Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

 Biological Diversity: Ecology and Evolution

Ecological Theory and Research

Biogeography and Paleoecology


Geographic Information Systems and Remoting Sensing

 Field Biology

Natural History of Plants

 Environmental Themes

Population, Food, and Farms

Global Change

Environment and Human History

Local Landscape

What I Teach

 I teach courses and tutorials in several, linked areas of biology and environmental studies. Approaches vary according to the nature of the work we are studying and doing. Science classes, whether for beginning or advanced students, always involve: direct study of the primary research literature and the work of researchers in the field; design (and often execution) of original research; and, of course, lots of direct contact with the organisms and systems being studied -- lots of time in the field. Classes with environmental themes emphasize critical and integrative analysis of the work and writings of people from many perspectives and individual assessment and address of real problems and scenarios

The list that follows is not an exhaustive list of course possibilities; new classes and croup tutorials happen each year in response to student initiatives and my own evolving interests.

Classes in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Biological Diversity: Ecology and Evolution:This class will be organized around the attempt to understand biodiversity. 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.

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 in examining, for example, biogeography of islands, problems in conservation biology, and life histories of plants and animals. We will also apply concepts developed to environmental problems and conservation and to the study of human nature. 

Our objective is development of facility in development and pursuit of ecological and evolutionary questions through application of basic principles and by rigorous scientific method. We will also emphasize gaining of familiarity with organisms and natural systems and ways of looking at them.
Syllabus,  (return to top

Evolution:An advanced course. Darwin didn't invent the idea of evolution, but his insight into mechanisms constitutes one of the major revolutions in science, and the methods he used in pursuing his ideas made him, arguably, the first "modern" scientist. Evolutionary theory offers a powerful conceptual unity for biology. The modern body of theory that derives from Darwin's original concept offers explanatory insight and informs current research in every area of life science, from paleontology, to molecular biology, to physiology and anatomy, to plant and animal behavior, to human origins and nature. 

This course will establish a deep grounding in selective theory (including some exploration of population genetics and concepts of fitness) and explore a variety of particular questions. Our focus will be on the process of evolution more than its history. Particular topics will include: evolution of life histories and reproductive behaviors (including mating systems), evolutionarily stable strategies (including applications of game theory); competing theories of sexual selection; the implications of different "levels" of selection and inclusive fitness ("gene-level" selection on the one hand, "group selection" on the other); coevolution in mutualistic and predator-prey (parasite-host) systems; evolution of social behavior; and the (multiple) origin and loss of sex. Throughout the class, we will focus on current research problems along with theoretical background, and explore how evolutionary hypotheses and questions can be addressed by the techniques of scientific inquiry. 

The class will require extensive reading in primary and secondary literature, and students will be expected to write several papers and develop synthetic responses to theoretical and applied problems. It is appropriate for any student with interest and prior work in biology; some familiarity with basic concepts of genetics, general principles of physiological function, etc. will be assumed.
Syllabusand Linksreturn to top

Ecological Theory and Research: Whole organisms in context. Ecologists attempt to understand the distribution of organisms, their abundance and diversity, in time and space. This entails the study of adaptation in the context of phsyical environment, the potentialities and regulation of reproduction and dispersal, the modes and consequences of interactions among organisms of different kinds, and the behavior of whole systems (communities and ecosystems) in space and time. We will range widely in our exploration of ecological theory and application, but will attempt to develop some detailed focus on a few particular and current problems For example: 

- What regulates biological diversity? Why are some systems (tropical reefs, some deserts, some rainforests) so much more diverse than others?

- Are populations of herbivores more generally limited by availability of food or by predation? What about the predators themselves? Plants?

- Can the interactions among populations of competing organisms be modeled and predicted? If so, can dynamics of whole communities of organisms be understood and predicted?

- What are the likely responses of landscape pattern and biological diversity of human-induced and natural changes in climate and other large-scale environmental factors?

In parallel, we will explore the intellectual approaches and research techniques by which such questions can be addressed. Ecologists, among biological scientists, confront unique difficulties in research; ecological systems are extremely complex, often unique (unreplicable) or unamenable to experimental control and manipulation. Advances in understanding have been based on clever and innovative intellectual approaches as well as experimental and observational techniques and tools. Students will work with a variety of research tools -- observational techniques for habitat study, field measurement equipment, computer models of populations and landscapes (including Geographic Information Systems), and statistical tools for data analysis -- in group projects and in individual research projects. Syllabus and Linksreturn to top

Biogeography and Paleoecology: Biogeography and paleobiology look at ecology and evolutionary biology in broad spatial and temporal perspective. We attempt to answer questions about the ranges and distributions of organisms, about spatial patterns in diversity and other ecosystem characteristics, about response of biological systems in the face of grand climatic and geological change, and about the great trends and patterns in evolutionary development of biological diversity. In addressing such questions we must touch upon studies of climatology (for example, the causes and effects of episodes of glaciation and greenhouse warming) and geology (particularly plate tectonics). Some of the questions we may address: What accounts for the geological pattern of repeated mass extinction (dinosaurs and others) followed by adaptive radiation? How are global biological patterns influenced by the history of continental drift, and how do these patterns inform about evolutionary relationships? What makes islands biologically special? Why is Australia's biota so distinctive? How are broadly disjunct, but closely related organisms to be understood (ostriches and emus, llamas and camels, etc.)? Why are the tropics so diverse? How are sea floors like islands? Can we make generalizations about rarity and geographically restricted range in plants and animals? How have continental glaciations affected the biota of North America and Eurasia? These are not problems of only theoretical interest. Conservation policy and management are based on applied biogeography (what is the best preserve design for effecting the best, long-term maintenance of biodiversity?). In the course of addressing such problems we will find ourselves acting as both theorists and explorers -- exploring the potential for rigorous, hypothesis-testing address of biogeographical questions, while becoming acquainted with the history and richness of biological pattern and diversity in the world. Syllabus and Links return to top

Tutorials in Landscape Ecology and Geographical Information Systems: Links

Classes in Botany and Plant Science

Natural History of Plants:Plants define the biological environment. All organisms depend on their capacity for photosynthesis. Their structure and chemistry have shaped animal (including human) evolution, and we depend on their products for food, medicine, structural materials, and many other things. Yet few people can name even the dominant plants in their environment, recognize the role of vegetation in providing living landscape, or are aware of the particulars (and vulnerabilities) of our dependence on plants. This course will encompass a general exploration of the structure, habits, and diversity of plants, with a strong emphasis on the study of plants in habitat. Themes will include: basic plant structure and function (anatomy, physiology, development); identification of plants in habitat (with an emphasis on the local flora) and an understanding of their evolutionary relationships (taxonomy and systematics); relationships between plant growth and habit and species distributions and abundance (ecology); the history and nature of human use of and dependence on plants (ethnobotany). The course will include extensive field work in diverse terrain and weather, and there will be at least one weekend field-trip. Syllabus and Links

Plant Taxonomy/Campus Flora Project

Advanced Projects in Botany

Classes in Environmental Studies

Population, Food, and Farms: Global population is expected to pass 10 billion within 35 years. 35 years ago, it was less than 3 billion. The 'Green Revolution' increased grain yields several-fold, but total yields are no longer increasing, and there is concern about genetic impoverishment and supply of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. Within 20 years, the food import requirements of China alone are likely to absorb all available exportable food, radically affecting the status of food importing and exporting nations. The average tomato in a U.S. supermarket travels over 2000 miles. U.S. farm population, which comprised more than 50 percent of the country 75 years ago, is now under 2 percent, while multinational corporations have become the largest block of agricultural land-holders. What are the primary factors determining human population growth? Can they be effectively managed? Should they be? Can any agricultural system be truly sustainable, or will soil degradation inevitably demand external inputs? Was Jefferson correct in arguing that democracy was most (only?) viable in a society of land-owning farmers? Can free-market economies and sustainable agricultures coexist? In this course we address problems growing from the interactions among human population, changing technologies, agricultural ecosystems, and cultural and economic changes and patterns. This calls for both application of principles from ecology and evolutionary biology and consideration of difficult socioeconomic and ethical problems. Syllabusreturn to top

Global Change: Science, Policy, and Security in an Uncertain World: More than at any other time in the history of human civilization, we are unable to project where we are heading by where we have been; we are, at a global scale, moving into uncharted territory. World-wide, eight of the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade, and the best estimates are that, within the next century the world will likely experience climates warmer than any since the evolution of humans on the planet. Humans now pre-empt a third or more of all biological production on the planet, with the consequences of massively accellerated extinction (estimates range as high as a species every few minutes), wholesale rearrangement of nutrient and material cycling, and regional collapses in productivity of fisheries and agricultural systems. Our social and economic structures are embedded in these global systems, and are deeply dependent on a fossil fuel resource that is approximately half-way to depletion. These claims emerge from diverse fields of inquiry and are based on many forms of data and types of models. How confident can we be in making such predictions? How can you assess the accuracy of claims based on highly technical models and understanding? How can you weigh counter-claims? If the predictions are accurate, how will human social, economic, and political structures be affected? How should our decisions and actions, individually and corporately, be influenced by these predictions and their inherent uncertainties (the world has always been changing, so what's the big deal)? Syllabusreturn to top

Reading Landscapes: Understanding Spatial Patterns in the Natural and Designed Environment

Environment and Human History: Home, Readings, Links, Bibliography. In an age of overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, global warming, ozone depletion, and other omens of imminent environmental ruin, the natural and social sciences converge in the need to understand the historical origins of our current predicament in the interaction between culture and the physical environment. How has the evolution of human society and culture altered the natural environment? What impact has the natural environment had on the formation and history of human cultures? We will explore major historical episodes of profound interaction between culture and environment, as well as subtler episodes of interaction between social and ecological forces and their impact on human institutions. In parallel, we will track the historical evolution of European and American ideas about nature, from the enchanted world-views of the Middle Ages to the environmental movement of the present day. Have regional differences in discovery and adoption of particular technologies (agriculture, metallurgy, wheeled vehicles, domestication of animals) been influenced by ecological and biogeographical setting? Have climate changes driven or triggered important phenomena in human history (decline of early southwestern pueblo cultures, European renaissance)? Did evolutionary relationships with pathogens influence geopolitical dynamics of the age of European colonialism? Were the dynamics of classical Mediterranean civilizations driven by soil degradation? We will read and analyze arguments for and against strong environmental influence on the course of human history, and students will be expected to develop critical responses in writing and in class discussion. Primary readings will be drawn from a variety of sources, including work by both historians (e.g., William Cronin, Alfred Crosby) and scientists (e.g. Jared Diamond, Emily Russell). return to top

Conservation Biology

Examples of Thesis Tutorials