Global weirding: bats dying off

NY Times: bats are dying off in huge numbers throughout the Adirondacks. No one seems to know why, but symptoms include low fat reserves and susceptibility to some sort of superficial fungus. Puts me in mind of colony collapse disorder in honeybees – another unexplained disaster befalling ecologically critical species.

It’s frankly scary. This is the kind of thing we might expect as a result of climate change and a general increase in human interference in natural systems: gradual changes having sudden, nonlinear effects. We’re dismantling our own life-support system for parts, and we don’t even know which bits are important.

Oh, the irony

When University of Minnesota biologist (and science blogger) P. Z. Myers came to a recent screening of Ben Stein’s new wannabe-expose Expelled at the Mall of America, he was – wait for it – kicked out. Funny thing is, the management admitted Myers’s guest, none other than (and here I’m quoting Myers’s comment on his own account) Richard Freaking Dawkins. I could go on, but I think the NYT coverage and Myers’s own blogging do a fine job of articulating how petty and stupid the ID contingent ends up looking in light of this. That’s on top of the whole denial-of-fact thing, of course.

Well, OK – one additional comment from me. The oversize dollop of whipped cream on this sundae of irony is that both Myers and Dawkins are interviewed in Expelled (though the producers misled them about the nature of the documentary). Myers posted an excerpt that’s available on YouTube:

Sounds pretty measured and reasonable to me. Not necessarily everything I agree with, but not foaming-at-the-mouth, likely-to-disturb-the-peace crazy, either.

Science 2.0? New data, but not new methods

In a Perspectives piece in this week’s Science, Ben Shneiderman argues that we need a new kind of science [subscription] to deal with human interactions via the Internet. He calls this “Science 2.0”:

The guiding strategies of Science 1.0 are still needed for Science 2.0: hypothesis testing, predictive models, and the need for validity, replicability, and generalizability. However, the Science 2.0 challenges cannot be studied adequately in laboratory conditions because controlled experiments do not capture the rich context of Web 2.0 collaboration, where the interaction among variables undermines the validity of reductionist methods (7). Moreover, in Science 2.0 the mix of people and technology means that data must be collected in real settings (see the figure). Amazon and Netflix became commercial successes in part because of their frequent evaluations of incremental changes to their Web site design as they monitored user activity and purchases.

Good evolutionary ecologist that I am, I read this and said to myself, “Science 2.0 sounds like what I already do.” Biologists have been using methods beyond controlled laboratory experiments and collecting data in “real settings” to test hypotheses since Darwin’s day and before (see Jared Diamond’s discussion of natural experiments found in “real settings” [subscription]).

As an example of Science 2.0 methods, Shniederman shows a chart mapping collaborations between U.S. Senators, a version of which is available here. It’s an informative picture – you can see immediately that “independents” Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders are a lot more connected to the Democrats than the Republicans, and that a relatively small number of senators act as “bridges” between the two parties. But it’s not clear to me why this represents a new method (apart from the visualization technology behind it) – couldn’t the same graphic have been compiled from paper voting records in 1920? It might be easier to produce now, but I don’t think the diagram represents a new scientific method. (An analogy: it might be really easy for me to do ANOVAs now, but these statistics pre-date my laptop and R.)

Shniederman also suggests that Science 2.0 will be interested in different kinds of things than hoary old Science 1.0:

Science 1.0 heroes such as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein produced key equations that describe the relationships among gravity, electricity, magnetism, and light. By contrast, Science 2.0 leaders are studying trust, empathy, responsibility, and privacy.

He cites a “fivefold growth of research on privacy and trust,” based on a literature search, but doesn’t elaborate on how these topics require truly new methods. Again, I’d suggest that Science 1.0 was interested in human interactions, too (just ask a Sociobiologist), but it didn’t have the data provided by the Internet until, well, about 10 years ago. I’d wager that none of the studies turned up by Shneiderman’s lit search do anything radically new, methods-wise.

It’s certainly true that the growth of social networking through the Internet allows scientists access to data that can answer questions we weren’t able to deal with before. For instance, we have real-time records of people interacting with their friends thanks to Facebook (momentarily pretend this doesn’t creep you out). But the actual methods we’ll use to analyze those data are nothing radically new. On that count, Science 2.0 looks a lot like a Microsoft product upgrade – a new interface “skin” on top of the same basic mechanism.

Shneiderman B. 2008. Science 2.0. Science 319:1349-50.

Diamond J. 2001. Dammed experiments! Science 294:1847-8.

Parasites help figs control pollinators

Fresh off the open-access press at PLoS Biology: parasites may help to stabilize the mutualism between figs and fig wasps.

In nature, mutualistic relationships usually conceal a tug-of-war between interacting species. This is especially clear in the case of pollinating seed parasites, like yucca moths (my favorite) and fig wasps. Both these insects pollinate their eponymous host plants, then lay eggs in the fertilized flowers so their larvae can eat some of the seeds produced. Natural selection should push each interactor to overexploit this deal: the pollinator “wants” to lay lots of eggs, but the plant “wants” to get as many seeds as possible. Yuccas keep yucca moths in check by killing off flowers with too many eggs inside [subscription], but there hasn’t been a similar mechanism found in figs.

Until now. In the new paper, Dunn et al. show that the figs might benefit from parasites that attack the pollinating wasps. Fig flowers grow in “synconia,” hollow globes like the one in the photo above, which are lined inside with tiny flowers. Fig wasps climb inside the synconia to pollinate and lay their eggs in the flowers. Another wasp species parasitizes the pollinators by laying its eggs near pollinator eggs, so their larvae can eat the pollinator larvae when they hatch. Turns out, the parasites lay their eggs from the outside of the synconium, and the flowers inside the synconium vary in how close they are to the outer wall. Any pollinator eggs laid too close to the outer wall of the synconium are nailed by parasites – so the pollinators have an incentive to only lay eggs in the innermost flowers. Neato!

Dunn, D.W., S.T. Segar, J. Ridley, R. Chan, R.H. Crozier, D.W. Yu, and J.M. Cook. 2008. A Role for Parasites in Stabilising the Fig-Pollinator Mutualism. PLoS Biol 6(3): e59.