About Us

We are members of the Andrew Gonzalez lab , in the Biology Department at McGill University.
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Here in the northern hemisphere summer is in full swing, and for people of my age that means one thing: weddings. This past weekend a science-friend and I attended the wedding of a mutual friend, who is a rising star in the world of acarology, so naturally we ended up seated at the table with a bunch of other scientists. What ensued bore some resemblance to a mini-conference, with light banter about our research, and how we knew Wayne. Nautrally this entailed a trip down memory lane to my undergrad (Wayne and I were labmates during my honours project), when summer meant something very different - it meant field season.

Back in my younger days field season was a big part of science for me. In my undergrad I made massive collecting trips across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the North West Territories (camping out on some collecting trips, and jumping out of helicopters on others), and during my masters I visited many lakes to gather inocula for my outdoor mesocosm experiment. Aside from providing the chance to be outdoors, an element of field work that I think we all like, this active field involvement also allowed my data to have at least a sheen of ecological realism. Both of these reasons make the call of the field beguiling, almost irresistable. The trade-off, however (there's always a trade-off...), was that it can be incredibly hard to assign any kind of mechanistic explanation to the complicated, ecologically-relevant systems that we often study in the field.

As a result I now spend less time outdoors, less time invested in ecologically relevant systems, and more time with 125 mL erlenmeyer flasks and two species diatom systems. In terms of data, things are lost (like the realism), but things are also gained (explanatory power and control). The same is true on a personal level: I've lost the sheer fun of playing in the mud and paddling madly to get off a lake before the thunderstorm hits, but I've gained the ability to engage in journal clubs, concerts, and movies during the soft summer evenings. And, who could forget, weddings.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Turbo Eco-jargon

Language is fluid and ever-changing, and the creation of new scientific terms can be useful if it makes the language more precise, but it also makes our work less accessible for those unfamiliar with specific literature and to the general public. When we start using overly specialised words as a substitute for more commonplace words, it becomes “turbo eco-jargon”.

An example of eco-jargon that works is the term ‘biodiversity’. It shortens ‘biological diversity’ to one word and still retains its meaning. However, most times we create and use terms that are not intuitive and/or not well defined. This can be especially problematic when terms have a common use, but a very specific scientific use, which may also differ among disciplines. Some examples are: stability, productivity, resilience, traits, and function(ing).

I am probably one of the worst in our lab for using eco-jargon (I was actually scolded by an editor once for my use of ‘turbo eco-jargon’ – his exact words!). But I like creating and using highly specialised words because I think they are fun.

Here are a list of some of my long-term favourite turbo eco-terms; how many do you know? (see comments for definitions)

• cursorial
• vagile / vagility
• phoretic / phoresy
• inquilinism / inquiline
• corticolous
• detrital

Currently I'm working on a manuscript to coin a new eco-term. I'll keep you posted!

Thanks to Biodude for feedback on this post. I look forward to your comments.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

rockpool europa

At first glance it is not obvious what this is a picture of. I struggle with my poor photographic skills almost as much as I struggle with biodiversity, and yet these are still the kinds of pictures I take. I won't call it a metaphor.

The fact is this is a picture of a pool of freshwater on a rock face along the Finish coast, and it was teeming with cladocerans - tiny crustaceans that feed on pretty much whatever they can filter from the water column. Rock pools just like this one were made pseudo-famous (at least in the ecological world) decades ago by Ilkka Hanski and other researchers as textbook examples of metapopulations (spatially discrete populations of organisms that are linked by dispersal between the populations). When you pause to think about it, the concept is really cool. The pool is very isolated, may or may not be ephemeral, and yet it is packed with organisms. How did they get there? I occasionally remember that if we cut through all the technical jibber-jabber of spatial ecology, metapopulation ecology, and metacommunity ecology we are left with just such a curious question that could have been posed by anyone and interests everyone.

Many members of the Gonzalez lab, like myself, research nature in a fairly abstract way, tackling theoretical systems or heavily simplified model systems. There are all kinds of advantages to such approaches, but a minor tragedy that results from such minimalist science is a loss of the sheer wonder that you might experience 'out there' were to you stumble upon one of these pools on a morning's walk. The question is rhetorical, but how do we deal with the desire to pin down mechanisms that drive ecological processes, with the sheer wonder (and a skeptic might say incomprehensibility) of reality?

happy canada day all!