Diverse Introspectives with Tony Ives

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

On October 29, 2013, graduate students Rob Heckman, Claire Fieseler, and I sat down with Dr. Tony Ives, Plaenert-Bascom Professor of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Dr. Ives may be best known for developing theoretical models to explain complex population dynamics in lake midges and predator-prey dynamics of pea aphids and their parasitoids, but his research interests are broad. He has published over 120 articles on a huge variety of topics in population and community ecology from coexistence in carrion fly communities to phylogenetic methodology. He has won many awards and honors for his research, most notably the 2012 Robert H. MacArthur award from the Ecological Society of America for his work on population dynamics of midges in Myvatn, Iceland. Dr. Ives was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 2013. We were fortunate to sit down with Dr. Ives when he visited the University of North Carolina for the distinguished lecture in Ecology.

Midges swarm over Lake Myvatn, Iceland. Photo taken by Arni Einarsson
Midges swarm over Lake Myvatn, Iceland. Photo taken by Arni Einarsson

Congratulations on your recent MacArthur award. What was it like to win such a prestigious award from your peers?

It was a huge honor, especially because it was from my peers. But honestly, it was very much a joint award. It was the result of the work of a lot of people. I’ve been incredibly lucky to get great scientists through the lab, and it is really them who deserve the award as much as me.

In the lecture, you started with a question about whether ecology should be about general laws. Why did you feel that it was important to begin your lecture with such a provocative question?

To get people thinking. Most of my talk was about midges in a weird lake, in a weird place – Iceland. How do I justify working on such a peculiar system? How do I justify this in a broader context? Ecologists often try to work only on problems that are inherently broad and apply to a lot of different systems. I couldn’t justify our weird study in this weird lake on those grounds. So I needed to start with a justification for working on something that’s strange, but nonetheless can give broad answers or conceptual understanding.

The midges of Myvatn. Photo taken by Arni Einarsson
The midges of Myvatn. Photo taken by Arni Einarsson

On the issue of universal laws: I don’t think there’s anything universally true about what you’d find in a particular lake. It’s the differences among lakes that I think are interesting. As a theoretical ecologist, you might think that I’m motivated by general laws. But I don’t find general laws very interesting. I really like solving problems. If I’m using theory and not looking for universal patterns or universal laws, then people ask what the hell am I doing? My answer is that I think of ecology as a library of well-developed case studies. If you’ve come across something in your own system, you can go to the bookshelf, pull out a book – a case study – and read it. And maybe there’s some insight that inspires you to look at your system differently. This makes case studies very useful for ecology.

I wouldn’t argue that all case studies are singular and have nothing to do with each other. Clearly there are a lot of themes that cut across different systems. But I wouldn’t necessarily uphold them as laws that you’d expect to see in every system.

If you think about ecology as a collection of case studies, then theory aimed at problem solving fits in as a type of case study. You can take a model and analyze it to death. What’s nice about a model is that you know absolutely everything about it. That’s not like any ecological system, where there’s always going to be stuff that you don’t know. A model is very well defined — you can analyze it and really understand it. The model then becomes a case study — a book on the ecological bookshelf. If you’re looking at your new ecological system – your real system – and you find something that doesn’t make sense, then you can look back at a model, and maybe it will spur intuition about your system. Using models as case studies puts theory on par with empirical studies. I think conceptually, intellectually, logically, they are on par, if you think about them as providing inspiration.

To give an example, I like to use Bob Paine’s work on Tatoosh island. Bob Paine’s classic studies in the 60’s defined keystone species. This is a broad concept that people find very, very useful across a whole variety of systems. But think about what Bob did: He studied the intertidal systems on one island, and he collected all the data himself. From a statistical point of view, all of his conclusions about keystone species have to be confined to what goes on in these intertidal communities on Tatoosh Island. Yet, ecologists are quite happy taking the inference from that single study on that single island, and applying the idea of keystone species to a whole variety of ecosystems. That is an incredibly abstract thing to do. I don’t view doing the same thing with theory any more abstract than doing what people are already comfortable doing with Bob Paine’s work.

So, I use theory to try to solve specific problems, to find general laws. That is what is fun for me. But I hope that the specific problems can at least spark ideas for other people studying other systems.

Can you share with us a paper that was particularly influential to you when you were a grad student or early career scientist?

I have to confess that when I was a graduate student, I didn’t like reading “old” papers. But I should have. One of the things that I notice now is that I read ideas in papers that are being published today, and I think ‘Oh gosh, there was a paper that was published in the 70’s that was pretty much the same.’ I’m always amazed at how the memory of science is fairly short. But that’s not answering your question.

Maybe the most interesting paper that I read as a graduate student was Nicholson and Bailey, 1935. I worked on carrion flies as a graduate student. And Nicholson worked on carrion flies. You go back to this paper published in 1935, and all of the basic questions that they were asking were the same as people were asking when I was a graduate student. To a large extent, they are the same questions that people are asking now. On the one hand you could get depressed and ask “Have we really not come very far in the field?” But I think a more sensible interpretation is that Nicholson and Bailey were asking really good questions that don’t have simple answers, and we’re still asking the same questions. So these are rich questions, and therefore they’re good ecological questions. Nicholson and Bailey got me to recognize that the good questions are hard questions which are not going to be easily answered, at least not in my lifetime.

Do you have recommendations for how grad students or people starting out should read papers?

Oh, I don’t know. I think people should just read what they want to read. And people typically will do that.

I would encourage people to read a lot. I’ve gotten unbelievably bad at reading. I do batch reading, so if I need to know stuff for a particular project, I’ll just download 200 citations and read all of the abstracts, and from that pick papers that I want to read. But that’s not a very good way of keeping up with the broader literature. So I wouldn’t recommend doing what I do.

When I was a grad student, I was pretty good at reading broadly. I had a key to the library, and every Sunday morning I would go into the library – it actually used to be Robert MacArthur’s office, which is cool – and I’d go through whatever journals had popped up on the shelves in the last week. I’d read anything that had an interesting title. I guess now, nobody reads paper journals anymore, but there are easier ways to see what’s being published. I’d recommend people keep their reading broad.

Are there particular skills that you wish you had cultivated in graduate school? How do you think they differ from skills that scientists should be especially keen to cultivate now?

I think that’s the wrong question. I don’t think graduate school should be about cultivating skills. This makes it sound as if your brain ossifies when you get your PhD and you can’t learn anything after that. For me, I learned almost everything that I know about statistics after finishing a PhD. So, rather than cultivate skills, I would say you should come up with questions that you’re interested in and then learn the skills that you need to answer the questions. It has to be question driven skill development. I get students coming into my office sometimes, saying, ‘I want to do more theory in my work. What kind of theory do I need to know?’ And I say, ‘Come back when you have a biological question, and then we can talk about it.’ I think the biology should drive things, not skill development.

If you could go back in time and tell a graduate student version of yourself one thing, what would it be? And is that different than the advice that you would give a grad student now?

The year I entered grad school, I think there were two ecology faculty positions that opened up in the entire country. It was early-mid 80’s, there was an economic slump, and things were bad. I dealt with that by telling myself, I’m going to be in grad school not as a means to an end. I decided to stay in grad school because I couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to do more. I couldn’t help myself. So, I stayed in grad school, and by the time I finished, jobs had opened up.

I guess my advice would be to live for the now, to study what you want to study, to be comfortable in what you are doing at this moment. Don’t try to do science by making sacrifices now for something that you expect in the future. If you make sacrifices now in a way that you think could help in the future, there’s no guarantee you will be right. Much better to simply do what you want to do now, because that’s going to make you more successful in whatever you do, and that’s going to lead to success however you measure success in the future.

Success in graduate school, at least of the grad students I’ve seen, comes from finding out pretty quickly what you’re good at and then pursuing it. Allowing yourself to be engrossed by it. Ultimately, that’s going to make you the most successful, whether that involves  teaching, whether it means working on very applied problems, or whether it means doing very, very basic research. People who are most successful seem to be those who figure out what they really enjoy doing and then just do it.

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable experience that you had doing fieldwork?

Well, okay, maybe I shouldn’t tell this, but it is the story that popped to mind most quickly. I discovered that I have a very difficult time doing research that involves simply sitting and watching something. I need to be doing something. I tried to do an experiment that involved sitting, watching carrion flies coming to dead carcasses. It was just unbelievably boring. I’d been doing it for a few afternoons, and I thought maybe it would be a nicer experience if I took a few beers with me. I finished the first beer, maybe 2, and after about an hour of sitting and watching, I thought, well, it’s a nice afternoon, maybe I should just like lie down for a little bit. I woke up at sunset. I concluded that, no, you should not mix alcohol with field work, and also that I should give up watching carrion flies at carcasses. So I did both.

Are there any other epic failures that have been important to your career?

I have had some epic failures that have just simply been epic failures, that have not led to anything good. One of the things that I’ve learned is to allow myself to be epically wrong. My graduate students will testify to that. I’ve said some things in lab meetings that made other lab members ask whether it is possible for me to say something sufficiently stupid to have my PhD revoked. But I think to be a good scientist, you have to be prepared to be wrong, and wrong in not a  ‘Oh I was wrong but I learned so much that good came out of it’ way, but just good plain wrong.

The freedom to be wrong is important. I’m probably more wrong than anybody else in the lab, and I think people need to know that, because you can’t live life as a scientist always being scared of being wrong or failing. It’s going to happen, and you have to get comfortable with it.

It seems like you’ve done a great job of overcoming your own imposter syndrome and setting a stage to help prevent it in your lab.

Honestly, sometimes I still have the oh-my-god-how-am-I-going-to-find-a-job nightmare. Okay, maybe its only once or twice a year now, and when I wake up I do have a job. Actually, I have tenure — cool. But I still have an imposter syndrome. I certainly did with the McArthur award. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the imposter syndrome. I’d like to say that it doesn’t affect me — that it doesn’t mean that I intentionally avoid things. But it does, and I do. I don’t think I can change that, though, and I don’t really want to.

What opportunities in your career have been most unexpectedly valuable? Are there any opportunities you wish you had taken?

I don’t know whether this answers the question, but a lot of the work that I do is collaborative. And I have stumbled into collaborations in all kinds of strange ways. I stumbled into the project in Iceland simply because I had family connections in Iceland. I wanted an excuse to go see family friends, and so for the first and only time in my life, I invited myself to give a talk at the University of Iceland. That turned into a 15-year collaboration with Árni Einarsson. Most of the fun collaborations that I’ve had were stumbled into. But this has lead to meeting great friends and colleagues and scientists. This has really been one of the most fun things about my job.

Midges darken the sky over Lake Myvatn, Iceland. Photo taken by Arni Einarsson.
Midges darken the sky over Lake Myvatn, Iceland. Photo taken by Arni Einarsson.

When does stumbling on an interesting opportunity become a good collaboration, specifically for the work that you’re doing in Iceland?

One of the most important things about a collaboration is enjoying the people that you are collaborating with. Sometimes there’s a bit of a dating process as the collaboration evolves. I would never underestimate the importance of getting along with people.

For example, Árni Einarsson is an incredibly nice person who I get along with very well. He is also an unbelievable naturalist. At the beginning of the season in Iceland, he’s doing the bird count at Lake Myvatn, and I always try and go along with him. Just walking through the landscape of Iceland, where he’s at home, is magical. He has all kinds of stories: ecological stories and archaeological stories. It’s really fun. Having nice and interesting collaborators makes the collaboration work. Collaborations have to do with science, but they’re also very personal.

What do you think is the appropriate balance between empiricism and theory given the renewed interest in the role of the two in ecology?

Oh, that’s easy. It’s whatever you want. There are some people who think in numbers, and there are some people who don’t. It’s totally individualistic. I don’t think there’s a blanket answer to your question. I think people should do what they want to do and if that involves theory, fine, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Just a reiteration that I think to be successful, the best strategy is simply deciding what you like to do. If you like to do it, you’re probably good at it, so you should just do it. That’s probably the best ticket to success.


11 March 2014

Biodiversity Challenge: Biodiversity hidden in plain view

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

I’m trapped in a barren wasteland. It smells of PineSol and fast food. There are people milling about all around me. They are coming and going in and out of little hallways, and there are so many iphones! Everyone is looking at their iphone! I am at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. There’s nothing here. Everything’s so sterile (which I guess is an improvement over the way it used to be). There can’t possibly be biodiversity here.

photo (2)

But wait! What’s that, over there by the power outlet? That filth! Those crumbs! There! That’s biodiversity! And there’s more! There’s biodiversity all over that bag of chips, and on the drinking fountain handles. There’s biodiversity on all of those iphones!. And there’s biodiversity on all of the people. All of them are teeming with germs! PineSol, you don’t stand a chance. There’s so much diversity, and it should stay that way!

Traditionally, when people think about biodiversity, they focus on the things that they can see: Tropical rainforests, African savannahs, wildflower meadows, even diversified agriculture systems. For me, it started with mangrove forests and grasslands, but recently, I’ve become more and more interested in the biodiversity that’s all around us that you can’t see. And I’m not the only one thinking about biodiversity hidden in plain view. Researchers are studying biodiversity in our houses, on our bodies, in hospital air, even inside the leaves of plants!

And those researchers are finding incredible things! The microscopic creatures inhabiting houses with dogs differ from houses without dogs, and might even contribute to healthier people in those houses. The microbes on our bodies vary by who we are, where we look, and even how much roller-derby we play.

Ok, Fletcher, so there’s biodiversity all around us, and some of it is pretty cool. But why on earth would you recommend that we conserve biodiversity in an airport? You’re talking about germs! People get sick in airports!

Well, although there’s a lot that we don’t know about the hidden biodiversity around us, we do know a few things. There are microscopic bacteria and fungi everywhere. And they’re important. We know that some of them cause diseases, but it looks like some of them might protect us from diseases, too.  We know that they can interact with each other, that they can form communities, and that those communities can be really different from each other. And I’m not talking apples and oranges different. I’m talking sea cucumber and redwood tree different, all in one square inch! And for the most part, we don’t know how they came to be different, but when we eliminate these communities from the face of the earth with PineSol or antibiotics, the communities that replace them are unlike those that were there before.

So we should conserve biodiversity at the airport because we don’t understand it. We should conserve biodiversity at the airport because it might just protect us from some of the diseases that we’re trying to prevent**. We should conserve biodiversity in the airport for the same reasons that we should conserve biodiversity in the Amazon and in the oceans and in our backyards. We should conserve it because it’s there.

30 October, 2013

*I should confess. I don’t study the microbial ecology of airports. I know virtually nothing about them other than what I’ve inferred from the references above.

**Alright, that might be a bit of a stretch. I am an advocate of sanitation at airports

Biodiversity Challenge!

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

A few months ago, Sharon Baruch-Mordo posted a provocative challenge. She called it the biodiversity challenge and offered it as an opportunity to engage the public – an opportunity to speak to non-scientists about our work and to convince them that they should care about it. Her thesis was that if we’re interested in generating knowledge – any knowledge really – it’s our responsibility to disseminate that knowledge as thoroughly as possible. The biodiversity challenge is a tough one. Not many graduate students are given training in science communication, and when we are, it’s usually targeted towards generating concise scientific prose that can be published in peer-reviewed journals. But the challenge is an important one. If we want to disseminate our knowledge, we have to be able to communicate it effectively.

Here’s the challenge:

Write a 500-word essay for a newspaper or magazine about the importance of your research in the context of biodiversity and conservation. Your target audience is the general public and your goal is to be educational and convincing.

Well, we took the biodiversity challenge. Over the past two weeks we’ve been toiling away at writing about our research interests. Next week we’ll be posting them for everyone to see and we challenge you to join in. You can upload it here or email it to us at info@biodiverseperspectives.com. We will publish them all next week, in full, as we receive them, unedited, in all their glory.

Jon Lefcheck has already taken the challenge. Won’t you?

UPDATE: The Biodiversity Challenges are coming in. Check them out here!

Following #INT13 on Twitter (UPDATED!)

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

I was supposed to be doing field work today, but since it was raining, I took the day off to get some writing done for my impending dissertation proposal defense.   Lucky for me (and my tendency for procrastination), the INTECOL meeting is going on right now, and unlike ESA, it looks like there’s enough service in the conference center for people to live-tweet the conference. This being my first ever twitter-only conference attendance, I thought I’d share my observations.

Here’s a little snippet of my own personal meta-live-blog:

11:17EDT. I just started following #INT13! What time is it in London right now, anyway?

11:18EDT. I think I’m in two sessions right now: One on niche-dynamics / species ranges; and one on conservation. According to @Ecopostblog, there are elephants in Mali, and not many people know it:

Dr Canney: many people don’t even know that there are elephants in Mali! #INT13

— EcoPost (@ecopostblog) August 19, 2013

Hopefully, I’ll find out more! 11:20 More on elephants.  Looks like they don’t use corredors much.

11:22. Looks like I’m missing a talk on soil fauna and altitudinal gradients; there was a great workshop; JEcology is having a meet the editor session! Cool! Hopefully someone live-tweets that!

11:23. Just learned that L Seabrook studies Koala poo. I wonder if there was a funny joke about that in the talk.

11:24. More on elephants – someone is developing, has developed, will develop a passage for elephants that’s free of human activities? Not totally sure…

11:25 INNGEcologists are having an early carreer social night. That sounds like fun!

11:27 I’m not sure what happened to the niche-dynamics session…

11:28 Reminder to self: look up Koricheva research on birch clone diversity and leaf mining.

11:29 Lack of implementation of biodiversity plans in South America? That sounds cool!

Andrew knight “lessons can be learned from lack of implementation of biodiversity plans in sa. #int13 — Olivia Richardson (@orichardson12) August 19, 2013

11:30 I have no idea what this is in reference to:

Urban dwellers’ herds is the problem! Outsiders use up the resources of the locals. #INT13 — EcoPost (@ecopostblog) August 19, 2013

Ok, back to work. I’ll keep following along for the rest of the day, and write some general thoughts tonight.

UPDATED:  Ok, It looks like day one of INTECOL is over, or at least the tweets have slowed down.

I should preface my commentary here by saying that I’m fairly new to twitter. I just joined in February. I resisted joining for a long time and am still learning the language. As a result, I probably could have used this:

Don’t forget that we’re giving Twitter tutorials at the BES stand today. Please spread the word! #INT13

— BES (@BritishEcolSoc) August 19, 2013

And I probably missed a lot of great conference material. Feel free to chime in with suggestions for improving my absentee INTECOL experience!

My immediate reaction to a day of conference tweeting is holy cow! That was a lot of information. I’d say that a conference on twitter is pretty incomprehensible, and unless I’m fully devoted to following along, it’s hard to really get a good idea of what any single talk Is about.

Here then, is my summary of day one at INTECOL on twitter:
There were a ton of really great talks on a wide variety of subjects. My favorite talks were this talk linking invasion ecology and climate change (I think):

Meyer: guerrilla strategy in #invasion (long dispersed events of few individuals) enhanced by climate warming #INT13

— Pablo Gonzalez (@pglezmoreno) August 19, 2013


#int13 Meyer dispersal key to plant response to climate change, depending on their enemies. . .

— William Gosling (@palaeolim) August 19, 2013


Meyer: arguing that diversity effects become stronger over time #INT13

— Carly Ziter (@carlyziter) August 19, 2013

And I really enjoyed Sandra Diaz’s plenary talk on plant functional trait diversity (Full disclosure, this talk took place while I was still sleeping, but I was able to look up the tweets and follow along afterwards).

Functional traits taking over #INT13 by opening plenary speaker Sandra Diaz pic.twitter.com/1AxI0RftHg


— Rob Salguero-Gomez (@DRobcito) August 19, 2013


It sounded like the take home message (thanks @JNGriffy!) was that:

Functional traits hold great promise to mechanistically link biodiversity and ecosystem services #INT13

— John Griffin (@JNGriffy) August 19, 2013


Sandra Diaz: more research needed. ‘We just don’t know enough to understand how functional diversity links to environmental change.’#INT13

— EEB&Flow (@EEB_Flow) August 19, 2013



Sandra Diaz is inviting everybody to keep TRYing and upload the forgotten data on plant traits to the TRY database #INT13

— Silvija (@SBudaviciute) August 19, 2013

And for comparison, here’s a summary from Dries Bonte, who was actually there (by the way, check out the Wiley at INTECOL blog. It’s really cool!). It looks like I got the gist of Sandra Diaz’s talk, but I completely missed David Tilman’s talk on biodiversity maintenance. Fortunately, I’m not alone. One of three tweets on that talk:

Could not assist at David Tilman’s conference at #INT13, not enough place in the room for all the fans 😉

— Marine Robuchon (@MarineRobuchon) August 19, 2013


I think following the conference at twitter was a good experience, but it could be better. Here’s a list of things that I really enjoyed from day 1:
Humor (most of which comes completely out of context):

“Mathematics is like sex, its ok to talk about it, but not ok to do it in public” #INT13

— Laura Boggeln (@LauraBoggeln) August 19, 2013


Walked into @theorecol‘s talk late – I wonder what he’s talking about. Just seems like noise #INT13

— Bob O’Hara (@BobOHara) August 19, 2013



“Ants are supercool” from @TomRBishop in his #INT13. He’s not wrong! #ants #ecology pic.twitter.com/PyYexN2thr


— Heather Campbell (@scienceheather) August 19, 2013


This is brilliant!! #INT13 #INTECOL #ecology #entomology pic.twitter.com/heHGhXmCwn


— Fevziye Hasan (@fezidae) August 19, 2013


Bits of wisdom:

Hugh Possingham: “Never give people an answer, give them a tool.” #INT13

— Michaela Plein (@michaelaplein) August 19, 2013


But there were also some things that I didn’t really like:

First, a common theme was the single tweet about what a talk was going to be about, with no follow up (I’m guilty of doing this at ESA this year, too). I’m sure that there’s some utility to this, but as an e-attendant, it wasn’t very useful. In a sense, I feel like I’d be better off using this great website to read through the abstracts myself.

But most frustrating was that I saw very little communication between people tweeting the conference. It was almost as though there were hundreds of people talking over / past each other.  I first joined twitter as a necessity for getting the most out of the 2013 Science Online Conference, and I loved how people asked questions and commented during discussions.  Here’s a great example from a session on imposter syndrome. I’m hoping that this is the future of tweeting scientific conferences.

If it’s still raining tomorrow, maybe I’ll try again, but overall, this tweet pretty well sums up my experience:

#int13 message of the day. Online no substitute 4 Face2face contact in the field to get people excited about ecology @BESroadies @palaeolim

— Lesley Batty (@LesleyBatty) August 19, 2013

Parasite biodiversity – a missing dimension?

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

Here are a few statistics:

  • Forty-percent of all species are parasites, and more than 75% of links in natural food webs are likely to involve them.
  • As many as 10,000 parasitic helminth species are threatened with extinction.
  • Decreases in avian diversity due to habitat loss and climate change will contribute to even greater parasite species loss in the future.

Parasites are everywhere and outnumber what we can see by a huge margin. So what does this mean when we start losing all these parasite species?

In their 2008 paper in PNAS, Dobson et al. had three objectives: 1) show exactly how abundant parasites are compared to other organisms, 2) estimate how many parasites are threatened with extinction, and 3) evaluate the potential impacts of parasite extinction.

They started by looking at previous estimates of parasite diversity, concluding that there could be over 300,000 parasitic helminth species that use vertebrates as hosts. They then took an alternate approach – evaluating all organisms in single habitat – and asked, how many parasites are there here? Their conclusion: at least 40% of all species in marshes along the California Coast are parasites. Not only that, but the structure of food webs changes dramatically depending on whether or not you include parasites in it.

Next, they looked at expected host extinction rates, and asked at what rate are parasites going to go extinct? Then they used theory on host-parasite interactions to ask, what can we expect as consequences of parasite extinctions?

This paper is a really cool example of what a talented group of researchers* can do when they really dig in to three simple questions about biodiversity and biodiversity loss, but here’s the reason that this paper should be considered a frontier in biodiversity research:

The authors fundamentally and meaningfully argued for a change in the way scientists describe biodiversity by showing that including parasites dramatically changes our understanding of global patterns of diversity, food-web structure, and the consequences of environmental change.  And in doing so, they challenged my notions about generality in ecological research.

What does it mean that 90% of biodiversity research addresses about half of biodiversity? Maybe nothing – Hechinger et al. (2011) argue that parasites obey similar ecological rules as free-living organisms when it comes to abundance, energetics, and production. And if parasites obey the same ecological rules as their free-living counterparts, then maybe it’s not that big of a deal that most ecological research ignores them. However, a recent meta-analysis by Kamiya et al. from the University of Otago in New Zealand suggests that parasite biodiversity may be structured by entirely different processes than those controlling the diversity of free-living organisms. If this is the case, then maybe we do have a problem.

I am aware of ongoing debates on the value of model systems vs. purely empirical, system-specific work in gleaning ecologically relevant information. Generally, I’m of the opinion that there is value in all of these approaches. Yes, while many specific ecological systems can be context dependent, theoretical models and microcosm experiments can tell us a lot about generality despite context dependence. But what if it’s not the context-dependence that we’re getting wrong. What if general biodiversity research is only targeting half of biodiversity? How general are even the most general of theories then?

Ok, so parasites are a diverse group, and much of biodiversity research has historically failed to address them. Are there other systems that biodiversity research has failed to do justice to?

*And a courteous airline staff? A note from the acknowledgements of this paper: ”The first draft of the article was written in Kilimanjaro, Nairobi, and Heathrow Airports; A.D. thanks British Airways and Precision Air for the patience, care, and attention of their ground staff.”