When Predators Vanish, so Does the Ecosystem: New York Times Article about the Bertness Lab’s work!

Here’s the paper we published:

Press release at Brown:

My drawing in the sidebar:

For the Sake of Science

Article published in the Brown Daily Herald:
Good pic for poster

Who owns the truth?

Is it morally reprehensible for scientists to advocate or even communicate their work?

At the crux of this issue is the concept of truth.  Truth should not be confused with fact: as filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “fact creates norms, and truth illumination.”  Scientists seek truth, but can only provide the world with facts.  We have to believe that over time the facts science produces get closer and closer to the truth, because otherwise science itself would be moot.  The truth is as tantalizing as the limit of a curve approaching an asymptote: it will never be completely reached.

At any given time, what society believes to be “the truth” is really just an assemblage of facts that may or may not be hitting the mark.  Given that the truth is rather like a nebulous cloud of thoughts built on centuries of human consensus, it is an awfully powerful thing.

So why should scientists have the power to dictate “truth” for society?  They don’t.  There is nothing so special about scientists that make their ideas or knowledge more truthful than others’.  However, they may be better equipped to convey the facts that science produce, given that they understand them better than the average person.  The definition of a scientific law is “a statement based on repeated experimental observations that describes some aspect of the world.”  At the time that it is made, no exception has been found to a law.  According to this definition, miracles cannot occur.  As a character in Christopher Paolini’s Eldest aptly states, “Many events have defied our ability to explain, but we are convinced that we failed because we are still woefully ignorant about the universe.”  That objectivity and truth are the scientific gold standards means scientists can communicate the most objective, truest truths to society.

Scientists advocating for certain actions or causes can be problematic when scientists’ opinions are 1) confused as facts or 2) elevated above others’.  However, these issues stem not from scientists themselves but from society’s perspective on scientists.  Scientists simply communicating their work can also be problematic because the emphasis the media places on different news items can give people a skewed version of what is considered valid or important in the scientific world.  When this happens, a few dissenting voices can sometimes even reduce the impact of a scientific consensus – as is the case with the public perception of a scientific “debate” on climate change, when in reality none exists.

To solve this, scientists, journalists, and the public must hold each other accountable.  The peer-reviewed system is designed so that scientists hold each other accountable every day and expect to be held accountable in turn.  Scientists should have the right to disseminate facts backed by repeated experimental evidence, and should feel obligated to do so, being better equipped for this task than most.  Ultimately, we must believe that as we collectively muddle our way on this journey towards truth, under the influence of the wisdom of the crowd, truth will out.

A new paper from the Bertness Lab!

The paper, “Herbivory drives the spread of salt marsh die-off” was published in PLoS One and documents the findings of work in our lab that I helped out with last summer.

Finding a Voice for Non-Human Persons

I wrote a guest post for Ursa Sapiens, the Triple Helix’s blog, about dolphins and other non-human persons! Check it out here:

Philodendron selloum leaf unfurling model




In Plant Physiological Ecology this semester, I worked on a group project studying plant development and growth.  We used a variety of methods including time-lapse photography with mini computers, still photography, dissections, and modeling.  This is one of the models I created:

Philodendron 2.1Philodendron 2.3Philodendron 2.2 Philodendron 2.4


The coolest discovery we made was that plant leaf shape is predetermined.  Across all the clades we studied, the leaf shape was recognizable as soon as the leaf began differentiating.  Within a bract were four leaves in the bud we dissected.  All were folded in the same way, and all had the same leaf shape.  This means that the plant must coordinate the highly complex task of growing a leaf while also maintaining its proportions and while tightly wrapped within the bract!  The physiological, biochemical, and physical complexity of accomplishing this feat is pretty awesome.  If we learn more about growing tissues tightly packed in small spaces, we can apply the biomechanics and physiology of such leaf growth to real-world issues including, say, growing artificial intestines within a body, organs which are so tightly packed that you’d never know they’re about 25 feet long!

Clearly evolution was angry at men the day blanket octopuses were created

Blanket Octopus 3We all know octopuses/octopi/octopodes are pretty fricking awesome.  But the blanket octopi of the genus Tremoctopus (right) take their awesomeness to a whole new level-at least, the females do.



Have you ever heard of the Portuguese Man o’ War (Physalia) (left)?  For those of you who haven’t, they’re these pretty blue siphonophores (colonies of little jelly-like invertebrates) that travel the ocean with a balloon that they inflate and use to “sail” around.  However, don’t let its harmless, rather beautiful looks deceive you.  The Man o’ War delivers the most excruciating jellyfish sting known to man, and can even kill a human.  The jellyfish uses this sting to paralyze or kill its prey.


But does this deter the blanket octopus?  No.  The female blanket octopus laughs in the face of danger.  Besides being rakishly outfitted with fancy cape-like flaps of skin that the octopus waves to distract its enemies, the female blanket octopus is also immune to the sting of the Portuguese Man o’ War.

So what does the female blanket octopus do with this unique talent?  It rips off the Man o’ War’s tentacles, and flails them around like a whip!



What about the male blanket octopus, you ask?  He’s the size of a walnut (right) and has no interesting qualities whatsoever.  Unfortunately for him, his emasculation doesn’t stop there-when it’s time to mate, the male blanket octopus fills its arm with sperm, tears his own appendage off, and gives it to the female.  Then, he dies.  Talk about getting the short end of the stick.

Artist Peter Cook grows trees into fantastic shapes- even a chair!

This guy is so cool!  He calls the art “Pooktre,” twisting and shaping trees into interesting forms as they grow.  He grows the trees into cool shapes as well as furniture (table, chair-see below)

garden_table_06 l

graden_chair_03 pook_in_chair_02 2