Sunday, March 18, 2018

Don't be Ranunculus... Little known plant behaviours

Guest post by Agneta Szabo, MEnvSci Candidate in the Professional Masters of Environmental Science program at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

Through the scientific study of plant behaviour, we continue to discover new ways in which plants interact with their environment in animal-like ways. Words like “listening”, “foraging”, and “parenting” may seem odd to associate with plants, and yet plants show evidence of all of these behaviours. Here are some of the many ways in which plants behave.

As it turns out, plants are listening! A study by Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft published in 2014 describes their discovery that plants can detect their predators acoustically and ramp up their defenses as a response. Appel and Cocroft recorded the sound vibrations of caterpillars chewing on Mouse‑ear Cress leaves, and played these recorded vibrations to previously unaffected Mouse-ear Cress plants over several hours before allowing caterpillars to attack the plants. The researchers found that, compared to plants that were primed with recordings of silence, those who were primed with recordings of chewing produced much higher levels of the oils glucosinolate and anthocyanin, which are toxic to caterpillars. Furthermore, Appel and Cocroft found that the plants were able to distinguish the sound vibrations caused by chewing from recordings of wind or other insect noises.
In addition to listening for their predators, plants can also listen for water. In 2017, Monica Gagliano and her colleagues published a paper showing that the Garden Pea was able to locate water by sensing the vibrations generated by water moving inside pipes. Garden Pea seedlings were planted in pots shaped like an upside-down Y, and each arm of the pot was treated with different experimental conditions. When one arm was placed in a tray of water and the other was dry, plant roots grew towards the arm with water. Seems obvious enough. However, when one arm was placed above a tube with flowing water and the other was dry, the plant roots still grew towards the water, even though there was no moisture. When given a choice between a tray of water and the tube with flowing water, the Garden Pea seedlings chose the tray of water. This led Gagliano to hypothesize that plants may use sound vibrations to detect water at a distance, but that moisture gradients allow the plants to reach their target at close proximity.
Garden Pea water acoustics experimental set-up (Gagliano et al., 2017)

Plant roots forage for food in a similar way to animals. In his 2011 review, James Cahill explores plant root responses to varying nutrient cues in the soil. Cahill explains that plant roots are responsive to both spatial and temporal nutrient availability. For example, when a nutrient patch is placed in the soil at a distance from the plant, there is a substantial acceleration in root growth in the following days. This growth is directed precisely towards the nutrient patch, and as the root approaches its target, the rate of growth slows as the nutrient patch is consumed. Furthermore, plants develop greater root biomass in richer nutrient patches, and they allocate more root biomass to patches with increasing nutrient levels.

Other foraging plants include the parasitic Dodder vine. This plant has no roots and lives off a host plant. In 2006, Consuelo De Moraes and her team published a study demonstrating that the Dodder plant uses scent, or volatile chemical cues, to locate and select its host plant. De Moraes experimentally planted Dodder seedlings between a Tomato and Common Wheat plant, the Tomato being its preferred host. Using a time lapse camera, De Moraes captured the circling movement of the Dodder plant as it approached both host options repeatedly, before settling on the Tomato plant 90% of the time. Through further experimentation by giving the Dodder seedlings a choice between the condensed chemical odour of the Tomato plant and a live Tomato that has been covered to prevent giving off odour, it was determined that the Dodder uses the chemical signals to select its host. Without being able to “smell” the live Tomato plant, the Dodder chose to attach to the vile containing the condensed chemical odour. 
Dodder vine attaching to a Tomato plant

(PBS, 2014:


One of the most fascinating aspects of plant behaviour is parental care and kin recognition. Suzanne Simard’s work studying forests as a complex, interconnected organism has been featured on several popular media outlets including the TED Talk series and the Radiolab podcast. Through her research, Simard discovered that through a network of mycorrhizal fungi, adult trees were nurturing their young with a targeted exchange of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen, as well as defense signals and hormones. Through experimental plantings of Douglas Fir seedlings that were directly related to the adult trees and unrelated Douglas Fir seedlings, she found that the “mother trees” recognized and colonized their kin with larger networks of mycorrhizal fungi, and sent more carbon to these seedlings. Furthermore, there was a reduction in root competition with the related seedlings. When injured, the adult trees sent large amounts of carbon and defense signals to their young, which increased the seedlings’ stress resistance.
Tree mycorrhizal network schematic 
(Medium, 2017:

Similar recognition of kin was observed by Susan Dudley and Amanda File in a 2007 paper. In this study, Dudley and File planted related “sibling” Sea Rocket plants together in pots, as well as unrelated “stranger” Sea Rocket plants together in pots. After several weeks, the roots were cleaned and assessed. The study found that kin groups allocated less biomass to their fine roots, while stranger groups grew larger roots in order to compete for resources. The same responses were not observed when kin and stranger groups were grown in isolated pots, which suggests that the mechanism for kin recognition was through root interactions.

Although we still don’t fully understand the mechanism by which plants process information, it is clear that the way plants interact with their environment is far more complicated than we previously thought. The concept of plants as inanimate organisms, blindly competing for resources is now outdated. Continued discoveries in plant behaviour demonstrate, once again, how little we understand about the natural environment—a humbling thought in an age when humankind thinks itself superior to our fellow species.

Appel, H.M. & Cocroft, R.B. (2014). Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by insect herbivore chewing. Oecologia, (2014)175: 1257–1266.
Cahill, J.F. & McNickle, G.G. (2011). The behavioral ecology of nutrient foraging by plants. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 2011(42): 289–311.
Dudley, S.A. & File, A.L. (2007). Kin recognition in an annual plant. Biology Letters (2007)3: 435–438.
Gagliano, M., Grimonprez, M., Depczynski, M. & Renton, M. (2017). Tuned in: plant roots use sound to locate water. Oecologia (2017)184: 151–160.
Runyon, J.B., Mescher, M.C. & De Moraes, C. (2006). Volatile chemical cues guide host location and host selection by parasitic plants. Science, 313(5795): 1964–1967.
Simard, S. (2016). Suzanne Simard: How trees talk to each other [Video file]. Retrieved from

Monday, March 12, 2018

Gained in translation: translational ecology for the Anthropocene

A recent evaluation of the state of science around the world run by 3M found that 86% of the 14,000 people surveyed believed that they knew 'little to nothing' about science. 1/3 of all respondents also said they were skeptical of science and 20% went farther, saying that they mistrust scientists and their claims.

Those attitudes wouldn't surprise anyone following US politics these days. But they're still troubling statistics for ecologists. Perhaps more than most scientific disciplines, ecologists feel that their work needs to be communicated, shared, and acted on. That's because modern ecology can't help but explicitly or implicitly include humans – we are keystone species and powerful ecosystem engineers. And in a time where the effects of global warming are more impactful than ever, and where habitat loss and degradation underlie an age of human-caused extinction, ecology is more relevant than ever.

The difficulties in converting primary ecological literature into applications are often construed as being caused (at least in part) by the poor communication abilities of professional scientists. Typically, there is a call for ecologists to provide better science education and improve their communication skills. But perhaps this is an 'eco-centric' viewpoint – one that defaults to the assumption that ecologists have all the knowledge and just need to communicate it better. A more holistic approach must recognize that the gap between science and policy can only be bridged by meaningful two-way communication between scientists and stakeholders, and this communication must be iterative and focused on relevance for end-users.

William H. Schlessinger first proposed this practice - called Translational Ecology (TE) - nearly 8 years ago. More recently an entire special issue in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment was devoted to the topic of translational ecology in 2017. [The introduction by F. Stuart Chapin is well worth a read, and I'm jealous of the brilliant use of Dickens in the epigraph: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”]

Although applied ecology also is focused on producing and applying ecological knowledge for human problems, translational ecology can be distinguished by its necessary involvement of the end user and policy. Enquist et al. (2017, TE special issue) note: "Ecologists who specialize in translational ecology (TE) seek to link ecological knowledge to decision making by integrating ecological science with the full complement of social dimensions that underlie today's complex environmental issues."
From Hallet et al. (2017, TE special issue)

The essential component of translational ecology is a reliance on people or groups known as boundary spanners, which are the key to (effectively) bridging the chasm between research and application. These people or organizations have particular expertise and skill sets to straddle the divide between "information producers and users". Boundary spanners are accountable to the science and the user, and generally enable communication between those two groups.

Boundary spanners likely have interdisciplinary backgrounds, and integrate knowledge and skills from ecology and biology, as well as disciplines such as anthropology, human geography, sociology, law, or politics. The key issue in that boundary spanners can overcome is the lack of trust between information users and producers. Translational ecology – through communication, translation, and mediation – is especially focused on developing relationships with stakeholders and boundary spanners are meant to be particularly skilled at this. 

For example, academics publish papers, and then the transmission of information to potential users is usually allowed to occur passively. At best, this can be slow and inefficient. At worst, potential end users lack access, time, and awareness of the work. Boundary spanners (including academics) can ensure this knowledge is accessibly by producing synthetic articles, policy briefs and white papers, by creating web-based decision-support tools, or by communicating directly with end users in other ways. A great example of existing boundary spanners are Coop extension offices hosted at US land grant universities. Coops are extensions of government offices (e.g. USDA) whose mission is to span the knowledge produced by research and to bring it to users through informal education and communication. 

For working academics, it may feel difficult to jump into translational ecology. There can be strong institutional or time constraints, and for those without tenure, fear that translational activities will interfere with other requirements. Institutions interested in working with ecologists also often face limitations of time and funding, and variable funding cycles can mean that boundary-spanning activities lack continuity.

But what's hopeful about the discussion of translational ecology in this issue is that it doesn't have an individualistic viewpoint: translational ecology requires teams and communities to be successful, and everyone can contribute. I think there is sometimes a very simplistic expectation that individual scientists can and must be exceptional generalists able to do excellent research, write and give talks for peers, teach and lecture, mentor, and also communicate effectively with the general public (in addition to taking care of administration, human resources, ordering and receiving, and laboratory management). We can all contribute, especially by training boundary spanners in our departments and labs. As F.S. Chapin says, "The key role of context in translational ecology also means that there are roles that fit the interests, passions, and skills of almost any ecologist, from theoreticians and disciplinarians to people more focused on spanning boundaries between disciplines or between theory and practice. We don't need to choose between translational ecology and other scientific approaches; we just need to provide space, respect, and rigorous training for those who decide to make translational ecology a component of their science.

From Enquist et al. (2017, TE special issue).

Special Issue: Translational ecology. Volume 15, Issue 10. December 2017. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Gender-Biased Scientist: Women in Science

Guest post by Maika Seki, MEnvSci Candidate in the Professional Masters of Environmental Science program at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

In November of 2017, Nature Ecology & Evolution published “100 articles every ecologist should read” by Courchamp and Bradshaw, sparking a social media outrage. Rightfully so, because the list of first authors only included two women. There remains a pervasive perception that women lack the skills to practice science, and that there simply are not enough women in the field for them to have made a significant contribution, referring to the male-dominated history of the sciences. Many of us have come across studies highlighting gender bias in science education - which people have attempted to use to explain gender gaps in STEM fields. However in 2011, neuroscientist Melissa Hines found no significant difference between the mathematical, spatial, and verbal skills of boys and girls. But of course that finding did not receive much attention. In light of the emerging discourse of vital inclusivity in science, now is the time to confront our own social biases with the goal of achieving gender equity in the scientific community.

Instead of rehashing these outdated arguments, why don’t we talk about the barriers that women face in science? Why don’t we talk about the sexism in the publishing and peer-review process? In 2015, evolutionary geneticist Fiona Ingleby submitted a research paper to PLOS ONE, where the peer-reviewer suggested that she work with male biologists in order to strengthen the study, stating, “It would probably … be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors).” The under-recognition of women scientists has been so rampant in the fabric of science that it has been coined the Matilda effect; named after the first women scientist to comment on the phenomenon, Matilda Jocelyn Gage.
Why don’t we talk about the barriers women face in accessing employment in science, even while possessing the same qualifications as their male counterparts? At Yale University, a study was conducted wherein over 100 scientists assessed a resume for a job posting. The only difference between the resumes were the names; half of them were given recognizably male names, and the other half recognizably female names. The resumes submitted under the female names were deemed significantly less competent and employable, and were offered lower salaries. Clearly there is work to be done.

And then there was Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate who made outright sexist comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists stating, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.Twitter responded with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy, where women scientists shared unglamorous photos of them doing their research work. Hunt subsequently resigned from his honorary post at the University College-London. We may think that this is an exceptional and isolated event, but studies show that we are not immune to these kinds of social forces of gender discrimination, even if we like to think so — especially as scientists. These seemingly minor micro-aggressions translate to devastating and tangible effects, such as the gender pay gap. 

Photo by @STEPHEVZ43 on Twitter, as a response to Tim Hunt’s sexist comments.

Within scientific fields, we like to pride ourselves in being as close to bias-free as possible with our empirical, quantitative, and reproducible data. But scientists are people, and as such, we must confront the cultural and social influences that may permeate our objectivity. As scientists, we do not like to admit to this. But if we are going to arrive as close to the truth as possible, we need to capitalize on the emerging discourse of gender issues in science.
As of 2015, Canadian women represented only 22% of the STEM workforce. Not only are women under-represented in the workforce despite 62% of undergraduate students being women, but they are under-compensated. According to Statistics Canada, the wage gap persists across all fields, with the women median income of a bachelor’s degree being $68,342, and $82,083 for men. This is not a “third world” problem. This is a global issue. It is indisputable that there are systemic barriers that women face when pursuing careers in science. So why can’t scientists consider the confounding social factors at play that create these patterns? In science when somebody denies a phenomenon after many analyses point to the same mechanism, we would likely consider that as being irrational. With this in mind, is the denial of gender bias in science not irrational? By acknowledging these biases and promoting change, we take aim at the lack of objectivity in the discipline of science. It should also be encouraged to confront the sexism, racism, and all other intersectionalities of power imbalance within the science community. Some may argue that there is no place for politics in science, but we must face the reality that the two can not be separated. Addressing the sexism would bring us better, more balanced science. 

Statistics Canada graph on the Canadian men and women in STEM fields.

How can we aspire towards a world of innovation and ground-breaking research when roughly half of the population is held back? And how can we address it? To start, we need to hold institutions more accountable. It is disheartening to know that had people not reacted to the all-male panels, it would not be seen as a problem. Furthermore, it is not enough to tweet about it. It’s a start, but not nearly enough — because how many of these types of stories repeat themselves in the media? We need it to be written in the mandates of institutions, and this is not enough. We need it to be enforced. We also need women to be more involved and hold power in these decision-making panels; it is not enough to throw in a token white woman and call it a day. It is not enough for women to be given a seat on the board as a corporate marketing tool under the guise of inclusivity. They must also be afforded the same power that men have. We need to hold each other more accountable. We need to confront our own prejudices, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. If not for women, then do it for practical and selfish reasons; do it because there are studies that show that women have to be more productive than men to be deemed equally scientifically competent (feeling the pressure to prove themselves). And do it because it is better for the economy, and because diversity in the workplace increases productivity

Graph by The Star on the income of full-time men and women in Canada, who have a bachelor’s degree.

There is no good reason to continue to exclude women from the same influential roles that men have, and it is time that we each consider our own sexist views (whether sub-conscious or not). It is time to challenge the systemic biases in powerful institutions in order to let women claim their full potential as true peers to men; as colleagues, partners, scientists, and in all other walks of life. In order to increase scientific literacy, we can not afford to continue to exclude women from science, because science needs women. In the spirit of the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science day, which passed on February 11th, and International Women’s day today, let us commit to empowering women to reach political, social, and economic equality to men. And let us make changes in our own lives, begin conversations with those around us, and become more active in our communities to progress towards gender equity.