How strange to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Dozen Rules for Eating Ethically

View the rules here in Google, where you can download them!

Instead of reading about the fisheries in the southern California Channel Islands in order to make progress toward my potential sheephead study, I chose to write to you about food.

There is a homeless garden outside the Long Marine Lab. It is not associated with the lab, but it is right by the driveway. I have always wondered what was mean by the term "homeless garden." At first glance (but not really glance, because you don't hear with your eyes--at first hearing?), it sounded like a garden that is lost and lonely and living on the street. Of course, that makes no sense, so my second thought was that the garden is where homeless people can work and then get a share of food.

I looked at their website, and that is basically correct. The garden is also a community sponsored garden (CSA), which means that people in the area can pay to receive food each week that is grown right there. These facts, in addition to it being all organic, make it in my mind one of the most wonderful places in the world. I support responsible farming not just with my whole heart, but with my whole body, and this little farm seems like something to live for.

Some volunteers at the Homeless Garden Project CSA.

I was just now inspired by a post of the farm's blog. It is about bringing back the lost art of cooking. I definitely encourage you to read it, because it is excellent and inspiring. The author, a nutritionist and cook, makes two great points that are worth quoting:

"When people ask me what is best thing they can do to improve their diet is, my answer is always the same: to cook at home more often."

"I’ve come to realize that knowledge and knowing are two different things. Knowledge is learning about something but knowing is really understanding it."

The post reminded me how passionate I am about food and sustainability, and almost made me cry! To refresh my food passion, I am posting my final essay for the course I took called "Christian Ethics of Eating." The course had a little to do with Christianity, and a lot to do with food. The prompt for the essay was to come up with twelve rules about how to eat ethically. On reading it again just now, I consider it one of my best pieces of writing, mostly because it really embodies exactly how I feel about food and society. Though I wrote it over a year ago, I will believe in and try to live by these rules for a long, long time.

A Dozen Rules for Eating Ethically
By Gina Marie Contolini
May 9, 2012
Rules about what to eat

RULE #1. Avoid animal products. “Vegans are living demonstrations of the fact that we do not need to exploit animals for food” (Singer, 279). Consumption of animal products (edible and non-edible) is unethical because it is unnecessary and it causes harm to others. In fact, it has even been considered “a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage” (Singer, 240). The current states of the environment and the global food situation are appalling and immediate action must be taken to resolve these problems. Therefore, we should not only avoid consuming animal food but also non-food items that depend on the rearing of animals. By boycotting these products, there will be less demand to grow animals so producers will grow less of them, thus saving resources which can be reallocated to alleviate important world problems.

RULE #2. Avoid industrial food. Industrial food production, especially of sugar, corn, and soy, is based on a capitalist ethic of profit. It encourages personal benefit at the expense of others. Robert Albritton agrees: “Because of its short-term profit orientation, I believe that capitalism is not consistent with a human right to food or with sustainable agriculture” (122). Industrial food production has led to unfair and unsafe working conditions, unsustainable farming practices, and unhealthy eating habits. It also encourages deceptive marketing and exploits human physiology and nature by encouraging physical and emotional addictions. Avoiding industrial food is a way to say “no” to these unethical practices.

RULE #3. Avoid tobacco. Though not a food, similar to animal products, tobacco is an unnecessary agricultural product and its production wastes scarce resources. “Land that is utilized to grow tobacco is land taken away from growing food” (Albritton, 86). Worse, however, is the fact that there are absolutely no positive effects of tobacco. It’s not even food! Rather than giving us energy and nutrients, tobacco gives us emphysema and cancer. It epitomizes unethical agriculture.

RULE #4. Avoid low cost food. “The deepest problem that local-food efforts face… is that we’ve gotten used to paying so little for food” (McKibben, 89). This is a problem because more often than not cheap food comes at a high cost to those involved in its production. Buying it is a way of saying we don’t think their work is worth our dollar. Furthermore, cheap food exploits our ingrained capitalistic desire to save money in the short term at the cost of our long-term goals like health and environmental sustainability. Don’t believe the lie that a 12-pack of Trix yogurt for $2 is a good deal. Those products rely on the unsustainable subsidies of corn and soy, which are processed into “food” that do little if anything to benefit human health. Finally, investing financially in our food makes us more aware of our purchases.

Rules about how to make food choices

RULE #5. Plan your food consumption. Do your best not to waste food. Already, “more than 40% of the food grown in the United States is lost or thrown away” (Singer, 268). Food is a precious resource, and by wasting it we are denying its importance. Buy only as much fresh food as you can consume before it goes bad. Always refrigerate or freeze leftovers, and take home extra food from restaurants. This will also save money that would otherwise be spent buying new food.

RULE #6. Avoid traditional act analysis. Traditional act analysis judges morality based on intentions and ignores unintended consequences. “Moral responsibility in these cases is simply a phantom: none of the individual moral agent’s actions causing these problems is wrong, so there is no negative moral responsibility to assign” (Graham, 45). Instead, we should be far-sighted and think of all the consequences of our actions, including social implications. When we begin to constantly reflect on our food choices, we will be able to make decisions that rightly express our morals.

Rules about how to think about and treat food

RULE #7. Be grateful for food. “Many Christian ethicists regard gratitude as one of the basic, enduring sensibilities that should characterize Christian existence and our lifelong response to God” (Graham, 9). Food allows you to live, so appreciate it! This will humble us and keep our focus away from personal gain. Say thanks to local farmers, say grace, and use food for what it is for—good health. Graham notes that part of gratitude is proper use of a gift, which in this case means keeping our bodies healthy. Plus, we will respect food more when we are using it as a tool for good health.

RULE #8. Grow your own food. “Smaller farms produce far more food per acre” (McKibben, 67). You save a lot of time and resources by getting to know a spot of land and growing a small garden of your own. Gardening is the most efficient form of agriculture and, when you grow local plants in season, has the lowest environmental footprint. Growing your own food—even just a basil plant in your kitchen—will also help you appreciate and think about what food really is.

RULE #9. Take part in food production. “Most of us, including most of the farmers who raise food animals, do our very best to avoid thinking about, let along having anything directly to do with, their slaughter” (Pollan, 226). Instead, visit farms and form relationships with the people who provide you the stuff of life. This will foster a great love and appreciation for the food you eat and the people who grow it. It will also encourage transparency and honesty about how food is grown. Plus, it will be much easier to choose local ethical food when you’ve put a face to it. Also, take some initiative and learn about farmers’ practices. This will help you determine if they are supporting ethical food production practices.

RULE #10. Eat in community. Food is important for physical and emotional health, and eating in community benefits both of these. “We want our food not just to replenish our muscle tissues and blood cells but to lift our spirits and gladden our hearts” (McCormick, 10). Sharing food with others keeps food a major part of our lives, which it should be, since without it, we would die! Eating in community is a great way to get people together in a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere. Plus, if you share your thoughts on food while you are eating together, you can promote a positive food ethic that will be easy to maintain when others may hold you accountable.

RULE #11 Learn to cook. Investing time in your food is an excellent way to appreciate it more. Pollan notes this when he makes his “perfect” meal: “…no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real” (392). Even if you just learn to cook one or two meals, cooking will help you remember the importance of food in your life. It will also help keep you away from unethical processed food, and encourage community eating since cooking is very visible and often pungent.

RULE #12. Vary your diet. “Many of us have forgotten our hunger, and go long stretches without remembering the hunger pangs of neighbors who struggle for scraps to supply their daily bread” (McCormick, 26). While fasting can be a useful mental and spiritual exercise, simply restricting certain foods or making an effort to eat differently can have a positive effect on our concept of food. By feeling hunger, we won’t forget the importance of our food and that we are blessed to have it. Set a date when to lift the restriction and when you reach it, that food item will seem so much more glorious!

View the rules here in Google, where you can download them!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Department Retreat at Big Creek

Reason #10 to be an ecologist: Free camping at biological preserves.

I suppose I should think of nine other reasons at some point.

Last weekend the students, employees, and faculty of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology went camping in the redwoods of Big Sur. There's a preserve owned by the University of California for the exclusive use of students and faculty and their field work. Apparently, it can also be used for ecology department events of any kind, because our department got to use the campsite all weekend to make fires, cook sausages and jaffles, drink, go hiking, get poison oak, and play in hot springs.

The preserve is about 2 hours south of Santa Cruz down the Highway One. It's an awesome drive, especially because there is great and cheap produce along the way. There's also a giant artichoke statue.

Trees at our campsite.

We saw a very interesting biological specimen on our hike.

The view speaks for itself.

It's always easier to hike up than down.

View from the top of the hike. Ignore the poor stitching and it's a really great photo. I know it's way to wide for the blog, but it's cool enough to be nonconforming like that.

There's beach access under that bridge.

Here's what it looks like at the beach.

Joseph checks his jaffle in the jaffle iron.

I know what you're thinking: What is a jaffle? I'll tell you what I know about jaffles. They are food. They are Australian. They usually resemble a sandwich. They remind me of grilled cheese, but tend to have something other than cheese between the bread. The jaffle iron looks like a waffle iron on a long, cast iron rod, but it doesn't have a waffle pattern on the inside, it's just flat, sort of like two frying pans that close up on each other. To make a classic jaffle,

  1. Preheat the jaffle iron in a fire. 
  2. Rub a stick of butter on the inside of the iron. 
  3. Once it's greasy, put a piece of bread on one open face of the jaffle iron. Make sure there are no holes in the bread or your jaffle will leak!
  4. Apply the jaffle filling to this piece of bread--apple pie filling and chocolate chips were the norm at our retreat. 
  5. Place another piece of bread (no holes!) on top of the filling. 
  6. Squish the jaffle-sandwich between the two sides of the iron by closing it. 
  7. Stick the jaffle iron with jaffle inside in the fire, checking every few minutes for browning but not burning. 

There's a story about how jaffles were introduced to America. Abe met an Australian guy and they wet camping. The Aussie brought a lot of jaffle irons and gave one to Abe.

The end! Now UCSC's department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has a jaffle iron, and it is used to initiate new students. Students are told to close their eyes and put out one hand...

...just kidding...

Monday, November 4, 2013

PhD Thesis Project Update

Graduate school is so fabulous because of the rate at which it turns impossibility into achievement!

I just gave away the happy ending to this post. Sorry. Here's the story that should have come before that punchline.

I came into my graduate program wanting to study evolution in marine systems. Specifically, I want to study how marine organisms change over time and affect their surroundings. This is the field of eco-evolutionary dynamics.

This broad interest is all I knew of my PhD dissertation project when I got to UCSC in September. I'll be here at least five years, so I wasn't concerned that I didn't have any idea for a project. Then, a week into the program, I had an assignment to write a formal research proposal for a national organization on what I would be doing for my dissertation--due in a month.

Uh, WHHHAT?! I just GOT here. How am I supposed to spit out a five-year project proposal in four weeks? was my first reaction.

One month. Image from

Regardless of what I thought, the deadline remained. It seemed like a monumental task, and I was pretty stressed about it, mostly because I knew I would be submitting the proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a five-figure grant.

What I didn't know then was that I would get an enormous amount of really great help! I have two advisors, and they were both extremely willing to toss ideas around with me.

Silly me. How could I have forgotten that I work under experienced researchers in my field who come up with new research projects in their sleep? As far as I know, that's not an exaggeration.

Since I have experience in intertidal organisms (and my advisors have >40 years of experience in intertidal organisms), I had an idea to study evolution in the intertidal zone, but we couldn't think of anything good enough I could write about in such a short time. Then I mentioned a potential project I had been introduced to before coming to Santa Cruz. The project involved evolution in a fish predator in kelp forests. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but I try pretty hard to be flexible and encourage serendipity.

I read, discussed, wrote, discussed, and revised. In just a week, I had a research plan and a rough draft. How did this come together so quickly and easily? It's one of the miracles of graduate school (or perhaps deadlines).

The real miracle was after the four weeks when I submitted a totally polished proposal that I am proud of. I sure hope NSF likes it as much as I do! I will now attempt to explain in a paragraph what I struggled to explain in two pages.

People do a lot of fishing off the coast of California. Some of these people just fish for fun, and they usually only like to take home just a few big fish. Lots of these people take home the weirdest or prettiest looking fish they can find, because they think it's cool. One such fish is called the California sheephead.

California Sheephead, 3 ft. long. Image from

However, there is a problem with taking only the bigger sheephead--only the bigger ones eat sea urchins. This may seem trivial, but sea urchins eat LOTS of kelp, and if there are too many urchins, they may eat too much kelp, which is a really important part of the ecosystem. The ecosystem is called a kelp forest for a reason! The kelp are the biggest part of the ecosystem, like trees. Take out the kelp and you take out a lot of places where other animals and plants live. I proposed to measure what happens when you take away big sheephead: do the urchins destroy the forest? 

Purple sea urchins. Photo by Richard Hermann.

Click here to see a video of a sheephead eating a sea urchin
Joseph See, who posted this video, has some great camera skills.

If you are thinking critically about all this, you might be wondering how I am going to take away the big fish. Then you would probably realize that sounds like a terrible idea because it involves killing lots of fish and potentially destroying the kelp forest. I don't have to do that, which is the great part about my proposal. In certain areas, people have already fished out the largest sheephead. All I need to do is see what the urchins and kelp are like in those areas. 

So there's a super simple description project idea in more than a paragraph, but still less than two pages! I'm not sure I will actually carry out this project for the next five years, but I sure wouldn't mind it. I like the varied research and field techniques involved, and how it combines society a bit. Mostly, I like it because it's a field manipulation on a huge spatial scale (the fish live from central CA to the southern tip of Baja California Sur, Mexico), and it awesomely explores how evolution can change ecosystems without us having to know if the fish are actually evolving. 

Now that that proposal is done, it's back to the drawing board because I want to explore other options for PhD projects. But I've learned not to be intimidated by this task, because in graduate school, impossibility is the mother of great achievement! I'm excited for what impossibilities lay ahead.


As a fun exercise, I am going to track the evolution of the title of my proposal:

My own original idea: Can Fisheries-induced Evolution of California Sheephead Alter Ecosystems?
After advisor read it: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascade strength in a large-scale marine ecosystem
Revision: Impact of large-scale contemporary trait change on trophic cascade strength in a marine ecosystem
Revision: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascasde strength in a large-scale marine ecosystem*
Final title: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascades in a large-scale marine ecosystem

*This one is my favorite, but it was too long for the final proposal.

Evolution and Intelligence

While sitting in the corner of my room next to the window to absorb sunlight, I read another paper for my organismal ecology class. I was lucky I didn't feel like falling asleep, but I wasn't quite awake in every sense, either. I was in that happy productive state where I'm too tired to distract myself and have just enough focus to do the task in front of me. I was reading about the evolution of insecticide resistance in mosquitoes, something you would not find me reading on my own.

An insecticide-infused bed net. The net quickly kills mosquitoes that land on it, so the little boy doesn't get bitten by one that may have malaria. The result: only mosquitoes with resistance to the insecticide survive and reproduce. Does this bed net promote the evolution of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes? Photo from

This paper was changing the way I think about drug resistance and evolution. It set off a thought that proceeded to bounce about in my head until it hit another thought about the nature of intelligence. These two thoughts danced around each other in a very ephemeral waltz (a second or two) until they spawned another thought, which instead of dancing was expressed in an email to a friend of mine who is really interested in artificial intelligence and the nature of conscious thought. I wish now to leave you with my thoughts in this email to let them bounce about in your own brain for a bit. Enjoy!

"I just had a thought relating intelligence and evolution. I felt they were similar because they are both things humans try to simulate, but have yet to successfully and consistently recreate, and that are biological in nature. Then I thought more and decided that evolution is the opposite of intelligence, because it is a purely passive process and intelligence is not at all passive, but perhaps the antithesis of passivity. 

Discussion question: Which will humans create first: non-intelligent forms that "live" and evolve on their own, or a finite intelligent entity? 

Coming soon: this email as a blog entry!"

Monday, October 21, 2013

How Do You Measure Evolution?

Theodosius Dobzhansky, a famous Russian geneticist and evolutionary biologist, once said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." 

Fig. 1. Theodosius Dobzhansky, c. 1966. Photo 
from Wikipedia. No photographer specified.

So, what is evolution? How do we know it is happening? Evolution seems pretty qualitative to me. It's the gradual change of a group of organisms, and generally it is pretty hard for us to detect. It's sort of analogous to watching a tree grow or your skin tanning in the sun. You don't notice it happening, but you notice a difference later. To a human, these things are only detectable with long-term monitoring. 

Evolution is like this, too. It is not sudden and it is not creative. Characteristics a species already has over time slowly change. So if you can measure traits, you can measure evolution.

Over the years, evolutionary ecologists have tried to create standards for measuring trait change. This is hard considering all the different traits possible in all of nature, but it's better than saying, "these trees look shorter than twenty years ago. They must have evolved." We needed a way to quantify trait change, so ecologists came up with units of evolution. They are generally summarized below.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Units of Evolution~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The darwin examines the average value of a trait and compares it to the average value of that trait in the past. For example, if average tree height in a population today is 40 m, and 20 years ago it was 50 m, in darwins this is expressed as ln(40) - ln(50) divided by 20 years. 

The haldane examines proportional trait change over time. It takes into account the variation in trait change, which standardizes change for easier comparisons between different populations. Basically you take the difference in the trait means, divide by a standard deviation calculation, and then divide by time, often expressed in generations.
(The information on haldanes is from a University of Michigan page on Gingerich for which there is a link above.)


Traditionally, evolutionary change was seen as taking millennia or eons to occur and being irreversible. However, now that evolution is widely accepted as being able to occur in just a handful of generations (even one generation), there is no reason for it to be irreversible. This is the idea captured in the concept of fitness landscapes. I won't explain fitness landscapes now, but in a nutshell they teach that evolution is ongoing and in a variety of directions. 

Fig. 2. An example of an adaptive landscape (also called a fitness landscape) from a TradeStation forum. 
I think it would be cool if someone developed a fitness landscape with a time dimension!

This idea of irreversible genetic change is likely why the term "plastic" arose to describe non-genetic changes in traits. However, this is a misleading name because it implies that (a) genetic changes are irreversible and (b) non-genetic changes are more likely to be reversible, both of which I'm not entirely convinced are necessarily true. 

Finally, I think it is easy to forget among all the measurement-taking and mathematical analyses what evolution really is. It is one thing to say that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution; it is another thing to say that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of regressional correlations between quantitative measures of natural characteristics.

Lastly, I want to add that I am still a student and I in no way claim to be an expert on any of this.

It is important to understand that evolution is another way of saying change. Nothing in biology makes sense except if you acknowledge that nature is constantly interacting and adapting to change. Evolution is ecology over time.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tricky Magic Traits

I was "thumbing" through my favorite eco-evolution blog and read the post on magic traits. "Magic" traits? What on Earth (Ocean) would provoke someone to call a trait magic? thought I. I read on.

Magic traits, which is now a published term, are traits under environmental divergent and sexual selection. For example, if nature is "pressuring" fish to evolve wider mouths, and the females are also really diggin' on the wide-mouthed males, not only do the males grow bigger and stronger because they can fit more in their pie holes but they get to reproduce more because the females find them more attractive. This causes them to rapidly evolve, just like magic! Recently, X. Thibert-Plante and S. Gavrilets published something about how this occurrence, once thought rare, is perhaps actually the norm:

"...certain traits that are under direct natural selection are more likely to be co-opted as mating cues, leading to the appearance of magic traits (i.e. phenotypic traits involved in both local adaptation and mating decisions)."

"Multiple mechanisms of non-random mating can interact so that trait co-evolution enables the evolution of non-random mating mechanisms that would not evolve alone."

(If you understand this last statement, please enlighten me. I put it in here so someone can explain what s/he thinks it means.)

If the traits change quickly, soon enough the divergent trait will become the normal trait. How do females know when selection is no longer divergent? Do they guess based on the number of males they've encountered recently? Obviously I should read the paper, and when I do, this post will likely change.

Another thing: Are these fish evolving the ability to evolve faster? 

These sorts of findings are what make the study of evolution so attractive to me. Nature is so dynamic. It has so many hidden devices that make it resilient, make it adaptable, make it work. Humans will never come close to recreating such compatible complexities.

One of the more interesting images from a Google image search 
on "magic traits." Maybe white Siberian tigers are evolving magically?
Maybe they are magically evolving into zebras. 
Photo from Art by Andrei Clompos.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Adaptive Assumptions

I recently read a thought-provoking Eco-Evo Evo-Eco blog post based on the idea that adaptation and constraint can be equally good at explaining change depending on how "deep" within a population you search (i.e. within or among species):

Thesis of the post: "...for functional traits, null hypotheses for variation among species should be adaptive ones (such that the non-adaptive hypothesis bears the onus of proof), whereas null hypotheses for variation within populations should be non-adaptive ones (such that the adaptive hypothesis bears the onus of proof)"

I can see how this would make sense. I suppose it is more likely that differences between two separate populations are caused when each adapts to its separate environment. It seems this would only apply for allopatric populations. On the other hand, if there are differences within a population, you could argue it is more likely that this is just due to random variation or phenotypic plasticity. So the null hypothesis for differences between populations is that they adapted to different environments, and the null for differences within populations is that they have plastic traits. 

I feel this conclusion largely relies on the assumption that allopatric speciation is simpler and much more likely to occur. Which may not be the case. As one commenter put it: "Simplicity always has to depend on the context and is therefore not general."

Why couldn't some Mytilus californianus in a group adapt 
and change more than others?

 Why couldn't there be speciation within a tight cluster 
of Pollicipes polymerus?

Yesterday, on the beach, I was discussing possibilities of evolution between tidepool populations with a friend and how dispersal is basically infinite when the tide comes in. All species can disperse gametes and larvae into the ocean and boom!, essentially infinite dispersal. (This depends on the currents that are depositing the gamestes/larvae, of course. The ocean is not just one big toilet bowl, swirling everything together.) With infinite gene flow, it is hard to develop reproductive barriers that could lead to evolution. After I mentioned this to him, my friend commented, "ah, so they could only speciate sympatrically, then." I had not thought of this. Might all tidepool organisms speciate within populations? This would certainly be a counter example to the above hypotheses. 
This idea is not fully developed in my head yet, but it is something to think about! Thanks, Joseph.

Mytilus californianus 
covered in Balanus glandula

Anthopleura xanthogrammica

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Tidepools by Natural Bridges

Less than a mile from the marine lab there is a state park called Natural Bridges. It seems like a strange name until you go there and see the natural bridges!

Source: Wikimedia Commons. But really, I could have taken this photo.

I went with another new ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) grad student, and we explored the intertidal environment under this very rock and the pools along the shore for hours. I wish I could have explored more under the natural bridge, but the tide wasn't low enough and I didn't feel like swimming or being thrust against mussel beds. 

The tidepools there are part of a Marine Protected Area where one of my advisors, Pete Raimondi, bases some of his work. He heads a long-term project called the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (called PISCO for short, prounced like "peace-co"). In this project, lots of teams of researchers take biodiversity and geography data on intertidal areas from Alaska to Mexico. 

One of highlights of my trip yesterday to the Natural Bridges tidepools was testing the stinging cells of a green anemone. When you touch the tentacles of an anemone with your fingers, you don't feel a sting because the skin on your hands is too thick. However, a thinner, more membranous epithelial surface, like the lips or tongue, would be affected. So I reached over, stuck out my tongue... 

Credit: Carla S.

...and licked an anemone's green tentacles. My tongue stung (not too seriously) for four to five hours after that. It was a great experience and I encourage everyone to try. 

Ideally, I will study evolution (or lack thereof) in tidepool organisms. I am thinking the intertidal might be a good model system because there are lots of environmental constraints and extremely fluctuating conditions which cause organisms to become very specialized. That way, if one part of the environment changes that an organism was well adapted to, those well-adapted (fit) organisms are no longer so well-adapted (their fitness decreases), and they might reproduce less. This changes the types of organisms that remain in the environment and the population is said to have evolved. What I have just explained here is natural selection.

However, sometimes individual organisms are really good at adjusting to change (this is called plasticity--think of plastic and how it can be melted and reformed), which would mean they would tend not to evolve. Instead, they'd just get used to the new environment and continue living like normal. 

So far I pretty much have no clue how to study this sort of phenomenon in tidepools (i.e. what organisms to use or if there are measurable environmental changes taking place in tidepools near me). Hopefully I will figure that out soon, or at least come up with a good idea or two! I'm not worried. Things will come together. Now to end on one of my favorite biology quotes:

"The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living."
J. Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Graduate Program Begins

A week ago I flew to California, moved into a solo apartment, and two days later began a new graduate program at the University of California in Santa Cruz's department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I've waited to do this for six months now. So it feels pretty normal.

It feels really normal, actually. The transition so far is pretty seamless. Over the past year, I've been talking to grad students from all over about their experiences, I've been in communication with my new advisors, I've been trying to get a head start on readings all summer, and I've convinced myself that this endeavor--working toward a PhD--will be the most difficult, stressful, and rewarding experience of my life. So far, the only differences in lifestyle I've really noticed since I arrived is that I've been meeting a lot of new people, eating a lot of free food, and biking up really long, steep hills among a lot of sequoias, so I'm feeling rather good about all of it.
Oh, and I live with a dog that barks really loud. That one is hard to ignore. At least he's cute.

That's it for now. I should really finish reading this chapter about selection that I've been working on for at least an hour now. Enjoy some photos of campus!

View from main campus. The marine lab is not on the main campus.

The backyard of the marine lab. It is down the hill from main campus.
This is the Monterey Bay. You can see Monterey in the background. 
There are often humpback and other whales breaching in the bay.

Another view of the lab's backyard. Sometimes there are surfers, too.

A grey whale skeleton behind the Seymour Discovery Center, which
is located right next to the marine lab.

Tidepools by the shore behind the lab.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Life is Not as We Know it

A wonderful quote from my favorite eco-evo blog:

" seems to me that the human imagination and even calculation is incapable of postulating the possible endpoints in an adaptive radiation... Adaptive radiations are indeed stranger than fiction." A. Hendry

I feel like this idea touches on something that has been swimming around the back of my mind for years now. After learning about insane animal and plant adaptations, like the flow-through lungs of a bird (they don't exhale!), the ability of some marine mammals to hold their breath for hours, electroreception in fish, and plants that grow in the dark, to name a few, I decided that there can no longer be a standard for life. I can no longer make assumptions about how life should work. Just when I think I have understood the basic principles of life, an organism is discovered with some unfathomable trait, like a vertebrate without hemoglobin or a thriving ecosystem entirely isolated from the sun. Life all seems to blend together, really. Animals, plants, fungi, algae, rocks, water, gas, molecules, atoms; they're all on a spectrum. How can anyone suggest or pretend to know how nature should be? All we can do is observe and learn from it. It is this unending innovation of the natural world that draws me to study Ecology and how it changes. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013


"How inappropriate to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is Ocean." -Arthur C. Clarke

Credit: Norman Kuring

The surface of our world is at least 70% water and increasing. So much (the majority?) of life on this planet is aquatic. So why do we refer to our planet with names like “earth” and “rock?”

There is a lot more to explore here than we may realize. The name of our planet says more about us than the planet itself. Are we too preoccupied with what is right below our feet? I think we need to look beyond our own human ecology, take a step back and see what we are actually living with: a world dominated by sea. (Or is it dominated by air? Or hydrogen? Or electrons? Or space? I digress.) Let's avoid overemphasizing the importance of our own needs. It's time we start thinking, and then acting, as part of the larger Process. We're part of this big, breathing, swelling, warm body. Just a part. Just one, small piece, really. Maybe we could draw this idea to our attention more if we started calling our home something like “Ocean” instead.