Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Scientific American “Tiny Plants” article provides a primer on the inter-relationship between ecological and evolutionary change

Posted 07 Jan 2014 / 0

Scientific American "Tiny Plants That Once Ruled the Seas"

I am always on the lookout for great popular science articles to assign to my students. What makes a popular science article great? Well, to start with it should address concepts that are core to my classes (admittedly, this definition of “greatness” is highly relative to what I decide is important to teach). Concept density is also an important attribute: the more important ideas there are packed into a single narrative, the better. Conciseness and clarity are key, because my students have pretty limited time to dedicate to reading. And of course to be great the article needs to be engaging and interesting.

Ronald Martin and Antonietta Quigg’s article “Tiny Plants That Once Ruled the Seas” meets this definition of greatness. Published in the June 2013 issue of Scientific American, their work is just what I was looking for as I populate the reading list for a course that I have been newly assigned to teach: Ecology for Architects.

I have been teaching Pratt’s regular Ecology course for years now; it is the course that I have taught most, and I have spent a lot of time refining it and making it mine. Pratt is a very divisional school, and an important distinction amongst undergraduates is between students whose major is in the schools of Art or Design and students who whose major is in the school of Architecture. Architecture is its own little world at Pratt: it even has its own building safely separated from the rest of campus by a block of high-rises. The School of Architecture is also separated from the rest of campus by curricular walls: whereas Art and Design students choose to take my Ecology course from amongst a really diverse array of science and math classes, the architects are required to take Ecology for Architects. It is one of two courses that are block-scheduled for students of architecture, one in their first year (MSCI-110, Introduction to Physics & Chemistry), and this second course in their second year. For the first time I am faced with students who have to take one of  my courses, as it has been prescribed by the accreditors of their major.

As I have thought about how to adapt what I do in Ecology to the course that is specifically geared towards architects, a few priorities are emerging. The first is that I make the course content more referential to the discipline of architecture; this priority has already been strongly established by Aman Gill and Damon Chaky, both of whom have been teaching this course for years. Aman and Damon have a lot of great material on the impacts and sustainability of architecture assembled in their reading lists. The other related priority is to worry less about comprehensively covering all of ecological science in order to focus on ideas that are most relevant to the large-scale impacts that architecture — and land use in general — have on ecological systems. This means thinking carefully about what ecological and evolutionary concepts to emphasize.

Traditionally, I have included a week in my Ecology course on evolution. As would probably seem appropriate to most teachers of ecology and evolution, I have focused on the fundamentals of microevolution: variation, heritability, natural selection, and adaptation. For the architects, my instinct is to worry less about microevolution, focusing instead on macroevolutionary processes. It is far more important that the future designers of human infrastructure understand the large-scale evolutionary consequences of anthropogenic change than get caught up on the minutia of microevolution.

Here’s where the brilliance of this short Scientific American articles arrives fortuitously on my desktop. “Tiny Plants That Once Ruled the Seas” is all about the macroevolutionary changes that can be wrought by long-term ecological changes. The article encapsulates a really impressive array of concepts that are critical for my students to understand:

    • Changes in the abiotic environment such as water temperature or mineral availability can have a profound effect on the competitive balance between different types of organisms, leading to macroevolutionary changes.
    • Organisms do not simply evolve in isolation. Instead, they should be considered parts of larger ecological systems that evolve in response to both abiotic and biotic change.
    • When a group of organisms goes extinct, its absence leaves open a niche into which other groups of organisms can evolve. This leads to adaptive radiations.
    • Because the fundamental ecological relationships between producers and consumers does not change, increases in the productivity of producers can have dramatic impact on the evolutionary diversification of consumers.
    • Experiments can be used to demonstrate the feasibility of an evolutionary hypothesis, but not to prove that evolution occurred in a particular (hypothesized) manner.
    • Geology is a critical field for evolutionary biologists, who rely on the information that can be provided by “reading the earth’s history in rocks” in order to substantiate evolutionary theories that might be inspired by the fossils found in that same rock.
    • The rate of change that can be read from the rock record is dramatically slower than the rate of change that appears to be occurring today due to anthropogenic impacts.

Another feature of this article that is very valuable is its dominant graphic, which demonstrates the link between nutrient availability, sea level, phytoplankton diversity, and marine animal diversity. Teaching about geological time periods can be both boring and abstract, and this kind of graphic really creates a motivation for understanding the importance of these major time divisions.

I am excited to see if this reading is as effect in my Ecology for Architects course as I expect it to be.

A Major Post, Adaptation, Anthropogenic Change, Articles, Biodiversity Loss, Climate Change, Coevolution, Conservation Biology, Ecology, Experiments (General), Extinction, Habitat Destruction, Interactions, Macroevolution, Marine Ecosystems, MSCI-271, Ecology for Architects, Pollution, Resilience, Sustainability, Terrestrial

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