Who cares about plants?

As a botanical grad student I love to have plants around the house. I love to see them, to take photographs and share them on social media. I really enjoy showing off my plants; the more bizarre, the better. I can speak about the species natural range of distribution, and even predict how it is going to be affected by climate change. I know what kind of water they need, what nutrients, where is the best place in the house and why. However, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of horticulture, if I am honest, I don’t care! Surprisingly, I am not the only one in that situation; it seems a common pattern among botanical graduate students. We are the worst people at taking care of plants. I am not sure if it is because we are busy, because we already take care of the Amazon in our research or because we don’t have kids -having kids is highly correlated with plant caring ability.

Having plants is worse than having a pet; if you have a dog you just walk, clean and feed it, but plants require an individualistic treatment and dedication. This one needs a certain kind of water, that other one another kind, this one here can be flooded but the other one only needs to be sprayed. It can get worse if you have orchids. I know of people waking up earlier in the morning to move the plants around the house. A dog is simpler; if it doesn’t move, it is ill, but plants require constant examination for diseases, nutrient deficiencies or water stress. I am in grad school and so I do not have time for that.
That is why I make sure I always have someone around who does it for me. My mother keeps my collection of plants that I built during my undergraduate studies (althought she is now claiming them as her own!). Now that I have completed my first few months of grad school, I am hoping to look for a roommate like my mother who has enough free time (and a green thumb) to care for the new accumulation of plants that I have unintentionally started.
So what will happen with my plants next? What dark future awaits for the unfortunate plants of grad students? We are nomads. We move from one house to another one because it is cheaper, we move from one country to another because we have to do research, we travel for a week to a symposium. The true sufferers of that are our plants; they will inevitably be abandoned or dead.
We were not allowed to have dogs when we were kids because of our lack of commitment with walking, cleaning and feeding them, but now we can´t even have plants.

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On social media and the need for effective broader impacts

health science social network

image from: http://joannapenabickley.typepad.com/on/2010/11/on-social-media-icons.html

The first post by the new upwithclimate team member, Tim Perez:

If you are remotely in tune with current scientific buzz-words or lingo, you’ve probably come across this catchy binomial: broader impacts. Broader impacts are one of two ways the U.S.’s National Science Foundation critically judges a grant for merit. You can read all about it here and here. In sum, broader impacts are the effect your research will have on your scientific discipline and in society.  One way for scientists to have broader impacts is to increase engagement with the public, and social media provides easy access to large public audiences. This blog is a case in point. Of course, social media isn’t the only way for scientists get their message ‘out there’, but like the term broader impacts, it sure is popular.

Social media is at the disposal of everyone so it may not be surprising that it contains a lot of trash, and science media is no exception. One popular website, I F***ing Love Science (IFLS), with admittedly cool information, is just that: a website with cool information. IFLS is a hardly resource for new or pertinent scientific research. (Here is a hilarious tirade about why ‘liking’ IFLS does not mean you actually like science (disclaimer: lots of f-words))

I can’t help but wonder if websites like IFLS may actually detract from important research. The benefit of such websites is that they may ignite interest scientific research, which may trickle back to scientists in the form of more researchers, greater public support, funding, ideally all of the above. However, it is apparent that this scientific trickle-down effect is still not effective given the public’s stance on many important issues. Cough-climate change-Cough. This article from The Plant Press blog, discussing understaffed and underfunded herbariums, is yet another reminder of the academia-public disconnect. Maybe, social media promotes a superficial interest in science – Or maybe there is a time lag and science has yet to its benefits.

I’d wager on the latter being true. It seems unlikely that increased exposure to pseudo or pop-science would somehow decrease public interest. I would argue a superficial interest in science is better than none: Even armchair activists can still send an influential letter to administrators and politicians from the comfort of  their seats. A quick Google search turned up results that support the idea of social media improving the public scientific literacy, but I’m not aware of more convincing evidence.

Unfortunately, I think these videos are further evidence of the public’s lack of scientific exposure. Don’t get me wrong, I love the videos and I appreciate what they are trying to accomplish. I’m sure a lot of hard work went into them, and maybe a scientist or two was consulted during their production. Yet the videos explain the consequences of climate change and resource extraction in terms I would expect in a children’s book. If the American Public (to whom I assume these videos are targeted) need famous actors and actresses to tell them they are in deep doo-doo unless they change their ways, then it is obvious that there is still a large gap in scientific outreach and public interest. They should be listening to scientists, instead of being scolded by Hollywood!

This post does not suggest effective strategies to bridge this gap – perhaps in a following post – rather it aims to acknowledge the gap, and recognizes that the bridge building needs to occur faster. The urgency of such building should be clear, lest more closures in scientific institutions are needed, and the burden  of building falls on the shoulders of scientists. After all, it is in scientists’ best interest to promote their work and increase the trickle of support to science. Hopefully, our collective refocused efforts will trickle down to a constant stream of public support and funding.

When I think about it, it’s clear why broader impacts are heavily weighted in NSF grant proposals: The future of research may depend on it. Social media is a start, but scientists need to be on the lookout for new ways to not just to broaden their impacts, but to make them effectual.

Bermuda: Sun, Sea, and Lots of Lizards

IMG_7333 I recently took a trip over to Bermuda to explore the introduced Anolis lizard (anole) communities. Over the past century 3 species of anole have become established on the island, all originating from different Caribbean islands. Rumours were circulating of a 4th species that had newly colonised, the wonderfully adaptable and incredibly successful invasive Cuban brown anole Anolis sagrei. Joined by former FIU grad student Sean Giery, led by Bermuda’s wildlife conservation expert Mark Outerbridge, and armed only with lizard nooses and a scooter each, we set out to confirm if this was true.


It wasn’t the worst place I’ve been for fieldwork!!

Anolis grahami, from Jamaica, was the first species of anole to be introduced to Bermuda. It is a classic example of biological management gone wrong. In 1905, 71 individuals (26 males and 45 females) collected in Kingston, Jamaica, were captured, transported and introduced to Bermuda in an effort to control the fruit fly Ceratitis capitata. They were an obvious choice; voracious insect eaters, as well as being “harmless and very entertaining reptile[s]“. Within 6 weeks they had spread ~1 mile, and by 1963 the species had colonised all but an extreme northwestern tip on the island archipelago, including several small offshore islands. In 1953, an established colony of A. extremus (then A. roquet), a charmingly shy lizard from Barbados in the Lesser Antilles, was first found on Ireland Island – along the same northwestern archipelago that A. grahami had yet failed to colonise. It was most likely brought over as an accidental stowaway on a ship docking at H.M. Dockyard, the British naval base. It’s distribution remained limited, and in a decade it had hardly ventured outside of that original archipelago peninsula.


(Left) Barbados anole Anolis extremus, (Right) Antiguan anole Anolis leachi

A. grahami was then joined in the centre of Bermuda in 1956 by another Lesser Antillean congeneric, A. leachi, from the distant shores of Antigua and Barbuda. Reasons for their introduction are unknown, however like A. grahami they spread relatively rapidly, such that by 1963 they were common within a 1 mile radius of the site of their original observation. A re-evaluation of species’ distributions on Bermuda in 1991 revealed that although A. grahami and A. extremus had conserved their ranges from 1963, A. leachi had continued to expand and was now found over large areas of mainland Bermuda radiating from the original site of introduction.


Mark Outerbridge (left), Sean Giery (centre), James Stroud (right, author) docking at Nonsuch Island, Bermuda

There is only one native lizard on Bermuda, the IUCN critically endangered Bermudan skink Plestiodon longirostris. These days they are restricted primarily to small offshore islands, such as Nonsuch Island (picture below). Many of these islands are characterised by short, scrubby vegetation which provide a strong defensive structural habitat for these skinks.


Nonsuch Island – home to one of the last remaining populations of the Bermudan skink Plestiodon longirostris

And what about the brown anole? You’ll just have to read the published articles to find out!

A successful seminar , congratulations Ken!


Ken Feeley, the head of our Lab, gave a well received and incredibly successful departmental seminar today as he begins the process of tenure application (picture above). Ken discussed his past, present and future research on how plants will respond to modern climate change. He primarily discussed our Lab’s research on long-term vegetation plots in the Peruvian Andes, summarized past findings and presented the exciting directions our future research will be going in! Congrats Ken!

Getting trained during the Summer – a month in China!

Group picture taken at the Dipterocarp forest in XTBG

Group picture taken at one of the Dipterocarp forest in XTBG.


This last summer, I spent a very exciting month participating in a training course in China, titled “The Ecology of Climate Change in the Tropics and Sub-Tropics”. The course was a result of the collaboration between the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden (XTBG) and the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS). It was hosted by XTBG, the largest botanical garden in China and also a research center affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). XTBG has around 30 research groups, and many research labs are focused on national strategic needs (Key Laboratories, http://english.xtbg.cas.cn/rh/rd/).

XTBG (1125 ha) is embedded in a remote, rural town in China. Access to XTBG from the town of Menglun is shown by the green line, and the leads to the location of the research center. The yellow line shows the trail to the green stone forest platform, overlooking the area in white. XTBG looks like a peninsula encircled by the LuoSuo River, a tributary of the Mekong Delta. Image provided by XTBG.

XTBG (1125 ha) is embedded in a remote, rural town in China. Access to XTBG from the town of Menglun is shown by the green line, and it leads to the location of the research center. The yellow line shows the trail to the green stone forest platform, overlooking the area in white. XTBG looks like a peninsula encircled by the LuoSuo River, a tributary of the Mekong Delta.

The course was designed for graduate students and young professionals from the New and Old-world tropics. The diversity of the participants was one of the highlights of my experience in the course. Students were from 16 different countries, and including the instructors there were 20 nationalities participating in the course (see the map below). The atmosphere in the classroom was very unique and enjoyable, as everybody was really interested in learning about each other’s research, but also about each other’s culture.

Distribution map created by Alice C. Hughes, the main coordinator of the course, showing the original countries of students and instructors.

Distribution map created by Alice C. Hughes showing the original countries of students and instructors.

One of the aspects of the course that I really enjoyed was the opportunity to interact and learn from the scientists teaching the course (see list here). Instructors from OTS came to China and offered us a combination of field exercises, lectures and discussion sessions in biomass estimation, atmospheric science and climate change oral history. XTBG scientists presented a mix of lectures regarding different aspects of climate change ecology, some accompanied with practical exercises to demonstrate cutting-edge techniques and research technologies. Additionally, researchers from international organizations and local NGOs provided the group with study cases from nearby areas like the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region to discuss issues related to conservation and sustainable development. Last, but certainly not least, plenty of postdocs and graduate students donated their time to show us their laboratories and own experiments.

Visit to the CTFS, 1-ha plot, close to XTBG.

Group visit to the CTFS, 1-ha plot, close to XTBG.

In the third week of the course, we had to carry out our own projects. We visited two biological research stations hosted by XTBG, Yuanjiang Hot Dry Valley Ecological Station and Ailaoshan Mountain Range. The research projects conducted by students in the course were: 1) Invasive flora along an elevation gradient and implications of climate change: A case study from Ailaoshan Mountain Range, Yunnan, China; 2) Potential influence of climate change on plant-pollinator interactions – Preliminary study from Yuanjiang subtropical forest; 3) Woody plant diversity and leaf morphology along an altitudinal gradient in the hot dry valley; and 4) Coloration of butterflies along an elevation gradient (the project of my group).

Picture taken from the top of the dry savanna at Yuanjiang Hot Dry Valley Ecological Station. At the bottom of the slope is possible to see the Red River (Yuanjiang River).

Developing the group project was the most enjoyable part of the course. The seven people in my group made the unanimous decision to follow one member’s interest on butterflies. We hypothesized that we would see an increase of dark winged butterflies with increasing elevation. As temperature decreases with elevation, ectothermic species with the ability to raise body temperature may be at an advantage at higher elevations. In butterflies, this ability could be achieved through increased melanization of the wings. We found the perfect scenario to test our hypothesis at the Ailaoshan Mountain Range (~1km elevational gradient, 1374 – 2480 m asl), an area covered by montane evergreen broad-leafed forest. In 17 sampling hours, we were able to count 460 butterflies (2 teams & 2 days). Later, we used photographic analysis conducted on the wings of each individual morphospecies to validate the color data registered during the field work.

The highest proportions of dark butterflies were found at high elevations, whereas light colored butterflies were found all along the gradient. These results suggest there is a constraint for dark butterflies to move into open/lower elevation areas. The team wished to include more variables in the project such as butterfly behavior or land use cover, but we only had a few days to collect data. Our findings suggested that darker butterflies may be more susceptible to climate change but the mechanisms (for example: increased ability to heat up, limitation in their dispersal, etc.) are still not clear.

An exciting part of the project –although not so easy- was the thermal analysis of the wings. Using a Flir® brand infrared camera, and exposing the wings to sunlight, we observed that dark-colored wings indeed heat up faster than light-colored wings.

An exciting part of the project –although not so easy- was the thermal analysis of the wings. Using a Flir® brand infrared camera, and exposing the wings to sunlight, we observed that dark-colored wings indeed heat up faster than light-colored wings. On the left, picture of one of the dark specimens collected in the field.

Our project was chosen as the best student project from the course by the panel. Very special thanks have to go to the instructors and course coordinators that encouraged and helped with our project (Alice C. Hughes, Brett Scheffers, Kyle Tomlinson, Pierre Honoré, Richard Corlett and Jingxin Liu). As I said earlier, it was a lot of fun, we worked hard, and we were able to put into practice several techniques we learned during the course.

Finally, I would like to say that this training course was an outstanding experience. I encourage the organizers and funders to work on developing more courses like the XTBG-OTS course for other students and other locations.

Cloud forests struggle to keep pace with climate change

The following is a copy of a short article published by FIU News about the research of E. Rehm.


Cloud forests struggle to keep pace with climate change
Posted by Evelyn Perez, 08/29/2014

The cloud forests of the Andes Mountains are not migrating fast enough in the face of global warming, according to FIU researchers.

Plant and animal species are migrating upslope throughout the tropics to mitigate the effects of increasing global temperatures. But the cloud forests, with their signature cloud and mist cover along the rainsforest canopy, are not keeping pace.

Evan Rehm, a biological sciences Ph.D. student [at FIU] and researcher at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens, has spent three years in Manú National Park (Peru) studying how the region’s tropical cloud forests will adapt to climate change. The delicate and interconnected ecosystem comprises less than 1 percent of all the world’s forests, but is among the most biologically diverse and ecologically important places on Earth.

“Slowed forest expansion into the puna could act as a barrier to the upslope migration of Andean cloud forest species leading to extreme losses of Andean biodiversity,” Rehm said. “If the Andean timberlines continue to remain fixed despite future climate change, this could have dire consequences to global biodiversity.”By using homemade seed traps made of PVC piping, netting and other materials, the team of researchers examined seedling recruitment patterns, seed dispersal and microclimate at the timberline, or the edge of a habitat at which trees are capable of growing. They also looked at the puna, which is the high elevation grasslands above the forest. Their results indicated any upslope migration of the timberline into the puna will likely occur at a rate that is slower than what is required to keep pace with warming.

The study, coauthored with FIU biology professor Kenneth Feeley, was published in Forest Ecology and Management.

Biology researcher Evan Rehm has studied the tropical cloudforests of Manú National Park (Peru) for three years.

Biology researcher Evan Rehm has studied the tropical cloudforests of Manú National Park (Peru) for three years.