Biological Diversity: Ecology and
This class explores the sciences of ecology and evolutionary biology through the study of questions about biological diversity. Why are there so many kinds of organisms? Can we explain observed patterns of diversity in terms of theoretical structures? In terms of history? Can we make predictions about diversity? Do differences in diversity affect other ecological phenomena? These questions have not yet been fully answered, but they are important both for basic scientific understanding and for addressing current environmental concerns. Understanding current thinking regarding any of them will require application of a variety of basic ecological and evolutionary principles and methods. We will also use the laboratory to explore some of the basic approaches to ecosystem ecology.
Ecology is a contextual approach to biology; it is the study of organisms in interaction with one another and with the natural environment, and deals with questions about the distribution, abundance, and diversity of organisms in natural and man-made ecosystems. Evolutionary biology addresses the processes which shape organisms and generate diversity; it also involves reconstruction of the unique history that is responsible for the shape of the modern biological world. These fields are intricately and intimately linked; it is impossible to grapple with ecological questions without evolutionary thinking or to understand evolution outside of ecological context. Our exploration of diversity will require a synthesis of these two modes of biological thinking, and this synthetic approach can be applied to a range of scientific and environmental problems.
Our objective is a grasp of how ecological and evolutionary questions are developed and pursued. We will also emphasize gaining of familiarity with organisms and natural systems and ways of observing them.
Prerequisites: This class is open to all students; there are no formal prerequisites. However, in a number of cases we will be working with quantitative theories and techniques; if you are comfortable with high school algebra, you will be fine; if not, you shouldn’t give up, but might talk with me before undertaking the class. NOTE In addition to the chapters assigned from the textbooks in the outline below, you may wish to refer to a general biology text for basic biological background (particularly in genetics and cell structure and function) if you find yourself unacquainted with terminology and concepts.
Class Meetings: Lecture/discussion meetings will be Monday and Thursday, 10:15-11:45 AM. Lab will meet 2:00-5:00 PM on Thursday. Many lab meetings will involve field work; anticipate this and, unless I have let you know that we will be inside, dress appropriately for the out-of-doors and the weather. ALWAYS bring a lab notebook or clipboard that can be conveniently used in the field. Because of our field orientation, lab work will be relatively concentrated during the first half of the term.
There will probably be one or two weekend field-trips, either day-trips to regional natural areas, or a full-weekend camping trip (leaving Friday and returning Sunday) to Mt Washington (the highest peak in the northeast) and the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study in the White Mts. of NH. If we take the camping option, it will be in late September or early October. Weekend trips will be scheduled during the first week of class, and will be optional but encouraged.
TIMELY ATTENDANCE IN CLASS AND LAB IS NECESSARY unless you have a very good excuse (primarily illness); excessive absence or lateness disrupts the class, can affect your evaluation, and may lead to failure. When we leave for field labs we cannot wait for people who are late. If you MUST miss a class or lab, let me know in advance if at all possible; otherwise as soon as possible following the missed class.
Structure of the Course: Classes will work towards overview and understanding through background development, discussion of readings from primary and secondary literature, and case studies introduced in class. Emphasis will be on processes, concepts, and the development of ideas rather than descriptive detail. Textbooks are intended to support this work, and I will assign reading in them, but they are a “background” resource (like any good reference book), and the class won’t be structured around them.
Labs will pursue two agendas. The first is to gain some competency with scientific techniques and observation through topical exercises and simulations and group original research projects. The emphasis will be on approaches to posing and addressing scientific questions. The second emphasis will be on acquaintance with some local biomes and biota, and, particularly an exploration of biodiversity.
Texts: There are two books for this class:
1. C. Townsend, et al. Essentials of Ecology. 2nd edition. This is a compact, but effective general overview of the field.
2. Kareiva, P.M. Exploring Ecology and Its Applications: Readings from American Scientist.
EVERYONE should have access to these books, whether you purchase them or not.
Assignments: In addition to the expectation that you attend class, read assignments, and participate in class, there will be several types of assignments, including but not limited to:
1) Weekly (more or less) problems: I will give you question/problem sets regularly during the term. These will be take-home, and oriented towards the application of scientific concepts and methods to open-ended problems.
2) Papers: There will be two or three short papers (first will be about 4th week) involving critical review of readings you select from the primary or secondary literature. You may choose papers which interest you, but I will be happy to offer suggestions. Style and use of language are important.
3) Lab write-ups: Some labs will involve write-ups of results. Some may take the form of formal written reports, others will be more like problem sets.
4) Research Proposal: Your major assignment, developed over the whole term, will be a written research proposal. It will include development of a research question springing from your own observations, a literature review, a proposed method for addressing the problem, and discussion of interpretation of potential results. This project will develop in stages. More on this later.
TENTATIVE Class Outline: (Chapters from Townsend et al. are indicated with a “T”. These should be read in advance (sometimes a chapter is listed in two places). There will be additional readings assigned for class discussion.
I. A Problem: Why so many kinds of organisms? Patterns. (Week 1) (T10)
II. Introduction: Fact, observation, proof, and truth. (Week 2) (T1,3)
III. Ecology, Part One: Adaptation, population, competition, niche. (Weeks 3-5) (T4,5,6)
IV. Evolution, Part One: Microevolution, natural selection, population genetics, adaptation, and speciation. (Weeks 6-7) (T2)
V. Evolution meets Ecology: Life histories, mating systems, ete. (Week 8) (T5)
VI. Ecology, Part Two: Ecological hypotheses about biodiversity. Community processes, questions of equilibrium, ecosystem function and diversity. (Weeks 9-10) (T4,9,10)
VII. Evolution, Part Two: Evolutionary contributions on biodiversity. Origin and history of life. (Weeks 11-12)
VIII. Humans and biodiversity: Causes and consequences. (Week 13-14) (T12,14)
TENTATIVE Lab Schedule: Labs will be a mix of natural history exploration, simulations, and semi-structured research projects. Most labs will begin with my presentation of a general problem or observation and some available and appropriate methodologies, but specific development of research questions and hypotheses, and experimental design, will be group undertakings, and may involve semi-independent work by groups within the class. Some projects will be open-ended, in terms of content, time, and “correct” result. Scheduling of labs, write-ups, and out-of-lab work is approximate: weather and development of projects will almost certainly lead to changes.
Week 1 Research Project 1: Building a carbon budget: Is Bennington College a carbon source or sink? (Research project 1)
Week 2 Research Project 2: Goldenrods and galls (Research project 2)
Week 3 Pond, field and forest: Observation, questions, and hypotheses
WEEKEND FIELD TRIP?
Week 4 Follow-up/catch-up
Week 5 Habitat visit/Research project 3: Stream invertebrate diversity
Week 6 Natural selection with Beans
Week 7 Community sampling, or weekend trip to Mt. Equinox
Week 8 Habitat Visit or pursuit of ongoing projects
Weeks 9 Simulation models and evolutionary computer games
Weeks 10 More computer simulations: community dynamics and succession
REMAINDER TO BE PLANNED AS THINGS DEVELOP
--- KDW, September 2004