UC Davis at ESA 2017

UC Davis will make a strong showing for the 102nd meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland, OR this year! We have 78 students, postdocs, faculty, and recent graduates giving 1st author oral or poster presentations. Come see your talented colleagues showcase the variety of fascinating ecology research they’ve been up to recently.

If you’re on twitter, be sure to follow the #ESA2017 hashtag (and the @davis_egsa account!) for a whole new way to experience conferences. We’ll also be sending out tweet reminders about these UC Davis affiliated talks and posters about an hour or two before they start.

Don’t forget to join us for the annual UC Davis Ecology mixer on Wednesday starting at 6:30 PM PDT. The venue is Room A109 right in the Oregon Conference Center (the same venue as the Meeting). Hope to see you there!

Demystifying the hosting duties for the UC Davis Ecology & Evolution Weekly Seminar Series

Demystifying the hosting duties for the UC Davis Ecology & Evolution Weekly Seminar Series

By Michael Koontz, Allison Dedrick, and Helen Killeen

The EEB Seminar Series is a weekly opportunity to fortify the ecology and evolution community at Davis. We see cutting edge research by individuals holding positions that we one day hope to attain, we interact with those individuals in casual and professional settings, and we build our academic network in the proces. Students have an awesome opportunity to shape the lineup of speakers by nominating and hosting people of their choosing. When students are more involved in hosting speakers, it is more likely that the diversity of the speakers will reflect the breadth of interests, backgrounds, and future goals of the student body. As best as I (Mike) can tell, 2 students hosted speakers the first year I was at UC Davis (2014-2015), and 4 students hosted speakers the next year. However, 9 out of 28 speakers were hosted by students this year! This is great to see, and hopefully it marks the start of a reenergized seminar series.

Hosting a speaker for the EEB Seminar Series is a great experience. It can be daunting, so we wanted to shed some light on the process in the hopes of persuading more folks (especially students!) to nominate and invite scholars that would best serve their goals for their research training.

Why host?

  • Great way to meet people you might want to collaborate with or postdoc with in the future (broaden your network)
  • Can be a way to meet others on campus who have similar interests as you who you might not have encountered before
  • Have heard anecdotally from a couple of people that they are more likely to accept invitations to speak when invited by a student
  • A chance to advocate for/represent your particular sub-discipline to your peers and colleagues

Tips before hosting

  • Go to a student lunch with a seminar speaker before it is your turn to host to see what it’s like (they’re super informal and a great way to interact with the speaker and stay in touch with your colleagues)
  • Go to a no-host dinner with a seminar speaker before it is your turn to host
  • Enlist the help of your labmates to host someone
  • The official email to introduce the community to the next speaker goes out the Friday before the speaker visits, but there’s no need to wait until then to start planning their schedule! See if your labmates and other folks in the GGE might be interested in a 30 minute, 1-on-1 meeting in advance.
  • Make a schedule for your guest’s visit in 30-minute blocks. Use a Google Sheet so the schedule will be easy to see and modify, and everyone with access will be able to see the most up-to-date information. Be sure to include room locations for each meeting. Here’s the format Mike used when he hosted: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1OtuTG5aR1LwSb9xOU71sPjbMMN4oBvnGhkh5rCo1jfM/edit?usp=sharing
  • Visit the seminar room before the day of the talk to make sure you know how to work the projector, lights, etc. Arrange to have a clicker/laser pointer available for the speaker to use if they want.
  • (more of a tip for nominating): If your speaker is coming from far away, think about other funding sources that might help get them here (like if you already know they’ll be in the area for another reason and this visit could get added into that). Or reach out to other groups on campus – like Bodega Marine Lab or Coastal Marine Sciences Institute — to see if they might be willing to share costs or co-sponsor the visit.

Tips during hosting

  • Tell your guest to have some questions ready for the students during the student lunch, so that your guest will have some time to eat
  • Tell each person on the 1-on-1 schedule to escort the speaker to their next meeting (this is why it is key to have “location” on the schedule!)
  • To avoid low turn-out at either the student lunch or the no-host dinner, individually invite people who you think might be particularly interested in the speaker (especially students not in the GGE who might otherwise not realize the speaker is coming)
  • Ask the speaker if there are any people at Davis they particularly want to meet with during their visit, contact those people first about meetings when setting up the schedule
  • The email to hosts often doesn’t go out until just before the start of the quarter but start planning the visit before then. As the host, you are in charge of connecting with the speaker and the relevant admin people to book flights, hotels, etc. — if your speaker is early in the quarter, don’t wait for the host reminder email.

Tales from the Crypt: a parasitoid manipulates the behaviour of its parasite host

I have a new paper out with Dr. Scott Egan, Dr. Andrew Forbes, and Sean Liu! The paper is Open Access in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Here is the abstract:

There are many examples of apparent manipulation of host phenotype by parasites, yet few examples of hypermanipulation—where a phenotype-manipulating parasite is itself manipulated by a parasite. Moreover, few studies confirm manipulation is occurring by quantifying whether the host’s changed phenotype increases parasite fitness. Here we describe a novel case of hypermanipulation, in which the crypt gall wasp Bassettia pallida (a phenotypic manipulator of its tree host) is manipulated by the parasitoid crypt-keeper wasp Euderus set, and show that the host’s changed behaviour increases parasitoid fitness. Bassettia pallida parasitizes sand live oaks and induces the formation of a ‘crypt’ within developing stems. When parasitized by E. set, B. pallida adults excavate an emergence hole in the crypt wall, plug the hole with their head and die. We show experimentally that this phenomenon benefits E. set, as E. set that need to excavate an emergence hole themselves are about three times more likely to die trapped in the crypt. In addition, we discuss museum and field data to explore the distribution of the crypt-keeping phenomena.

 

Rice University’s videographer Brandon Martin made an awesome video about our study system:

 

 

The absolutely amazing french cartoonist Boulet graciously did artwork illustrating our study system. The study system is a bit complicated, since it’s wasps infecting wasps and it all gets a little hard to follow. Boulet’s artwork does a fantastic job of laying the system out clearly:

 

We were blown away by all of the press coverage of the article. Below are some highlights:

Featured in:

The Atlantic

National Geographic

BBC World

Science

New Scientist (we made the front page!)

Rice University News

Popular Science

Gizmodo

Live Science

The Daily Mail

Phys.org

The Scientist

CBS News

Futurity

Data I’ll never publish II: Salinity and herbivory

I spent a lot of my second year of grad school thinking about salinity and insect herbivory. Generally, insects don’t like very much salt (i.e. how many marine insects have you seen?). Salt is a fairly effective herbivore deterrent – an observation seemingly first made in 1980 by D. Newbery in an Oecologia paper on mangrove herbivory. I made the same observation, and tested it experimentally, in chenopods in a 2014 paper (also in Oecologia – they’ve seemingly cornered the salinity/insect herbivory market).

Coconut palms might be the most widespread and useful (to human) halophytic plant. They were useful for that hammock, at least.  Abaco Island, Bahamas, 2011.

Plants are also affected by salt and have myriad ways to deal with it, basically all variations on either excluding it, sequestering it, or excreting it. Obviously some plants are much better at dealing with salt than others (see mangroves, Zostera, etc.) – we call plants that are adapted to saline environments “halophytes” (i.e. salt plant in Greek). I happened upon a little, weedy, nonnative, and pretty much unremarkable chenopod – Oxybasis glauca – growing at the edge of a building in Davis and somehow I decided it was a pretty cool plant. Given all the other cool halophytes available, I’m not sure why I chose this plant to do a bunch of experiments on, but I did.

This is Oxybasis glauca growing in volcanic sand on the edge of Mono Lake, Mono, CA. I was with a group of about 30 people when I found this and was very excited. I couldn’t really even articulate a single cool thing about the plant – it is salt tolerant, but every plant in that area is salt tolerant. Maybe the coolest thing is that Oxybasis species have really small seeds compared to Chenopodium or Atriplex… maybe there is nothing special about it?

Like most Atriplex and Chenopodium (the genus which Oxybasis was split from) species, Oxybasis glauca has salt bladders – little bubble like trichomes which the plant shunts salt to and then they burst, an odd but effective form of salt excretion. This leaves a layer of salt on the outside of the plant. This protects the plant from herbivory somewhat.

 

Pre- (above) and post- (below) bladder burst O. glauca leaves (lab-grown).

 

Because O. glauca is salinity-tolerant and the primary herbivore of most weedy chenopods in the valley, the spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata), doesn’t like salt (see my 2014 paper), I wondered if there might be a refuge from herbivory effect at higher salinities and maybe there would be an intermediate salinity where the plant would still grow well, but herbivores would be deterred. So I did an experiment – I grew plants in three salinities* and then exposed half of them to a week* of cucumber beetle herbivory. I expected herbivore pressure would be most intense at low salinities, but also growth would be retarded at higher salinities.
So the hypothesis looks something like this – if plant “performance” is on the y-axis and the green line is effect of herbivory and grey the effect with solely salinity, if there is some overlap, the plant might do best at that overlap point (or it might not). (note: this is not a particularly good graphical representation for a number of reasons).
What did I find?
Plant response to salinity (w/o herbivores):
Salinity increasing left-right. Standard deviation plotted.
Plants did worse as salinity increased (as expected).
Herbivory:
Salinities increasing in treatments 1-4. Standard deviation plotted.
Total leaves damaged by the herbivores decreased with increasing salinity (as expected, as they are less palatable), but because the plants had fewer leaves, the proportion damaged increased.
THE INTERACTION
Biomass of plants. Dark green: with herbivores, light green: without herbivores. Salinity increasing left to right. Standard deviation plotted.
Sadly, there wasn’t. Beetles didn’t really have an effect on biomass (or any other metric). Maybe I didn’t have them in there for long enough? Maybe they really don’t have a fitness effect (I can certainly believe this).
Maybe this data will be useful to someone. Email me for the sheets.
*Note: the exact procedures are in one of about 40 notebooks in my office, so I don’t actually know exactly the salinities or number of days right now. If anyone is interested for any reason, I can easily dig this up.

Can we use Christmas trees for fire management?

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A Sierra Nevada forest in wintertime.

Over the past week, I’ve been talking trees with my friends and colleagues. But not any trees: Christmas trees. The question on the table: what is the environmental impact of a Christmas tree, real or artificial?

The whole thing began when a friend, a big plant lover, urged others via Facebook not to buy a real tree in order to respect the environment. Many comments followed. A mutual friend, knowing that I’d done some reading on this topic before, asked me to share some of the sources I’d found on the topic.

A lot of environmentalists assume that an artificial tree is the right choice: it’s reusable, and it doesn’t require cutting down a living tree every year only to stick it in your house for a couple of weeks until it dies. But the evidence says that this isn’t necessarily true–indeed, multiple sources, including a thorough “Life Cycle Assessment” by an environmental consulting firm, say that natural trees are actually the better choice: most Christmas trees are grown on farms, where young trees are planted annually to replace the ones that are cut down, while artificial trees are made of environmentally harmful PVC and are usually transported from China.

Others argue that the artificial vs. natural debate doesn’t matter much at all–no matter which tree you pick, the carbon footprint is far less than an average person’s footprint for a single day. And if you do want to minimize impact, details like where your tree comes from, tree farm practices, how many years you reuse your artificial tree, etc. are probably the more important choices. There are creative, earth-friendly options on both sides: a live tree that can be planted in your yard, for example, or a fake tree made from unconventional recycled materials. (The “greenest” tree I ever had growing up was definitely when we cut off the top ten feet of a Norway spruce that had toppled over in our backyard during a storm.)

And so I compiled all of this into an e-mail, finishing it off with something like “I support natural trees, assuming you’re not randomly going into the forest and randomly chopping down a tree, which few people do anyway.”

And then it occurred to me that I was perhaps missing the forest for the trees. I live in California. I care about wildfires and fire management. And one of the main strategies for managing forests for wildfire in California? Thinning small trees to reduce fuel load.

Thinning forests is controversial (really a topic for another post)–and it’s not as cost-effective or ecologically beneficial as getting real fire on the ground. But there’s no smoke, it’s precise, and has support from many interests. In any case, it’s one of the strategies we have, and one that we’ll need to continue to use as part of our forest management toolbox.

So here’s the holiday question of the day: in California, is the environmentally-friendly, fire-friendly choice to cut your Christmas tree from a forest rather than a farm?

The small trees that serve as ladder fuels (fuels that carry a fire from the forest floor to the treetops) would be pretty good Christmas trees. Many such trees are small enough to fit in your house, and they are shade-tolerant species that have the Christmas tree look, like red and white fir.

I’m not the first one to have the idea of using Christmas trees for fire management, but it’s not an idea that shows up often in real vs. artificial debates, which tend to focus on the tree’s carbon footprint. Here is one really good article on this idea, from UC Cooperative Extension Forestry, which provides lots of useful information on cutting your own tree in California.

But is cutting a Christmas tree for forest management really a good or practical idea?Individuals cutting single trees on a small scale probably won’t have much effect on fire behavior. On a larger scale, there may be more cost-effective uses for the products of thinning than Christmas trees. And as is the case with artificial and farmed trees, there are so many factors involved in choosing a tree that it would be hard to argue that cutting a tree is a better choice than anything else, even in California.

So what’s the takeaway? Here are a few:

  • Always consider the forest AND the trees–individual trees can only thrive in a healthy ecosystem.
  • Think about your local environmental context when you choose a tree, or when purchasing other environmental resources. Choosing a tree in California may be different than doing so in New York.
  • When deciding what is “environmentally-friendly”, think beyond carbon footprint (carbon is definitely important, but there are other considerations, like wildlife habitat and wildfire).

Any thoughts from the audience? If you live near forests where thinning takes place, have you considered getting your Christmas tree this way?

Happy holidays from Talk About Fire!

P.S. Speaking of fire, if you have a live tree, make sure to keep it watered, turn the lights off when you’re not around, and avoid real candles and other fire hazards. We don’t want to move the fire from the forest to your home! Other tips here.

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You can always create a lovely mixed-candyfir forest to celebrate!