On Making Biodiversity Research (UPDATED!)

This post was originally published on BioDiverse Perspectives – a research blog aimed at fostering communication about biodiversity.

One of the most exciting aspects of being a field ecologist is the ability to walk into a hardware store, pick up an object, and ask yourself, ‘How can I use this to answer my question?’ – Mary Power, Population and Community Ecology, Spring 2007

To some people, the beginning of field season is signified by the emergence of a particular wildflower, the sound of that one birdcall, or the sudden quiet around campus after finals. To me, it’s that look from the cashier at the hardware store.  “You want how many rolls of weed barrier?” they ask with disbelief.

This year, I got that look when I asked for help to load 10ft lengths of conduit pipe into a little Hyundai, and it got me thinking about the choice words above that Mary Power offered when discussing experimental design in my introductory ecology class. In the study of biodiversity, researchers often try to tackle very complicated systems, and adequately testing their hypotheses can require some serious creativity. As a result, many ecologists share a unique bond of having to create the tool that lets them answer their question.

And just like there are frontier and foundational papers in biodiversity research, I think that there are foundational and frontier tools created to accomplish biodiversity research. For example, where would plant ecology be without the invention of the PVC quadrat?

To me, a great example of the maker culture of ecology shows up in Paul K. Dayton’s 1971 Ecological Monograph exploring the factors that structure sessile organisms in the rocky intertidal. One hypothesis that he tested was that disturbance by logs in exposed sites served as a key environmental factor influencing community structure. He noticed that in exposed sites, drift logs would smash into the shore, obliterating anything that was previously occupying that site, and he hypothesized that this disturbance could have huge impacts on community structure. He had a solid hypothesis and a great set of research sites that varied in exposure, but Dayton had one major problem. How do you quantify log disturbance in the intertidal?

His solution:

The probability of log disturbance at each study site was measured by embedding cohorts of nails haphazardly into the substratum at three different intertidal levels. The nails were embedded with a construction stud gun using .32 caliber blanks; each nail stood approximately 2 cm high. Survival curves of these nail cohorts show that within most of the study areas there is a 5-30% probability of any given spot being struck by a log within 3 years. –Dayton. 1971 Ecological Monographs Pg 357

Being able to create the tools that we need empowers ecologists to generate ever more creative hypotheses, and I think that this culture sets us apart from other scientists. In some instances, our ingenuity has even led to new industry ventures and advances in technology, such as with the development of radio-telemetry, and camera traps. And subsequent market advances once the technology reaches industry leads to better equipment, which allows us to better test our hypotheses!

But this all has me thinking about another important parallel with biodiversity research. We take such care not to reinvent the wheel when it comes to testing the same ideas. Is there a way that we could prevent reinventing the wheel in how we test those ideas? What creative ways have you used to test your hypotheses?

Update: Somehow I missed being a part of this trending hashtag, Meg Duffy has a post about unusual equipment, and over at Parasite Ecology, they’re using snail polish for mark-recapture.

10 Replies to “On Making Biodiversity Research (UPDATED!)”

  1. Quadrats made from lineoleum are durable and wrap easily around trees. Hopefully I’m not the first epiphyte researcher to discover this.

    Like much of ecology- “how to do it” is very much word of mouth and lots of scrutinizing of methods sections that are increasingly vague.

    I am encouraged by the increased communication that the internet and email facilitates. It is no longer weird to email an author of a paper you admired and ask, ‘so how exactly did you do that?’

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  2. This is fun to think about. PVC pipe wins for versatility: walking stick while slogging through wetlands, camera tripod for photos in the field, and frame for a “climate chamber.” Bendy straws have also come in handy as tree core sample protectors.

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  3. I once heard of a pretty well-known ecologist who had a specific model of tile-floor buffing pads that he would use for seed germination experiments. Wish I knew what model they were…

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  4. Up to very recently, even the industry had to improvise, here in Brazil. Our camera traps, sold in the market, were just a regular digital camera wired to a motion or heat sensor inside a lunch box. Now this sort of equipment is better developed, and it is easier for scientists to import material from overseas.
    Also, It’s cool to think how “our needs”,as scientists, impact the industry, and the development of new technology. Perhaps camera traps, leaf area meters, photosynthesis systems and radio telemetry are good examples of this. Camera traps started off as a camera attached to trip-wires. Nowadays, they are a very “fancy”piece of equipment, with a lot of very specific functions (Hunters played a significant role in this development, as well).

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  5. During my M.S. I needed to get bat detector microphones up high to record bats above the canopy. After many trials and errors (with balloons, slingshots, etc.), I ended up using a PVC potato gun. It fired a tennis ball full of pennies attached to fly fishing line over the tops of trees so that I could string a pulley system between them. By the end of my second field season I had sniper-like accuracy with that thing.

    Nowadays I find myself buying a lot of empty gel-capsules and filling them with ground up insect parts to feed to pitcher plants!

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  6. I also love it when highly specific items become the discipline’s standard. e.g., “Toughies”, a brand of the plastic mesh things you use to clean your dishes – almost universally used for larval settlement surfaces in marine habitats.

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