Even deleting the chestnut blight won’t necessarily bring the chestnut tree back*

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

100 years ago, the Eastern United States was a lot different than it is today.  Yeah, there was less urban development, and there were fewer paved roads, dams, and railroads, but by far the biggest difference (at least to an ecologist) was the makeup of the forests.  100 years ago, there stood a huge and dominant tree that is now a mere shrub.  Prior to 1904, the mighty chestnut was one of the most dominant trees in the entire northeast, comprising as much as 40% of the canopy.  Chestnuts grew up to five feet in diameter, and up to 100 feet tall, provided some of the best lumber, and produced some of the most valuable nuts to people and wildlife. But in 1904 in New York City, some chestnuts began to die.  The blight, caused by the introduced fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, quickly invaded North American forests as it encountered American trees with little natural resistance, girdling and eventually killing them.  By the 1920’s, Cryphonectria had spread to the Appalachian forests and was quickly heading south, and by the 1930’s, the blight had entirely removed chestnuts from the southern Appalachian forests (McCormick and Platt 1980).

Twenty years after the demise of of the chestnut, researchers saw no evidence that it could ever recover, and until now they have been right. But what if the chestnut got a second chance?  What if suddenly and unexpectedly, Cryphonectria disappeared in the temperate deciduous forests of North America?  Because Cryphonectria appears to have been the only initial factor limiting the growth and abundance of chestnut, it is reasonable to believe that if it were to disappear, chestnut populations could recover back to their pre-blight status. And had humans contributed little else to change the forests since the early 20th century, disappearance of Cryphonectria could have as great an effect on Eastern US forests it had twenty years after its arrival to North America.   However, due to current and past land-use, chestnut interacts with a different suite of co-occurring species and must contend with a shifting climate. Therefore, while deleting Cryphonectria may change deciduous forests, it would do little to restore the chestnut as a dominant species.

To illustrate my point, lets delve a little more into the biology of the pathogen and the host.

What is Cryphonectria?

Crhyphonectria, a member of the phylum Ascomycota, grows on the shoots of Castanea.  The mycelium produces a canker inside the bark of the tree, and once the canker has encircled the entire stem, it girdles and kills it.  This leads to the death of the majority of the tree. But Cryphonectria never enters the roots, leaving them intact to produce shoots known as stump-sprouts.  As a result, chestnut is reduced to an understory shrub rather than being completely eked out.

What does this mean for the chestnut?  It means that with the disappearance of Cryphonectria, Chestnuts would not have to rely solely on seed dispersal to begin returning back into the forests.

A Closer Look at the Chestnut Tree, Castanea

The chestnut is a highly efficient seed disperser. And this may be one of the primary factors that contributed to the past dominance of the Chestnut tree in North American forests.  Chestnut seeds are nuts, which are protected by a thick husk that allows the seeds to survive past their most vulnerable stage to one that is more conducive to dispersal.  Chestnuts also produce massive quantities of seeds, and they produce them mid-summer, which protects the nuts from the potential impacts of frost.  The nuts are also highly palatable and rapidly harvested by animals, which aids in dispersal. This means that if chestnuts could grow large enough to produce seeds and become abundant enough to overcome seed predation, they could potentially proliferate quickly towards forest dominance. And because Castanea can produce shoots from already existing (and rather abundant) root stock, they should be able to produce seeds quickly, relative to reestablishing from seed.

What happened to North American deciduous forests after the Chestnuts died?

We don’t know a lot about chestnut ecology before the blight, but thanks to one plot of land on Beanfield Mountain, we know something about how forests responded to the chestnut’s demise. Prior to the blight, Castanea was a co-dominant species in all the sloped forests of Beanfield Mountain.  In 1939, about twenty years after introduction of Chestnut Blight to the mountain, the only perceptible difference in composition was the absence of chestnut. After about 50 years, openings in the forest canopy were eventually filled by hickory, as Eastern US forests shifted from chestnut/oak to oak-hickory dominated. Then, largely due to fire-exclusion during the early 20th century, populations of red maple invaded forests, and now red maple is one of the most abundant trees in eastern forests (Lord 2004).

How did chestnuts get to North America last time?

Long before they were deciduous, North America was home to boreal forests.  Then, around 16,000 years ago in the south, and 10,000 years ago further to the north, deciduous forest began to take over the landscape. But Castanea was the slowest species of tree to establish, expanding at roughly 100 meters per year, and reaching sites near Connecticut only as recently as 2,000 years ago, even though it was present near Memphis 13,000 years prior.  Margaret Davis (1983) suggested that that despite high seed production and dispersal, the fact that Castanea is self-sterile could be a leading factor for such a slow rate of establishment, and still account for the huge proliferation once established.

What does this mean for the chestnut tree?

What does this tell us about reestablishment of chestnut following the disappearance of Chryphonectria?  First, though chestnuts are not currently producing seed, they do so rapidly, yet they distribute very slowly as a species.  Second, despite their slow dispersal, they still exist in many areas as small shrubs awaiting an opportunity to grow.  And third red maple is their primary competitor in a world without chestnut blight.

 Factors Limiting Reestablishment of Castanea

Ok, you’re saying, the chestnut’s chances don’t sound so dire. They are already in forests, and they produce massive quantities of seed when mature. What’s the deal?

Plant competition for light is asymmetrical.  With a large enough canopy, trees can effectively block sunlight from reaching the branches of lower plants, slowing growth and seed production.  The chestnut has been reduced to an understory shrub. And although plants can survive for decades in the shade, and despite being widely considered one of the fastest growing canopy trees in the Appalachian forest when under direct sunlight, the chestnut’s growth is heavily stunted by shade (Bass 2002).  As a result, despite release from Chryphonectria, it would take chestnuts decades to grow large enough to produce seed and widely disperse throughout the forests.

Red maple, a current forest dominant, is one of the most sensitive forest trees to burning, and periodic fires resulting from Native American activities, lightning strikes and European settling practices were likely key factors in suppressing red maple populations in the past.  Perhaps with the re-introduction of fire into Eastern US Forests, canopy openings could allow new chestnut stump-shoots to grow and become dominant.  Sadly, current fire practices would need to change on a scale beyond any we’ve seen before, and so it appears that despite an absence of Cryphonectria as a shoot limiting factor, the red maple will still limit chestnut growth in its absence.

And human fire practices are not the only factors keeping chestnut trees in check.  As a result of the excessive killing of Wolves in the past, deer populations have increased. And because deer tend to choose other shoots over red maple (Abrams 1998), there could be a problem of excessive deer browsing of chestnut shoots were they able to grow to substantial size and health.  This could further deter them from recolonizing the forests and give the red maple another advantage.

Last, tree reestablishment would have to contend with shifting climate regimes.  Suppose chestnut trees were able to overcome the shading from red maple and preferential selection by browsers. They might be able at maximum growth, to reach half the height of the canopy in twenty years, and reach the full height in 80 (Bass 2002).  But in 80 years will current North American forests still be the ideal location for Chestnut trees?  It was once predicted that range extensions due to climate would require a dispersal rate over 200km per century, that’s over 2km per year (Davis, 1989).  With a dispersal rate of 100m per year, it seems unlikely that Castanea could keep up with increasing temperatures.

It’s sad to think that our introduction of Cryphonectria over 100 years ago, failed to serve as an effective warning, and that through historical resource use, we managed to prevent the forests from being successfully reinhabited by a once dominant and majestic tree.


Want more information about Chestnut blight and the chestnut tree? Check out these resources:

Bass Q. 2002. Talking Trees: The Appalachian Forest Ecoysystem and the American Chestnut. The Journal of The American Chestnut Foundation 16:42-55.

Davis M. B. 1983. Quaternary History of Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America and Europe. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 70:550-563.

Delcourt H. R. 1979. Late Quaternary Vegetation History of the Eastern Highland Rim and Adjacent Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. Ecological Monographs 49:255-280.

Keever C. 1953. Present Composition of Some Stands of the Former Oak-Chestnut Forest in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains. Ecology 34:44-54.

Lord B. 2004. The Red Maple, An Important Rival of the Chestnut. The Journal of The American Chestnut Foundation 18:42-47.

McCormick J. F., R. B. Platt. 1980. Recovery of an Appalachian Forest Following the Chestnut Blight or Catherine Keever-You Were Right! American Midland Naturalist 104:264-273.

Paillet F. L. 2002. Chestnut: history and ecology of a transformed species. Journal of Biogeography 29:1517-1530.

Steele, M.A., McCarthy, B.C. & C. H. Keiffer. 2005. Seed Dispersal, Seed Predation, and the American Chestnut. The Journal of The American Chestnut Foundation 19:47-55.

VANDER WALL S. B. 2001. The Botanical Review; The Evolutionary Ecology of Nut Dispersal. 67:74.

Woods F. W., R. E. Shanks. 1959. Natural Replacement of Chestnut by Other Species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ecology 40:349-361.


*Disclaimer: This post is largely plagiarized from a paper that I wrote as an undergraduate, which is one reason why it’s so long, and also may explain why the citations are so old.

An homage to the writing style of Dr. Peter Adler -Or- How to write good science well.

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

Although I’ve been a graduate student for more than four years, I’ve been a peer-reviewed author for just a few short months. My brief time as a researcher, writer, and published scientist in no way makes me an expert when it comes to developing a successful career in academia. However, during my time in grad school, I have become aware of three critical rules for achieving success in my field.

Rule 1. Do good science. This is a no-brainer, really. If you want to be recognized for your contributions to the scientific world, start with good science.
Rule 2. Be an advocate for your science. This is less obvious, but equally important. One of the most critical ways for your good science to be recognized is for you to advocate for it. This means give talks whenever you can, reach out to broad audiences, and most importantly, publish your research.
Rule 3. Communicate your science well. This is the least obvious of these three rules. However, if people can’t understand your good science, it’s unlikely to be recognized for its contribution to the field.

Graduate school puts a huge emphasis on Rule 1 – and for good reason. Grad school is first and foremost a place for young researchers to learn how to do good science, and without good science Rules Two and Three are irrelevant. In my program, Rule 2 is covered pretty well, too. Students get to practice giving talks and presenting posters during departmental brown-bags and an annual research symposium. My lab also encourages me to attend large and small conferences to share my research, and grad students from my department have been encouraged to start and contribute to a number of research blogs.

But Rule 3. That’s a tough one. I mean, how many research faculty were actually trained in science communication? And can they really be expected to teach that skill to graduate students? So to tackle Rule 3, graduate students are pointed to reference books and resources on the Internet. And the Internet is replete with advice on how to write well. For example, see Brian McGill’s 2012 tome on writing clearly  – a follow up to Jeremy Fox’s question who writes the most stylish scientific papers? – And read Brian’s subsequent post on writing journal articles like a fiction author.

While it is tempting to just have someone do your writing for you. That won't get you very far in academia.
While it is tempting to just have someone do your writing for you. That won’t get you very far in academia.


For a recent assignment in a scientific writing seminar, I was encouraged to take a different approach to tackle Rule 3. Find a researcher whose writing you like or admire. Read a few of their scientific papers and identify some characteristics of their writing style and organization (not scientific content) that makes it successful.

For the assignment, I decided to choose an author whose papers I enjoy reading, and who exemplifies the three rules of academic success. And it didn’t take me long to land on Peter Adler. Dr. Adler is widely regarded for his ability to synthesize complex theory with empirical data – He does good science. He gave what I regard as the best talk at ESA 2014, not only because his research findings were interesting and important, but because I left the talk feeling smarter than when it began. – He advocates for his science. Last, Adler’s papers are frequently cited and he is regarded as a clear communicator – He communicates his science well.

And so I set out on a journey to try to figure out how Peter Adler communicates his research. In particular, I wanted to see if I could identify two themes in his papers.

  1. Adler is well regarded for his ability to clearly explain and synthesize complicated theory and modeling approaches with empirical data. Are there any stylistic themes that he uses to accomplish this?
  2. Adler publishes prolifically. Is there any indication for a roadmap that he might use for writing?

To do that, I focused on four papers:

Here I should note that all of these papers have co-authors and it’s a disservice to those coauthors to assume that Adler is the sole contributor to the writing style and ultimate success of the article.

  1. Can I identify stylistic themes that Adler uses to clearly explain and synthesize complex theory / modeling approaches with empirical data.

Adler uses conversational sentence construction with relatively short words. Occasionally rephrases a concept for clarity.

“Stabilizing processes are defined as any mechanism that causes species to limit themselves more than they limit others. Another way of saying this is that niches cause intraspecific effects to be more negative than interspecific effects. As a result, when any one species increases in abundance, its per capita growth rate slows relative to other species, helping to limit competitive exclusion.” (Niche for Neutrality)

Why I think it works: In a perfect world, writing would be maximally concise and clear. However, in the real world, brevity can often come at a cost to clarity. Adler is willing to sacrifice some space for clarity in an instance when it is particularly important that the reader understand a concept. 

He asks questions and then provides an answer

“What precisely are the fitness differences among species that are important from a coexistence perspective? The specific traits depend on the model used to describe coexistence.” (Niche for Neutrality)

“How can functional traits directly affecting only a limited set of physiological processes and demographic rates explain variation in overall life history? One possible explanation is that the affected processes…” (Forecasting plant community impacts) 

Why I think it works: The idea of raising questions and then immediately answering them isn’t new. The literary device even has a name: Hypophora. Why do writers use it? It can help maintain interest and curiosity in a reader, highlight important questions, and guide the reader towards an important area of interest. Why does it work for Adler? Reading Adler’s well-placed questions helps me follow the logic of his argument. He’s both telling me what to ask and the answer to my question.

In a non-research paper, Adler ends each section with a small “take home message”

“Placing the neutral model within classic coexistence theory emphasizes two important lessons…”(Niche for Neutrality)

It then goes on to summarize the two important lessons: (1) that niche and neutral processes combine to generate coexistence, and (2) that relationships between per capita growth rates and relative abundance can allow researchers to test their relative contributions.

Why it works: Non-research papers aren’t required to follow the IMRAD structure that most research papers follow. This can be confusing if early sections of a paper don’t clearly link together until later on. Briefly summarizing each section provides the reader with a reminder of the greater context of each section.

He uses simple language in the introduction and more complex jargon in the methods section.

Intro of Coexsitence of perennial plants, describes stabilizing niche differences as mechanisms that

“cause species to limit themselves more than they limit others, so each species grows faster when it is rare than when it is common.”

In the methods, they are described as,

“all processes that cause species to limit conspecific more than heterospecific individuals, creating an advantage when rare.”

Why it works: This approach allows the reader to understand the concepts early on, but the technical details when they are necessary. In other words, Adler gives the reader just enough information so that they can understand the basic concept in the introduction, but then introduces the technical details of that concept in the methods section, where they are necessary to critically evaluate the research.

Adler makes frequent use of numbered lists to organize ideas.

“Our results provide three important clues to guide future research on specific mechanisms.” (Coexistence of perennial plants)

Why it works: (1) Improves clarity by focusing the reader on key concepts. (2) Increases brevity by eliminating unnecessary transition statements. (3) Provides a framework for following paragraphs

(2) Do Adler’s papers follow a consistent general outline?

The introduction of each paper begins with a broad overview of the theory, the historical approach, the problem, and a new solution.

Why I think it works: The introductory paragraph provides a broad historical context for the rest of the paper. This is essentially an exaggerated version of “The Funnel Introduction technique”.

Each intro ends with a paragraph that outlines the rest of the paper. This paragraph often lists objectives of the paper and summarizes how those objectives were met.

“We begin by fitting… We then perturb the observed climate variables…Next, we estimate the degree of niche differentiation…Finally, we show that this empirical test supports…” (Forecasting plant community impacts)

Why it works: Adler’s research is complicated. At the end of the introduction, he provides the reader with a roadmap. Get lost during the paper? Refer back to the roadmap to find your way.

Each component of the methods section is told as a story:

Why it works: The narrative approach helps the reader understand how each step in data collection and analysis leads to the final result.

The discussion section always begins by restating the objectives.

“Our analysis of the empirical, multispecies population model supported our hypothesis: Species with dynamics strongly stabilized by niche differences experienced the weakest indirect effects of climate, while the species most weakly stabilized by niche differences was most sensitive to indirect effects.” (Forecasting plant community impacts)

Why it works: Like before, restating ideas comes at a cost to brevity. In this case, restating and summarizing the objectives and results increases clarity by highlighting the concepts that the discussion will cover.

Ok, so what’s the take-home message here? It’s not that Peter Adler is the best writer on earth and we should all emulate everything he does. Rather, I think there are two really important messages from this exercise. First, good writing is effortful writing. If your goal is clarity, it is important to think critically about sentence and paragraph construction, not just the logical flow of arguments. I would imagine that it also requires a level of cognitive empathy – or the ability to understand what confuses a reader and make that clear. For example Adler rephrases a difficult concept in Niche for Neutrality to help the reader follow along with the flow of ideas. Second, being a good writer means thinking analytically about writing. What do I mean by that? Grad school trains us to think critically about constructing scientific experiments, statistical tests, logical arguments. Yet thinking critically about constructing sentences and paragraphs is rarely emphasized. Perhaps the trick to accomplishing Rule 3 is to approach it like Rule 1.

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

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.

Is blogging effective at communicating biodiversity research?

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

My original intent in writing this post was to compare the 5 most-cited papers on biodiversity to the 5 most blogged-about papers on biodiversity to address the differences between what we value as researchers versus what we value as general science communicators. However, I was shocked by the results of my search.  Over 49,000 papers have been published containing the word “biodiversity”.  In contrast, only 448 blog entries on researchblogging.org contain the word “biodiversity”, citing just 427 papers. What does this mean about the state of biodiversity research versus the state of biodiversity-research communication? Do bloggers and their readers value fundamentally different research than that being conducted and cited? Or are researchers simply falling short of effectively communicating the most important research in biodiversity science? Here at biodiverse perspectives, we aim to bridge the gap between research blogging and scientific research, by focusing on the research that we consider to be truly transformative in the field of biodiversity regardless of publication date.


In this blog, we present the papers that we think are the foundational and frontier papers in biodiversity science. But we are just a subset of a vast scientific community. I recently began to wonder, if I were able to poll all biodiversity researchers, what would they say are the five most important papers for biodiversity science?

Well, I don’t have the eyes and ears of all biodiversity researchers, but I do have some tools for garnering their opinions. If journals are the primary method for sharing scientific material, then to some extent, the number of citations should tell us something about how we value research.

So, I sent a letter to every published biodiversity researcher:

 Dear ISI Web of Science,

What are the five most-cited papers that contain the word “biodiversity”?


Fletcher Halliday

And, believe it or not, I got a reply! Here’s a list of the top five cited articles from Web of Science:

Myers et al. (2000) Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature. 4,790 citations

Vitousek et al. (1997) Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Science. 2,410 citations

Sala et al. (2000) Biodiversity – Global biodiversity scenarios for the year 2100. Science. 1,764 citation

Thomas et a.l (2004) Extinction risk from climate change. Nature. 1,690 citations

Hewitt, GM (1996) Some genetic consequences of ice ages, and their role in divergence and speciation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 1,667 citations

But this website wasn’t designed just to be a compendium of articles that may or may-not be well cited in the literature. As the name suggests, the purpose of this website is to present the perspectives of a diverse community of graduate students. In many ways, this blog is unique. We have over 15 contributing authors, representing 5 countries, and we focus primarily on sharing our opinions on primary literature in biodiversity science. However, in many ways we aren’t so unique. In fact, there are over 2,500 blogs on the web registered as “research blogs” with the website researchblogging.org. And it seems to me that my letter to every published biodiversity researcher may have missed a large segment of the scientific community.

So I sent out another letter:

Dear Researchblogging.org,

What are the 5 most blogged-about papers containing the word “biodiversity”?


Fletcher Halliday

And researchblogging.org replied too- and what a surprising reply it was! Of 448 blog posts, only 19 papers were written about more than once and only 2 papers were written about more than twice:

Evans, et al. (2011) The spatial distribution of threats to species in Australia. BioScience. 3 blog posts

Strassburg et al. (2010) Global congruence of carbon storage and biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems. Conservation Letters. 3 blog posts

17 papers tied for the remaining three slots in the top 5, each with 2 posts apiece. They ranged in subject from the use of DNA barcoding to infer patterns of avian diversification all the way to role of the Chicxulub Asteroid in mass extinctions.

I wasn’t surprised that the top-five papers were different between ISI and researchblogging.org, but I was surprised to find that the top-five most-cited articles on ISI have never been written about on researchblogging.org. What does it mean that the 5 most important papers to biodiversity researchers don’t even register with biodiversity bloggers?

I’ll pose 3 possible explanations and then leave it up to you to decide what we need to do.

First, perhaps researchblogging.org isn’t a representative sample of science blogs on the web.  But then, if researchblogging.org is not, then what is? If blogs about research aren’t easy to find, then are they really doing their job?

Second, by focusing on very recently published articles, researchbloggers are missing some of the more foundational research in the field. Researchblogging.org launched in 2008 and consequently, the vast majority of papers that have been blogged about were published after that time. Maybe the purpose of researchblogging isn’t to share the most important research, but rather the new and exciting research. However, by only focusing on recent publications, do we run the risk of perpetuating the trend in ecology to reinvent the wheel?

Finally, perhaps not enough researchers are contributing to researchblogging. There are WAY more publications than there are blogs about them! In fact, ISI gave me more than 49,000 results for my query of papers using the word “biodiversity”, whereas researchblogging.org gave me 448 blog entries, citing 427 papers. Just to put this in perspective, the most cited paper containing the word “biodiversity” has been cited 10 times more than the total number of blogs on researchblogging.org that contain the word “biodiversity”. Maybe research blogging and the literature don’t agree because not enough scientists write in blogs.

If science blogging is intended to disseminate science to the public, then it seems important that science blogs aren’t limited to presenting just the newest and most exciting research out there. Here at Biodiverse Perspectives, we are trying to put biodiversity research into some kind of context by writing about papers that are new and exciting as well as papers that have contributed to our foundational knowledge of the field. We hope that this endeavor will allow us to share our excitement about the future direction of biodiversity research in light of its past. What do you think?