Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Conference today

I am visiting a conference this week, Understanding Biodiversity Dynamics Using Diverse Data Sources. But as it takes place in the city where I work I don't have to go far - the talks are just down the hill from my office. Some of the talks today were inspiring and utterly fascinating.

Two in particular I want to mention very quickly, although for very different reasons. The first was, from my perspective, perhaps the highlight of the day, but more importantly it was highly relevant to my recent discussion of the merits of phylogenetic diversity. Among other things, Professor Marc Cadotte talked about the claim, already advanced by Charles Darwin, that, all else being equal, a biome containing more phylogenetic diversity (PD) is more productive than a biome with less.

And he presented an ingeniously simple field experiment to test this claim quantitatively: They planted numerous experimental plots with one, two or four species of varying evolutionary relatedness, taking care to replicate close relatedness in various groups (two grasses, two Lamiaceae, and so on). The result was a beautiful and clear positive correlation of grassland productivity with PD.

As I wrote above, this is highly relevant to the question of whether PD is correlated with feature diversity, only in this case there is another mental step involved. The underlying idea is that a community of four distantly related species would be more productive than one of four closely related ones because it would have higher feature diversity in the sense that the species are more divergent and can thus utilise more different resources than the same number of supposedly more similar, closely related species.

The positive result of the experiment can thus be read as another vindication of PD, and surely the unseen characters that allow these plants to complement each other in the utilisation of local resources are "conservation relevant", to use the words of the PD critics I discussed a few days ago.

The other talk that I briefly want to mention was sadly somewhat less sparkly. The thing is, there are many snobbish molecular and evolutionary biologists who consider natural history collections and the research they do as mere "stamp collecting" and a tedious description of patters instead of something that increases our understanding of relevant processes.

I will admit there are some colleagues who fit that description, who would go and bore the socks off an audience by showing them half an hour worth of insect mouthparts or leaf shapes without betraying any underlying research question.

But bizarrely, at the moment I have examples showing the exact opposite. In my backpack is a paper I am peer reviewing where the authors examined a highly topical but supposedly hard to test evolutionary question through the simple expedient of measuring a few macroscopic characters on dusty old herbarium specimens and doing some simple statistics. Conversely, today at the conference I had to sit through a 30 minute talk by a scientist working with cutting-edge genomics and bioinformatics techniques who filled virtually the entire time with one "and this transcription factor has this effect on the insect wing" after the other. It was purely descriptive, and I never understood why anybody should care to know this stuff.

That just goes to show that it is not what tools you have but what you do with them.

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