The Animated Foundations of Ecology

Will Ryan, graduate student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, shares his passion for communicating seminal scientific literature in engaging short films. Will distills the take-home messages of the literature and delivers these messages through poetry and art in his films, making science literature less intimidating and more relatable for his audience.


Wilbur Ryan:


I'm a field biologist, so I respect a lot of what you guys are doing, but it's a mystery to me what goes on in labs for most of the time. Most of the time, when I'm out doing my science, I look more like this than like this. I study this little sea anemone that's right here, and it's actually, one my field sites is just down the road at the Nahant, at the marine lab there.


A field biologist, to me, is this sort of magical combination of, you have to be sort of an inventor, and you have to be an engineer, and you have to be sort of a swashbuckling naturalist, and go around and be sort of a world traveler, but then you also have to be sort of a bookish accountant, and so you have to put all of these things together in one person, and then send them out into the world and hope to get some information back out of it.


To go out into the world, and to try and pull the threads of questions about the squishy little organisms that few people have even imagined, let alone know anything about. To some people it might seem a little bit frivolous to go out and do this sort of science, especially when we say, "Oh, I'm going to write a grant, and what I really need is a hundred 5-gallon buckets that I need to go buy at Lowe's. That's what I need to do my work."


The thing is, though, that this is exactly the kind of specific knowledge that we need about the world to answer the kinds of questions that arise that we would not have any way to anticipate. A species like this is, turns out to be, a wildly successful invasive species. It's not invasive in the sense that it's doing any harm, but it is invasive in that it's incredibly good at showing up everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. It's the most wide-spread sea anemone in the world, and so doing this sort of work, pulling the threads of these sorts of questions is incredibly important, even if we don't know what the purpose is going to be in the future.


But the problem is, right, this is an exciting life to lead, and it's an exciting way to gather research, and you have wild stories at the end of these sorts of things. Then we take these wild stories and these adventures and this excitement, and we write a paper that looks like this, and so the way that we disseminate this information is to package all of that stuff that we're very excited about talking about, and we're very excited about sharing, into dusty collections and these dense manuscripts and these finicky little diagrams, and it's interminably dull.


Then we go to our students, and we say, "Hey, science is great. You definitely want to be a scientist. You should definitely care about everything that we're talking to you about. Go read this paper, and then we're going to come back and discuss it, okay? Go." It's incredibly important that we be able to bring people into our world, so we not only need to go out and do these things, but we need to bring other people along with us in what we're doing and share that information.


I'm a graduate student, and I teach a lot, and one of the things that my students struggle with the most, they're excited for the lecture, they like reading the textbooks sometimes, they like looking at the pictures, and then we hand them scientific literature and say, "Okay, the next step is to become a scientist. You need to get good at doing this", and they really struggle with engaging with that literature, and even knowing where to start, what to get out of it.


It took me a long time to get to where I am, in sort of a circuitous route that involved going through art school for a bit, and so I try to use the skills that I have to build a bridge to make that transition a little bit easier for people to get into the literature, to make it a little bit more welcoming. One of the things that I did in the last year was I went over to the art school, and I said, "Give me some of your art students. I need them." I went out and I recruited some art undergraduates, and I went into an animation class and said, "You know, I have this idea. I really want to make 'Schoolhouse Rock'-style videos for the scientific literature, and I think we could make it a good way to transition people into these ideas, and get them excited about the ideas first, so that they're willing to do the work to find out the details."


I brought these artists into the room, and I said, "I have an art background, but I need help, 'cause I want to do this on a scale that's going to be useful to people." Then I said, "Okay, well, I'm going to start telling you about these papers," so I said, "Okay, well, one of our most important ecological stories is that we needed to know how predator-and-prey cycles work, how do populations of predators and preys co-exist.


"We have this guy, and this guy was in his lab, and he had these flats of oranges, and then on these oranges he put some mites. Then, on those mites he put predatory mites, and then they were killing each other too fast, and so he built all these little bridges between the oranges so that the prey could move around, and then he had these little fans, and then there was Vaseline to slow down the predators, and what's really cool about this is that you get predator-and-prey cycles, and so we should really, definitely animate the graph. We should show the graph in the video."


They're like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait. He had oranges, what? This guy ...?" So this was the clue that what we really needed to do in order to engage people that weren't already engaged in this is is to focus on the people, and the process of how we got to these answers, and then you can say at the end, "And this is the really cool thing that we found out about it."


The other one that they really liked was this really famous ecologist basically fumigated a bunch of mangrove islands, and they let him do it, in the '70s or in the '60s. Then he watched the recolonization of the insects, and that's one of our seminal papers, and it basically involves this guy going out and tenting mangrove islands in Florida.


The thing is, I think we have it in us as scientists ... In order to be a scientist you have to be an incredibly creative person. Doing science takes innovation, it takes thinking in this particular way, and so we're already very creative people. We have it in us to tell these kinds of stories about our work, but I think that we hesitate to interject ourselves. We're very much trained to be objective and to leave ourselves out of it, to leave out our passion, to leave out our personal stories, to leave out our feelings about the whole process, and just get to the objective truth, and we write these papers that are very efficient at communicating among each other. They're dense with facts, very efficient, but really hard to get people into. I think we can afford to put ourselves back into the process a little bit, because that's where the good stuff is for bringing people in.


The reason that I really think that scientists in general have the traits that we need in order to be good communicators and to be creative people is that just within my own department ... This is my fellow group of graduate students, and there's all their research that they do. All day we do research, and then, at night we're musicians, and we're painters, and we're actors, and these are just the random subset of people that I happen to show up to grad school with. We have these passions in us. We are very creative people, but we need to be able to tap into that and shake off the science part every once in a while and say, "Hey, we are really weird, interesting, cool people, and we have really weird, interesting, cool lives, and we do these sorts of things."


I think a lot of us are immersed in the details of what we're doing so much that we forget that this is sort of a romantic endeavor, that we're doing weird, cool stuff, and just to be able to step back and capture that I think is the key to being able to communicate and to get, particularly students, involved in the romanticism of being a scientist, and so I think the upshot is that we need to be able to tell more colorful stories about what we're doing, and it's really important that we bring people in.


It was brought up before that we live in climate where people are sort of suspicious of the value of science in general, and so I think collectively, we've all kind of decided that the way to deal with that is to make sure that we are very boring, and that it feels very important what we're doing, because everybody knows that if it's important, it can't be any fun at all, and if you're having fun, it means it's frivolous.


At the risk of kind of blowing our cover and letting people in on the fact that this is actually a very fun and exciting thing to do with your life, I've made this videos, and I'm trying to use them to get people to talk about science and to think about science in a different way. We need scientifically literate people too badly to pretend like this work is dry and hard. It's a lot of fun, and hard. I think we can do better. We can tell more interesting stories.


This is the video based on Bob Paine's seminal work in looking at ... If you've heard the term keystone predator or anything like that, this is the work that that's based on.


On the rocky shores of Washington State lives a storied collection of invertebrates, an orgasmic explosion of biotic design. On the rocks, life of every color and kind. Like Mytilus the mussel, old Balanus aside, or chitons and limpets that eat where they hide. A plethora of producers, algae, red, brown and green, near-nudies that munch sponges while anemones sting, attached in every conceivable way by glues, threads and thalli in a fight to hold space.


And atop of this banquet the predators rise, dashing about between Pacific tides. Hungry dogwhelks roaming the sea shore in packs, drilling for delectable sessile snacks, while the sea star Pisaster oozes digestive slime, dissolving dozens of barnacles all at one time, or stalking another of its favorite treats, a bite, no, a banquet of mytilus meat.


Such was the scene when from the planes of U Mich, Paine arrived and observed a true naturalist niche, and straight away he wondered like any good ecologist might, what keeps the diversity so high at this site? If a place to attach is all that's required, what keeps these species together, all of them mired in a constant struggle to take over the space? What keeps the best one from winning first place? And the more that he watched, and the more that he wondered, the more that he thought about sea stars that blundered around, blindly consuming all in their wake, he mused, "Was it they who were clearing out space, so that no species could manage to exclude the others?"


So he went back to his lab and mustered his druthers, and decided to do an experiment to suss out just what the predation meant, because what others had said now seemed not to be true, that predators could cause the prey types to be few. He gathered his transects and his quadrat frame, and he marked off two patches in Makah Bay. In one, he pried up every last stubborn pisaster, employing a crowbar to dislodge those rock-hugging masters. This prince of the predators now tossed out to sea, thus Paine left his first patch top-predator-free.


The other patch he lefts unmolested, so the tube-footed menace was here uncontested. Then, for three years, he counted every spat, shell, and settler, every new recruit, every passing meddler, and, between the two patches, a pattern emerged. Without sea stars, soon there was a barnacle scourge, but once, after all of their space became nought, mussels began settling every crack in the rock. More mussels settled and grew every day. Soon, the limpets picked up their shells and skirted away, and the barnacles all got smothered and died. The algae that settled washed away with the tide. And, over time, richness dropped from 15 to eight, and the patch soon succumbed to it's mussel-y fate.


But the other patch chugged along in its unaltered habit, a mosaic of colonies of this kind or that. It kept constantly shifting as the pisasters hunted and picked off whichever of them got too abundant, and Paine persevered on into the '70s to see if this pattern would ever be remedied, but even after a decade the story remained, the simple loss of the sea star made diversity wane.


And so two ideas were made very clear, both important enough to last 45 years. One, when predator preference has density dependence, predators can mediate prey coexistence. And two, some species, though in number be few, just by doing whatever they do, can change the fate of many other species who may or may not be directly connected, but by cascading links are significantly affected. Such that this singular species, all on its own, forms a sort of biological keystone, keeping the arch of the community as we know it in place, enabling a diversity of critters to share the same space.

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