Breathless – another masterpiece from David Quammen!

Last week the Wall Street Journal were first to report that the US Department of Energy, Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, had produced a classified report concluding with “low confidence” that the Covid virus most likely originated from a laboratory leak in China. FBI had earlier come to the same conclusion with “moderate confidence”, while CIA is still undecided. The scientific community, meanwhile, is overwhelmingly in favour of a natural origin based on molecular evidence. A laboratory origin is theoretically possible, however, but at a very low probability compared to a natural origin. Don’t take my word for it. In his recently published masterpiece “Breathless”, David Quammen describes the remarkable global collaborative scientific efforts that led to the rapid characterization of the virus’ genome, which in turn led to record fast development of highly effective vaccines. Knowing the genome also allowed tracking of emerging variants as well as the global spread of the disease. This no doubt saved countless lives. To date, an estimated seven million people have lost their lives to the disease, but without the scientific advances, that known death toll could have been significantly higher. The exact number may be higher than the official estimate, since many deaths are likely unaccounted for, particularly from countries with poor infrastructure.

In “Breathless”, David Quammen describes in remarkable detail the spread of the virus, the emergence of mutations and their adaptations to humans as host, and the remarkable collaboration among scientists throughout the world (including China). He also addresses the different routes of how the virus may have spilled over from wild animals to humans as well as the possible leak from a Wuhan research laboratory. In addition, he examines the responses by different governments, particularly the US. The short and poignant Chapter 41 is particularly telling:

“Will the virus mutate? people asked.

Yes of course it will mutate, scientists said. Viruses always and continually mutate. The crucial questions are how frequently will it mutate, how abundantly, and how might those mutations be shaped by natural selection into adaptations. Mutations are incremental changes in a genome—one letter here, one letter there—and generally random. Don’t worry about mutations alone. Worry about mutations plus Darwin.

Worry about how this virus may evolve and adapt. If you hope to prevent it from adapting ever better to the human population, then prevent it from achieving abundant mutation by containing it fast, controlling the outbreak early, taking it seriously, keeping the human case numbers low, applying and adhering to robust nonpharmaceutical interventions until you have vaccines, then get everyone vaccinated, depriving the virus of opportunities to evolve.

But we didn’t do that.”

Meanwhile virologists and molecular biologists were unravelling the genetic code of the virus and all its new variants that seemed to pop up like mushrooms in the rapidly expanding infection zones around the world. The large number of threads that are followed and presented in “Breathless” makes for potentially confusing reading, but Quammen is a master at bringing complex issues to a lay person’s level by analogies. For example, near the end of the book on Page 312, Quammen explains how challenging the molecular work is:

“The scientists can tell us a lot, about where a virus came from and where it might be going, but they can’t tell us everything, and they know that. Molecular evolutionary virology, of the sort practiced by Eddie Holmes and Kristian Andersen and Susan Weiss and Michael Worobey and Aire O’Toole and Edyth Parker and others, is an extraordinarily powerful set of methods and foundational principles and tools, but it has limits and constraints. It gives us pieces of the whole. Those pieces are often in exquisitely fine focus, but still just pieces. The evolutionary virologists can only work with what they get, or what comes to them, from the wider world: samples of bat guano, samples of human saliva, living viruses that can be grown in a cell culture, images of viral particles as made visible by electron microscopy. And molecular sequences of genomic RNA or DNA—most of all, those molecular sequences. Those sequences are the Code of Hammurabi as unearthed on an eight-foot monolith, the three versions of a decree on the Rosetta Stone, the Gnostic Gospels in the original Coptic. The genomic sequences of viruses from the wild are quite often assembled from fragments put together using the clues of overlapping sections. If you assembled a jigsaw puzzle of the Mona Lisa, pulling pieces from five different boxes each containing the same puzzle, you would begin to appreciate the challenge.”

The internet, which has morphed into an uncontrollable maelstrom of more or less factual pieces of information preying on the minds of those who don’t bother to check sources, luckily served in this case as a brilliant tool which allowed extraordinarily rapid communication of findings, sometimes within hours, e.g., via special chatrooms dedicated to molecular science and virology. Pre-publication manuscripts were shared and peer reviewed publications, mostly multi-authored by teams of collaborators, were produced with urgency.

Other scientists were trying to locate possible source populations of the original hosts, visiting roosting caves of bats – at considerable risk to themselves – and sampling animals in markets where live animals were sold, among them pangolins, civets, raccoon dogs and bamboo rats. The Chinese government banned live animal sales and markets were shut down. Quammen’s conclusion from wading through the enormous amount of information he gathered from publications, chat rooms, and direct interviews aligns with the majority view in the scientific community that the virus spilled over to humans naturally. There is no way to prove this one way or the other, and if new evidence has emerged since his book was published, as implied in the Wall Street Journal article, then that has to be considered, of course. The Department of Energy’s verdict of “low confidence” would suggest that any potential new evidence is not particularly compelling.

In “Breathless” David Quammen has presented information on the Covid-19 pandemic in a way that few would be able to do. He makes a complex issue accessible for a general audience. Perhaps this is because he truly relates to us mere mortals. Throughout the book he joins the reader by recognizing the complexity, and on Page 313 he explains further:

“A final personal note: I vastly admire the work of molecular evolutionary virologists, but I do that through a long, blurry, turned-around telescope of ignorance. I got my own academic education not in science but mainly in literature, and this uncertainty principle reached me not from the physicist Werner Heisenberg but from the novelist William Faulkner.”

“Breathless” is a must-read for anyone who wants to gain an understanding of what scientists and health professionals were up against, and what we can accomplish if we collaborate. We owe these people a huge thank you. Personally, I thank David Quammen for making this information accessible.

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Sponges – one of the earliest forms of multicellular life.

I wrote this blog for the Nature Nanaimo newsletter published July 10, 2022. This is a slightly modified version.

Photo Neil McDaniel,

An excellent article by Sheila Byers about the unique glass sponge reefs that occur in the Salish Sea and the Hecate Strait appeared in the spring 2022 of BC Nature Magazine, and it inspired me to write this blog. Because glass sponge reefs occur at depths of 30+ meters, they are “out of sight, out of mind”. That is unfortunate since they are extremely unique, important, but also highly vulnerable.  In Howe Sound, eight reefs have been designated Marine Refuge Conservation Areas, and the remaining five reefs were designated as Glass Sponge Reef Fishery Closures as of January 17 of this year. Unfortunately, a lack of monitoring and enforcement combined with willful defiance of the regulations by both commercial and recreational fishers mean that reefs are still being damaged. Details can be found in the BC Nature article which will eventually become available online at, and you can find additional information at the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society homepage at

The glass sponges, Class Hexactinellida, comprise one of four classes of extant sponges (Phylum Porifera). The other Classes are the Calcarea, Demospongiae and the Homoscleromorpha, a recently recognized Class of sponges, with 115 species. Of these, the majority (~7,500 species) are in the Class Demospongiae, which are marine except for a small number of brackish and freshwater species. Demo is Greek for people, and depending on the source, this Class is so named either because they are the most common sponges, or because they tend to be found in groups like people. Approximately 670 species are known in the marine Class Calcarea, and a slightly lower number of species are glass sponges, which are also exclusively marine. Classification is based on the type and morphology of spicules (supportive and defensive structures scattered throughout the sponge body). Spicules are made from aragonite or calcite (types of calcium carbonate) or from silica depending on the Class. Demospongiae can also have a network of spongin fibers, and in the highest quality of sponges harvested commercially (“bath sponges”), spicules are thankfully missing altogether. In the glass sponges spicules may be separate and held together by a soft tissue (a loose skeleton), or they may be fused in a structural network of silica (fused skeleton).

By Twilight Zone Expedition Team 2007, NOAA-OE. – NOAA Photo Library: reef3859, Public Domain,

Sponges can have various growth forms, e.g., Globular, Vase, Branching, Amorphous, Encrusting etc., and can vary in size from just a few centimeters to several meters. The ones we see in the intertidal zone around Nanaimo are usually encrusting. With the exception of some predatory species in the Family Cladorhizidae (Class Demospongiae) (Thomassen Hestetun 2017), sponges are filter feeders. The vast majority of them have a complex network of canals and chambers which slows down the water and allows for efficient filtration. They feed on bacteria and other microscopic organisms, although some species feed on dissolved organic matter. Sponges filter water at an astonishing rate and thus are key in maintaining clean water, e.g., the Salish Sea glass sponge reefs filter the entire basin volume of water 3 times per year! They hold promise as a bioremediation agent in aquaculture operations (Zhang et al. 2010), and a recent study found that they also collect DNA from other marine organisms, and may be useful as biological collection vessels for biodiversity monitoring using environmental DNA (eDNA). Sponges also create habitat for other organisms, e.g., the Venus’ flower basket (Euplectella aspergillum ) is one of the most fascinating examples. This beautiful glass sponge is often host to a breeding pair of house glass sponge shrimp in the family Spongicolidae. The shrimp are actually trapped inside the

An encrusting sponge (Possibly a bread crumb sponge, Halichondria panicea) found at Wall Beach, Nanoose Bay.

sponge, which in Japan symbolized lasting love. Being sedentary, sponges also defend themselves against predation chemically, which make them interesting as a potential source of pharmaceuticals  (Anjum et al. 2016). In addition, sponges are hosts to a large number of microbial symbionts (Webster and Taylor 2011).

Schematic representation of a sponge showing the simplest body plan (Asconoid form) and major cell types.

It is the anatomical make-up of sponges that I find of particular interest because sponges represent an apparent evolutionary step between single-celled and multi-celled animals. A recent study did confirm that sponges are indeed the oldest lineage of multicellular animal evolution (Pisani et al. 2015), refuting earlier findings proposing that comb jellies (Phylum Ctenophora) held that honour (although the debate continues, Halanych 2015, Whelan et al. 2017). Similar to all multicellular animals, a sponge consists of a number of cell types. The major ones are pinacocytes, porocytes, choanocytes (or collar cells), sclerocytes, spongocytes and archeocytes (or ameoebocytes). Pinacocytes make up the “skin” of a sponge. Porocytes create pores through which water is drawn into the sponge. Generating the water movement are choanocytes that line the channels, or in the simplest forms the spongocoel, which is the central cavity of a sponge. In Syconoid and Leuconoid body plans, the canal system is increasingly complex). Choanocytes also capture food and reproductive cells. Sclerocytes are amoeboid cells that secrete spicules, and spongocytes secrete the spongin fibers. Archeocytes are amoeba-like cells which move freely in the mesohyl, a jelly-like acellular layer. They collect and digest food and reproductive cells from choanocytes. Most importantly, archeocytes are totipotent, i.e., they can turn into any other type of cell as required. What is most fascinating is that some of these cell types are remarkably similar to Protozoans. For example, archeocytes are essentially like free-living “naked” amoebas (gymnamoebae) and choanocytes are very similar to choanoflagellate protozoans. Some choanoflagellates are colonial, further hinting at a connection between the protozoan and the sponge cell (but see Mah et al. 2014).  In glass sponges, the soft tissue is largely made up of a “trabecular reticulum”, which consists of cytoplasm with numerous nuclei not separated by cell membranes (a syncytium). Further details are described in this article.

As a final tidbit of food for thought is the remarkable regenerative powers of sponges. In fact that you can cut up a sponge, force the cells through a sieve, and they will reassemble as a sponge again! Sponges have been on this planet for at least 600 million years. They may have been the first step from unicellular to multicellular organisms and are therefore critical for helping us understand how multicellular life evolved. There is much more to learn about them, however. Check out this video for more!


Anjum, K., S.Q. Abbas, S.A. Shah, N. Akhter, S. Batool, and S.S. Hassan. 2016. Marine sponges as a drug treasure. Biomolecules and Therapeutics. 24: 347–362.

Halanych, K.M. 2015. The ctenophore lineage is older than sponges? That cannot be right! Or can it? The Journal of Experimental Biology. 218: 592-597.

Mah, J.L., K.K. Christensen-Dalsgaard, and S.P. Leys. 2014.  Choanoflagellate and choanocyte collar-flagellar systems and the assumption of homology. Evolution and Development 16: 25-37.

Pisani, D., W. Pett, M. Dohrmann, R. Feuda, O. Rota-Stabelli, H. Philippe, N. Lartillot, and G. Wörheide. 2015. Genomic data do not support comb jellies as the sister group to all other animals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 201518127

Thomassen Hestetun, J., G. Tompkins-Macdonald, and H.T. Rapp. 2017. A review of carnivorous sponges (Porifera: Cladorhizidae) from the Boreal North Atlantic and Arctic. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 181: 1–69.

Webster, N.S., and M.W. Taylor. 2011. Marine sponges and their microbial symbionts: love and other relationships. Environmental Microbiology. 14: 335-346.

Whelan, N.V., K.M. Kocot, T.P. Moroz, K. Mukherjee, P. Williams, G. Paulay, L.L. Moroz, and K.M. Halanych. 2017. Ctenophore relationships and their placement as the sister group to all other animals. Nature Ecology and Evolution. 1: 1737–1746.

Zhang X., W. Zhang, L. Xue, B. Zhang, M. Jin, and W. Fu. 2010. Bioremediation of bacteria pollution using the marine sponge Hymeniacidon perlevis in the intensive mariculture water system of turbot Scophthalmus maximus. Biotechnology and Bioengineering.105: 59-68.

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You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone!

A blog about senses.

Doesn’t that look good? It was a meal I ordered in Port Hardy a few years ago. It looked good, and it tasted good. To determine that, you would use four of your five senses. We mostly take our senses for granted as we grow up. Once in a while I have given some thought in passing about how much more difficult life would be if I lost my sight or hearing, of course. Usually when I am made aware of people less fortunate than myself, but for the most part I simply didn’t give my senses any thought at all. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and there appears to be a significant amount of flexibility our dependence on our different sensory modes to perceive our surroundings. One of the most fascinating examples is the use of echolocation by the American Daniel Kish, who has been blind since the age of 13 months. He not only detects objects around him, but he can describe them in surprising detail using tongue clicking in a manner similar to bats.  Similarly, Brian Bushwaywas able to describe an abstract sculpture using the same technique . Bushway lost his vision at the age of 13, but was taught how to use sound by Kish. By the age of 16 he had mastered the technique. Learn more about the work of Kish and Bushway at Visioneers .

I have no such abilities, and in my case the senses that inspired me to write this are smell (olfaction) and hearing (audition). Well, like most aging people my sight is also weaker than it used to be, but with corrective lenses that is less of a problem. The sense of smell is easy enough to understand, although it is often confounded with the sense of taste (gustation), which together give food its flavour. The sense of taste is limited to sensing saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and umami (savoriness). Umami has been added since when I learned about taste many moons ago. In practice, what we tend to think of as taste is a combination of taste and smell, however. Both my maternal grandmother and my mother lost their sense

Human Senses Five Infographics Picture Stock Vector ...

of smell. In my mother’s case this happened when she fell off a ladder onto a concrete floor when she was about 55 years old. Thus she lived without a sense of smell for 33 years, about 20 of those years on her own. I lost my sense of smell gradually in my 40’s and 50’s, likely as a result of numerous sinus infections, which were bad enough to require surgical intervention (the details of which I will spare you from). Under normal circumstances my lack of the sense of smell does not affect me other than making food less flavourful, so I prefer food that relies more on taste than on smell. On the positive side it allows me to drink cheap wine (plonk) with no major loss of enjoyment as long as the wine is not too acidic. On the other hand, I have to rely on people around to detect if I stepped in dog pooh, while they in turn need not fear any comments by me about any odour they might produce. My defective olfactory system has some potential serious consequences, however. For example, I am unable to smell food that is off, smoke, gas or anything else that one might wish to avoid. For example, some of the field work I did around Prince George, BC, when I was working was in grizzly bear country. At one time my research technician alerted me to a bad smell at a site where we wanted to check some insect traps we had set out a month or so earlier. The stench, which I was completely oblivious to, indicated to us the potential presence of a dead animal, which could have been a carcass cached by a bear. You do not want to stumble across the remains of a grizzly bear kill given that the owner may be nearby, so we opted to come back another day! Closer to home, I would be unable to detect a natural gas leak or burning food on the stove or in the oven (until the smoke alarm goes off). Unfortunately for me, you cannot echo locate smell, so my only option is to adapt.

My other deficiency is a slight loss of hearing. If you met me, you would likely not notice, since I probably would seem to hear just fine, or at least as well as other men in their early 70’s (although my wife may have a different view of how good my hearing is). This problem has appeared in the past few years, and is only a problem when I engage in one of my favourite hobbies, bird watching. The problem is that I have lost the ability to hear high very frequencies, but only in my left ear. Thus, when I hear birds like Golden-crowned Kinglets or Brown Creepers I can’t determine where the sound is coming from. If you were to watch me in this situation, you would see me spinning around like a top, because no matter which way I turn, the sound is always coming from the right. That makes locating the birds (which are hard enough to spot anyway) more or less impossible unless I happen to see movement somewhere in the trees or bushes.

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana

My point is that we should be grateful for the senses we have. Humans primarily rely on sight, but our other senses are extremely important, and we should make use of them while we can. In the case of Daniel Kish and Brian Bushway, studies have shown that the part of the brain in sighted individuals that interprets visual input has adapted to interpret the auditory input to provide an image, albeit a relatively coarse one (Thaler et al. 2011). This shows that we are capable of enhancing our sensory abilities, at least in some cases.


Thaler L, Arnott SR, Goodale MA. 2011. Neural correlates of natural human echolocation in early and late blind echolocation experts. PLoS one 25;6(5):e20162.

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Stories about some of my (favourite) photographs

Photography used to be a rather hit and miss affair for several reasons. When I first started trying my hand at photography, skill requirements were light years more demanding than with today’s digital cameras. An average iPhone today takes better general photographs than many of the SLR’s I used as a teenager. Back then, the number of times I received developed photographs that were all under- or over-exposed, or out of focus is something I rather forget.

The story of my most disappointing photos ever illustrates this well. It was taken in July, 1975, in Sarek National Park in Sweden. At that time the “big four” (Wolf, Brown Bear, Lynx, and Wolverine) numbers were very low, so sightings were extremely rare. In fact, wolves were declared extirpated in the 1960’s. They were given legal protection in 1966, although they occurred only as occasional strays wandering in from Russia via Finland, and even those lone wolves were persecuted in spite of protection.  The populations of the other three species were in the 100-300 range. Luckily, protection and changing attitudes have led to these populations increasing to viable levels.

This photo was taken an hour or two before we encountered the wolverine on the slope above us.

Anyway, I was on an eleven-day hike with two friends. It was late in the day so the light was not the best, and we were heading for a camp site, hiking along a steep talus slope. I suddenly spotted movement high on the slope – a red fox making its way down to what turned out to be dead reindeer about 100 meters above us. After a little while, the fox seemed to get restless, and started moving off. The reason was soon evident. A gorgeous wolverine was coming down the slope to the carcass. I immediately dropped my backpack, and started climbing up the slope, taking cover behind the rocks and only moving when the wolverine had its head down. I got to a distance where in my mind the animal filled the view finder. I had a fairly basic third party 300 mm lens on my Canon FD SLR camera. My memory is that I could see every strand of hair and took as many photographs as the film would allow. It was many days later that I finally got to see the results after the film was developed. My best effort was a grainy black and white photo of a talus slope, with a blurry little dot in the middle. It was so rough that it was hard to convince anyone that it was in fact a wolverine! In spite of the disappointment, it is a memory that I will never forget. I seem to have lost the photograph now, but in my mind, I can still see the beautiful, healthy wolverine as if it happened yesterday.

The move to a digital camera made my life as an amateur wildlife photographers infinitely easier. Not that I don’t have more failures than successes still, but I also have some photographs that I feel proud of. They are hardly of professional quality, but they are treasured because of the memories they evoke. One such photo is from a series of photos of a moose cow and calf feeding in a slough along the Batnuni Road in north-central British Columbia in July 2012. My wife and I were on our way home from a day of kayaking the Blackwater River. I just caught a glimpse of them as we drove by, so we stopped, and backed up to a spot with a clear view where I could take a series of photographs of them. The light was perfect and the moose were not at all disturbed by our presence, giving me plenty of time to make sure my settings were correct.

Moose cow with her calf.

Another precious photograph was taken during a tour from Campbell River to Bute Inlet and the Orford and Aalsgard Rivers, where Homalco First Nations guides welcomed us to their traditional territory to watch grizzly bears fatten up on spawning chum salmon. We didn’t see a lot of bears, but the highlight was a sow with triplets that came within 75 meters of us. At one point, two of the cubs approached even closer, and I got some good photographs of them. Two of the cubs were dark, and the third one was blond. I was so taken with her (I think it was a female) and wonder if she is still alive. It was interesting to see their personalities as well. One of the dark cubs was very nervous and vocal, behaving as if it wanted to leave. At one point two cubs started fighting, resulting in a severe rebuke from the mother bear. I have this favourite photograph as my desktop background, and I never get tired of looking at it and remembering.

The blond grizzly cub leads her brother after crossing the Aalsgard River. The sow was in the river feeding only 20 meters away.

Sometimes you get photos of creatures when you don’t realize what you have until examining the photographs on a computer. An example is a ground squirrel I photographed in Alberta many years ago. It wasn’t a particularly exciting photo, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. The emergence of iNaturalist made me go through old photos to see if I could enter any of them. I came across this photo and realized that it was a species I had never knowingly seen before, a Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel. It is not a rare species, but for me it was significant even though I didn’t realize what I had at first.

Another example of a surprise came from a trip on BC Ferries’ MV Northern Sea Wolf in early July 2019. A pod of Pacific Whitesided Dolphins joined us for a while. I was trying to get a photo of one porpoising. It turned out to be tough since anticipating where these fast animals would be was pretty much impossible. I did get a photo of one under water close to the ferry, but most attempts resulted in poor photographs. Many months later, I was sorting through photographs, and on one of them noticed a dolphin leaping in the corner of the photo. It turned out to be a decent photo once cropped and processed, so I got the shot I wanted after all!

Pacific Whitesided Dolphin porpoising alongside BC Ferries’ MV Northern Sea Wolf Ferry. Inside Passage, BC, July 2019.

When kayaking I use a small Pentax water proof point and shoot camera. The quality of the photographs from this camera is not the best, but on occasion you get some good photos. One of my favourite shots with this camera came from a kayak trip from Cedar Boat Ramp to Dodd’s Narrow. I saw an egg yolk sea jelly, so I attempted to take a photo of it. This involves holding the camera under water and aiming as best you can. One of the photos I got was quite acceptable with light and focus cooperating. This was pure luck of course, but satisfying nonetheless.

Egg Yolk or Fried Egg SeaJjelly, Phacellophora camtschatica. At up to 60 cm wide it is one of the larger jellies in the Salish Sea, although it is dwarfed by the Lion’s Mane Sea Jelly, which can get to two meters wide with tentacles up to 35 m long!.

Similarly, a photo I took of a Shaggy Mouse Nudibranch or Common Grey Sea Slug (Aeolidia papillosa), an Aeolid nudibranch relatively common in the Salish Sea exceeded my expectations in terms of sharpness and exposure. Better lucky than good, I guess!

Shaggy Mouse Nudibranch or Common Grey Sea Slug (Aeolidia papillosa).

Macro photography is a field that has become significantly easier given that most smart phones take excellent close-up photographs. Using SLR or DSLR equipment can yield excellent results, but it also tends to produce a fair number of annoying “almost got it” shots due to the shallow depth of field. My set-up is fairly basic, with the exception of the twin flash. At one point I had a specialist macro lens, the Canon MP-E 65mm f2.5 1-5x Macro. It is a fantastic lens if you learn to master it, but it takes patience, which is not my forte. Nevertheless, I did produce some decent photographs at times. One of these is a close-up of a Warren root collar weevil, a cryptic, large, flightless weevil common and widespread in coniferous forests in north-central BC. I did research on this species over a number of years, and had lots of opportunities to photograph this species since we captured them for behavioural experiments.

Warren root collar weevil, Hylobius warreni.

I mostly photograph birds nowadays, not so much for artistic satisfaction, but for record keeping, or to confirm identification. The “money shots” are birds in action, e.g., flight, and I am still searching for something that is really special. One of the advantages with digital photography is that you can “cheat” to make a so-so photo quite acceptable with a variety of processing software, e.g., Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, and Topaz products like Sharpen. They don’t always work, but when they do they are quite impressive.

California Gull. Gulls are excellent subjects for practicing action shots. Identification is the real problem!
Western Grebe photographed in Salmon Arm. Luckily this bird was close to shore.
American Crow (formerly Northwestern Crow). Getting the light and contrast right for crows and ravens can be tricky. In this shot you can see some of the details.

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes. But without the attached stories, these photos lose some of their shine, at least to me.

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Writer’s block

Dedicated to the memory of my brother Anders, and my colleague Simon R. Leather.

As long as I can remember, I have been writing. Not an author as such, but someone who loved writing down my thoughts. In my early teens after my parents and I moved to the small northern town of Piteå in Sweden, I would write massive letters to my late brother Hans, who had remained with his wife in birth-town Norrköping. I mainly wrote about aquariums as we both kept tropical fish, but also about whatever else popped into my head. With some friends, In my new hometown, I started an aquarium club and produced a newsletter with a grand circulation of 10, perhaps. Another interest of mine was spiders. I kept spiders in jars, which my mother tolerated. One day in my grade 8 class, I noticed a newspaper clipping that our teacher had posted on a bulletin board. It described the work of an arachnologist, Dr. Åke Holm, Uppsala University. So I wrote a letter to him. He responded with a very kind letter, which influenced me greatly. Dr. Holm’s reply was my first exposure to academia, and the positive effect it had on me then has been reflected in my own actions throughout my career.

A photo from Piteå Tidningen newspaper showing the youthful members of our newly formed aquarium club.

Some years later, during a year as a high school exchange student in Michigan, USA, I became obsessed with sharks after reading a book (I believe it was “Shadows In The Sea: The Sharks, Skates and Rays” by Harold W. McCormick and Tom Allen with Captain William E. Young.). Like almost all wanna be biologists, marine biology had long been at or near the top of the wish list for me Jacques Costeau had a lot to do with that), and this book simply focused my attention on sharks. So I wrote to one of the authors asking about opportunities for becoming a shark researcher. I received a nice letter in return, but that is where my shark-ambitions ended. As it turns out, that was lucky – I obtained a diving certificate 9 years later, but because of sinus problems I was unable to descend much more than seven or eight meters. I am still fascinated by sharks. I have only once seen sharks in the wild (Galapagos sharks in Hawaii), but I hope to one day see basking sharks returning to the Salish Sea, where they were ruthlessly persecuted to extirpation by the Canadian Government

My next few letter writing campaigns came after I completed my undergraduate degree and after a failed foray into the world of medical physiology. My failure as a physiologist brought me back to my first love, insects. I started by writing to entomologists in Sweden to inquire about possible graduate student opportunities. Most responded negatively (but in a nice way), but I did get one offer of a summer job, working on aphids. I then wrote to a British organization, the Centre for Overseas Pest Research inquiring about possible opportunities. As a non-Commonwealth citizen I did not qualify, however. Nevertheless, I did get a nice response, which included a brochure for the Master of Pest Management Program at Simon Fraser University. To make a long story short, this eventually resulted in my emigration to Canada, and the rest is history, as they say.

We are now closing in on 2 years of pandemic isolation. Here in British Columbia it appears that we are turning the corner of the fourth wave with cases starting to slowly decline. In spite of being fully vaccinated, I have to be cautious due to pre-existing conditions as well as being immuno-comromised by rheumatoid arthritis medication. The resulting social isolation has created a sense of suspended animation, only relieved by access to digital communication technology for communicating with friends and relatives.

Covid-19 cases reported for Vancouver Island, October 17, 2021.

Personally, the isolation, along with negative news has caused the creative juices to ebb. My last blog post was 8 months ago, and I have struggled coming up with a topic, and when I have, I seem to have lost the ability to put “pen to paper”. In September, my remaining brother passed away very suddenly at the age of 78. And yesterday I found out that Simon Leather had died at the much too tender age of 66. I never met Simon in person, but his background and approach to entomology was similar to my own (although he was significantly more productive than I was). He was one of the most reliable reviewers during my ten years as subject editor for Environmental Entomology. Reading his blogs in Don’t Forget the Roundabouts, where he posted his last blog only three days before his death, and his @EntoProf tweets (the last an ominous tweet on the day of his death) made me feel that I knew him.He was a prolific writer, and it was his passing that made me think of my own writer’s block over the past year or so. My brother’s passing brought home the reality of aging, and Simon’s death only reinforced this. But at least it got me to sit down and write down my thoughts, which is therapeutic for me.

May both my brother and Simon rest in peace.


McCormick, HW, TB Allen, with WE Young. 1963.  Shadows in The Sea: The Sharks, Skates, and Rays. Sidgwick and Jackson, London. 415 pp.

Wallace, S. and B. Gisborne. 2006. Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC’s Gentle Giants. New Star Books, Vancouver, BC. 92 pages.

Posted in Biography, Careers | Leave a comment

Nuggets of knowledge in unexpected places!

In these Covid times, I get what little inspiration I can muster from reading books. I admire the skill of authors who dive deep into old documents to find information for their stories. Most of what I read is non-fiction, so the information I gain is either directly from quotes by someone from a letter or other written document, but more often a mix of quoted text and the author’s interpretation of what happened.

Natural history books

In this blog, I am sharing some excerpts from three books that I have recently read. They range from a historical journey describing the lives of scientists who at some level realized that the biosphere is not a static creation of a higher being, but a constantly changing and evolving assembly of organisms, to a detective story with tendrils reaching back to Darwinian times.

Since the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, evolution has been increasingly accepted by science as more and more evidence has been assembled. But while Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) is credited with the discovery of the mechanism by which evolution acts on populations, leading to speciation and specialization. Many other scientists had arrived at the conclusion that something other than a deity was responsible, at least in part, for creating the variety of life forms, and more importantly, for ending their existence. In addition, many agreed that earth was much older than the 6,000 years, providing the necessary time to allow slow changes to be expressed. Names like Aristotle, Lamarck, and even Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin are among these scientists. In her book Darwin’s Ghosts, Rebecca Stott describes these scientists and their struggles to disseminate their ideas without facing retribution from a society dominated by religion. But it is the surprising effect of experiments conducted by Erasmus Darwin on a woman that fascinated me. Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley and John Polidori visited Lord Byron in June 1816, where they discuss all kinds of things. I will let Rebecca Stott tell the story (Where she quotes people I have Italicized the text; the rest is Rebecca Stott’s words:

Rebecca Stott writes: “Percy Shelley, aged twenty-two, not long out of Oxford, has been reading about microscopy, the solar system, magnetism, and electricity. He tells them of a discovery made by Dr. Darwin [Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin] — how in a paste of flour and water you can make tiny organsisms increase in number and size, even without air, and they will come back to life again when dried out. That is how life began, he tells them. Not with a garden in Eden, but with tiny organisms in a pond. Might it not be possible, he speculates, to find a way of harnessing the vital principle that drives the minute water creatures back into life from death.

Mary Godwin, Shelley’s brilliant and intellectually voracious lover……. is interested in theories of life for different reasons. Only 18 and unmarried, she has been pregnant almost continuously since she and Shelley became lovers when she was sixteen. After eloping in 1814 and traveling across Europe with barely any money, she lost her first child, a daughter, at only two weeks old in February 1815; the loss devastated her. “Find my baby dead,” she wrote. “A miserable day.” Pregnant again only eight weeks later, she gave birth to her second child, a boy, William, in January of that year. She is already pregnant again.

Mary — who became Mary Shelley on her marriage to Shelley later that year — described the late-night conversations at the Villa Diodati in her introduction to the revised single-volume edition of Frankenstein in 1831: “They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin…who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.”

First edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The vermicelli is a misremembering on either her or Shelley’s part. Darwin had actually written “vorticellae”[1] in his notes on spontaneous generation in The Temple of Nature. He was describing a microscopic aquatic filament found in lead gutters that when dried out shows no sign of life but “being put into water, in the space of half an hour a languid motion begins, the globule turns itself about, lengthens itself by degrees and assumes the form of a lively maggot…swimming vigorously through the water in search of food.”

Unable to sleep, her head full of these speculations about life, Mary Shelley dreamed of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half viral motion.”

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, went on to become a classic, and is considered by many the first Science Fiction novel. Who knew that evolutionary discussions may have played a role in its creation!

The second story I want to highlight relates to a chapter in North American history that is thankfully more or less over with the ousting of Donald J. Trump from the White House. His supporters, including many evangelicals, have seemingly abandoned all societal norms; lies, personal attacks, and bullying became acceptable, as was white supremacist extremism, racism, and misogyny. Many have compared Trump’s reign as comparable to Germany’s Nazi era under Adolf Hitler, but whether or not Trump and Hitler are directly comparable is a subject beyond the scope of this blog. Having said that, Bernd Heinrich, the eminent University of Vermont scientist addressed the issue in his family biographical book The Snoring Bird, and the parallels are striking. Heinrich’s father Gerd, a Hymenopterist focusing on the Family Ichneumonidae, was caught up in the sorry story. Bernd Heinrich wrote:

“For humans, one of the most powerful transforming stimuli is sensing that we are under attack. We close ranks and identify and “enemy,” which requires first of all isolating and identifying “us” as separate from “them.” Desperate situations always demand blame, and in combination with chaos, they then provide the opening for an authority figure who promises to restore order. “Liberties” must be curtailed while enemies, real and imagined, are sought. Then the spin begins, and those who follow are rewarded and those who don’t are punished in direct proportion to the power the leader has attained.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, exploited a disagreement with the French to withdraw from the League of Nations and go it alone. His “genius” was to link loyalty to Hitler to patriotism. Hitler was the “leader,” so according to Goebbels if you were against Hitler, you were against the country, and that was treason. He proclaimed revival of the Christian faith. Every soldier was to wear a belt buckle that said Gott mit uns (“God with us”). Any opposition to the regime was deemed unpatriotic, and dissenting voices in the press and elsewhere were muzzled. Soon other parties were banned because they were deemed anti-German. Still, there was resistance. But when scapegoats were needed, Jews who had positions in public life were thrown out, again because they were “anti-German.” Goebbels rallied university students to burn the books of liberals, to silence opposition to Hitler’s promised path to greatness.

And at the Nuremburg Trials, at the end of the war, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s designated successor, said:

Why, of course the people don’t want war….That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce peacemakers for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

It seems that one could easily simply exchange names in the above, and it would ring disturbingly true. From my perspective, we dodged a very unpredictable bullet when Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States.

My final story comes from Kirk Johnson’s The Feather Thief, a book about natural history museums, fly tying, and obsession. But the nugget that particularly resonated with me came from one of the introductory chapters, which described how some of the bird skins came to be at the Natural History Museum at Tring, from where they were stolen by Edwin Rist, a young American musician obsessed with the tying of Victorian style salmon flies. Many of the stolen bird skins had been collected by none other than Alfred Russel Wallace, and as such were irreplacable. But it is Wallace’s thoughts on the value of museums, as well as the importance of conservation, and the threat of extinction that is the key to this nugget. Kirk Johnson writes:

“In all his travels, Wallace captured only five of the thirty-nine known species of Birds of Paradise, one of which, Semiptera wallacii, now bears his name. In an 1863 paper, he explained why he went to such lengths to gather specimens, describing each specimen as “the individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth’s history; and, as a few lost letters make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of the numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily render obscure this invaluable record of the past.”

Victorian salmon fly tied by the feather thief, Edwin Rist.

To prevent the loss of the earth’s deep history, Wallace implored the British government to stockpile within its museum as many specimens as possible, “where they may be available for study and interpretation.” The bird skins surely held answers to questions that scientists didn’t yet know to ask, and they must be protected at all costs.

“If this is not done,” he warned, “future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had in our power to preserve.”  He challenged the antievolution religionists, “professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.”

His words could not ring more true today, with funding for Natural History Museums literally going the way of the Dodo!


Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, London.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1803. The Temple of Nature; or, the Origin of Society: A Poem, with Philosophical Notes. J. Johnson, London.

Heinrich, Bernd. 2007. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, p. 125. HarperCollins, New York.

Johnson, Kirk W. 2019. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, p. 36. Viking, New York.

Stott, Rebecca. 2012. Darwin’s Ghosts. The Secret History of Evolution, pp. 180-182. Spiegel and Grau, New York.

[1] Vorticella is a genus of protist in the Phylum Ciliophora.

Posted in Biology, Birds, Conservation, Science, Scientists | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Species, their names, and the people who named them.

Linnea borealis, the twin flower which Carolus Linnaeus named for himself, apparently.

Reading is a good pastime during the isolation most of us experience due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Recently I have been reading books that grapple with evolution, the species concept, and the naming of species (I also have read about wolves and cougars, making me much more attentive when in the great outdoors). As a student, I always thought of a species as a unique entity, clearly separated from related species by some type of reproductive barrier, whether it be physical, physiological or behavioural. As I learned more and more about biology, the concept of reproductive isolation as a defining characteristic of a species has become increasingly shaky in my mind. While useful for “higher” organisms, it quickly crumbles as we start looking at “lower” life, e.g., bacteria, protists, archaea and fungi. Thus, I now think of the need to define a species as little more than a useful bookkeeping method for humans, but of little actual relevance to ecology or evolution. Reading David Quammen’s “The tangled tree: a radical new history of life” all but put the final nail in the coffin, picking apart the comfortable image of the evolutionary tree and replacing it with a complex network of branches. Quammen tells of the discoveries of evolutionary processes, including those that elucidated Horizontal Gene Transfer and CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a prokaryotic immune system. CRISPR has revolutionized gene editing and is likely to play an enormous role in solving some genetic human health issues, e.g., the treatment of some blood diseases. Impressively, Quammen correctly predicted that a Nobel Prize would go to one or both of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their roles in the discovery of this powerful gene editing technique (The book was published in 2018, and they received the prize in Chemistry this year!). While some of the book gets rather technical, much of it focuses on the personalities, actions and interactions of the scientists behind the discoveries, including the arguments over evolution among these scientists. This makes the book quite enjoyable to read. David Quammen’s book also confirmed my sense of how utterly dependent we are on the myriad of microorganisms that we share our bodies with. Did you know that your body has more microorganism cells than human cells? Essentially, we are not autonomous individuals, but an ecosystem of symbiotes, most of which are commensal or mutualistic, but some that are parasitic. As someone with an at times less than cooperative intestinal microbiome, I certainly understand that better than I care to admit. Thinking back to my undergraduate days in Sweden, this book has been to me the literary equivalent to “Beam me up, Scotty”! (For another timely read by David Quammen, I strongly recommend “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” first published in 2012).

Right now, I am reading Stephen Heard’s delightful “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels” (if you are reading this, Stephen – sorry, but I am reading a library copy). The names of animals and plants, whether common or Latinized, have long interested me, and Heard discusses these in some detail in an engaging, educational, and entertaining style. He is not the first to tackle this topic of course. One of my favourite reads about organismal names goes all the way back to a 1993 Buzzwords column by the inimitable May Berenbaum. There is some overlap between Berenbaum’s column and Heard’s book, e.g., the story behind Strigiphilus garylarsoni and the less palatable story behind Rochlingia hitleri. Apart from that, Berenbaum highlights some names that clearly support that taxonomists are far from stodgy or boring, a fact that Stephen Heard also emphasizes. For example, a quote from Berenbaum’s column:

“A. Menke (1977, Contr. Am. Entomol. Inst. 24) named a species of sphecid wasp Pison eu, which is fairly innocuous with a long “i” but is something else altogether if pronounced with a short “i.” Such actions may well have led to the inclusion in the “Recommendations on the Formation of Names” (Appendix D.I.5) the statement “A zoologist should not propose a name that, when spoken, suggests a bizarre, comical, or otherwise objectional meaning” (p. 193).” (Berenbaum 1993)

Another example is this 2013 blog post or this one. Some of the most entertaining talks I have heard were by taxonomists. Anyway, some years ago, I actually wrote a blog about common names, and before I started reading Stephen Heard’s book, I had started on a 1993 book by Howard Ensign Evans, “Pioneer Naturalists: The Discovery and Naming of North American Plants and Animals”, that I found at the local used bookstore Literacy Central Vancouver Island. This bookstore has the mandate to provide funding for free literacy tutoring, so I like to support them. Evans’ 294 page book includes 84 chapters, all but three about the eponymous naming of various organisms. Like Stephen Heard’s book, it describes the person(s) honoured and the person naming the organism, but with less flair leading to some chapters that are quite short. Nevertheless, if you are interested in these types of stories, both Evans’ and Heard’s books are certainly worth reading.

Metocalea lindgreni, an Aleocharine rove beetle (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae) named for me. Klimaszewski and Pelletier 2004)

I must end by stating that I actually had a species eponymously named for me. It is an obscure rove beetle, Metocalea lindgreni, named by my colleague and friend Jan Klimaszewski (Klimaszewski and Pelletier 2004). Stephen Heard discusses how people respond to having a species named after them, e.g., Gary Larson and Frank Zappa, and from personal experience I can confirm that even though I would not recognize M. lindgreni if it landed on my nose, having it named after me felt like a definite honour. Jan also named another species, Megocalea lemieuxi, for my graduate student, Jeffrey Lemieux, who collected these specimens as part of his Master of Science research. This came about because I contracted Jan to identify the specimens from Jeff’s pitfall trap collections near Smithers, BC. At the time, Jan was associated with BC Research, where he had to find his own funding. Not an easy task for a taxonomist of rove beetles as you may have already guessed. I had just started my new position at the University of Northern BC, and I had some funds that I could use for this.

Taxonomists are unfortunately becoming endangered, in part because of the perception that what they do is not important.  We know very little about the organisms that inhabit this planet, particularly when it comes to invertebrates. We are still discovering previously undescribed large charismatic vertebrate species, e.g., a primate in 2017, and possibly a beaked whale very recently, and there are thousands upon thousands of insects in museum drawers still waiting to be described, with more discovered in nature literally every day. If we don’t know what is out there, how do we know what is important and what is not? We are losing both species that have been described and named, but also species that we do not even know existed, termed “centinelan extinction” by Edward O. Wilson in his book “The Diversity of Life” (Wilson 1992). We have a duty to our descendants to do better.


Berenbaum, M. 1993. Apis, Apis, Bobapis. American Entomologist 39(3): 133-134.

Klimaszewski, J. and G. Pelletier. 2004. Review of the Ocalea group of genera (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae, Aleocharinae) in Canada and Alaska: new taxa, bionomics, and distribution. The Canadian Entomologist , 136(4): 443 – 500. DOI:

Wilson, E.O. 1992. The Diversity of Life, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 440 pp.

Posted in Biology, Science | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

“Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Co-existence” by Paula Wild

A book review

“There’s an important distinction between management of wildlife and management for wildlife” Paul Paquet

I have long had a strong interest in wolves and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about them. I have read a lot about wolves, starting with L. David Mech’s “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species”, which at the time (1970’s) was probably the definitive work on these fascinating animals. I also wrote a term paper on wolves in my Master of Pest Management degree at Simon Fraser University. But our state of knowledge has changed a lot, and Paula Wild lays out the current reality in her excellent book.

Two young wolves on Vargas Island, near Tofino. These two wolves were involved in a serious attack on a sleeping kayaker in 2000. This and other attacks are described in detail in the book. The wolves were killed shortly after this photograph was taken. Presumably they had been habituated to humans, and perhaps even fed. Photo: Jaqueline Windh.

Living in Prince George, BC, and being out in the wilderness a fair bit, I was always hoping to see wolves, but to my disappointment I never did. The wolf population in that area was supposedly quite robust, but these animals are wary and seem to have an almost unnatural ability to appear and disappear at will. The closest I ever got was some tracks and scats, showing that they were around. I now live on Vancouver Island, which also has a healthy wolf population. In fact, based on Paula Wild’s book, wolves may be more prevalent than you think, even in area inhabited by people.

The sighting of a wolf would be a thrill, to say the least, and because of that most of us naturalists may not react the way we should in order to ensure the safety of both wolves, pets, and people. Based on my previous knowledge, I would not have worried about any aggression from a wolf, as the prevailing thought was that North American wolves did not attack humans. The exception would be attacks by rabid wolves, or old and sick individuals. Paula Wild’s book addresses human-wolf interaction in some detail, and it turns out that the non-aggressiveness of our wolves is more myth than reality. Ms. Wild describes many attacks and aggressive encounters that have occurred historically and very recently, some of them literally in my back yard (Tofino and Port Alberni, for example), and includes a lethal attack on a young man in Saskatchewan in 2010. Most attacks have been by healthy animals, and generally they have been by animals habituated to, or even fed by humans. Habituation can happen quite quickly, requiring only a few encounters where humans remain and watch the animals. This is likely what I would have done to get a photograph or two. The correct behaviour, according to wildlife experts, is to maintain at least 100 m distance, leave quickly, or if necessary, haze the animals by acting aggressively – try to appear large, yelling, throwing rocks or other non-food items while moving a few steps toward the wolves. This seems completely contrary to what we as naturalists would prefer, but the evidence supports the notion that wolves must associate humans with negative experience if we are going to coexist with them. If they don’t, the consequences can be dire. Food habituated wolves generally end up killed when they start attacking and killing pets, sometimes even when the pet is leashed. Like other organisms, wolves will choose the food that requires the least energy output. That includes pets, food left lying about or otherwise left accessible by campers. Dogs should be leashed as they are particularly attractive to wolves – one case describes a wolf trying to entice a dog into the forest by a play-stance, with other wolves waiting out of sight. Farmers and ranchers have to adjust by protecting their animals.

One way in which we should NOT interact with wolves is as pets, whether purebred or as so-called wolfdogs. Wolves are unpredictable once they reach maturity, and while all dogs descend from wolves, they are not dogs. In my opinion it is regrettable when wild animals are kept in captivity. There are more captive tigers in the United States than in the wild! With all the dog breeds available today, I fail to see why anyone would want a wolf.

In addition to what I cover above, Paula Wild’s book about wolves has a lot of important and interesting information. It really is a must-read for anyone spending a lot of time in the forest where wolves are present. As wolf populations re-establish in historic habitats and humans establish homes in the urban/wilderness transition zone, encounters are likely to increase. These magnificent animals deserve a chance to live their lives without the type of persecution they were subjected to in the past (and regrettably are subjected to still through poisoning with non-specific materials like strychnine or shooting from helicopters). Our behaviour towards wolves will determine how they behave around us, and that will ultimately determine their fate.

Posted in Biology, Conservation, Nature | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The role of luck in life success

“In the last few years, a number of studies and books…. have suggested that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role than we ever realized, across a number of fields, including financial trading, business, sports, art, music, literature, and science.” Scott Barry Kaufmann


By Joe Papp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I recently read an article by Scott Barry Kaufmann discussing “The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized, Are the most successful people in society just the luckiest people?” published in March 2018 in the Scientific American. Kaufmann’s article is largely based on a publication by Pluchino et al. (2018), who attempted to quantify luck and talent with some very interesting results*. Their findings fit very nicely with my view, as evidenced by what I wrote four years ago about luck as it applies to my own career in an Entomological Society of Canada blog entitled “Are you feeling lucky today? Is it possible to improve your “luck” in academia?” I firmly believe that you can ‘make your own luck’ in the context of career success. The Roman philosopher Seneca was attributed the quote “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”, and Pluchino et al. (2018) show that this is indeed the case.

Although I mention a number of lucky events in my 2016 blog, it does not cover everything. Here, I will add four lucky events in my career that I did not mention then. The first one happened just after the teaching assistantship ended at the end of the spring term 1977 at Umeå University, which left me with two months with no income just before leaving for Canada. Because I had worked on spider sorting and identification for a PhD student at a field station just north of Umeå, I had gotten to know some of the graduate students and instructors that also did field work there. One of them mentioned that the Umeå Environmental Department were looking for a student to do some stream invertebrate surveys over the summer. The timing was perfect for me, and I had enough qualifications (and a friend who could guide me through the steep part of the learning curve) to do the job, so I was able to take advantage of that opportunity.

The second lucky event came just after I defended my PhD at Simon Fraser University. A colleague who was doing a special post-doctoral fellowship in forestry across town at the University of British Columbia accepted a position to lead an educational program abroad, leaving the position open. The PI had been on my PhD supervisory committee, and offered me to step into that position, which I happily accepted. Again, the timing could not have been more perfect.

The third lucky opportunity came about as a result of my PhD work. Because of an aversion to sticky material, I had invented a trap now called the “Lindgren funnel trap”

DFB trapping standing

Lindgren funnel trap

(Lindgren 1983), which had been adopted by a small spin-off company for a pest management program to control ambrosia beetles (pinhole borers) using pheromone-based mass trapping. Because I had unique experience with that particular trap, I was offered an Industrial post-doc, and later a position as Research Director, which helped me get landed immigrant status and eventually citizenship in Canada.

The fourth opportunity was really two separate, but linked events. The first was that a friend, who was also qualified to apply, sent a small notice regarding a faculty position at the brand-new University of Northern British Columbia. If he had not sent that to me, I may have remained unaware that the position had been posted since I was not really looking for a job at the time. In my position as research director at the pest management company mentioned above, where I had been for 10 years at this point, I had insisted on my right to publish, and as a result I had about 30+ publications at the time the UNBC position became available. This made me qualified enough to be short-listed along with one of my colleagues. Both of us were applied researchers with respectable CV’s, and we were chosen because the search was for team-players rather than superstars. Unfortunately for me I lost out, but this soon turned into my next piece of luck. My colleague’s spouse refused to move to Prince George, an industrial town with a reputation for cold, long winters and pollution from three pulp mills, so the position was offered to me. I was very happy to accept and never looked back over the 21 ½ years that I and my wife spent there. It should also be stated that my wife’s support and enthusiasm was key to whatever success I enjoyed at UNBC – another piece of luck!


Evolution of success for the most succesful (a) and the least successful individual (b). From Pluchino et al. 2018.

It may seem that I had nothing but luck in my career, but my 2016 blog and the above is really looking back through rose-coloured glasses to some extent. There is no question that I have had more than my fair share of luck, but it really was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity in most cases. Pluchino et al. (2018) show that the most successful people have average or better talent, but the most successful people are not the most talented people, but do have luck on their side. Research impact is not correlated with productivity, and the dominant funding strategy to reward past excellence, e.g., exemplified by Canada’s Centers of Excellence and Canada Research Chairs, may not be the most productive use of available research fund. Gordon and Poulin (2009) concluded that NSERC could give every applicant a base grant of $30,000 and forego the enormous cost in time and money of the peer review process without loss of productivity. Similarly, Vaesen and Katzav (2017) calculate how much each researcher would receive if Government research funds were distributed equally to all qualified researchers for the Netherlands, UK, and US, concluding that  Bendiscioli (2019) highlight a number of issues with the peer review-based allocation system, e.g., increasing reviewer fatigue, a tendency to only fund “safe” projects (see also my blog “The inertia of science”), use of questionable metrics such as impact factors, journal quality, number of citations, and h-factors to judge excellence. All of these have their own set of problems which may create unwarranted bias against some researchers (Kumar 2009). In addition, Kaufmann lists some additional factors that are due to bias stemming from human nature that is more disappointing than insightful, e.g.:

Those with last names earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top departments;

The display of middle initials increases positive evaluations of people’s intellectual capacities and achievements;

People with easy to pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difficult-to-pronounce names.”

And to overcome those types of biases, you definitely need some luck!


Bendiscioli, S. 2019. The troubles with peer review for allocating research funding. Funders need to experiment with versions of peer review and decision‐making. EMBO Reports 20:e49472

Gordon R and BJ Poulin. 2009. Cost of the NSERC Science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research, 16: 13-40, DOI: 10.1080/08989620802689821

Kumar, MJ. 2009 Evaluating scientists: citations, impact factor, h-index, online page hits and what else? IETE Technical Review 26:3, 165-168.

Lindgren, BS.  1983.  A multiple funnel trap for scolytid beetles (Coleoptera).  The Canadian Entomologist  115: 299-302.

Pluchino, A., AE Biondo and A Rapisarda. 2018. Talent vs luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. Advances in Complex Systems 21, No. 03n04, 1850014 DOI: 10.1142/S0219525918500145

Vaesen, K and J Katzav. 2017. How much would each researcher receive if competitive government research funding were distributed equally among researchers? PLoSONE 12(9):e0183967.


*There are literally hundreds of papers and blogs discussing the validity of the peer review system.

Posted in Careers, Opinion, Science, Scientists | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The only constant in nature is that it is always changing

Humans are by nature conservative in the sense that we are most comfortable when our environment is stable. Change is frequently viewed as negative. One type of environment that is of conservation concern to European naturalists is the cultural landscape, particularly small wood pastures with scattered or bordering deciduous brush or trees, which are no longer in use for animal husbandry or hay production. These types of habitats have high biodiversity conservation value (Kunttu et al 2019), but provide low economic return, so they have at times been planted to spruce for timber production. In British Columbia, we tend to be more concerned with the preservation of old-growth forests and natural wetlands. In both cases we are trying to preserve the landscape as we know it. We are most comfortable when in a familiar environment.

Cichlid fishes of Lake Malawi in Africa, a wonderful example of the power of evolution.

Nature is not static, however. It is in constant flux, with organismal shifts in a constant cycle that keeps ecosystems healthy. Abiotic and biotic agents interact to force adaptation as conditions change. Darwin and Wallace provided a general mechanism for how this occurs with their theory of natural selection, and we later learned that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), a wonderfully simple instructional language written with long chains of pairs of four nucleic acids, was the ultimate scaffold upon which all life forms could be expressed through evolution. The power of that is wonderfully demonstrated by the adaptive radiation of cichlid fish in the rift lakes of Africa (Schedel et al. 2019).

Climatic change is one driver of evolutionary change. We know that climate has changed many times in the past, but generally at a very slow rate relative to our current rate of warming. In fact, all five of earth’s mass extinctions, each eliminating 75-95% of life as it existed then, was caused by some type of climate perturbation. Rare catastrophic events have led to widespread and rapid change, e.g., the meteor that led to the global extinction of most dinosaurs and ammonites along with many other organisms, but even that event was in part caused by secondary climatic effects. Current global climate change deniers often bring up the fact that climate has fluctuated throughout the planet’s existence as evidence for their position. However, humans are now severely impacting the environment both directly and indirectly, and at all conceivable scales. The rate of extinctions over the last century vastly exceeds what would be expected in the absence of human influence, supporting the notion that we have entered a sixth mass extinction. Thus, the Anthropocene, the era dominated by humans, is characterized by unprecedented depletion rates of natural resources and an accelerating increase in CO2 levels. Carbon release is further accelerating as permafrost thaws, releasing vast volumes of trapped CO2. This animation from NOAA shows the variation by latitude and the global rate of increase. The result when combined with all other anthropogenic impacts (habitat destruction, pesticides etc.) is unprecedented loss of biodiversity, prompting media to declare insectageddon and bird apocalypse in response to some recent scientific studies sounding the alarm. (I strongly recommend that you read this and some follow-up posts by Manu Saunders on her excellent blog site “Ecology is not a dirty word” and this by Brian McGill before accepting the media reports at face value.)

When we think of evolution, we generally envision a slow process over many decades, centuries, millennia or even longer. We are of course familiar with resistance evolving to pesticides in insects, and bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics. Evidence is starting to surface that at least some higher animals are able to evolve fairly rapidly if the selection pressure is strong enough. Humans have had a hand in this for a long time, but for the most part by intentional selection as part of the domestication process of animals and plants. The dog evolving from the wolf into innumerable races that seem to have few, if any, wolf-like characteristics, and crop improvement for increased yield are some familiar examples. Darwin bred fancy pigeons in his attempts to understand the process of natural selection. We have already caused the extinction of many animals through over-exploitation, and this is still a major threat to the continued existence of numerous at-risk species. In addition, humans are now directly causing unintentional very rapid evolutionary adaptation in some animal populations through activities causing extreme selection pressure. This article summarizes the issues quite well, and provides some interesting examples. Below I will highlight a few additional examples that I am aware of.

Tuskless elephants

African elephants have been subject to extensive poaching for their tusks, which are sought after in China for carving and jewellery. Males are particularly sought after because they have larger tusks than females. Females are also killed, however. In some areas, e.g., Mozambiques Gorongosa National Park and Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, the  pressure by poaching on the population has been severe, leading to a much higher level of female tusklessness than in  areas with little or no poaching.

Levels of tuskless females in African elephants. From

Tusks are used for a number of tasks, but it appears that tuskless females manage well without them. Interestingly, female Indian elephants do not have tusks, possibly as a consequence of historic hunting pressure.

Rapid evolution in sea stars

Sea star wasting disease
Pisaster ochraceus affected by sea star wasting syndrome. From

In 2013 large numbers of sea stars along the Pacific coast of North America were found to essentially disintegrate and die for no apparent reason. The problem persisted into 2014, leading to a rapid decline in the number of sea stars. A paper by Hewson et al. indicated a densovirus as a causal agent, but that is was later confirmed only for the sunflower star, Pycnopodia helianthoides (Hewson et al. 2018). A marine heating event is also implicated, but the ultimate cause of what is now called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is elusive. Recovery among some populations, e.g., the common ochre sea star, was shown to be due to rapid genetic changes (Schiebelhut et al. 2018). This extremely rapid evolution may indicate that some organisms have the capacity to adapt to environmental changes relatively rapidly, which may be cause for some level of hope.

Bird evolution resulting from anthropogenic activities

Using a data set of over 70,000 migratory birds collected over four decades, most killed by window strikes, Weeks et al. (2020) found that increasing temperatures have led to a decrease in body size, but an increase in wing length. We hypothesize that the increase in wing length is a compensatory adaptation to the reduced body size, which would impact migration due to an increased metabolic cost of flight.

In another study on cliff swallows occupying roadside nesting sites (bridges, overpasses etc.) over three decades, Brown and Bomberger Brown (2013) found that road kill of swallows declined rapidly. Birds that were killed had longer wings than the general population, which the authors hypothesize may be due to selection for short-winged birds that are better able to avoid collisions. They acknowledge that other selection pressures, e.g., severe weather events and a change in the insect fauna, may also have contributed. Nevertheless, their study indicates that evolutionary responses to changing conditions can sometimes occur rapidly.

A particularly interesting example of rapid evolution is the “re-evolution” of an extinct species of rail on Aldabra, a large coral atoll in the Seychelles. A subspecies of the white-throated rail, the Aldabra rail has gone extinct several times due to sea level rise which has submerged the atoll, but has re-emerged subsequent to re-occupation by white-throated rails presumably from Madagascar. White-throated rails are “persistent colonizers”, meaning that they tend to emigrate en masse due to unknown triggers. The Aldabra rail has “re-evolved” in the sense that flight has been lost and the birds have become heavier. The evidence for this comes from comparing fossil and modern humerus bones showing that pre-flood rails were similar to the Aldabra rail as it exists today, whereas post-flood rails were in the process of losing flight. The process took 20,000 years, but that is still rapid in evolutionary terms.

There are many additional examples, but these may be some of the easiest to relate to as the animals are charismatic. Bull and Maron (2016) provide an overview that may be of interest, or you can read this overview for the Reader’s Digest version.


Brown, C R and M. Bomberger Brown. 2013. Where has all the road kill gone? Current Biology. 23, R233–R234.

Bull JW and M Maron. 2016. How humans drive speciation as well as extinction. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 283, 20160600. (doi:10.1098/rspb.2016.0600)

Hewson, I, JB Button, BM Gudenkauf, et al. 2014. Densovirus associated with sea-star wasting disease and mass mortality. PNAS 201416625; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1416625111

Hewson, I, K Bistolas, SI Kalia et al. 2018. Investigating the Complex Association Between Viral Ecology, Environment, and Northeast Pacific Sea Star Wasting. Frontiers in Marine Science 5: 77 DOI=10.3389/fmars.2018.00077

Hume, JP and D Martill. 2019. Repeated evolution of flightlessness in Dryolimnas rails (Aves: Rallidae) after extinction and recolonization on Aldabra. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 186: 666–672,

Schedel, FDB., Z Musilova and UK Schliewen. 2019. East African cichlid lineages (Teleostei: Cichlidae) might be older than their ancient host lakes: new divergence estimates for the east African cichlid radiation. BMC Evolutionary Biology 19: 94.

Schiebelhut, LM, JB Puritz, and MN Dawson. 2018. Decimation by sea star wasting disease and rapid genetic change in a keystone species, Pisaster ochraceus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(27): 7069-7074; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1800285115.

Weeks, BC, DE Willard, M Zimova, AA Ellis, ML Witynski, M Hennen, and BM Winger. 2020. Shared Morphological Consequences of Global Warming in North American Migratory Birds. Ecology Letters, 23(2): 316-325. doi: 10.1111/ele.13434.

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