Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times has an article that goes into some of the biology behind this spring’s “superbloom” in California — plants all over the state responding to an exceptionally cool, wet spring with profuse flowering. Corinne Purtill, the author, called up some rando to enthuse about all that spring greenery:
Those 31 atmospheric rivers delivered steady, nourishing rainfall from October to March. Regional temperatures remained moderate as well, without any sudden early-spring heat waves to kill off fragile baby plants.
The combination of those two factors has produced “an absolutely glorious spring,” one that has been more vibrantly colorful for longer than any in recent memory, said Jeremy Yoder, a Cal State Northridge biologist.
As the headline says, everything is blooming everywhere all at once, and it reflects how the life histories of plants in many California natural communities are adapted to periodic drought. Check out the whole piece for more from me and my fellow plant nerds on the science behind a spring bloom that has us all agog.
The Washington Post “climate advice” columnist, Michael Coren, has a great article up today about his experience trying out apps that identify plants and wildlife [gift link] from smartphone images or audio recordings, like iNaturalist or Merlin. It’s clear from Coren’s description that being able to put names to the living things in his neighborhood gave him a new connection to that urban biodiversity
I’m not a master naturalist, but I have one in my pocket. Thanks to artificial intelligence trained on millions of observations, anyone with a smartphone can snap a picture or record a sound to identify tens of thousands of species, from field bluebells to native bumblebees.
If I’m honest, it’s the kind of thing I would normally miss while walking or pedaling to work. Birdsong might be gorgeous but I’d barely hear it. I’d note “pine tree” as a catchall for conifers.
That has changed. I’m now on a first-name basis with most of my wild neighbors. It has reconnected me to a natural world I love, yet never studied deeply enough to know all its characters and settings.
This is very much the experience I hope students have in my undergraduate plant systematics course, and I’m delighted that smartphone apps are making it more accessible. (This year I actually started providing my plant systematics class with explicit guidance in using iNaturalist as one resource for plant identification, in concert with formal botanical keys like the Jepson manual.) But Coren also illustrates the article with images of plants he’d identified using apps and … they’re not very good?
A big review article, written with Joshua Tree Genome Project co-PI Chris Smith and a bunch of other Joshua tree experts, went online today at Biological Conservation. In it, we attempt to comprehensively describe the challenges to biodiversity conservation in the Mojave Desert, and outline solutions — more detail over on the lab blog, or check out the paper itself via this sharing link, which provides free full-text access through January 20, 2023.
A couple weeks ago I realized I’d neglected to post photos from the tail end of summer, and updated my Flickr page with the best of August and September — and then failed to post here, on what’s meant to be my online home. Oops. You can go browse the whole set on my Flickr photostream, but here’s a few highlights from the only real camping trip C and I managed this summer, an afternoon at the Getty Center, and (at the top of this post) a September trip to Joshua Tree National Park for a planning event.
All of these are taken with an Olympus E-M10 Mark IV, the first “real” camera I’ve used in strange ages — I bought it for the Alaska trip, and I’m still getting the hang of it, but it’s a major upgrade from what my smartphone can capture, especially for wildlife.
Weeks after Elon Musk took possession of Twitter and proceeded to tweet fast and break things, this Scientific American article by Joe Bak-Coleman offers a general theory of why it’s going so badly: social networks are complex systems rather than complicated ones.
On a social network, interactions between individuals create dizzying feedback loops and chaotic interactions that render simple mathematical models next-to-useless for predicting the future, let alone controlling it. Musk’s gamble is that applying his tinkering philosophy to Twitter will take him where no one has gone before: ownership of a large, healthy and profitable social network. The problem is that, unlike the moon or Mars, we have no idea how to get there—and that’s a challenge that engineering fixes cannot solve.
I saw this linked from Mastodon, where I (and now a pretty large fraction of my former Twitter network) have taken refuge. People there are generally passing it around in the spirit of schadenfreude that imbues most discussion of Twitter in the “Fediverse” distributed social network. However, I don’t see much awareness that what Bak-Coleman identifies as a problem for Musk running Twitter is also a problem for a network of mostly volunteer admins running Fediverse-connected Mastodon instances: we don’t actually know how design and moderation decisions will ultimately add up to create the decentralized social network we’re all using now.
The science fiction novel Ender’s Game is best remembered for its primary plot, about a genius child who leads Earth’s forces to genocidal victory against aliens; but it also has a secondary plot line that seems, in retrospect, terrifyingly prescient. While the protagonist Ender is learning to become the greatest space-general in history, his near-equally-gifted pre-teen brother and sister, left behind on Earth, take up politics. Peter and Valentine set up pseudonyms on a global online message board and spar theatrically, building competing followings and eventually real-world political influence. By the novel’s end Peter has leveraged his online clout into the leadership of a worldwide government.
I read Ender’s Game in the mid-1990s, when it was truly science fictional to imagine the whole world connected in a single messaging system, much less using devices portable enough to carry in a backpack. By 2004, my final year of undergrad, I acquired a bulky Dell laptop which was, most excitingly, capable of using the wifi network that had just been installed in my campus apartment complex — and I’d already gone from a hand-coded HTML personal website to a series of blogs hosted on the most obvious choice, Blogger.com. Multiple of those blogs were social affairs, shared with friends, but their connection to people elsewhere on the Internet was entirely mediated by individual “<a href=” hyperlinks. Midway through graduate school, I accepted responsibility for building a website for a conference to be hosted by my home department, and decided to try embedding a new messaging platform I’d heard about: Twitter.
A new paper from the lab — coauthored with all three of the Yoder Lab’s graduate student alumni — is now online ahead of print in the journal Evolution Letters. In it, we analyze population genetic data from 20 pairs of plants and herbivores, parasites, and mutualists that live intimately on those plants to test for evidence that the associate species’ population genetic structure aligns with that of their host plants. This is an expected result if adaptation to the host plant drives diversification of the associates — and we found that it is indeed a recurring pattern. This is a pretty neat result, and, I think, a nice contribution to a long-established literature on how intimate associations with plants has driven the diversification of groups like butterflies and beetles.
We had allotted ourselves one full day in Denali, and given the alterations to our lodging plans and the persistently rainy weather, it seemed best to spend the time on the longest stretch of established trail offered in the park, the Savage Alpine trail and the adjoining Savage River trail. These were as deep into the park as we could go without paying for guided tours, and they covered what looked like a pretty good sample of the available terrain.
We shuttled to the park visitor center to catch a park-managed bus — an actual school bus, painted NPS green — to the trailhead. The previous night’s sun break was truly over, with misty rain and clouds hiding the ridge lines to north and south as we left the visitor center campus and followed the park road west. There was, still, no sign of the big mountain. The park road climbs from the visitor center through boreal forest, which got patchier as we went higher. After a stop at park headquarters, we disembarked at a joint trailhead for a short loop, Mountain Vista, and the longer climb into the hills, Savage Alpine.
You can get from Anchorage to Denali National Park by rental car, Alaska Railway passenger train, or chartered flight — but we took the bus. A regular service runs from the convention center in downtown Anchorage to multiple stops in and around Denali, about four hours’ drive north on State Highway 3, and it leaves early. C and I hiked our luggage through a light morning drizzle to join a small crowd of fellow-passengers huddled under the convention center portico, and by 7:30 am we were driving north.
We took the highway — the only highway — east out of town and then west towards Wasila, with views of mountains through the cloud banks. Eventually the rain got too heavy, mist rolled in, and the highway headed north and left more developed territory, running between walls of forest that looked, to eyes raised on eastern temperate-deciduous woods, distinctly scraggly. The trees were aspen, spruce, none more than 40 feet tall, rising out of thick undergrowth like bathers wading in the shallow end of a crowded swimming pool. Large swathes of the spruce were dead-looking, gray-brown ghost groves — killed by spruce beetles, apparently.
We landed in Anchorage at eight o’clock in the evening, but it might have been any time from dawn to almost midnight. High-latitude summer light is uncanny enough to a southerner such as me (flying in from Los Angeles via a long stopover in Seattle) when it’s still fully light out at nine o’clock in the evening; but then also a mid-July weather system had swathed the city in low clouds and persistent drizzle, filtering the sunlight down to a high-twilit grey.
C and I took a taxi to a rental apartment we’d planned to use as a base of operations for the trip. I had an academic conference in Anchorage, and we’d taken that as an excuse to fly up a week early and see some sights — Denali National Park, then the vicinity of Kenai Fjords. First, though, we had a day in town to settle in and get our bearings. The rental-apartment host and her husband met us and our heap of luggage on the doorstep of their house — which, in addition to having our apartment in the basement, appeared to operate both as a multi-unit bed-and-breakfast and as the local consulate of the Netherlands. Our host was, it developed, a Dutch transplant. She showed us around: kitchen, living space, bedroom, washing machine and dryer, sofa bed in the living room (I suspect she didn’t realize C and I were a couple), and an orientation to the city via a tourist map on the kitchen table. Downtown was a dozen blocks north, on the other side of a long east-west strip of parkland. We thanked her out the door, unpacked a bit, and then hiked into downtown to the nearest late-night food we could find, by-the-slice pizza with, it turned out, reindeer sausage — how local!