Evolution 2009: The Evolution meetings were, indeed, blogged

Evolution 2009
So I’ve been putting off a final post-mortem on the use of online resources in connection with Evolution 2009, but Nature finally shamed me into it with an article specifically about blogging and microblogging at scientific meetings as part of a special section devoted to science journalism.

The Nature piece captures the concerns that came up when I first broached the subject of trying to increase the meetings’ online profile, especially the question of unwanted publicity: scientific meetings often serve as forums for presentation of work in progress — ideally, you’re hoping there will be people in the audience with interesting ideas for how to proceed — and presenters don’t necessarily want unfinished work broadcast all over the globe. Most obviously, there’s the (I would say slightly paranoid) fear of getting “scooped” because a rival reads about your work on a blog and kicks into high gear to publish first.

It’s not clear to me, however, that blogging really increases this risk; the people most interested in a given scientist’s work, and therefore most likely to work on similar things and potentially scoop her, are probably already in the live audience. And, furthermore, as the Nature piece points out, online coverage of work in progress could actually serve to establish priority in case of a real dispute. In any event, scientific societies are already adapting:

Conference organizers contacted by Nature had a wide range of policies on social networking. Many societies have banned digital photography in talks and poster sessions and some consider bloggers to be members of the media and subject them to certain reporting restrictions. …

Journals are also pondering how best to handle social networking at meetings. Nature generally supports social media tools, says Philip Campbell, Nature‘s editor-in-chief. And as long as it’s not a deliberate attempt to hype a new finding, he says that researchers should feel free to talk to colleagues who blog or twitter.

Blogging is increasingly recognized as a great way to communicate science to the public, and it seems likely we’ll see it become well-integrated into scientific meetings. Online coverage of Evolution 2009 was, I’d say, a good start. The page I set up to aggregate posts about the meetings drew 15 posts from 6 blogs, with most posting (12/16) occuring during the meetings. I’m still adding to that page as followup posts appear on participating blogs. If I had to organize that page again, I think I’d look for a better — maybe even automated — way to locate and link to posts. The volume wasn’t so much that I couldn’t handle it by monitoring a few RSS feeds myself; but I assume that blog coverage will increase in future years.

The FriendFeed I set up for the meetings drew less traffic than I’d hoped; 15 subscribers, and 74 contributions from various sources. I’ve broken down FF posts by topic in the graph on the right. In general, people used the FriendFeed about as I’d have predicted. They posted reactions to talks;

heard Mike Levine, Matt Rockman and Joe Thornton’s symposia at #E09… just brilliant

their own status during the meeting;

back from birding, time for some talks #E09

useful information;

visit the Systematic Biology exhibit for an amazing (free) Timetree of Life poster #E09

and, yes, they complained about the catering.

@mlabrum coffee seems to be a prohibited substance in Moscow. #E09

Fortunately conference coordinator Darrell Keim kept an eye on the feed, and was able to respond in some cases.

What we didn’t see much was back-and-forth discussion, as described at the 2008 meeting of the International Society for Computational Biology. A lot of this, I assume, is down to (1) the fact that computational biologists are more techy than your average evolutionary biologist, which contributed to (2) comparatively low subscription to the FriendFeed. I set the dedicated feed up just before the meeting, too, so there may not have been a lot of awareness that it was available until later. Traffic to the meeting website peaked the day before the meetings started (at 658 unique hits), and it takes a good lead-in to draw participation to something new like this. The official Twitter feed attracted 93 subscribers, and I linked to that from the main page very early on.

This meeting also saw the first webcast of any meeting activities — specifically, and appropriately, Eugenie Scott’s lecture on communicating science to the public. It wasn’t live, but it’s a start. Next year, it’d be great to see all the “flagship” lectures — the societies’ presidential addresses, maybe some of the symposia given by societal award recipients — put online.

This was all, as I have now said repeatedly, a good start. No previous Evolution meetings (to my knowledge) have aggregated related blog posts, or provided a near-real-time forum for reactions and discussion, or posted video from a major public lecture. I expect that the value of these resources will only increase as more people use them — we’ll have to see how things work out next year, in Portland, Oregon.


Batts, S., Anthis, N., & Smith, T. (2008). Advancing science through conversations: Bridging the gap between blogs and the academy PLoS Biology, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060240

Saunders, N., Beltrão, P., Jensen, L., Jurczak, D., Krause, R., Kuhn, M., & Wu, S. (2009). Microblogging the ISMB: A new approach to conference reporting PLoS Computational Biology, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000263

Attention: followup

Following Matt’s comment that my earlier analysis of my note-taking during the Evolution 2009 meetings, I’ve counted up characters as well as lines of notes taken, with the following result: although I think it was an open question, it turns out that there’s a pretty tight correlation between lines of text taken as notes, and the total number of characters.

(Click image to see larger version.)

Hello, my name is Jeremy, and I am a nerd.

Evolution 2009: Day four

Evolution 2009
Today was the final day of symposia and paper presentations for Evolution 2009, and everyone was ready for it. At least, I knew I was when I came suddenly awake in the middle of a talk I’d really wanted to see, about the use of Bayesian clustering methods to detect interspecific hybrids in natural populations. This was in the middle of the third talk session for the day; I took it as a sign from above (or wherever) and bailed for a bike ride.

Before I got to that point, though, there were some great last-day talks. Opening a symposium of retrospectives on The Origin of Species, Doug Schemske discussed the book The Origin, before Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection forced Darwin to publish “an abstract” to defend his priority. The writings Darwin intended for the much larger Natural Selection weren’t assembled for publication until 1975, but Schemske explained that they clarify a number of points commonly said to be missing or underrepresented in The Origin, such as role of geographic isolation in speciation.

In the “Systematics and Adaptive Radiation” session, Joel Cracraft argued that we don’t really know what mechanisms shape rates of speciation and extinction over macroevolutionary time. Incredibly, he was not mobbed afterward by irate students of adaptive radiation theory, which posits some very specific mechanisms for exactly those phenomena.

In the spirit of my posts from last year’s meetings, I’ll conclude by testing the hypothesis that I gave equal attention the talks I attended all week long. Following previously-described methods, I counted up the lines of text in my notes for each talk (talks attended = 16 on day 1, 10 on day 2, 15 on day 3, and 9 on day 4), which was easier this year because I took notes in text files on my laptop.

The means and variation in note length for each day are summarized in the boxplot below. A one-factor ANOVA finds a strongly significant effect of the day of the proceedings on the volume of notes I took (p = 0.00016), but this is mostly due to the shorter notes taken on the first day: there is no significant effect of the day of the proceedings on volume of notes taken if this day is excluded (p = 0.22768). I’m not sure why I took fewer notes on that first day — maybe I was trying for more bloggable detail after writing my first post on the meeting proceedings.

If I have some time tomorrow, I’m going to follow up on the use of Twitter and FriendFeed by meeting attendees. But I’m done for tonight.

Evolution 2009: Day three

Evolution 2009
On the third day of Evolution 2009, things are winding down already. I’ve been up late saying goodbye to folks leaving tomorrow.

A bog turtle
Photo by Wall Tea.

The most entertaining talk of the day was more about physics than evolution as such: specifically, an analysis of turtle shell architecture. C.T. Stayton discussed work he published in the May issue of Evolution, showing that turtle shell shapes are a compromise between streamlining for efficient swimming and ability to resist crushing attacks from predators [$-a]. He referenced Terry Pratchett in his introductory slides, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask afterward what the optimal shell shape is to support the weight of four elephants and a Discworld.

Other highlights:

  • Simone Des Roches presented more results from experiments that showed how the adaptive divergence of sticklebacks can alter ecosystem dynamics. (I discussed the original publication back in April.)
  • The amoeba Dictostelium discoideum responds to stress by forming spore-making fruiting bodies. Some cells “cheat” by taking the beneficial spots in the fruiting body and leaving others to form its non-reproductive stalk — and it seems that the cheaters do this by getting there first.
  • Live-bearing guppies are able to compensate for a reduced food supply by restricting the size of their developing babies.
  • Although whaling nations argue that Minke whales have become much more abundant due to lack of competition from species hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, population genetic data suggest that Minke whales are about as numerous as they were prior to that time.
  • It’s actually proving pretty tricky to determine the evolutionary relationships of chipmunks in Western North America, both because they hybridize frequently and because they speciated rapidly.
  • Boundaries between related species’s geographic distributions may be maintained by locally-adapted pathogens.

And, finally, video of Eugenie Scott’s Gould Award lecture is now online for streaming in Real Video format here.


Harmon, L., Matthews, B., Des Roches, S., Chase, J., Shurin, J., & Schluter, D. (2009). Evolutionary diversification in stickleback affects ecosystem functioning Nature, 458 (7242), 1167-70 DOI: 10.1038/nature07974

Stayton, C. (2009). Application of thin-plate spline transformations to finite element models, or, how to turn a bog turtle into a spotted turtle to analyze both. Evolution, 63 (5), 1348-55 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00655.x

Evolution 2009: Day two

Evolution 2009
After a late (early) night yesterday, I started my day at the R.A. Fisher Award talk, a presentation of results from “an outstanding Ph.D. dissertation paper published in the journal Evolution.” This year’s winner turned out to be a paper I remember reading when it was first published, in which Megan Higgie and Mark Blows showed that sexual selection for mate-signaling hydrocarbons in Drosophila serrata is opposed by selection to avoid mating with the closely related D. birchii. Populations of D. serrata that occur with D. birchii have been selected for different hydrocarbon profiles [$-a] than populations that don’t occur with D. birchii — so that adaptive speciation could result from the opposing selective regimes.

Photo by Jo Mur.

On a more natural history-oriented note, today I learned that honeyguides, the African birds known for their habit of guiding badgers (or humans) to bees’ nests, are also particularly vicious brood parasites. Like cuckoos and cowbirds, honeyguides lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, and let the parasitized parents raise ’em. Apparently the Greater Honeyguide (the chick in the figure provided) has had its eggs selected to more closely match a variety of host species.

Other highlights:

  • Flowers of the genus Pedicularis are more different in co-occuring species than would be expected by chance, possibly to minimize the chance that their shared pollinators, bumblebees, transfer pollen between different species.
  • When female Hadena bircuris moths pollinate their host plant Silene latifolia, they lay eggs on the flower so that their larvae can eat some of the seeds produced — much like yucca moths — but male moths of the same species also pollinate, and this may help offset the cost of female pollination.
  • Host-parasite coevolution may actually drive the evolution of mutation rates in the host and the parasite, much like yesterday’s demonstration that coevolution can alter migration rates.

Finished the day much more quietly than yesterday, with a handful of folks at my place for burgers and beer. And, hey, I’m getting to bed before 4 a.m.!


Higgie, M., & Blows, M. (2008). The evolution of reproductive character displacement conflicts with how sexual selection operates within a species. Evolution, 62 (5), 1192-203 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00357.x

Evolution 2009: Day one

Evolution 2009
In this morning’s session on species interactions and coevolution, everyone was talking about these videos of snakes attacking snails. Turns out that snail shell chirality (the direction the shell spirals) can determine how easy it is for a snake to attack. Very, very cool. Detailed discussion by John Dennehy is here. [Edit, 14 June 2009: link to the video originally found by Matt Labrum.]

I presented today, and survived another twelve-minute talk. Immediately after I finished describing my preliminary conclusion that coevolution between species only generates evolutionary diversity if it exerts disruptive selection on one or the other interactor — the best example of which may be competitive exclusion — Jeremy Fox described a model in which competitor species converge on a single set of traits [$-a]. It’s a cool result, and one I’ll need to consider carefully.

I also learned today that

  • A bacterial endosymbiont helps fruit flies fight off parasitic worms;
  • It might not “cost” anything for some specialist herbivores to sequester the toxins produced by the plants they eat;
  • Coevolution can actually change the migration rates of interacting species; and
  • Bacteria and phage living inside horse chestnut leaves are locally adapted within individual trees, but not within individual leaves.

Was out way too late, as the timing of this post may indicate. Don’t think I’ll make the morning sessions. Not that the love-in-a-canoe coffee provided by campus catering will help. Ugh.


Fox, J., & Vasseur, D. (2008). Character Convergence under Competition for Nutritionally Essential Resources The American Naturalist, 172 (5), 667-80 DOI: 10.1086/591689

Evolution 2009: Warm-up hike

Evolution 2009Spent most of this morning hiking Kamiak Butte with old and new friends in town for the meetings. It was a perfect day for it, and there are still wildflowers out, and good birding — Black-headed Grosbeaks, Pygmy Nuthatches, and Mountain Chickadees. For non-locals, this is well worth a half-day trip when concurrent session talks start to all sound the same.

Evolution 2009: Underway

Evolution 2009After months of preparation, the Evolution meetings start this evening, with a reception followed by Eugenie Scott’s lecture as the inaugural recipient of the Gould Award. I’ve already checked in and got my swag bag. (Not too shabby if I say so myself: a nice water bottle, a cool t-shirt, and a sample of Cowgirl Chocolates.) I’m presenting my talk Saturday afternoon. Should be a great, science-y extra-long weekend.

Watch the meetings’ blogging page and FriendFeed for updates.

Our venue, the biggest barn in Idaho.
Photo by Allen Dale Thompson.

Evolution 2009: How best to go social?

Evolution 2009The Evolution 2009 meetings are less than a month away. Now is probably the last chance to assess what online presence and utilities the meetings will have.

Right now, we have the meeting website, with a page for bloggy stuff — and it’s kind of a mess at the moment, with my hastily scribbled explanation about the power of TEH INTERNETS and a list of the handful of science blogs (this one included) that are displaying an Evolution2009 badge and will have a contributor at the meetings. We’ve also got the Evolution2009 Twitter feed. What more could be done with this space, both to improve the meetings for participants and to open them out to the public? I have two ideas:

  • A blog carnival. I’ve participated in several blog carnivals in the last few months, including the Carnival of Evolution and Berry-go-Round. The Blog Carnival utility seems like a good way to round up posts on a given topic, and posting submissions to the existing “blogging” page seems like a logical way to show what participating bloggers are writing about the meetings.
  • A FriendFeed group. Following the approach used at 2008 meeting of the International Society for Computational Biology, we can open an aggregate feed of twittering, blog posts, and other online reactions to the meeting. In fact, I’ve set it up here already. I have two questions/qualms about this:
    • (1) Should such a group be open or invitation only? Maybe I’m paranoid, but I do worry about hijacking by, e.g., creationists.
    • (2) More importantly, how many people would actually contribute? The ISCB had “a core group of ten contributors” out of 1600 attendees. The Twitter feed has, as of the time of writing, 68 followers, not all of whom are individuals, and many of whom are not active users of Twitter, but rather seemed to have subscribed just to get the latest news. (Which is fine! If that’s all the feed achieves, it’s been useful.) So how many folks would actually Twitter during the meetings?

Anyway, I’m going to put the word out over the Twitter feed — I’d love input on both of the above points, as well as suggestions for other utilities or approaches.

Evolution 2009: Eugenie Scott to receive first-ever Gould Award

Evolution 2009First real news item for Evolution 2009: The meetings will open Friday night with a public lecture by Eugenie Scott, who is receiving the first Gould Award for Public Outreach from SSE in recognition of her leadership at the National Center for Science Education.

What’s really exciting is that we’re going to open the event to the general public in cyberspace, too — video of the lecture will be streamed online at the meeting website as soon as the UI video production center can put it together (probably the following Monday). If you won’t be at the meetings in person, watch the Evolution2009 twitter feed for notification that the video’s up.