African animals

Here are some pictures of my recent trip to South Africa (click to zoom):

Burchell’s zebra (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Lion (photo: Anthony Dekker)

White rhinoceros (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Southern masked weaver (photo: Anthony Dekker)

African elephant (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Goliath heron – world’s largest heron (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Ecological literacy and Frank Herbert’s Dune, half a century on

Dune by Frank Herbert

The year 1965 saw the appearance of what has been called “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale.” Frank Herbert’s Dune explored a plethora of interesting themes, notably that of ecology. The novel speaks of “… teaching [the children] ecological literacy, creating a new language with symbols that arm the mind to manipulate an entire landscape, its climate, seasonal limits, and finally to break through all ideas of force into the dazzling awareness of order.

The use of food webs, like the one for waterbirds of Chesapeake Bay above, was fairly standard by 1965, and Herbert seems to be hinting at a graphical language for ecology going beyond that. Exactly what he was referring to is unclear.

But are we teaching the kind of ecological literacy Herbert refers to? A 2013 survey indicated that, out of 145 US tertiary institutions ranked for “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” and “Integrative Biology,” only 47% taught a course in ecosystem ecology or biogeochemistry, and only 22% of the courses included field experiences. A 1993 survey of UK secondary teaching (A-levels and GCSE) showed that students only studied a median of 2 or 3 different habitats:

So how many children actually understand, say, trophic cascades in the wolf–elk ecosystem? How many adults, for that matter? The evidence suggests that it’s not very many, judging by the resistance to sensible management of National Parks. If we do not wish to recreate the desert planet Arrakis, we might like to work on that.

Ecological networks and the Australian dingo

I’m excited at the publication of a joint paper on network ecology, with a focus on the Australian dingo: “Trophic cascades in 3D: Network analysis reveals how apex predators structure ecosystems” (by Arian D. Wallach, Anthony H. Dekker, Miguel Lurgi, Jose M. Montoya, Damien A. Fordham & Euan G. Ritchie, and appearing in Methods in Ecology and Evolution).

Associated with this publication is an animation I put together for the paper showing how the ecological network changes if the role of the dingo as apex predator is weakened. I’m grateful to my ecologist co-authors at the opportunity to contribute my mathematical skills to such an interesting project.

The Blue Mountains Water Skink

The endangered Blue Mountains Water Skink, Eulamprus leuraensis (photo: “Sarshag7”)

I have previously mentioned my interest in ecological niche modelling and amphibians. The cute little skink above, native to the Blue Mountains near Sydney, is sadly endangered. The black circles in the map below show online occurrence records for the skink. These range in altitude from approximately 530 to 1,170 m.

The blue area shows a predicted potential range for the species, based on MaxEnt modelling using those occurrence records and BioClim climate data. The model does not take into account the skink’s need for sedge and shrub swamps with permanently wet boggy soils – there are readily available online land cover datasets, but these have insufficient spatial resolution to identify the 30 or so swamps in which the skink is found. The predicted potential range for the skink is consequently very much exaggerated, and covers 1,320 sq km, of which 63% falls within national parks or other protected areas. Hopefully that is enough to stop this beautiful amphibian from becoming extinct, although it continues to face threats from urban sprawl, feral cats, and vegetation changes.

Art Forms in Nature: a book review

Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel

I finally got my own copy of the classic Art Forms in Nature (Kunstformen der Natur) by Ernst Haeckel. Yes, the prints are all online, but that isn’t quite the same thing. This collection of 100 prints, first published as a set in 1904, is a true classic.


Is it an art book or a science book? It doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s beautiful, and it’s informative. Everyone should cast their eyes over these pictures at some point. These images influenced the Art Nouveau movement, and have also found their way into many books on the relationship between mathematics and science. And they are just fun to peruse.

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Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel: 5 stars

Creating an Australian Feather Map

Photo: Louise Docker, 2007

Australian scientists are encouraging people to collect feathers found on the ground or in the water in wetlands (with details of where they were collected). After analysis using mass spectrometry and high resolution X-ray fluorescence, a feather map will be constructed. All aspiring citizen scientists, young and old, can get involved and follow the project on Instagram. It looks like a great way to monitor bird populations in wetlands!