FORESTS: An Introduction to Ecology and Evolution

Bio/Env 2109, 4 credits, Fall 2019

Instructor: Kerry Woods (kwoods@bennington.edu; 440-4465; office hours 2-4 Tues, 10-12 Wed)

Meeting times: 3:40-5:30 Mon, Thurs (Dickinson 148);  2:10-6:50 pm Wed (LAB, Dickinson 146)


    The biological world is overwhelmingly diverse; we've named around 2 million species, but there are certainly many times that; a recent study estimates 2 billion!  The fundamental questions of ecology and evolution focus on understanding this diversity.  How does it originate?  What regulates diversity?  What permits to coexist (or prevents coexistence)? What determines the ranges of particular kinds of organisms?  And what does 'kinds' mean in this context, anyway?   

    This class is really about two things. First, it's about the principles and approaches of the sciences of ecology and evolution; you will learn to think and ask questions like an ecologist. Second, it's about a disciplined understanding of place in terms of the natural history of a landscape; you will develop the habits of a field naturalist. We'll address both agendas by immersing ourselves in a study of our (mostly) forested local landscape.  The skills, tools, and concepts will transfer easily to other systems.

    Doing science is not a passive thing or a simple mastery of a body of 'facts'; the essential skill in any science, and the first focus of this class, is formulation and address of questions and hypotheses from your own observations.  Expect to do a lot of disciplined, independent observational work, self-guided background research and reading.  However, the most effective questions and hypotheses have to be embedded in the large, dynamic body of understanding already in place, so you'll also be doing a lot of reading and discussion of what scientists have already done.  Along the way, you'll learn a lot of the practical tools of research in ecology and evolution.

    Ecology and evolution are intimately linked disciplines; you can't grapple with ecological questions without evolutionary insight or understand evolution outside its ecological setting. Ecology is a contextual approach to biology; it is the study of organisms in interaction with one another and with the natural environment, and it deals with questions about the distribution, abundance, and diversity of organisms. Evolutionary biology concerns the processes that shape organisms and generate diversity; it is the intellectual discipline which unifies biology. 

Prerequisites: This class is open to all students; there are no formal prerequisites. However,  we will be working with quantitative theories and tools; if you are comfortable with high school algebra, that should not be a problem; if not, you shouldn’t give up, but should talk with me before undertaking the class. You may also wish to refer, occasionally, to a general biology text or pertinent web sources  for basic background (particularly in genetics and cell structure and function) if you find yourself unacquainted with general terminology and concepts.

Class Meetings and attendance: We have three meeting periods: Monday and Thursday 3:40-5:30 for 'regular' class, and Wednesday 2:10-6:00 for lab. All are required.  Wednesday afternoons will often involve field-work; unless I've specifically told you otherwise, anticipate that we may go outside and come dressed appropriately for the out-of-doors and the weather. ALWAYS bring a lab notebook that can be conveniently used in the field (Note that pens aren't very useful if it's damp; bring a pencil).  Some lab-period field-trips will be off campus. 
    TIMELY ATTENDANCE IN CLASS AND LAB IS NECESSARY unless you have a very good excuse (primarily illness).  Absence and lateness disrupt the class, and can affect your evaluation; FREQUENT ABSENCES MAY LEAD TO FAILURE. When we are working in the field we cannot wait for people who are late; BE THERE BEFORE the designated starting time. If you MUST miss a class or lab, let me know in advance if at all possible.  If you miss a class it is your responsibility to make sure you are 'caught up'; talk to a classmate to find out what you missed, then bring me any questions. I do not generally assign 'make-up' work.

Books and Materials: I have not required a standard textbook for this class; they can be unduly expensive.  However, there are a number of good introductory/general texts; ask me if you'd like to acquire one.  There is no general textbook for this class, but you should acquire (or have access to):

    1. Some field guide for (north)eastern trees.  The book originally assigned is out of print, but I've emailed you about several alternatives.  There is also the browser-based identification app from gobotany.newenglandwild.org. You can’t understand the forest without knowing some trees.  I strongly recommend that, whatever identification guide you use should have 'identification keys' (i.e., not just a bunch of pictures to flip through). EVERYBODY SHOULD HAVE THIS RESOURCE ON HAND. (You might also wish to get a good field-guide for plants other than trees. There are many, but I recommend Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.)
Brian and Deborah Charlesworth, Evolution: A Very Short Introduction.  A very nicely done, compact (and inexpensive) resource to supplement reserve texts. Note that this wasn't in original list for course, but you won't need it for a couple of weeks.

 I will put some of the following texts on reserve.  However, if you think you'd like a general textbook for future reference, you can order one of the following directly. I recommend the Begon et al., but all are quite good. (There are also more advanced/encyclopedic texts; if you're interested check with me.) .  You don't necessarily need the most recent edition; going one edition back won't make much difference, but will be cheaper!

1. Begon, Howarth, and Townsend. Essentials of Ecology, Wiley-Blackwell
2. Ricklefs and Relyea, The Economy of nature,  Freeman.
3. Molles. Ecology: Concepts and Applications, McGraw-Hill.

There will be other class readings; these will be made available on-line through the Readings link at the top of this page.

You will also need a FIELD NOTEBOOK -- something you can carry easily and write in in the field.  The bookstore usually has some  'Rite-in-the-Rain' brand notebooks -- these are water-proof notebooks that real field-geeks like -- or you can order them on-line.

Structure and Readings: We will focus on processes, concepts, and the development of ideas and questions over  descriptive detail; the work of science is not memorizing encyclopedias, but devising ways to answer your own questions and challenge your preconceptions. Some readings will be 'background' and not specifically discussed in class (unless you bring questions), but most will be specifically for focused discussion and analysis in class.  I'll try to make clear which is which. READ ASSIGNED MATERIAL BEFORE CLASS, AND BRING QUESTIONS. I will expect each of you to have questions or comments, if called on, for all assigned readings. 

Assignments:  There will be several types of written assignments, and I'll give you more information on all of these as we go along. They will include:

    1) Frequent thought/analysis problems: These will be take-home, and oriented towards the application of scientific concepts and methods to open-ended problems -- BUT, you'll have to understand and use terminology and concepts to do well with them..
    2) Some labs will involve write-ups of results. Some may take the form of formal written reports, others will be more like problem sets.
    3) Research/management Proposal: Your major assignment, developed over the whole term, will be a research proposal or a targeted management plan. You will develop your own research question, springing from your own observations, over a series of stages. The project will also involve literature review and several written products. More on this later.

Evaluation:  Your final evaluation will be based on my assessment of written work and on your general participation and engagement in class and lab.  For those requesting letter grades, three components of the class will have approximately equal weight in calculation of final grades: the research proposal (including all stages of its development); all other written work (problems, essays, lab write-ups); and general participation in class, lab, and field.  I will weigh later work more heavily than earlier work IF your work shows significant improvement over the course of the term.

Writing is important: evaluation will take quality and clarity of written presentation into account.

Academic Honesty/Plagiarism: The legitimacy of all scholarly work hinges on honesty of the scholar.  This means, among other things: 1) Honesty about  sources of ideas and information, with appropriate acknowledgement and citation; 2) Doing your own work as called for (I will try to be clear what sorts of collaboration and cooperation are okay) and always acknowedging collaborative work.  'Plagiarism' is not just unacknowledged use of other people's words. We will talk more about these standards in class, but legitmacy of scholarship generally, and science in particular are completely dependent on their observance.  Failure to observe them appropriately can have significant impact on your evaluation.

TENTATIVE Class Outline: This is not a class-by-class schedule so much as a topical sequence with an approximate time-frame.  It will probably change, and I'll try to let you know when it does.  You should try to stay abreast of where we are in the list.  Review my posted notes (based on class slide-shows) to help stay on track.   
    Appropriate chapters for background reading in the Begon et al. text on reserve are indicated with a “B” (sometimes a chapter is listed in two places). You can probably figure out which chapters would make most sense in other texts, but feel free to ask.  We won't  "follow" a text in class -- it is your job to bring up questions about any material you read in these or other sources.
    OTHER SPECIFICALLY ASSIGNED READINGS will be indicated on the website (see link above) for specific dates. These should be read in advance.

I. Introduction:  The complexity of ecological systems; the nature of fact, hypothesis, proof (Week 1)  (B1-2)

II. Community perspective, part I: the problem of diversity: why are there so many kinds of organisms (and why not more)? Island biogeography (Week 2-3) (B9-10)

III. Population perspective: population dynamics, competition, and niche. (Weeks 4) (B3,5,6,9)

IV. Evolutionary perspective, part I: natural selection and adaptation; the generation of diversity  (Week 5-6) (B2,8)

V.  Ecosystem perspective: forests as carbon -- flows of materials and energy, limits, and regulation (Week 7)  (B11)

VI. Community perspective, part II: Disturbance, succession, spatial patterns, and regulation of diversity in ecological time and space (Weeks 8-9) (B9,10 (again))

VII. Community perspective, part III: Deep time and ecological patterns: agriculture, glaciers, and paleoecology (Week 10)

VIII. Evolutionary perspective, part II:  Deep time and macro-evolutionary dynamics: speciation and extinction (diversity again) (Week 11)

IX. Synthetic perspective: biodiversity in the Anthropocene: Ecological consequences of a human-dominated landscape (and whether they matter) (Weeks 12-13) (B12-14)

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.  REMINDER: for one or two  off-campus labs ('Field-trips') we'll plan on leaving during 'class' period so as to have longer time in the field.

Week 1    FIELD TRIP Patterns in species diversity, and some natural history   

Week 2         Finding Questions: Research Proposal, Stage 1

Week 3         Field trip: community sampling and land-use history

Week 4         Field trip: habitat to be determined

Week 5         Carbon budgets

Week 6          Field trip

Week 7         and beyond:  To be added, but will include data-analysis, work with computer simulations...

KW – August 2019