Eyes wide open

A few years ago, a couple of ecologists were on holiday in Ecuador and visited the Yasuní National Park. While they were absorbing the beauty of one of the most biologically-intense places on Earth, they saw an amazing sight – a thickset solitary bee delicately drinking tears from a river turtle’s eyes.

Confused? As it happens, most of the salt on Earth is concentrated in the ocean, so many terrestrial herbivores struggle to find enough nutrients to satisfy their cravings. This is why some herbivores frequent ‘salt-licks’ and why you often see butterflies or moths hovering on faeces or carcasses.

Tear-feeding behaviour is a way for some specialised insects to include sodium in their diet. It sounds like a pretty perilous way to get your daily minerals, but tear-feeders usually do so on sleeping or placid animals that will be slow to react. Although this behaviour has been known from other insect-animal interactions, this story is the first documented occurrence of a bee drinking tears from a turtle’s eye. How sensational is that?!

You can read the story in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (or read the write-up in Conservation magazine if you don’t have access to the journal).

The authors, Dangles & Casas, published their story to highlight the importance of ‘observing’ in Ecology (and indeed, for many other fields of Discovery). They write: “The rapidly vanishing role of natural history observations in modern ecological research has been a constant subject of concern among scientists…While ecologists make ever-greater advances in modeling [sic], in-the-field observation of species continues to be neglected.”

This fact is a true calamity, especially since the science of Ecology has its foundation firmly embedded in the observational field of Natural History. Over time, the corporatisation of Science has pushed ‘predictive’ modelling and convoluted statistics to the forefront of Ecology, while true observational or mensurative studies are often considered not ‘robust’ enough for a global audience. Many ‘top’ journals will reject observational studies upon submission, without even considering them for review. Imagine all the exciting discoveries they’re missing out on sharing!

Predictions and assumptions are extremely useful, and even absolutely necessary, for some research, yet they must always be based on (and linked to) a reality – and this reality can only be gained by observation and comprehension of the real natural world. As Dangles & Casas write: “Quantification, if not modeling [sic], is a tool we often like to use, but generally at a later stage in our scientific method, not as a starting point.” I wonder, as predictions progress further from observations, do they have a greater risk of becoming misleading, obfuscating or even false?

Since humans became humans we have realised the importance of awareness of the greater surrounds in some form or another. Despite all the spiritual and secular interpretations, re-interpretations and correlations of this concept over time, the basic gist of ‘awareness’ is a focus on the Surroundings, rather than the Self – looking, observing, taking notice, being aware, understanding what is going on around us and how we fit into that goings-on (which, incidentally, is the crux of Ecology). Real progression of understanding of any system cannot occur in isolation from the system and its surroundings – Comprehension pivots on Observation and Awareness.

Thankfully, there are so many talented ecologists (and other scientists) who understand this. At the ‘grass roots’ level, the value of observing is firmly entrenched in many people’s code of research, and this belief has driven some of the most amazing discoveries of modern science.

May Ecology keep its eyes wide open and be always guided by its Naturalist DNA.

It’s not just animal tears that bees cheat on flowers with – I found this lot feasting on a fig in my backyard.

© Manu Saunders 2012

More for the  galvanised reader: Academia’s obsession with quantity,  Academia beyond quantity

8 thoughts on “Eyes wide open

  1. Mike Bode April 8, 2013 / 10:32 PM

    I have a lot of time for the sort of experiential, natural history ecology that you refer to here and in your other posts. However, I think that ecology is only science when it makes testable hypotheses — predictions — on the basis of explicit theory. The only way to construct testable predictions is via models, and the best way to do so is using quantitative models.

    Ecology of the form you sometimes discuss – the ecology of observation, and anecdote, and awareness – is it “science” in the sense of a scientific journal? How would we peer-review observations? While I acknowledge the value of this approach, I wonder about its place in the scientific literature.


  2. manuelinor April 9, 2013 / 8:06 AM

    Thanks Mike, I agree that science needs to involve testable hypotheses. But I think the two methods go hand in hand, and I fear we may disagree here on how to approach science. 🙂

    There seems to be a distinct lack of respect for naturalist/observationist/mensurative science, whatever you want to call it, in modern ecology. Most of the ecological literature today can be broken down into a handful of ‘subject areas’ – it seems that our aversion to giving observational studies credence, has created a literature that just keeps pumping out the same old theories and analyses tested in different ways, because no one is confident enough to publish an observational or ‘naturalist’ study from a new system – and I am referring to the big journals here, there are lots of great (many unheard of) naturalist journals that have a wealth of information in them!

    Yes, we need more observational studies in the literature to inspire future scientists! The scientific journals of old usually published naturalist works (Darwin, Wallace etc.) – that’s how we have the knowledge we do now! Ideas for testable hypotheses and experimental sampling rarely comes out of the blue – I believe you can only come up with those ideas after the observational sampling.


  3. Michael Bode April 9, 2013 / 3:27 PM

    Popper had trouble with just the issue you mention. If you think of science as falsificationist, then hypotheses can be either proven false, or not proven false (yet). Then science becomes a walk down a binary tree-road, with every branch of the path being another scientific study. But nothing in Popper’s approach talked about how these hypotheses are generated, and maybe that’s because the generation of theories (as opposed to their testing) is not scientific (its still vital, though).

    So observational studies should still occur, I agree. But you’re wrong when you can say that there’s no longer room for such articles. In 1841, Charles Darwin was published in the Journal of Natural History, talking about a beetle he had found floating out of sight of land, in the Straits of Magellan. Classic observation. That journal still exists, and it just published a paper about the strange characteristics of vampire flying frog tadpoles (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00222933.2012.732622). More classic observation (paraphrased Methods: “We used formalin and a microscope”). If you read through the last few issues, there are plenty of observational studies in there.

    Maybe you’re saying is that there isn’t room in the best journals for observational studies. That’s not true either — they just have to be framed a little differently. Think about Connell’s Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis. After spending years observing the rainforests of northern Australia, Connell believed that he could see a particular relationship between disturbance rates and species richness. That was a pretty cool, and new, observation. I think that, had Connell written just about this observation, he could have published a paper in 1978. I think you could still publish that observation and theory now (if Connell hadn’t already). However, we know that humans have trouble recognising patterns in complex systems (i.e., they often see regularity where none exists). So Connell went and counted the two things he was claiming were related, and showed the results. He even showed that his pattern could be observed in coral reefs, as well as rainforests. That’s what made his paper good enough to get into Science. It was observation, paired with analysis. In the words of Richard Feynmann, it was imagination in a reality straightjacket.

    There are so many ecologists working and publishing these days. With so much competition, observation is necessary, but not sufficient for a good publication. If you’re writing an observational paper, you’re competing with people who are writing papers that drag their own observations over the coals of rigorous statistical analysis, or with papers who subject previous unexplained observations to critical theoretical or empirical assessment. If it makes you feel any better, there’s no room in the best journals for pure mathematical ecology either. If I propose a new model of predator-prey interactions, and show that it has some cool dynamics, then I could probably publish a note in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. But if I want to get into Oikos, or American Naturalist, I’ve got to go out an get some data, to see if the interesting model is even remotely realistic.


  4. manuelinor April 9, 2013 / 3:59 PM

    Thanks for the great reply – I apologise for not making myself clearer in my earlier comment. I completely agree with your statements about observational studies – I was trying (not successfully) to make the same point…that all those great observational studies DO exist and do get published somewhere, but they are harder to access (both for authors and readers). Many of the ‘naturalist’ type journals aren’t subscribed to by uni libraries, because they’re not considered an ‘impact’ journal or aren’t part of a publishing house package (that’s a whole other issue there!). So while some of us lucky ones do manage to get access to these treasures of knowledge, there’s a whole lot of people out there who can’t.

    Also, I am referring more to an attitude amongst the discipline, rather than a fact of life. I’m sure it’s not the same everywhere in the world, or at every institution, but I have come across a lot of people in the industry throughout my short career, from professors down to undergrads, who don’t think observational science is ‘very good science’….I was merely observing (hah!) that this is a sad state of affairs, and we should not forget the benefit and intellectual power of observational studies – just as is, on their own, with no statistical or mathematical embellishment. In fact, I’m starting to see parallels in the math-ecol debate that brought us here 🙂 There is no one RIGHT way, they both work and are equally important, but often people forget to discuss the importance of observation because they’re too busy focusing on the importance of falsification/hypothesis testing.

    As you say, observational studies are necessary, but not sufficient for a publication. Why is that? Who has decided that this is the case? Why do we still teach about observational science, and all the facets of the scientific method, if it will not get them anywhere?

    Sorry for getting philosophical! I’m not expecting you to have the answers 🙂 I’ve just often wondered why this seems to be the ‘general consensus’ today, when a hundred odd years ago, observational studies WERE considered sufficient for publication.


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