Month: August 2014

When history meets ecology: Connecting European exploration and biodiversity in the northwest Atlantic

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Hediste diversicolor (top; E. Kristensen, and Corophium volutator (bottom; M. Storey,
Hediste diversicolor (top; E. Kristensen, and Corophium volutator (bottom; M. Storey,
Although it doesn’t happen often, the intersection of academic fields (such as history and science) can lead to exciting and important discoveries. For example, historical records of human migration and modes of transportation can provide insight into the broad-scale distribution of various organisms, ultimately telling us how and when certain animals arrived where they are today. In fact, the above-mentioned example has recently provided insight into where some species of marine organisms in the northwest Atlantic Ocean originated from, along with when and how they likely got there.
Using genetic techniques, Tony Einfeldt, a Ph.D. student in Dr. Jason Addison’s lab at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB, Canada, and his colleagues  have discovered that benthic marine worms and amphipods, which reside within mudflats of the northwest Atlantic coast, likely arrived there in the ship ballast of early European explorers. Einfeldt et al. compared the genetic structure of various populations of ragworms (Hediste diversicolor) and amphipods (Corophium volutator) residing within the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine to those along the Atlantic coast of Europe. Similarities in the genetic identity between North American and European populations are highly suggestive that the northwest Atlantic populations originated from the European coast. As Einfeldt states, “We can tell where they came from because the genetic identity of both species in the Bay of Fundy matches that of those in Europe.” Furthermore, with such precise technology and methodology, Einfeldt et al. were able to isolate two separate introductions of these species from Europe, with Bay of Fundy populations likely originating from the Bay of Biscay in France and Gulf of Maine populations coming from more northerly European nations (Norway, Denmark, Germany, etc.).
But how did they get there? To answer this question, Einfeldt et al. attempted to match the movement of these benthic invertebrates with human movement throughout history. Of course, one mode of the intercontinental dispersal of marine organisms is through the ballast water of ships, as ships empty and refill their ballast when they dock, allowing species from one coast to enter the ship through refilling and be introduced to another coast through emptying. But the species studied by Einfeldt et al. are not among those found in modern ballast water, likely because they are infaunal organisms, meaning that they reside within bottom sediment of marine intertidal areas (i.e., mudflats). However, historically, not all ballast was in the form of water. Early European explorers, including those to first cross the Atlantic, most often used rocks for ballast, along with (you guessed it) mud! In fact, the earliest known European ships to have used mud and rocks for ballast are those of Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson in the 1600’s, although dry ballast was used up until the 1800’s, making the point of introduction quite difficult to identify.
Some marine species in the northwest Atlantic, such as H. diversicolor and C. volutator, may have arrived here through the ballast of early European explorers. Source: Wikipedia
Some marine species in the northwest Atlantic, such as H. diversicolor and C. volutator, may have arrived here through the ballast of early European explorers. Source: Wikipedia
Although the time window of introduction is quite wide (~200 years), the results of Einfeldt et al. provide strong evidence that the presence of H. diversicolor and C. volutator along the Atlantic coast of North America is a result of European exploration and migration to North America. What’s more is that these two species are important drivers of their respective ecosystems, particularly in the Bay of Fundy. Many species of fish feed on these benthic invertebrates, while migrating shorebirds often depend on the abundance of these species in Bay of Fundy mudflats for food during annual migrations. Ultimately, if these species were never introduced to the northwest Atlantic coast, the diversity of animals that reside there, either permanently or temporarily, may be very different than it is today.


I’d like to thank Tony Einfeldt of UNB Fredericton for taking the time to chat and provide input into this post. I also want to thank Shane Fowler, CBC correspondent, for sparking my interest in publishing this post and for his dedication to the promotion of science in New Brunswick.
For those interested, the peer-reviewed publication in Invertebrate Biology can be found here.

The useless debate of school vs. education

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diplomaAs of late, I’ve been seeing a video resurfacing among some friends on social media that I criticized when I first watched. The release and subsequent virility of the video below in 2012 – Why I Hate School But Love Education by poet Suli Breaks – seemed to have people questioning the distinction between education and school and suggested that university was worthless and we don’t need it. I beg to differ.
First of all,  of course university isn’t always necessary; it’s all in what you want to do. The problem with this “debate” is that it is stirring the pot in terms of whether or not higher education is useless. Although Suli Breaks’ voice and argument, fueled by his personal experience, appear to portray the idea that institutionalized education is utterly obsolete, this stance is dead wrong. Here’s why:
Throughout the video, many faults in his arguments are immediately evident. The first is that he uses outliers – outstanding individuals – rather than average people to make his point. In terms of ‘the statistics’ (a term which seems to be misunderstood and overused in the video), these people are extremely rare; one-in-a-million if you will.

Secondly, some of the facts Suli presents are just simply incorrect. Some of the people referred to as having no post-secondary (higher) education, actually do. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, had an outstanding level of education before attending Harvard, where he learned lessons which helped him get to where he is today. Just because he dropped out to pursue Facebook and ‘technically’ didn’t graduate does not render his university level education obsolete.
The video also uses many historical examples to make the case that school is unnecessary. Though today anyone can put forward great ideas without scholastic education, there is no evidence that this leads to more valid idea generation. Furthermore, although Socrates had his own ideas, he was the teacher of Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle, and so on. Without Socrates teaching the likes of Plato and Aristotle you could argue that they may never have come up with their philosophies independently. The ‘Socratic method’ and Plato’s foundation of the Academy were early versions of institutionalized learning and proved to be huge assets to the progression of society at that time, without which the shape and direction of progress may have been very different. Additionally, given the preliminary state of human knowledge, it was likely easier to put forward thoughts and ideas without scholastic education in historical times than it is now, if simply because we didn’t know as much. The amount of information that must be comprehended before forming truly great ideas is outstanding and, again, only one in a million may be able to present such ideas without a high degree of formal education.zuckerberg
All the while, Suli Breaks forgets to mention such great minds as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gandhi and the countless other such individuals who did go to school and did receive degrees. Without a higher education, these individuals may never have gained the knowledge they needed to propose their theories, or enact their paths; and our current knowledge of the way the world works may have never come about to be.
It’s great that people are starting to question the nature of higher education — a degree is not something that everyone needs to or should pursue. But the fact of the matter is that post-secondary education does have its place and is a necessity. Without universities and degrees, academia and our breadth of knowledge wouldn’t be where it is today. Great scientists, philosophers, businessmen, politicians, and others from a multitude of fields often need the guidance of professors in order to better formulate their thoughts and gain the necessary information needed to make substantial contributions and breakthroughs — not to mention the benefit that can be garnered from ones’ peers.
Before jumping on this bandwagon of higher education being useless, ask yourself this question (or one similar, pertaining to your passion and goals):
“If I wanted to be a scientist, business mogul, great philosopher; or a nurse, veterinarian, doctor – could I really do so by teaching myself, without the aid of a professor or mentor?”
platoNo, not everyone needs to go to school to be successful and make money; but a lot of people do. Very few of us can learn entirely as autodidacts, while the majority of us need some sort of guidance, at least initially, to steer us on the right path. Furthermore, universities are often exactly the place where individuals find their true passion to go on to live their lives doing what they love. I am a living example of the great things that higher education can do for people and am certainly not alone. Without going to university I never would have discovered my passion.  University is not just about getting marked – if you feel it is, then you are there for the wrong reasons.
People can argue until they’re blue in the face that ‘school’ is fundamentally unnecessary, but they’re absolutely and unequivocally wrong, not to mention naive. Higher education isn’t necessary for everyone – perhaps you don’t need school – but for most people it is. Not just to learn and get marked, but to discover passions and learn how to contribute to the benefit and progression of humanity. Without the extensive success of institutionalized learning, our knowledge of the world wouldn’t even be close to what it is today. Instead of debating as to why schooling is useless, I proffer that we debate how it might be improved.