Category Archives: scientific work

Interviews, scientific articles

Serhat şehir Kars’ı özlemek

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Kars'a kuşbakışı bakmak

Kars dolaylarına kuşbakışı bakmak. Eylül, 2012

Buraya Eylül geldiğinde,

rüzgar acelesi var gibi estiğinde yani,

bitkilerin salınan gövdesi fısıldar,

ve duyar

ve görürsünüz

ormanı

huş, titrek kavak ve sarıçamıyla,

Ne güzeldir,

titrek kavağın yapraklarının ahenkli dansını izlemek

rüzgarın şiiriyle

Güneş batar

ve bozayı ailesi yuvasına döner

ve bir battaniye gibi

düşer

ıslak, nemli ve ayaz karanlık

Doğu Anadolu’nun

ormanına.

                                                                                                                                                     21 Temmuz 2014, Singapur

Aside
Amy (right) and I are at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

Amy (right) and I are at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

Amy Klegarth is an urban primatologist, whose focus is on long-tailed macaques. She is working on her PhD at Notre Dame University and carrying out her research in Evolutionary Biology Lab, at National University of Singapore. For detailed information on her research project, you can check her blog out, as well as her column in National Geographic Magazine. She has been to various countries in Southeast Asia for field work and oftentimes you can hear her telling stories about her crazy field work experiences. We did this interview in one of her fieldwork sites, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Singapore. Alright, you may already be impatient for watching the long-tailed macaque videos and finding an answer to the question ‘Why macaques?’, so shall we begin?

Bilgenur Baloglu- We are doing this interview for the monkey project. Can you tell us about yourself Amy?

Amy Klegarth- I am a 4th year PhD student at the University of Notre Dame and currently I am being hosted in Rudolf Meier’s Lab at National University of Singapore. I am here doing my Fulbright for the year. This is my 4th trip out to Singapore. Right above, probably hard to see, but there is an adult male monkey, named Spartacus.

– Does he have a collar on him?

Yes, he is wearing a very fancy piece of bling. It is about 3700 USD for a GPS collar for these animals, so he is a very expensive, fancy monkey right now. He is one of six monkeys wearing collars around Singapore at the moment.

– Why did you put collar on him?

We have been limited with the information regarding to home ranges of primates in general. Researchers are limited to radio telemetry, which requires a lot of manpower and time. Hence, you cannot collect hundreds or thousands of dense data points. So historically, a lot of primate home range work is using a fairly low number of points per day. We are finding as technology advances and GPS becomes more and more accessible to answer a lot of questions about energetic expenditure, home and daily ranges and territoriality that it is really important to have a pretty dense amount of data on this. GPS reduces the man hours, because the collar stores all the data internally, until we come to download it from the monkeys. He has been running around the forest since mid-December and I will get all of his locational points from the past two months, when I start downloading. We are also interested in helping wildlife managers with species management and conflict mitigation. Knowing how often they come into human settlement areas like the suburban build-ups, figuring out what times they go to these areas, how often it occurs, if there are certain attractants, for instance, perhaps there is a problem of poor trash requisition attracting the monkeys, patterns like these we can cover more with this dense GPS data. At the moment I am tracking six monkeys in six different troops.

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Female macaque and her baby. Photos by Bilgenur Baloglu

Female macaque and her baby on the shrubby Simpoh air (Dillennia suffriticosa) plant (above). The caregiver mother and her newborn baby (below). Photos by Bilgenur Baloglu

– You are talking about long-tailed macaques, right?

Yes, they are the common monkeys here in Singapore. There is also a locally endangered leaf monkey here, but there are only 40-60 of them and they are quite shy. But the long-tailed macaques are used to humans, we call that habituated. You can see one coming down the railing right here. They are quite nice monkeys, I mean you hear complaints about them.

– They are not harmful, as people claim. Are they?

I think the complaints have a lot to do with perceptions, it is a lot of people not necessarily understanding what monkey behavior looks like. Often times, if a monkey just walks past somebody, they consider that aggressive. Especially the very habituated ones will come up and snatch bags, because they know that is food in there. But very infrequently does it result to an actual harm to anybody. It is very infrequent that somebody actually get scratched or bitten. I believe National Parks would see somewhere between 1000 or 2000 complaints per year. So, considering the population here is 5 million people plus tourists plus 2000 monkeys, this is actually an extremely low complaint rate, given that the monkeys are in and around people all the time. If you filter out those complaints, most of them just tend to be just sightings of monkeys. Very few of them, maybe 1/4 of them, are more serious complaints, such as monkey chasing after or grabbing something from people.

– In Southeast Asia, there are many people working on monkeys, but different species, right? Since you have been to many conferences around, can you give us more detail on this?

Throughout Southeast Asia, yes. Actually long-tailed macaques tend to get neglected, because primatologists like to work on super endangered species. This kind of really common, urban monkeys, long-tailed or rhesus macaques are often overlooked. But they are the ones that have the heaviest interface with humans. They are the ones that we rely on for the biomedical research models. So it is actually important species to study to understand their ecology and evolutionarily background since we rely on them heavily for many reasons. If you are studying disease spread and interactions, they are the ones most commonly interacting with people, along with other species. People transmitting a disease to a macaque is not out of the realm of possibility as we are actually more of a disease risk to them than they are to us. Those diseases can then be further transmitted to other, perhaps endangered species. The more contact we have with the long-tailed macaques, the more cognizant we need to be about how we behave because these interactions spread beyond us.

– You are using that computer for getting the data. You are also using the antenna, here is Kathy who is holding it (she is a postdoc in Evolab). Can you show us the little bit of the process?

This is the download antenna (showing in the video). This is my remote download base station. By the way, the nasty sound belongs to a monkey fight.

– They are fighting over what, you think?

Usually food, unless there is a second group there.

– But usually the groups are not interfering with each other, right? They use different territories.

What I have seen so far is that they kind of stick to their territories. But like I said, there is very few studies on this, so part of this study is going to look at that, the territoriality and co-ranging dynamics. How does one group push another group, how often they come into contact with each other? The preliminary work I have done in Singapore, my groups never occupy the same space at the same time. You have a very narrow band, maybe a meter or two, of shared space. But it was about a month apart, temporally. When monkeys do interact at the edge, it is often a violent, quick fight, and then they go back to their own territories. It is usually not a long protracted event, not for monkeys in general, but at least for long-tailed macaques.

– The ones that you are working on specifically?

Yes, I actually have no idea about the patterns among other species – but the long-tailed macaques tend to have really quick territorial bouts, and then they move on. Out of my three field seasons, I have seen two, maybe three of them (fights). It is possible there are several other groups in this area that just now it could have been another group that came too close to this groups’ territory. This is a decent size group, what that means is that we might have multiple matrilines. Matrilines occur along the female genetic lineage. Some matrilines have a strong dominance hierarchy between them, and they might squabble amongst each other. So maybe a group of females and her female relatives just got mad at another group of females – a family spat if you will

– Alright, so back to the process..

My remote download base station, although for how unimpressive looking it is, costs 3,000 USD. Like I told Kathy earlier, sometimes the monkeys get really interested in what I am doing, and sometimes, especially the adult males see I have bags on me, and they want to come and check it out.

Hmm, should I eat this or not? In order to collect saliva samples, Amy is soaking these swabs in snow cone syrup.

Hmm, should I eat this or not? In order to collect saliva samples, Amy is soaking these swabs in snow cone syrup. Photo by Bilgenur Baloglu

– To see if there is any food, or something else?

To see if there is any food, or they do not like that I am holding antenna. Monkeys do not like when you wave sticks in the air.

– Does it look aggressive to them?

It does. Usually because I track them regularly, they get used to me being around. But I have just started this tracking process, so these monkeys are not really used to seeing me and this stick (antenna). So, when we first came in here, I had a larger silver antenna out. Most of the monkeys were on the street and they all moved up onto the tree. A few of them barked to alarm call at me, because I am walking around, holding a stick into them, and that is aggressive to them. So as time goes on, they will get more and more used to me being in this area with this antenna, and they will realize that I am not a threat to them. But when I can, I try to just sit still, and not walk around with the sticks. I try to actually not even bother tracking them if I can avoid it. Because if I can just find the individual with the collar, everybody is happier. I have been chased a few times because they have been upset that I am holding the antenna, if I ever need to drop any of my equipment, I would drop everything before I would drop this $3000 box.

– Also, the computer you would drop then.

I will drop the computer, it is a 200 dollar computer (laughter). I will give the monkeys almost anything other than my passport maybe, my work ID card, and this box.

– So how do you hold the antenna to get the signal? There should be some tricky way of it, right?

It is kind of black magic, I will be honest. I thought I had a system figured out my first season. Then I feel like it slowly unravelled into like doing rain dances to get my data. So what happens is, I plug in the entire unit and so the remote download base station is connected to the antenna. I found, well this might just be my personal trick, or my personal mind game that I play with myself, I think it downloads better when I hold the two units together like this (demonstrated in the video), so I always do this. I have decided that this is the way to download data. And I open up the program and my netbook, and all you need is a simple netbook that runs a Windows platform.

– You just connect the box via a USB port?

Yes, and the computer runs the collar program, in my case I use Telemetry Solutions Collars, and so their program is called Quantum GPS.

– So are you trying to collect GPS signal data?

First, I track the monkeys with VHF radio signal. The radio signal gives the beeping sound as I approach the collared monkey indicating its proximity. The signal gets stronger the closer I get to the monkey. Within the GPS collar, the data gets taken and connected by satellite and stored in the collar. Then, through this unit, it is telling the satellites to tell the GPS collar to download the data to my netbook. Basically what this unit is doing is talking to the satellites. The satellites talk to the collar, which then talks back to the satellites, and satellites talk back to me. On a good day, I point at the monkey, and in 30 seconds data is downloaded. There have been times though, where the monkey is as close as you are to me, I could honestly beat the monkey with this antenna, and I will follow that monkey for 45 minutes, and the data will not download, and all of a sudden for no apparent reason it downloads.

– Well, maybe you do not put the unit and antenna together (laughter).

And then I am like how about this way or that way (demonstrates in the video). After about half an hour I start looking ridiculous, trying to download, because I will wave this thing any way to get it to download. Sometimes, it will download half way, and then stop, and that is the biggest let down.

– Will you need to start from the scratch in that case?

I will get half of the data, and the rest will be easier to download since there will be less. But it is so disheartening when most of it is downloaded and then it stops.

– Ok, so that is the process. How will you track the collared monkeys?

Each monkey has a special VHF signal for its collar and a serial number for data download.

– How many monkeys are being collared right now?

Right now, 6. So the National Parks Board here in Singapore, the organization that allows my research to happen and grants my permits, are also interested in the project. They just ordered 10 additional collars. So ultimately, we are going to have 16 collars in total, which is going to be the largest deployment on wild macaques in Asia, I think on captive ones too for that matter. There may be a similar size study on spider monkeys in South America, but I am not quite sure on how many collars they have, so it is going to be far and away one of the biggest study on home ranges that utilizes GPS. And hopefully, we will help pave the way for more of these studies. Because it is just a financial investment, people are hesitant to write grants for these without kind of proof of concept. So hopefully, this will provide a substantial proof of concept. Especially as technology gets better, it gets cheaper and so GPS collars will become what radio collars used to be. Radio collars used to be expensive, now they are a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand.

– So, that is the expectation.

Right. And also they are going to get smaller (in size). That has been another reason why these projects have been limited in scope, is that actually the battery life and the battery size. You are only supposed to collar animals of %5 of their body weight. We prefer to keep it closer to %3, if we can.

– In Turkey, bears, wolfs and some vultures have been collared, those are the ones I know. But it is the first time I am hearing the macaques getting collared.

Yes, long-tailed macaques are quite small, they are the size of a large house cat. Actually that is how I field-tested my collars for the very first time, when I got the collars in the US. I knew the macaques were roughly the size of cats, and so I put a programmed collar on my smallest house cat, and watched her leap six feet onto a fence and decided that she could move just fine. I was like, alright, her movement is not inhibited, and the monkeys are much stronger than my house cat. It turned out to be a pretty good success. There are other collars that we would like to try on these monkeys, ones that utilize the GSM cell networks. They are a little heavier. So I am just kind of waiting for the technology to catch up. Because we do not want to tax them (physically), or inhibit their movements. You can see, they jump around the trees a lot, we do not need something that really weighs them down, especially on a place like the neck. Because you cannot really put the collar anywhere else, other than a neck.

– Ok, thanks a lot for sharing the details of your research project with us. Have fun collaring and tracking them. Hope you will not need more of these rain dances 🙂

Thank you!

If you want to find out more information on her research, here is Amy’s National Geographic column:

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/author/amyklegarth/

Here is her blog with one of her colleagues: http://twogirlsandsomemonkeys.tumblr.com/

Amy Klegarth and long-tailed macaques in Southeast Asia

Aysegul Birand: A Turkish scientist in the Himalayas

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birand

The guest in our series of interviews with scientists around Turkey is now Assoc. Prof. Dr. Aysegul Birand. Despite spending her childhood in different parts of Turkey, Birand also squeezed three continents into her academic research life. After getting her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in biology at Middle East Technical University (METU), she climbed on trees in the rainforests of Indian Peninsula, discovered species, and got her PhD degree in biology at New Mexico State University in the USA. Her endless researcher spirit dragged her from fallow deer to carnivorous mammals to birds. She is now working on mathematical models in speciation field at METU and giving exciting and groundbreaking courses to students, which has them looking for the unanswered questions in ecology and evolution. Let’s hear her.

“Most of my childhood was spent in the nature”

Bilgenur Baloglu– On behalf of Bilim.org, I would like to thank you for accepting my request to having an interview. Your childhood and youth may have had some influence on your personal and academic life and your view of biology. Could you please tell us about yourself?

Aysegul Birand – I was not a child running after a worm or a bird but most of my childhood was spent in the nature. My father was working in State Hydraulic Works, so I actually grew up in dams. We lived in Manavgat-Antalya for a long time, then in Bafra-Samsun and in the capital Ankara since the middle school years. Until I started middle school, I was always on the street, playing and so nature was always important for me. I actually wanted to be an architect, and everyone encouraged me since I was talented in drawings and math courses. I love architecture but could not imagine myself working in an office. I chose biology because I had to be in the nature or at least do something related to nature.

– Did your family have an influence on your decision?

No, they said ‘do not choose biology,’ ‘what will you do, be a lycee biology teacher only?’ It was the general case at that time, you just study something and then be appointed as a teacher in high schools. Hence, they motivated me for architecture but did not say anything when I chose biology.

The reason I chose METU was the Underwater Association (SAT).”

– Your Bachelor’s degree is from METU. Why did you choose this university?

In fact, the reason I chose METU was the Underwater Association (SAT). They had articles in the (Turkish daily) Newspaper Cumhuriyet. On their excursions they sometimes were finding archeological submerged remains. I did not know whether they were a student association, a major or a master’s program but wanted to join them still. My motivation was not biology, but rather SAT for choosing METU. I knew that the bachelors program at METU was strongly concentrated on molecular biology, and the subjects appealing to me were mainly at Hacettepe University.

– So did you join this and other students groups after starting your undergraduate studies?

Yes, I did. I was very active at SAT throughout my undergraduate years and also many years after that. I also attended cross country skiing training at Mountaneering and Winter Sports Association (DKSK).

– While studying biology, did you have a preference for a particular major/field to work on for your postgraduate career?

SAT was satisfying me for being out in the nature but my grades were not that good, because I did not like the molecular work much, I was an average student. Although it was an optional subject, I would not choose biology in my high school years, the molecular part was just not appealing to me. In my final year at the university, Prof. Can Bilgin started teaching an Animal Diversity course, and also Sargun Tont’s Ecology and Meryem Beklioglu’s Freshwater Ecology courses got my interest. When I finally was able to take courses that I was interested in, I could increase my average score and the courses were a lot more fun, too. Then I stayed at Bilgin’s lab for my master’s degree.

– What was your master’s project about?

We were going to study the fallow deer (Cervus dama) population at Duzlercami National Park (Antalya), of which the individual numbers were quite low. We could not see any deer during many of the field excursions. Then I was awarded a scholarship to study in India. One of the researchers there was studying fecal extracts from carnivorous animals. By working on fecal samples, one can understand the diet and habitat use of animals. After I came back to Turkey, we changed my subject to carnivores.

– Working in Nature Conservation Foundation and Wildlife Institute of India, you gained paramount experience in field work. You also wrote popular science articles about your work at Atlas magazine. Could you please tell us more about the projects you contributed to?

The Ministry of National Education were giving scholarships to many different countries under the name of the Cultural Exchange Program. They published one list with the country names, there was China, India, Israel and many others. To me, India was very interesting, well I could also choose a country in Africa if there were any, but hearing fascinating things about tigers and field work oppportunities in India made me choose there. Upon winning the scholarship, I suspended my studies and went to India. But preparation for getting there took a long time. India had its own list for the places I could work. We started corresponding by mail frequently but for a long time I heard nothing. If burocracy is one office in Turkey, I would say it is 100 offices in India. I applied in March and received the letter in July, which stated that I was supposed to be there by August! So I went there hastily. For one year, I joined the field work excursions of the postgraduate students there. The institute had many research projects and field stations all over India, hence I could visit many national parks during my stay. I also attended courses and worked on deers, where we did transect studies. That is when I realized that studying fallow deer would be quite tough in Duzlercami National Park, because their numbers were very low and the animals seemed to be scared, you could not even see them properly. We only had a chance for working on scat samples.

– You said you were analysing these fecal samples, what kind of information you can derive from them about the deer populations?

I mainly studied the fecal samples of carnivores, you can basically understand their diet and also do biochemical analysis. Moreover, you can do DNA analysis of the species. Upon my arrival to Turkey, I understood that I could not study this fallow deer, because it was hard to collect information due to their low number.

I started working on birds in Eastern Himalayas.”

– What did you do after getting your masters degree?

After completing my thesis on carnivores, I again went to India. I got married with a friend from that institute. Together, we wrote a project proposal about Eastern Himalayas. Since it is very close to Bangladesh Gulf, there is enormous amount of rain and the Himalayas rise up very steeply from the sea level, hence all the humidity just stays there. You can see tropical rainforest at 26th Parallel North there, imagine it occurs in Southern Turkey! That place is as if it emerges from the textbooks, the biodiversity is enormously high. For instance, there are 680 bird species in one of the national parks, as a reference point it is around 460 in whole Turkey. My ex-husband was working with reptiles such as snakes and frogs, and I started working on birds.

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– Could you please give out more details about that ‘natural lab’ you were working in?

Eastern Himalayas are located in the east of Bangladesh, there are roughly 9 states, which are independent from mainland India, so to speak autonomous regions. Even the Indian people living in the mainland could get there only with a special permission, and that was only for a short-term visit. Because there are indigenous people and tribal communities, of which the culture mainly resembles Bhurma, they had strict rules and regulations in order to protect biological and cultural diversity, and that made it even harder for foreigners to get there.

– Seemingly, it was quite compelling by bureaucratic manners, what other difficulties did you encounter?

After mailing back and forth for a long time, we were able to get the permission, but finding funding was also a big issue. Nature Conservation Foundation recruited us as researchers, and they were very interested in our project too. Besides us, they had two or three more researchers in that region.

– Was your project only about recording the bird diversity, or did you study other species as well?

We studied diversity of reptiles, amphibians (A/N: Organisms living both in the land and in the water) and birds. Due to the isolation of the area from humans, there was not much work done to record the species diversity there, hence we did not know what species were there and in which distribution.

How did you decide working in that area, particularly?

My ex-husband finished his masters degree in a national park in that region and was thus very interested in the species distribution there. I thought it was a good opportunity to get to know that place. But I was not a birder, have not studied birds before. For 6-7 months, I studied from the ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’ book sentence by sentence, such as the spot on the wing of this species, the particular function of that beak etc. There were in total 1200 bird species, and I studied them through book without yet observing them in the field. After getting theoretical background and information, we went out to the field. Afterwards, we stayed out in the field for 9 months, with binoculars hanged on our necks. It was a very educational time period. We visited 9 national parks, and got lots of results out of our study.

Where did you stay, in tents most of the time?

We were not even setting tents, mainly sleeping in the field with no cover, nothing. We almost spent a month in each national park. Funding, writing the project proposals, field work they all took very long time of us.

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What did you do after India days?

After we got back, we had many results, when compiled it was almost equal to a PhD project. We had a lot of data accumulated throughout these nine months, so we tried to put them in order and extract the main ideas. It was a very fruitful and mind-boggling period. My ex-husband started his PhD in the US, and so did I. I started mine at New Mexico State University.

“I find it hard to enjoy biology only through textbooks.”

After studying biology in both your undergraduate and postgraduate studies and doing intensive field work, you decide to switch your field and start studying in mathematical modeling of ecology and evolutionary biology subjects. How did that happen?

Fieldwork is absolutely joyful, that is what biology is all about. Without seeing the field conditions and biodiversity out there and only through textbooks, I find it hard to enjoy biology. But the truth is that you need to commit yourself to one place. For a certain question you ask in any of the field works, you need at least 5-10 years of data collection. It is hard to find answers in a short time period. The fieldwork itself is not the hardest part, but data collection is. I did not want to stay in one place that long and therefore wanted to use my experience to answer more general questions. The questions that excite me now have actually come from my time spent doing fieldwork. I started studying speciation with the question lingered in my mind: Why is there such a high amount of species diversity?

Why did you specifically apply PhD program in New Mexico State University (NMSU), but nowhere else?

I initially had to choose a subject, and at that time I was still working on birds in tropical rainforest. It took me a while to choose a question, then I decided to study speciation and found the academic stuff working in that field. My mentor (Daniel Howard) was working at NMSU, he was a prominent scientist in his field and a prolific writer having many articles being published. He did lots of research with having read the literature in speciation field starting from 1800s, and so he was very knowledgeable. I started studying under his mentorship upon his acceptance. He left me a big space for my freedom and supported me for studying modeling. I did a minor with mathematics when I was there; also the faculty supported me by means of taking courses and providing the requirements. Everything was in order basically.

I noticed one thing, most of the time you worked interdisciplinary, in your work we can see the contribution of biology, mathematics, fieldwork and ecology. The biology education in Turkey however is mainly based on memorization and that may be the reason why the students run away from biology. How do you think our biology education should be tailored?

This subject is very problematic. I did not choose the optional biology course during my high school years, because it was only taxonomy and species categorization focused on, which I found not very appealing. We need radical changes in our understanding of education. While I was graduating from my undergraduate studies, I had the feeling that everything was found and we already knew everything. You are exposed to all bunch of information in the classroom. But the lacking part is that there is neither synthesis of the information nor of what is unknown in the field. All of the system is based on the information given to you, and you have to give it back to the lecturer.

But there is no analysis of the information and its combination with other studies, right?

Currently within classroom teaching it is rarely mentioned that many things are unknown, failing to increase the students excitement about them. On the other hand, there are many questions that matter in the scientific world, and they may not necessarily overthrow what we know by today but generate excitement. However, they do not actually reflect on our education system. Hence, if you can give the already known things in encyclopedic information set, you get the credit, otherwise you do not.

If we get back to India, the research you conducted there made you excited, and you also discovered new species, right?

For someone coming from the temperate region the tropics are already very exciting. While working in the field, you already notice the paramount amount of unknowns, ranging from the number of species to their distribution. I was not able to conceive the idea of discovering new species. I thought to myself ‘do not we already know all of them?’ In fact there are many places undiscovered, and maybe millions of species not being recorded. Hence, I learned the dynamism of biology in the field.

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Since the places you worked were tropical, they were also biodiversity hotpots. Did your work anyhow intervene with the national park regulations aiming to protect the biodiversity or they were already very well protected?

Some regions were already declared as national parks, for which the main motivation was the aim of protecting the tiger population. In order to develop a logical conservation method, you need information, and as I previously mentioned the species diversity and distribution in that region were not yet known. I assume that in a long term, our research results will be useful as they provide information. In one of our studies that was published, we conducted a research on the single-species based management. We got interesting results regarding to conservation methods. For instance, bird protection comes after the big mammals, and it drove us to the following question: Can we predict the distribution of amphibians and reptiles by looking at the bird diversity? Well, not really. We actually need to protect different group in several levels. Our institute conducted biodiversity research for many years. One of our colleagues (Aparajita Datta) was studying hornbill (a type of bird, lat. Bucerotidae) and she recently received one of England’s the most prestigious environment award, Whitley. Professor Cagan Sekercioglu also received 20th year Whitley Gold Award, which is again a prestigious international nature conservation prize.

– In Turkey currently dams are built and deforestation is taking place in protected areas and national parks while the policymakers are shutting their eyes to scientific knowledge and data. For instance, there are 249 bird species in Aras River Wetlands, that is roughly the half of the bird species of Turkey and it is one of the richest places for mammals and reptiles. However, despite a large amount of NGO work and scientific studies against it, government has plans to build the dam. How much do you think the scientific knowledge is included in policy-making and decision-making processes?

We are in a tragic situation by means of conservation. Scientific knowledge is not applied well enough but spreading the word is the matter of self-devotion and personal effort. For example, Cagan Sekercioglu initiated a petition at Change.org to prevent the dam construction at Aras bird paradise. He is constantly lobbying in Turkey, trying to reach more people about the importance of this river valley. Under his leadership, KuzeyDoga Society conducts various research projects. There are many other NGOs too, such as Doga Koruma Merkezi (Nature Conservation Center (DKM)), and basically it all comes down to personal effort.

”In India, you can immediately see whatever you do comes at a price.”

– In the early 2000’s you wrote at Atlas magazine about your projects, and seemingly you also like to give voice to your studies. Could you give more details about what you wrote?

Actually, writing in the magazine was from the help of my friend (Gokhan Tan) from SAT, who was working there. He was also in Amateur Photographers Society (AFT) during university years, and very keen in photography. He encouraged me to write about all of the places I went out to explore. Initially 9 months of fieldwork experience was very intense, I took some pictures but mainly focused on data collection and research part. When I got back, I showed the pictures to Gokhan, he liked those but found them insufficient. Later on, I went to the same region again for a month for only taking pictures but with the support from Atlas. Getting there takes a long time that is roughly 8 days for a round trip. I also went to Southern India to meet my friends and took pictures there too and as a result, I wrote two articles in a row. There are many stories to write about, and you can definitely see the human pressure. India’s surface area is four times of Turkey, and the population is more than ten times that of Turkey. Some ingredients of the tea we drink in Turkey comes from India. Most of the tea plantations are crossing their borders into rainforests and in order to produce more tea and coffee, the trees are cut down. In India, you can immediately see whatever you do comes at a price. It was a good opportunity for me to write about all those, Atlas supported me and I wrote those articles very eagerly and happily.

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– You must be publishing your current modeling work but do you also aim to write them in a more simplistic, so to speak in a popular scientific way?

I did not have much of a chance when I was in abroad. Of course, with my colleagues from the US working on ecology and evolution fields and also friends from SAT, we sometimes encouraged each other for writing to certain magazines, for which each of us writes about their own specialization. We wrote to NTV Bilim (science magazine) two times about speciation and diversity. It has been a long time since the last article was out but whenever possible, I like to write.

– Are you still in contact with your colleagues from previous institutes? How much do you value the collaboration in your academic career?

There are two chapters from my PhD project that I still cannot look through. We are still e-mailing each other with the academic stuff from Faculty of Maths, and I can always ask questions to my PhD advisor. We are working on similar projects and we also plan to start a new project bringing together our knowledge and shared ideas. And yes, I do collaborate.

– Currently you are teaching Adaptation & Speciation and Evolution courses. When did you start teaching at METU? Do you teach some other courses as well?

I was teaching modeling for undergraduates and ecology course for last semester. I started at METU in 2011 and that was by chance. I came for a visit at the time I was doing my post-doc in the USA, and whenever I do so, I visit the staff. I met Prof. Beklioglu, and she told me ‘Come back, let’s provide a staff position to you at METU.’ I said, if METU would call me, I would love to come. They did indeed, and that is how I came back. I was thinking about coming back to Turkey, as the US is quite far away. METU was a place I wanted to be in, however I was not sure if they would be interested since my research focuses on speciation and modeling but not molecular work.

– What are your insights when you compare the grant and research opportunities between the US and Turkey?

Research is hard in the US, you need be competitive and prolific enough to deal with the pressure. It is necessary to get high number of grants and publish a lot. The situation in Turkey is less competitive, but of course you need to publish a lot here too. The main problem of the academics face in Turkey is that they are spending a greater proportion of their time teaching, which leaves relatively little time for research. In the US, academics can teach a course per semester. When they find grants, they have a chance of not teaching at all. The courses they are teaching are generally in post-graduate level in their own research field. Therefore, they can follow the literature more often, be competitive and collaborative. However, here is little time left to research, since we have to prepare lecture materials and teach many modules. The pressure here is rather different, and the funding is less compared to the US. If you want to receive generous grants from Europe, then you need to be very competitive, which means you do not have any private life at all.

– Can you propose any solutions to enhance academics and distribute more time to research?

Teaching requirements should be reduced. The presence of adjunct faculty is a great solution in US universities. There are many PhD students not doing intensive research and they teach many of the undergraduate-level courses. The distinction between lecturer and researcher should also be integral in our system. Furthermore, the students applying to post-graduate studies in the US are already motivated and self-sufficient in terms of conducting a project on their own. However, several students in Turkey are applying to grad school when they want to postpone their military service or cannot find a ‘proper’ job. The number of motivated students is very low, and it is definitely exciting to mentor them! But if only one out of twenty is interested in doing active research, you still need to make enormous efforts for all the twenty. Thus, most of our energy is already deprived.

– How many students do you have? What are your research projects about?

I have four students at the moment and our study focuses in general on speciation. Three of them have just started and one is about to graduate. Sexual selection is one of the factors effecting speciation patterns. A new hypothesis suggests that the species having colorful females can have higher chance of mating and finding new habitats. Sexual dimorphism in terms of coloration is well-observed for male individuals, for instance when you look at the species composed of colorful males and duller females you can see that they are able to spread to larger ranges. We may be able to assert the increase of coloration in females over time. We looked at the pattern analysis in some of the bird groups and observed interesting results that we plan to publish in the near future.

– Do you plan to work outside of Turkey for small or long term periods?

It would be nice to do some short-term work outside of METU. Sometimes the teaching tasks may be quite heavy. Academics have a right for sabbatical leave each 6-7 years and I would definitely make use of that opportunity. We can also collaborate with academics from abroad, but I have not really thought of leaving METU for longer time periods.

– You are also teaching Evolution. The Evrim Agaci (literally means Evolution Tree) founded by METU Biology and Genetics Society (in Turkish, abbr. Biyogen) promotes public awareness and understanding of evolution theory. By explaining the scientific facts in a popular jargon, they can talk directly to large audiences. Where do you think we are in teaching evolution theory in Turkey?

To tell the truth, I am not (yet) very experienced in teaching evolution, Prof. Aykut Kence has more to say. Of course we see the disproportionate amount of misunderstanding of evolution theory in media, but there is also Evrimi Anlamak (website translated from ‘Understanding Evolution’) website, and many other encouraging works to teach the topic of evolution to a wider audience. I am hopeful, after all

“Students should know that there are many open-ended questions in biology.”

– What would you like to say to the students applying to your laboratory?

Having 4 current students is my upper limit. My door is always open to students willing to do modeling in evolutionary biology. They need to have both mathematical and computational skills as we will either need to solve equations or write codes.

– The process of applying to graduate schools is a bit tough. Do you have any suggestions for students who are interested in pursuing an academic career?

If they really want to do it, it is not that hard if they can manage it. In order to ‘survive’ they need to push hard and be aggressive. When they face up to this and are willing to spare good proportion of their time to do research, there is no reason for getting rejected. What I can suggest is to find a subject first. It is important to specify what they want to study. The next step would be to do a literature search to see what has and has not been found in that area, say as of 2013, this way they can also contact current researchers. They need to excite the potential advisor by the things they write, like how motivated they are. Once they are interested, these things will happen in a row.

– As a final question, what do would you like to say to our readers about biology and doing science in general ?

There are many open-ended questions in biology. Nothing has completed, books are not closed yet. In the recent years, a lot of data has been collected. Biology is no longer limited by the lack of information as there is indeed too much data to handle. It is important to communicate with people, hear what they work on, ask how much of their work is related to yours and think about the ways to contribute and do collaborative work. Keep on talking to people and know that there are always open questions to delve into. Nothing is complete yet, there are so many things to do.

– Dr. Birand, it has been a great pleasure. Thank you for talking in this interview for Bilim.org.

Thank you.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Francesca McGrath for her proofreading, editing and invaluable comments. Many thanks to Umit Buyukyildirim for always encouraging me for writing at Bilim.org (Turkish science website), honoring me with the title of Editor at Bilim.org and helping me editing the photos for this interview. Many thanks to Atlas Magazine for digging into the archives and providing me these amazing photographs. Thanks also go to friends who encouraged me for publishing this interview, hence they could read it. And last but not least, thank you, readers! 

The story of the letter from Hogwarts and an owl

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After seeing the below photograph, a dear friend of mine asked me if I finally received my letter from Hogwarts.

Readıng the letter from Hogwarts

Reading the letter from Hogwarts

So I wanted to describe her the moment I actually received the letter, in a bit detail. Here is my answer to her (let me call her X).

 

Dear X,

Let me think. I vaguely remember that moment, oh no, I do! I firstly heard the rash sound, as if something or somebody fell down from some high elevation. When I saw the long-eared owl coming in this little tiny shop, where I was helping my parents to bring home the bread (tough times we passed through..), we exchanged an equivocal glance, and it occurred to me that I’ve never seen such a thing, and wait a minute, what is this owl doing in such an open town? I mean it should have been in a coniferous forest instead. There is something fishy going on here..

I just recalled my basic biology knowledge, particularly of this species. I knew that its habitat was including Europe, along with Northern America and Asia. So where it was coming from? Through the owl, a warm wave of relief flowed. You will not believe me, but I felt that it was coming from Great Britain. How owl left the room, that part is a bit faded. What I remember is that I was holding that diary open, which had the acceptance letter hidden in it. The paper was a bit creamy and I could even smell the ink. How beautiful..

I told to myself, this is not real. I even pinched, it hurt a little bit. I then hold the quill pen, and started underlining the sentences to ensure that what I was reading was actually real, not magic, and read through the whole letter, again and again.

I do not know what happened to that lovely owl, hopefully it did not hit the walls surrounding our fairytale town Tallinn.

Let me end my words with what we were taught here in Hogwarts: Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.
Sorry I need to go, Aragog is calling me!

Balıklar ve İnsanlar

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Sudaki balık bilir aslında gittiği yolu, hatta bazen öleceği yeri (bkz. somonlar). Ne için yaşadığını, ne yapacağını, amacını bilmeyen ve boyuna tüketen ama onu bile kendi özgür iradesiyle değil, başkalarından öyle gördüğü için, başkaları öyle giyindiği, öyle yiyip içtiği için yapan kişi daha ziyade söktüğü ağacı yerine dikmeyen, yahut yavru kuşları tüfeği ile vuran ve ekosisteme kasti bir şekilde zarar veren (aslında ekosistem neymiş pek de düşünmeden) dünyanın hep kendine hizmet ettiğini düşünen, bildiğin insandır aslında.

ARAŞTIR VE KEŞFET!

Flickr Commons, Oregon Eyalet Üniversitesi Özel Kolleksiyonu ve Arşivi Balıklar ve insanlar (Kaynak: Flickr Commons, Oregon Eyalet Üniversitesi Özel Kolleksiyonu ve Arşivi)

Sudaki balık gibisin. Balık olmanın gereğidir belki, suyun ne olduğunu bilmiyorsun. Peki ya kimsin? Televizyon evini, İnternet beynini, market mideni ele geçirmis, yaşıyorsun. Kafatasının içinde taşıdığın evrenin en karmaşık yapısını, yani beynini, senin için özenle hazırlanan ve doğru diye sunulan yanlışlarla şekillendirip, yiyip içip, tüm olup biteni anladığından emin, huzurla uyuyorsun.

Üniversite bitirdiğin halde, belki de farklı kültürleri görmediğin için, okuma yazması bile olmayan, hayatını dağ-taş-toprak şeytan ücgeninde geçiren çilekeş çoban kadar bilgeliğin yok. Diplomanın bir kıymeti olmadığı gibi. Çile çekmeden bilge olan var mı? Şehrine ne olduğunu görmüyorsun ama ozon tabakasındaki delik seni endişelendiriyor değil mi? Doğa ile ilişkin organik pazarından aldığın ve organik olduğunu sandığın marulla olan ilişkin kadar. Şehirdeki üç-beş ağacı koruman önemli elbette ama ormanlara, kurtlara ve kuşlara ne olduğundan haberin var mı?

Dünya’nın Doğu’sunda yaşıyorsun ama turist gibi yaşadığından Doğu’yu tanımıyorsun. Batı’yı…

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Kanal İstanbul ve Kuzey Ormanları’nın yaban domuzları

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kuzey

Bir yandan deney yaparken bir yandan da Açık Radyo’yu dinliyordum ki Ekonomi&Ekoloji programı’nda İstanbul’a yapılması planlanan 3. köprü konusu ele alındı, Radikal gazetesi’nden Serkan Ocak da yayına bağlandı. TEMA Vakfı’nın henüz yayımladığı raporda alanında uzman 17 bilim insanı Kanal İstanbul Projesi’nin sosyoekonomik etkileri, trafik sorunları, insan sağlığı, deniz ekosistemi, kuş göç yolları ve pek çok başka konu üzerindeki etkilerini irdeliyor. Bu bilimsel çalışma ile amaçlanan ise bu projenin İstanbul’un yaşam destek ünitesi Kuzey Ormanları (öyle ya, doğru düzgün ormanlık denebilecek alanı kaldı mı İstanbul’un?), su havzaları, meralar, yer altı suları ve biyoçeşitlilik üzerindeki toplam etkisi anlaşılması.

Bu rapor 7 aylık bir çalışma sonucu yayımlanmış. Çıkış noktalarından ikisi şunlar:

1- Doğal varlıklara erişim ve kullanım insani ve toplumsal haktır.

2- İstanbul ormanları Dünya çapında önemli 200 ekolojik bölgeden, Avrupa’da ise acil korunması gereken 100 ormandan biri olarak kabul edilmektedir.

3. köprü için 8000 hektar orman kesilmesi planlanıyor ama İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi’nin de websitesinde bulunabileceği üzere İstanbul Ulaşım Ana Planı’ndaki bilgilere göre bu köprüdeki trafik de 2023’te yoğun saatlerde tıkanacak. Ağaçların kesilmesi işin basına yansıyan kısmı ama aslında sebep-sonuç ilişkisine dair pek bir bilgi vermiyor. Şöyle düşünelim. Bu ağaçların olduğu topluluk pek çok canlıya yaşam alanı sağlıyor. Örneğin sincaplar, tilkiler, Boğaz’dan yüzerek geçtiğinde görenleri hayrete düşüren (ay evet, İstanbul sadece biz insanların (Homo sapiens) evi değil) yaban domuzları ve niceleri. Peki ağaçlar kesildiğinde ne olacak?

Yaşam alanları (habitat) parçalanacak. Buradaki canlılar daha küçük alanlarda yaşamaya zorlanacak. Bu canlıların besin ve su kaynaklarına ulaşımı güçleşecek. Parçalanmış habitatlarda yaşayan canlılar parçalanmamışa göre daha az olacağı için popülasyon büyüklüğü azalacak. Bu durumda popülasyondaki genlerin varyantı (alel)’nın sıklığının değişmesi, yani genetik sürüklenme olasılığı artacak. Genetik sürüklenme genetik çeşitliliğin azalması ile ilişkilendirilebilir, çünkü gen varyantlarının da yok olması söz konusu olabilir. Genetik çeşitliliğin azalması ve küçük topluluklarda üreme (bir nevi akraba evliliklerine benzetilebilir) sonucunda genetik bozuklukların ortaya çıkması ihtimali oluşacak, yani bu ormanda ve civarında yaşayan canlıların akıbetini kestirebilmek mümkün. Evrimsel süreçlere müdahale etmek diyebiliriz, insan eliyle bu canlıların sonunu hazırlamak da.

Bir diğer ayrıntı da Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı’na bağlı koruma kurulları’nın açıklaması: 3. köprü ve bağlantı yolları ile 3. havalimanının yapıldığı bölgede ‘doğal sit’ ve kültürel varlıkları bulunuyor. Bu varlıklara örnekleri aşağıda görebilirsiniz.

  • Çatalca ve Silivri: İnceğiz Mağaraları, Maltepe Antik Nekropolü ve Yerleşim Alanı (1. derece arkeolojik sit)
  • Silivri: Anastasius Surları (Arkeolojik sit alanı)
  • Gaziosmanpaşa ve Sultangazi: Kırkçeşme Su Galerisi Hattı
  • Avcılar: Ispartakule Spradon Antik Kenti (1. ve 3. derece arkeolojik sit alanı)
  • Arnavutköy: Şamlar Köyü Dutlar Mevkii kayaya oyulmuş mezar yapısı
  • Çatalca İğneağzı: Kartepe (Umurtepe) Mağara ve Antik Taş Ocağı (1. derece doğal ve 2. derece arkeolojik sit)
  • Arnavutköy: Sazlıbosna Filiboz Örenyeri (1. derece arkeolojik sit)
  • Silivri: Küçükkılıçlı Köyü Antik Yerleşim Alanı (1. derece arkeolojik sit)

Kentsel gelişme ve şehir-bölge planlama üzerine sözü olacak pek çok mimar, planlamacı ve mühendis arkadaşım var, onların da fikrini almak isterim. Aynı şekilde sanat tarihi ve arkeoloji konusunda da söz söyleyebilecek arkadaşlarımın fikirleri önemli. Bense ormana değinmek istiyorum izninizle. Çünkü insan odaklı(!), kalkınma odaklı(!) yaklaşımlarımızdan hiç vazgeçmiyoruz, ormansa hep bir süs, bir piknik yeri olmaktan öteye gidemiyor pek çoğu için, maalesef. Kuzey Ormanları sadece bölgeye özgü (endemik) türler de dahil olmak üzere nesli tehlike altındaki pek çok bitkiye ev sahipliği yapıyor, bunun yanısıra kendisine komşu farklı ekosistemlerin de sürdürülebilirliği açısından önemli, örneğin Kilyos kumulları, örneğin Şile Kıyıları yahut Terkos Havzası. Bu ekosistemlerde bitki örtüsünün kalkması ve betonlaşmaya neden olunması söz konusu. Yani sonraki nesillerin ‘işte buralar hep betonluktu’ diyeceğini hayal etmekten bahsediyorum.

Dutluk değil yani.dutlu

Şimdi pek çok kişi beni naif ya da romantik addedebilir. Doğrusu pek de umursamıyorum. Çünkü ne evrimsel süreçlerden geçerek bugüne gelmiş, hala evrilen ve evrilecek olan doğayı ve kültürleri anlamaya çalışmanın önemli bir çaba olduğunu düşünüyorum. İzninizle şu soruları sormak istiyorum. Tek bir ağaç pek çok böceğe, kuşa, sarmaşık bitkilere, likene yaşam alanı sağlarken bir orman ne demek? Bize kaç medeniyetlerce korunagelmiş ve miras bırakılmış evrensel olarak önem taşıyan kültürel varlıklar ne demek?

160 sayfalık (altını çizeyim de), 17 bilim insanı tarafınca yazılan, yani uzmanların görüşlerine yer verilen bu raporun yayımlanması üzerine Kanal İstanbul Projesi yetkililerinden bu raporun siyasi maksatla yapılan, bilimselliği olmayan bir çalışma olduğunu ifade eden açıklama anında geliyor.

Yahu bilim yapmak, bilimsel bilgi ne demek? Bilimsel bilgiye kanaat etmek ne demek? Araştırma yapmak ne demek?

Boru değil yani.

human

Kaynakça:

1- TEMA Vakfı Kanal İstanbul Raporu http://www.tema.org.tr/folders/14966/categorial1docs/1235/buyukprojeler2014.pdf

2- Radikal Gazetesi’nden Serkan Ocak’ın TEMA Vakfı raporu haberi http://www.radikal.com.tr/cevre/cilgin_projelerin_cilgin_sonuclari-1183215

3- Radikal Gazetesi’nden Serkan Ocak’ın arkeolojik kalıntılarla ilgili yazısı http://www.radikal.com.tr/turkiye/ormandan_sonra_tarihi_de_yok_edecek-1183005

Interview with a real bat-woman: Alice Hughes

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Dr. Hughes and me.

Dr. Hughes (on the right) and me.
Photo credit: Seshadri Kadaba Shamanna

Dr. Alice Hughes is a scientist working in Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, located in the southeast China. Although her model organisms are bats (a.k.a. call her bat woman!), she likes to study and understand the dynamics of various different forms of biodiversity. According to her, we all live and breathe biodiversity and are responsible to protect it, respectively. She spoke to us during a birdwatching trip in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, while observing the birds and invertebrates at the same time. If you would like to hear more about her daily life in China, thoughts on doing and living science, and research projects, welcome to the journey of this amazing bat woman!

Bilgenur Baloglu- Hi Alice, you are based in China right now, what are you doing there?

Alice Hughes – I work in Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I am an Assistant Professor there, doing research on biodiversity and basically things like the effect of environmental change on species distributions and diversity.

A view from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden

A view from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden

Where did you get your degree?

My undergraduate and my PhD were both from the University of Bristol, but my field work was based in Thailand. After my PhD, I moved out to Thailand for a while and continued my research as a Postdoctoral scholar.

You are pretty adopted to Southeast Asia then?

Yes, well I have also worked in Australia for a while, but most of my research has been in Southeast Asia.

Today, we are in Sungei Buloh, which is a nature reserve and a birdwatching center. How did your interest in birds start?

My grandfather was a birder, though I never met him. My mother used to take us birding in a family cottage on the Norfolk coast in the UK. So we go as a family, sit in the hides and it would normally be raining. We would look for the various wading birds and occasionally the raptors. It has always been a nice escape and something I did when I was very little. But wherever you go in the world, there are birds. If you go into a forest, and you are just looking for, say an orangutan, you normally talk to people and they see nothing, but if you look at the birds, you see everything. Even though I do bat research now, it does not mean that I am not interested in other forms of biodiversity. Birds are very visible and fascinating animals.

What are you doing in Singapore right now?

I have come mainly for the climate change conference, which is starting tomorrow. I work with some of the people based here, and some other collaborators are also coming in. It is a good opportunity for me to plan the next bit of collaborative research.

How is your life in China? What are your current projects about?

Well, until now I worked in China, Thailand, Australia and the UK. Everything has its pluses and minuses. I like my research environment and my colleagues, and it is really stimulating from that perspective. Plus, I live in a beautiful botanical garden in a tropical area. If I want to do some tropical ecology research, I can walk for twenty minutes and I am in a rainforest. This week, we have got the Program for Field Studies (PFS) school, which is one of the courses that we run. It is a bit like the equivalent of the OTS that runs in South, Central and North America. This program runs for 6 weeks, and at the moment I have got five students there doing bat work, and I help them to catch bats out in the forest and learn how to be bat biologists. It does not mean it is easy from other perspectives, learning Mandarin for instance. And I keep accidentally speaking Thai, which is not very helpful. Being vegetarian, food is not that great.

Dr. Hughes holding a vampire bat.

Dr. Hughes holding a vampire bat.

What kind of food do you have there? Can you give us more details?

Actually, it is little bit of an issue. We went to a special dinner after seminar the other week and they were serving deep fried oleander flowers. I knew that it is a poisonous flower. They use a lot of plants which are high in alkaloids, which actually should not be eaten by humans. It is eaten by the local people there. We are in a Xishongbanna prefacture area in China. The people who are in charge of the prefacture have to be either Hanni or Dai people. Because in the area, about 50% of the people are Han Chinese, and 20% Hanni, 15% Dai, and then there is 12% other minorities like the Yi people. Proportions may not be that accurate but the massive part of the people are Hanni, and they eat a lot of local leaves and so do we. There is also a lot of meat cooked with chilli, which makes things a bit tricky for vegetarians. So whenever someone is coming into the country, we give them a list of things to bring with them. When one of my friends came for a conference, he/she brought me a lot of cheese. It is funny but you get over with the challenges. Well, the research is well worth it!

What is the proportion of the fieldwork in your research?

I have only been there for about two and a half months, so I am still sorting out everything. But once we get started, we should have a fair bit of field work, whereas recently it has been mainly in the lab and visiting a few sites, either with the coursework or to plan for the field work in the future.

Can you give specific examples on the research projects that you are conducting?

My main research would be on two things, one of them would be looking at the biodiversity of karsts in Southeast Asia. In Southeast China, they make up about 800,000 square kilometers. They have really high endemism meaning that a lot of species there are not found anywhere else. But they have almost no protection. When you deforest the base of the karst, you change the climate zone in the karst, and that means it is not suitable for the species anymore. Moreover, Southeast Asia has the highest rate of mining in the tropics, so it is a really threatened ecosystem. High biodiversity, poor ability to disperse and almost no protection. So if we can map out how the diversity spreads, then we can make sure that one of the greatest biodiversity and endemicity source also have the best protection. The other thing I am doing is trying to establish a network between people working around Southeast Asia and possibly outside (who is) looking how species distributions change on altitudinal gradients, at different latitudes. So we can try to infer the effects of climate change on distributions and use out to calibrate things like model distributions. So these are my main projects.

alice3

Sounds like fun!

It is indeed, and it keeps me quite busy. I do a lot of collaborative work and also train people on GIS (a.n. Abbrv. of Geographic Information System).

Do you have any suggestions for students planning to do biodiversity-related work in their post-graduate studies?

I think that being a scientist is more than just a job. You do not go home at 5 pm each day and turn on the TV. It is a lifestyle. Because you live and breathe biodiversity. See, we have a half day or day off and we have gone to a national park, we just saw a kingfisher flying into the tree. Because it is what we do, part of who we are and everything we do is related to it. So you have to be passionate about it. Because it really is a commitment. A lot of scientists have to live overseas. For instance, our group today has people from all over the world (a.n. We were a group of people from India, USA, Ecuador, Turkey and the UK). You have got to make a choice and just go for it. Because if it matters to you to trying to protect the biodiversity, which I personally feel a duty for and I do not know what other people feel, you have got to do what you feel is the right thing.

True story. Thank you for talking in this interview for Bilim.org.

Thank you, it was very nice talking to you.

Interview with Evolutionary Biologist Douglas Futuyma

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Douglas-Futuyma-Bilgenur-Baloglu

Douglas Futuyma is among the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, well known for his work in plant – insect interactions and as an author of several books refuting intelligent design. Futuyma graduated with a B.S. from Cornell University, and took his M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1969. He is a distinguished professor at State University of New York Stony Brook, where most of his work focuses on the interaction between plant-eating insects and the host plants themselves. When there was no textbook on evolutionary theory, he published the first Evolutionary Biology textbook in 1979, after four years of endeavoring. He has lectured widely around the world and was a crucial educator in tropical ecology and evolution at the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica. He has been the President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the editor of Evolution, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is the editor of the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, and is the author of the successful textbooks Evolutionary Biology and Evolution. With his several books, journal articles along with the seminars and lectures, he is in the forefront of scientists fighting against the anti-scientific creationism. He spoke to us during a visit to National University of Singapore on January 22nd about evolution and teaching science. Happy reading!

Bilgenur Baloglu- You are the author of the Evolution textbook, with the first edition in 1979. What made you write this book?

evolution.douglas.futuymaDouglas Futuyma- In the 1970s, when I was a young faculty member and I developed a course on Evolution for undergraduates soon after I arrived at Stony Brook University, there was no textbook on the subject of evolution. So I had to create my own lectures and get students some readings from here and there. At some point, a man named Andy Sinauer, stopped by and visited my office and said that someone have told him that I might be a good author for a textbook in ecology. I said, well no, actually I do not think I would be very good at that. There were already many books on ecology but no textbook on Evolution. That was what led into his eventually agreeing that I might be a good person to write such a book. It took me four years to write because at first I had no idea what I was doing.

You are working on plant – herbivore interactions, with asking the major questions such as how so much biodiversity occurred, how environment affects the biodiversity. Which question led you specifically to plant-insect interactions?

Originally, that was not a question about insect – plant interactions at all. In the 1970s, one of the major questions that people in evolution were asking was what accounts for all of the genetic variation that had been revealed by gel electrophoresis of proteins. There was the Balance School that said natural selection was responsible for maintaining variation, and then there was the Classical School, which fostered the idea of random genetic drift. One idea was that selection could account for variation, if different genotypes for the species were adopted to the different aspects of the environment, such as different microhabitats, or different food in which case you could have heterogenous selection. And I thought ‘Well, no, this has not been well tested, but we need to be able to compare species in which we know that one occupies a more homogenous habitat or environment and the other more heterogeneous.’ And I thought that the most important part of the environment of herbivorous insects is the host plant. And so the species which has only one species as a host must occupy more homogenous, simpler environment than one insect that eats many kinds of plants. So that led into comparing the amount of genetic variation with which you see whether the genetic variation is greater in the species which eats many plants than in those species which eats only a single kind of plant. That then led me into realizing these very interesting organisms and their very interesting interactions.

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I wonder about one thing. You are still teaching at Stony Brook. As an author of the Evolution textbook, what is it like to teach Evolution for you? -Well, maybe I should ask this question to your students- (laughing)

I am not sure exactly what you want to know. The students at Stony Brook have no idea about me. You think that I am a somewhat famous person, right?

Well, we used your textbook in our Evolution class.

The students at Stony Brook just think ‘Oh this is the guy who wrote the book. Okay, so what? We still have to listen to him.’ Well, I am nothing special to them.

You are teaching Evolution. As far as I know, in the US some of the schools try to teach both sides (author indicates creationism as one side). What do you think about the idea of teaching the debate, that there are two sides to the issue and both should be taught in the classroom?

That is an issue not in universities or college. The issue is a big debate for secondary schools, high schools what here you4_douglas-futuyma call junior colleges and also in the earlier school. That is where the big battle is, with people who say that creationism or some kind of alternatives to evolution should be taught. These are the people who do not believe in evolution. That is where the big fight is. And the question is “Should you say, okay, teach both of them and let the student make a choice or you should just teach evolution?” In the US, it is very important that we have in the US constitution, it forbids favoring any religion or even favoring people who have religion versus no religion. So religion is supposed to be totally separate from anything which is supported by the state. Public education, which is supported by the state, therefore cannot have any kind of religious based instruction. On that basis, the court, including the supreme court of the US, have said that you cannot teach anything which is a religious interpretation of the diversity of life. So, there have been many efforts by creationists to put their teaching in some kind of a mimicry or to teach indirectly. I completely oppose that. I think that in a science course, you should teach science. And there is no scientific theory or hypothesis for the diversity of life, except for evolution. If someone comes up with another scientific alternative, okay. But so far, we do not have any.

You are talking to people about evolution, not just to scientists, but also to the students, and general public in many forums. There are many people who conceive evolution theory wrongly. Then I am wondering about your opinion on how we can fight with the scientific illiteracy?

I think you have put your finger on one of the biggest most important issues. Because the issue is larger than just the evolution.

And it is not just country based. It is also a common thing in Turkey, for instance.

I know, I know it very well. The issue is scientific illiteracy. And this extends, for example now we see, to climate change and people denying the science. The scientists say that it is caused by greenhouse gas and by human activity. So the big issue is scientific illiteracy. I do not know how to do anything about that except to try to improve the teaching of science in the early years, such as the basic science courses that students are taking early in their schools. Teachers should be teaching not only some simple chemistry or cell biology. They should be teaching students how science works. How do you know that DNA is genetic material? How do we know that chemistry is made of atoms? What are the alternatives? How do we think about explaining the natural world? Do we understand how the process of science works as a kind of trial and error and also choosing between hypotheses and finding evidence for one vs another? Many people do not have any such education.

I have one more question if not too much to ask. Most people describe the field of ecology and evolution as a descriptive field of science. How far do you think we are from being predictive?

It depends on how much of a prediction you want, how accurate a prediction you want. Maybe not in very specific and exactly numerical terms, but in very broad terms, I think that we can be predictive. It is like climatology or meteorology. Meteorology, about the weather, is an application of physics. Everyone thinks physics is a very precise and predictive science. But the physics of air masses, the ocean currents, temperatures and everything are so complicated. So, physicists and so-called meteorologists, who are supposed to be physicists, can not predict exactly what the weather is going to be in New York one week from today. But they can predict that it is not going to be very hot, this time of the year it is going to be cold.

Maybe not that specific but a general prediction is possible, then.

Exactly. And I think that it is very much like that for ecology and evolution.

That is all, because you do not have much time. Thanks a lot!

Thank you very much.

This interview is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Dr. Aykut Kence, Turkey’s first evolutionary biologist, who passed away on Feb 1st, 2014.

Glossary

  • Balance school: The balanced school believed that genetic polymorphisms are common. They suggested that the maintenance of the polymorphisms are provided by individuals being heterozygous at most loci. According to this thought, natural selection would mainly act as a ‘balancing’ force, seeking to maintain heterozygosity at most loci, while occasionally acting as a purifying force that removed the low frequency of harmful alleles.
  • Classical school: The classical school suggested that the occurrence of genetic polymorphisms in a population is rare. According to this thought, individuals in a population are homozygous at most loci, with only the occasional deleterious allele that is removed by natural selection. Thus, natural selection would be a purifying force by removing deleterious alleles in order to maintain homozygosity at most loci. They used genetic drift to explain the existence of new alleles, which would either be lost or fixed. (Fixation here means that the original allele will be replaced by the new allele in the population).
  • Genotype: It is the genetic makeup of a cell, an organism, or an individual usually with reference to a specific characteristic under consideration.
  • Gel electrophoresis: By using an electric field, it allows for separation and analysis of macromolecules (DNA, RNA, and proteins) and their fragments, based on their size and charge.
  • Heterogeneous selection: As a result of the exposure of different natural environments on different loci (specific location of a gene or DNA sequence or position on a chromosome), selection would act heterogeneously.
  • Natural selection: It is the process by which species adapt to their environment. Natural selection leads to evolutionary change when individuals with certain characteristics have a greater survival or reproductive rate than other individuals in a population and pass on these inheritable genetic characteristics to their offspring.
  • Polymorphism: As the name implies, polymorphism indicates the occurrence of more than one morph or form. Sexual dimorphism and blood type can be given as examples.

References

  1. http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/futuyma.html
  2. http://genetics-notes.wikispaces.com/Classical+and+Balanced+Schools

Bilimin sesi kısılmasın!

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Doktorasını yapmakta olan, bilim yapmaya ve anlatmaya gönül vermiş bir akademisyen aday adayı olarak akademisyenlerin özgürlüğünü kısıtlayıcı yeni yasa ile ilgili olarak bu yazıyı yazmam gerekti.

Yüksek Öğrenim Kurulu (YÖK)’ün Öğretim Elemanı ve Memurları Disiplin Yönetmeliğinin 6’ıncı maddesinin (Kınama Cezası Gerektiren Fiil ve Davranışlar) birinci fıkrasına şöyle bir madde eklendi: “Bilimsel tartışma ve açıklamalar dışında, yetkili olmadığı halde basına, haber ajanslarına veya radyo ve televizyon kurumlarına resmi konularda bilgi veya demeç vermek.”

İlgili haber yazısı için: http://www.radikal.com.tr/turkiye/akademisyenlere_demec_verme_yasagi_getiriliyor-1173630

YÖK Basın ve Halkla İlişkiler Müşavirliği, bu hüküm hakkında basında ve sosyal medyada çıkan bazı yanlış anlamaları düzeltmek adına yaptığı açıklamada demeç verme yasasının, akademik ve bilimsel araştırma veya tartışmaların yasaklanması ya da öğretim elemanlarının güncel konulara ilişkin medyadaki tartışmalara katılmasının yasaklanması anlamına gelmediğini; yetkili olmadığı halde ilgili üniversite adına o üniversiteyle ilgili resmi konulara ilişkin beyan ve demeç vermeyi engelleme amacı taşıdığını belirtti.

Bilimden ne anladığımızdan (yahut anlamadığımızdan) mı, akademisyenleri sadece kendi alanında yetişmiş gören akıldan mı, bilim insanlarının toplumla bir araya geleceği vasıtalara ket vurulmasının bilimi anlatmamak demek olduğundan mı? Hangi birinden bahsetmeliyim?

Başlıyorum.

Akademisyenler sadece kendi işini yapsın, başkaca da bir şeye karışmasın kardeşim, deniyor. Gelin, belli tanımlara öncelikle bir açıklık kavuşturalım.

Akademi: Yüksek öğrenim sürecinde ve araştırmada yer alan öğrenci ve bilim insanlarından oluşan topluluk. Kelime aslında antik Yunan dilinden, Akadeos adındaki Atinalı bir kahramandan geliyor. Atina’da Eflatun (ya da Platon) tarafından meşhur edilen bir öğrenme merkezi var. Buraya Akademos deniyor. Akademi oldukça zengin anlamlı bir kelime, öyle ki bilginin kültürel birikimi, gelişimi ve üreten ve paylaşanlar arasında sürekli hareketi de akademi kelimesinin anlamını pekiştiriyor.

Akademisyen: Üniversite ve benzeri yüksek öğrenim kurumlarında öğretimi gerçekleştiren, araştırma yapan ve özgün araştırmalarıyla alanına katkıda bulunan kişiler.

Bu yeni yasaya göre akademisyenler kendi alanları dışında demeçler veremeyecekler. Bu zihniyetin örneklerini çoğu öğrenci eğitim hayatı boyunca yaşamıştır. Tek renk giyineceksin, mümkünse siyah ya da gri olacak. Sınava mı çalışmak zorundasın, bütün hobilerini bırakacak, sadece testlere odaklanacaksın. Ezberleye unuta, bilgi hazımsızlığı çekerek yıllarını okulda geçireceksin, dikkat et daha hiçbir şeyi sorgulayamadın.

Sıkıntımız burada. Sorgulamak yerine ezberleyip geçmeyi ‘öğretiyor’ aldığımız eğitimin çoğu. Belli bir eşikten geçmiş, sorgulamayı kendine farz edinmiş kişiler, nam-ı diğer akademisyenlerin de sesi çıkmazsa kimin çıkacak? Bir noktaya dikkat çekmek gerek, ruhunu ihalelere satmamış, her koşulda tarafsız kalabilen ve bilimsel gerçeklikle hareket eden kişileri sorgulayan akademisyen olarak adlandırıyorum. Akademisyen olmak için yetişmiş insan olmaz yetmez yani, örneğin her biyolog bir akademisyen değildir. Sadece makaleler, bildiriler, bilim dünyası içinde sınırlı kalmış üretkenlik yetmez akademisyen olmak için, ne kadar yazdığın, anlattığın, medyayı nasıl kullandığın, örneğin Evrimsel Biyoloji alanında uzmanlığını almışsan, Evrim kuramı’nı kitlelere nasıl doğru ulaştırdığındır seni asıl akademisyen yapan.

Öte yandan 1 Şubat 2014 günü kaybettiğimiz Ortadoğu Teknik Üniversitesi Biyoloji bölümünden emekli Prof. Dr. Aykut Kence gibi sinek popülasyon genetiği üzerine uzmanlığını almış olup Çernobil felaketi sonrası çayda radyasyon tehlikesini de gündeme getirebilmeli bir akademisyen, üstelik ne kadar susturulmaya çalışılırsa çalışılsın. Düşününce ne alaka diyor insan, popülasyon genetiği nere, Çernobil’in radyasyonlu çayları nere?

Öyle değil işte. Akademisyen kişi bilimsel gerçeklere sadık kalarak ve tarafsız konuştuğu sürece bütün topluma ulaşabilmelidir, sadece kendi alanında sınırlı kalmak zorunda da değildir. İletişim kanallarından biri olan medyayı kullanmasına ket vurmak ise topluma ulaşmasının ve haliyle toplumun gerçekleri duymasının önünde büyük bir engel oluşturacaktır. Bilim insanı kişi bildiri de yayımlamalı, demeç de vermeli, sorgulamalı ve yeri geldiğinde bunu sesli de yapmalıdır.

Sanırım en büyük eksiğimiz bu toplumca. Sorgulamaktan kaçıyor ve belki korkuyoruz bile. Belki de sorular sormaya başladıkça anlayacağız akademisyenliğin gerçek anlamını ve farkedeceğiz aslında onları susturdukça toplumun daha da sessizleşip kronik ‘her bilgiyi kabul edenler’ olacağını.

Akademisyenlerin sesinin gür çıktığı bir Türkiye’ye ve Prof.Dr. Aykut Kence’ye adıyorum bu yazımı.

From the field: Collecting insects in mangroves

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I started my PhD in Evolutionary Biology Laboratory at National University of Singapore. Our lab’s primary interest is in the Sepsidae family (a.k.a black scavenger flies) which has more than 300 described species. The main reasons for studying these organisms are that many species possess fascinating morphological and behavioural characters, can be easily bred under laboratory conditions, and have short development times. In our lab, the evolution of sexual dimorphisms and mating behavior of flies are intensively studied [1].
In order to do basic science on insects, there is a need for continuous species input from both inside and outside of Singapore. For instance, one of my colleagues just got back from a field trip in Africa, where he collected several fly specimens. There are various methods for collecting insects. When I was a field research assistant in wetland restoration project at KuzeyDoga Society in Kars, we used home-made sticky traps [2].
Bilge nin
Sticky traps are useful for monitoring an area for crawling insects 24/7, however their best use is to collect large-sized beetles. Thus, they are not very good when it comes to detecting small insects or mite pests. You can see an example to sticky traps in the picture above.
For the current fieldwork, our insectory lab is using the Malaise trap, named after its inventor René Malaise. This large, tent-like structure can have various colors and is used for trapping flying insects, in particular Hymenoptera and Diptera [3]. As I explained in the video below, the insects fly into the tent wall and are funnelled into a collecting vessel attached to highest point, which then are directed into a cyclinder or a bottle containing a killing agent, such as ethanol or cyanide.
The orientation of the traps is very important. The opening of the trap should be wide enough for allowing high number of insects to pass through. For instance, if there is a wide corridor in a forest, the trap should be positioned with its opening to the corridor. Upper sections of small streams or the edges of forests are some other examples to ideal trap locations. Our field work was in mangrove forests, which are the characteristic forest ecosystems of tropical and subtropical intertidal regions.
Given that the mangroves consist of several habitats such as salty branches and entangled roots, they are teeming with life, respectively. The mangrove biome is characterized by depositional coastal environments with species adopted to harsh environment conditions such as extreme salinity, temperature and high tides. Mangroves dominate three-quarters of tropical coastlines [4].
Görsel
In the following video that is recorded by my colleague Gowri, you can see a tiny bit of mangrove forests and my effort to reach the malaise trap located in this muddy environment. Enjoy!
Special thanks to Gowri Rajaratnam and Evolutionary Biology Lab.
References
1- Evolutionary Biology Laboratory, National University of Singapore: http://evolution.science.nus.edu.sg/
2- KuzeyDoga Society: http://kuzeydoga.org/
3- Gressit, J.L ve Gressit, M.K. (1962). An improved Malaise Trap. Pasific Insects 4 (1). 87-90.
4- Giri, C., Ochieng, E., Tieszen, L.L., v.d. (2011). Status and distribution of mangrove forests of the world using earth
observation satellite data. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 20, 154-159