The world economy in a cube


In 1884, the English theologian and pedagogue Edwin A. Abbott wrote a romance called “Flatland”, in which he described a two dimensional world. The rigid and hierarchically organized society of Flatland develops in the large plane in which it lives, and flat authorities control that no flat citizen (the inhabitants are all flat geometric figures) escapes from the two-dimension reality. The book is a social satire as well as an exploration of the concept of multiple dimensions. Furthermore, it can also be viewed as a critic of narrow worldviews stubbornly based on old paradigms.  


The novel’s example can be used to argue that despite the proliferation of metrics, our decision making process tends to be guided by the quasi-imposed limited set of information tools – mainly economic – that we use every day. In other words, concepts like Earth System, Planetary boundaries or biophysical limits, environmental sustainability, social welfare and other important elements of our life on this planet are not satisfactorily incorporated in our knowledge horizon.

The current economic worldview is based on the idea that a free market works for the 100% of the population. Thus, economic growth (as measured by growth in GDP) is the political mantra: “the rising tide that lifts all boats”. A recent study published on Global Environmental Change (available here) gives a different point of view by including the environment and the society in the economic picture.

National economies are investigated in a 3-axis diagram (a cube), where each dimension is a different compartment. In this way, the relationships between environment, society and economy are represented in a single framework without losing the specific information. This framework recognizes a physical (and also thermodynamic, and logical) order, highlighting the dependence of the economy on societal organization and, primarily, on the environment.

From this three-dimensional perspective emerges that the economic activity is always strictly correlated with the use of natural resources, and that social well-being is often neglected. Over a total number of 99 national economies investigated within the cube, none of them is at the same time environmentally sustainable, economically rich (high GDP), and equal in the distribution of income.   

This means that growing GDP is beneficial for a limited fraction of the overall population, while the vast majority has to deal with increasing environmental problems and worsening ecological status. Moreover, decoupling economic growth and natural resources consumption, seeking the so-called dematerialization, is found very complicated. Continuous growth in GDP implies consequences especially for the poorest individuals and communities: “the rising tide is lifting the yachts and swamping the rowboats” (Dietz and O’Neill, 2013).

Politicians are looking at the world around as a mono-dimensional economic universe. This is due to the fact that economists play a relevant role within governments. We need ecologists and social scientists playing an equally relevant role, in order to finally show politics we live in a three-dimensional world.

Author: Luca Coscieme, @lucacoscieme


F.M. Pulselli, L. Coscieme, L. Neri, A. Regoli, P.C. Sutton, A. Lemmi, S. Bastianoni, “The world economy in a cube: A more rational structural representation of sustainability”; Global Environmental Change 35, 41-51, 2015 (doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.08.002) 

Dietz and D. O’Neill, “Enough is Enough”; London: Earthscan, 2013.



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Everything’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter: Benthic Ecology Meeting 2015


Conference attendance can really impact your development as a Ph.D. student and give you great ideas for future collaboration and research. In March, I was lucky enough to attend the 2015 Benthic Ecology Meeting (or Benthics) in Quebec City, Canada.  The Benthics meeting focuses on the ecology of the bottom layer of water systems, and this conference is mainly marine in focus. There were lots of great talks, one epic toboggan race, and nearly unlimited opportunities for networking and discussion. A quick overview of my three favourite talks is below. Check out what you missed and hope to see you in Maine next year!

1. “Measuring non-additive selection from multiple species interactions” by Dr. Casey terHorst. Dr. terHorst’s non-marine talk focused on a method for determining whether selection is occurring by examining traits present when multiple species interact. His talk highlighted the relative ease of using the analysis he developed, as well as the exciting outcomes of one particular study. If you have trait response data from a study with multiple species interactions, you may be able to utilize his analysis as well to see if non-additive selection is occurring. The analysis is detailed here and you can check out his website on ecology and evolution here.

2. “Is a warmer world a sicker world? Temperature effects on host-parasite dynamics” by Jennafer C. Malek. Jennafer’s presentation was easily my favorite of the parasitology-themed talks at this year’s conference. She utilized a very straightforward study design to examine whether oysters or their parasites would die off first at elevated temperature. The oysters are often exposed to the air at low tide, and at temperatures consistent with climate change predictions it seems that parasites die off before the oysters do. The dynamics of this relationship have interesting consequences and may provide a level of resilience for oysters in a changing world. Her study is a prime example of the use of a simple experimental design to answer big ecological questions.

3. “Potential larval connectivity of deep-sea methane seep invertebrates in the Intra-American Sea” by Doreen McVeigh. Sometimes a talk blows your mind and shifts your worldview and this was one of those talks. Based on modelling work on larval transport in the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, Doreen demonstrated that frequently assumed transport routes may not be the actual transport pathways many species travel. Her models were fascinating and potentially revolutionary, plus she explained them in a way that almost everyone could understand. You can check her out on twitter here.

A huge thanks to the Voss, O’Connor, Burkepile, URI, Fish lab, and UNC groups for making the conference such a blast and live-tweeting the sessions. You can check out the official twitter for some discussion on the conference and some fun photos below.

Author: Maureen Williams, william2[at]

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Ecology of religious beliefs


It is well known that your country of birth has a big influence on your religious outlook. That’s why Ireland is dominated by Christians whereas Iran has a mostly Muslim population. Your scientific outlook doesn’t escape from this either. For instance, it’s arguable that the idea of group selection is viewed much more favourably in the US than the UK. Turning back to religion, a group of authors have recently carried out a study on the ecology of religious belief. In their work they were able to predict the societies that believe in moralising high Gods by drawing on historical, social and ecological data.

As we’re in the beginning, we need a definition, so what exactly is a moralizing high God? These are “supernatural beings believed to have created or govern all reality, intervene in human affairs, and enforce or support human morality”. Supernatural belief has had a number of ecological correlates associated with it and this study points to environmental instability as one major driver. An environment with an unpredictable spatial or temporal distribution of resources lends itself to cultivating cooperation among the animals found within it. Among humans this results in a “reduction in cheating, increased fairness, and a tendency to cooperate”. And this is a fertile ground for the development of religious belief. One conclusion is that cultures in close proximity or those that share a common language exhibit similar religious beliefs.

However, the authors nuance this statement that this form of religion is being driven as a response to environmental harshness. In fact, they note that for societies living in a really harsh environment like the Inuits, variations tend to lead to more positive periods rather than negative ones and this seems to inversely correlate with the probability of believing in these type of gods.

One ironic point however (largely discussed in Jerry Coyne’s blog post), is that this paper is also influenced by the authors’ societal framework: a society traditionally believing in a god that they consider as moral and improving human lives. Taking that into account, some parts of the methodology heavily influence the results. The definition of morality by the authors and its benefits on humans as a species are highly depend on the societal framework where one is born. The “reduction in cheating, increased fairness, and a tendency to cooperate” is traditionally seen as a “good” thing for humanity in Abrahamic religions. Making it a universal or biological “right” behaviour is only the authors’ point of view (and probably one of their funding agencies).


Author: Adam Kane & Thomas Guillerme, @P1zPalu and @TGuillerme

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Tropical Field Course Kenya

IMG_1564We’ve just returned from our annual Tropical Ecology Field Course in Kenya with our final year undergraduates. Our trip took us on a journey through the rift valley to the theme of biodiversity, conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Here are some of the sights of the trip:

Visit to Lake Nakuru National Park where water levels have been on the rise creating these eerie tree graveyards!
A Grey Crowned Crane on the shores of Lake Baringo where we were camping.
A hike along the soda lake of Bogoria



Maribou stork looks on
Little fruit bats keeping a close eye on us!
An olive baboon and her baby eyeing us suspiciously!
The gorge at Hell’s Gate National Park, Naivasha- look out Simba!


Author: Deirdre McClean

Photo credits: Deirdre McClean and Ian Donohue

A tern-up for the books

Little Tern taking off from nest © Andrew Power and Peter Cutler
Little Tern taking off from nest © Andrew Power and Peter Cutler

The last two years have seen successive record breeding seasons for Little Terns (Sternula albifrons) on the Irish east coast, with over 350 pairs breeding in 2013 and over 400 pairs in 2014. These record years are the result of 30 years of dedicated efforts to rescue Little Terns as an Irish breeding species, after population collapses in the 1980s and 1990s. As part of the BirdWatch Ireland team involved in these two exceptional years, we reflect on the conservation success story which has led to this remarkable tern-around in fortunes.

The Little Tern is Ireland’s second rarest breeding seabird. They breed in three main colonies on the east coast, Kilcoole (Wicklow), Baltray (Louth) and Wexford Harbour, and 10-15 smaller colonies on islands off the west coast. Little Terns breed in Europe, migrating to the west coast of Africa each winter. They arrive in Ireland from late April and leave with their fledged chicks in mid-August. The fledglings spend their first year in Africa, returning to breed in their second year. During the breeding season Little Terns nest on shingle beaches, with their nest being little more than a scrape in the shingle. Their eggs rely on their perfect camouflage for protection. However, this makes them acutely vulnerable to human disturbance, as eggs are easily trampled by people and dogs. The increased use of beaches as a recreational resource from the middle of the 20th century onwards led to severe population losses and the abandonment of many traditional colony sites such as the North Bull Island, Co. Dublin.

In response to this population decline the first Irish Little Tern protection scheme was initiated at Kilcoole in 1985 by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Services. A section of the beach was fenced off from the public during the breeding season, with wardens on site to monitor breeding success and ward off potential predators. Coming from a low base of fewer than 20 breeding pairs in the mid-80s, numbers built slowly through the 1990s and Kilcoole was the only Irish Little Tern colony to maintain a breeding presence during this period. Good breeding seasons between 2003-2005 and 2008-2011 (50+ pairs, 100+ fledglings) paved the way for this year’s record success, with 120 pairs producing 219 fledglings.

The recovery of Little Terns was greatly aided by the initiation of a second wardening scheme at Baltray in 2007 by volunteers from the Louth Nature Trust, funded by the Heritage Council. BirdWatch Ireland joined the Baltray scheme as a partner in 2013. That year saw the Baltray colony more than doubling its previous success, with 102 pairs producing 193 fledglings. The 2014 season proved more difficult, with the colony suffering heavily from predation. However, the maintenance of a second wardened colony is hugely important, so that breeding success is no longer entirely dependent on a single site.

Little Tern chick © Susan Doyle.
Little Tern chick © Susan Doyle.

While wardened colonies such as those at Kilcoole and Baltray have succeeded in halting population decline in Little Terns in Britain and Ireland, their contraction in range has been much more severe [1]. Their vulnerability to disturbance has seen a shift towards fewer, larger colonies in the remaining areas where they are free from human disturbance, mostly in fenced off wardened areas or on offshore islands. This brings its own problems. Little Terns would naturally breed in smaller colonies, widely spread along shingle beaches. The more densely inhabited protected colonies are a beacon to predators, especially mammalian predators such as foxes, hedgehogs and mink, which can clean out a colony in a single night. Most wardened colonies have had to adopt elaborate fencing and 24-hour wardening to protect against heavy predation. While these fenced off areas are far from a natural environment, these wardening schemes have ensured the continued existence of the Little Tern as a breeding species, as well as having a positive knock on effect for breeding waders and other species which depend on the shingle beach habitat.

2014 was also a special year because we were lucky enough to be the first wardens to colour ring Little Terns in Ireland. Green darvic colour rings were used, with a unique three letter code in white writing, beginning with ‘I’. Between Kilcoole and Baltray 159 Little Tern chicks were colour ringed in Ireland this year. In addition to the Irish scheme Little Terns are being colour ringed with yellow colour rings engraved with black writing on the Isle of Man and at various other British sites. This will give us a much better understanding of the movements of Little Terns between colonies within the Irish Sea, their pre-migration staging posts and the routes they take through Europe on migration. It will also allow us to gain a greater insight into aspects of their biology such as pair fidelity, recruitment rate of fledglings into the breeding population, individual preference in nest location and adult longevity.

IAN the Little Tern chick © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power.
IAN the Little Tern chick © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power.

We have already started to reap the rewards as Kilcoole fledglings have been re-sighted at Hilbre Island in the Dee estuary, south Devon, Brittany and Lisbon. These first few sightings have already given us insight into how Little Terns move through Europe on migration. Hopefully these are the first of many sightings and we eagerly await summer 2016, when the first Little Terns colour ringed in Ireland should be returning to breed for the first time!

While 2013 and 2014 were unparalleled successes, Little Terns colonies are extremely vulnerable to predation and inclement weather. This was illustrated in 2012 when the east coast colonies experienced almost zero breeding success due to a series of storms. Therefore the continuation of current conservation measures are necessary for their survival. As well as its conservation value, the BirdWatch Ireland tern colonies have also proved an invaluable educational resource, providing a point of contact with the public. They have also provided inspiration, training and employment for many budding conservationists.

For more information about the Kilcoole project see the recent RTÉ news report on the project’s record year:

Or visit the project blog and see a recent documentary:

Darren O’Connell, Susan Doyle and Andrew Power

The 2013 Baltray and 2014 Kilcoole Little Tern Wardens

With a special thanks to Niall Keogh, Cole Macey, Jerry Wray, Tony Glass and Maurice Conaghy, our co-workers on many an early morning and late night, project manager Dr Stephan Newton and all the volunteers who make Baltray and Kilcoole tick.

Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I. and Fuller, R. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins, UK.

Sustainability Through Stability

image001I recently took part in a Tansley working group, an initiative that has a main working theme of advancing the ecological foundations of sustainability science. In this specific case we are seeking to construct a unified framework to help understand the multidimensional stability of ecosystems.

In an era of increased human activity, significant climate change and biodiversity loss, an understanding of the mechanisms and drivers of ecosystem stability has vast implications for both ecological theory and the management of natural resources.

One large challenge in the study of ecological stability comes from the complexity of ecosystems. The dynamics of an ecosystem depend not only on the network structure, the interactions among different species, but also on external perturbations that vary in context, intensity and frequency.

Another huge challenge is the multidimensional nature of ecological stability, with its many measures and definitions including resistance, resilience and temporal variation, all of which are themselves interrelated. Stuart Pimm, a member of the Tansley working group, reviewed four measures of stability in one of his early publications in Science (Pimm, 1984) and one blog from Jeremy Fox even summarized 20 different stability concepts!

Both theoretical and empirical ecologists have spent decades exploring the role of community structure, interaction strength and disturbance in determining the dynamics and stability of ecosystems. However, most of these studies only focused on a single aspect of ecological stability, underestimating the impacts and recoveries of populations and communities.

Failure to consider the multidimensionality of stability is magnified when the relationships among these stability elements are quite fragile. For example, one lake or reservoir may maintain its stability in total biomass following a disturbance by adjusting its nutrient load, but the community composition has changed dramatically. 

To create a unified concept of stability across theoretical, field-based and experimental research the confusion in using and defining these different elements of stability must be cleared up.

A typical confusion arises from the usage of the term resilience, which can be defined as the recovery time or speed following a disturbance to a pre-disturbed state; for instance the time taken for an area of scrubland to recover from a wild fire. The method used to calculate resilience in the local stability of theoretical communities is impossible to detect in the real world. So there is an urgent need to fill this gap by making a framework that suits both empirical scientists and theory development.

And that is one of the main challenges the Tansley working group seeks to face. We aim to construct a framework of ecological stability across major global ecosystems through a review of the most up to date measures of ecological stability (both empirical and theoretical) using specific case studies. This will help researchers adopt a more comprehensive approach to investigate stability and facilitate the comparison across different systems and scales in the future. We will also evaluate the feasibility in applying theoretical stability measurements to real ecosystems and abandon those which will are next to impossible to obtain from the real world.

To communicate the importance of the stability concept to a much broader audience, we will provide videos as well as vivid examples to illustrate the concepts of the different stability elements and how to measure them. We have an enthusiastic belief that the Tansley group will make a big contribution to the standardization of concepts and measurement of the multidimensional stability.

Author: Marvin Qiang,, @MarvinQiangYang

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Night Life! Friday 26th Sept

Night Life no writing

This Friday, members of EcoEvo@TCD, as well as others from the Botany and Zoology departments and Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research will present Night Life! in the Zoology building at Trinity College Dublin. The event is FREE to attend and we will be open from 6pm-10pm with the last entry at 9.30pm.

Night Life! is an opportunity to meet researchers and to find out the kinds of things we do. Prof. Yvonne Buckley will give you a taste of our research highlights, Kevin Healy will wow you with his research on snake venom (yes there will be snakes!), Sive Finlay will perplex you with the mysteries of tenrec evolution (if you don’t know what they are, come along and find out, they’re really cute!), Sean Kelly will explain how he discovers new bird species in Indonesia, Deirdre McClean will reveal the fascinating social lives of microbes, Thomas Guillerme will dazzle you with the lasers on his 3D scanner and the jaws of a shark, Claire Shea will amaze you by explaining why babies kick in the womb, Adam Kane will intrigue you with models of T.rex and maybe some vultures, and other students will be available to answer your burning questions about biology, evolution and ecology. So if you’re at a loose end on Friday night, come along and say hi!

Night Life! forms just one part of Discover Research Dublin, an annual event funded by the European Commission as part of European Researchers’ Night. The event is hosted by Trinity College Dublin, in partnership with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. As well as Night Life! the evening will feature over 50 fun, interactive and free events and activities which will give you direct contact with researchers and allow for discovery, questions and participation. The event aims to challenge perceptions about researchers and show the creativity and innovation that exists in research across all disciplines. Activities are grouped under four broad themes – Body Parts, Creativity in Research, Meet the Researchers and Living Thought/Thinking Life.
We encourage you to visit, explore, discover and enjoy!

Author: Natalie Cooper, @nhcooper123
Image: Kevin Healy, @healyke

We’re back!


It’s that time of year again, the quiet before the storm of Fresher’s week and the start of a new academic year.

After our short break, EcoEvo@TCD is back and raring to go. You can expect lots more posts about our research, seminar series, outreach activitiesconferences and fieldwork as well as tips and tricks for surviving in academia.

We’ve already kicked off the year with our second annual NERD club AGM. It was a great opportunity to discuss what we covered throughout the year and to make plans for the months ahead. (For the uninitiated, NERD club is our networks in ecology/evolution research discussion group but feel free to think of it in the true sense of the word too).

Here’s our NERD club prize winners for 2013/14

Best session: Paul for his talk on carnivory in plants

Best blog: Adam for “Flatland” and the “Heat and Light of Science Communication

Best pun (aka the McMahon and Kane memorial punning prize): Adam and Thomas for “Gould Mine”

Contributor of the year: Kevin

Best PI called Andrew: What is Andrew Jackson? (No-one knows!)

We’ve had some excellent sessions about transferable skills, how to navigate the perils of academia and great discussions and collaborations on current research projects. We’ve got lots more interesting topics planned for the year ahead which will definitely make an appearance on EcoEvo@TCD.

It’s also been a very successful year for our blog. We had a winner at the ABSW science writers awards and two semi-finalists in another international blog competition. We’re also on the short list for the best science and technology blog in the Irish blog awards.

So whether you’re packing away your fieldwork gear after another season, dreading the darker evenings or sharpening your pencils for another academic year, rest assured that you can look forward to some more ecology and evolution- related musings from the EcoEvo@TCD team.

Author: Sive Finlay, @SiveFinlay

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