telling stories – real or imaginary – so much easier than they once were. Why am I not doing that?

 

Preconceptions, Evolutionary Strategies and Mosses

It’s hard not to see the world through the lens of our own preconceptions and biases.  We tend to be more interested in other large mammals.  We’re drawn to human-like qualities in pets.  But even the most benign insect is disturbingly alien when seen up close.  We also tend to use the familiar as a metaphor for understanding the unfamiliar.  Sometimes this gives us additional insight.  Other times, it leads us down the wrong path.

Most of us are familiar with mosses, even though we tend to use it as a catch-call term for any of the green ‘gunk’ that grows in damp areas (which tends to include not only mosses, but alsocyanobacteria and lichens).  More botanically minded people will often combine mosses with liverworts and hornworts into a group known as the bryophytes.*

Colonisation of dry land was a major evolutionary challenge for plants (just as it was for animals).  Water provides buoyancy and support for the tissues of a plant.  Terrestrial plants must support their own tissues.  Land plants must deal with water loss and the ever-present risk of desiccation.  And finally, land plants have to deal with the fact that water and mineral nutrients are not even distributed in space; water and minerals are more abundant in the soil.

Vascular plants – a group that includes flowering plants, conifers and ferns – have evolved a series of strategies to deal with these challenges.  Leaves are waterproofed by waxy cuticles.  Water is transported from the soil up to the top of the plant – even the tallest tree – through the xylem, which also doubles as a support system.

As traditionally defined, bryophytes were non-vascular plants  – plants that lack xylem andphloem. Without vascular tissue, they are unable to transport water and minerals very far from the soil surface.  This, coupled with their lack of tissues to prevent water loss, leaves them with a relatively limited set of options – they can only grow in moist environments, and they can never get very far from the group.

Most people would see this as a primitive condition – bryophytes have overcome some of the challenges their aquatic ancestors faced when they colonised the land, but only in a limited fashion.  This view, however, is a mistake.  Modern species – even “living fossils“, which appear to have experienced little change in millions of years – are fully modern.  They are not primitive species that have somehow been sheltered from the realities of evolution.  They exist in and interact with communities of modern species.  Nonetheless, it’s normal to think of “basal” taxa as having remained more similar to ancestral species, while more derived taxa have become more dissimilar.  But these assumptions can be misleading.

Bryophytes are unable able to conserve water; in seasonal environments it’s normal to see shrivelled, desiccated mosses during dry periods.  Knowing that land plants originated from aquatic ancestors, it may seem reasonable to assume that this is a primitive condition, a failure, on the part of bryophytes to fully adapt to the challenges of life on land.  It would be a mistake to do so.  We shouldn’t look at the inability to bryophytes to tolerate desiccation as an inferior solution to the problem of life on land.  Instead, it should be seen as an alternative solution to the problem.  Vascular plants have worked around the problem of desiccation by maximising water supply and minimising water loss.  Bryophytes, on the other hand, have evolved the ability to tolerate desiccation.

There’s a strong temptation to think of this as a “primitive” or “ancestral” condition, but in reality it provides options unavailable to vascular plants, like the ability to grow on rock surfaces or tree bark, places where there just isn’t enough water available to supply the needs of vascular plants between wet periods.

*The traditional concept of the Bryophyta does not hold up under modern phylogenetic classification systems.  Liverworts are believed to be a sister group to all other land plants.  Mosses diverged next, with the final split between the hornworts and vascular plants coming later still.