Monday, 3 November 2008

The Loom of Life

I've been meaning to write a review of this for a while

There are stacks of books all over my house. They colonise bare surfaces under their own volition. (Or possibly stuck to the legs of waterfowl*. Both ways are equally plausible.)

If I plotted the rate at which those books arrive on my coffee table and the rate at which they are read and shelved, I'm sure the results would be pretty close to Robert MacArthur and Ed Wilson's graph of their equilibrium model of island biogeography. You know the one, with the curves representing immigraton and …

If you aren't familiar with their graph, then I have just the book for you. (And even if you are familiar with it, there's still plenty to read in this.) It's right here on my desk, about to shift from the unread to read pile. The Loom of Life: Unravelling Ecosystems is an introduction to ecology. It's not a text book. Not in the strictest sense. But it is an excellent primer for anyone interested in getting a grip on this vast subject.

Evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen writes with great clarity and humour. He illustrates his topics — food webs, niches, guilds, biodiversity and so on — with fascinating examples. This is one of my favourites: Have you heard of Movile Cave in Romania? I hadn't. Discovered in 1986 by geologists who were charged with the job of finding a location for Ceaucescu's new power station, the cavern turned out to be a wholly self-contained ecosystem, sealed off from the rest of the world by almost twenty metres of solid limestone and a shedload of clay.

In this enclosed world-ette, bacteria play the role taken on by plants at the surface — transforming inorganic carbon into organic molecules within their cells. (Where it becomes available as nosh for those who can't manufacture their own food.) For plants, the carbon comes from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the energy from sunlight. For the Movile bacteria, carbon comes from dissolved limestone in the cave's pools and the energy from the toxic chemical hydrogen sulphide. (It's a weird world-ette. Even weirder than hydrothermal vents and cold seeps in the ocean. No offfence intended, Deep Sea News.) These carbon-crunching, rotten-egg gas-munching bacteria form the basis of the food chain in the self-sufficient cave ecosystem — and provide an intriguing introduction to energy flow, niches and the whole ecological kit and kaboodle.

Alongside these vignettes are character sketches of ecologists involved in unravelling ecosystems. (At least, in mapping their patterns.) The chapter on island biogeography (In Splendid Isolation), which stars Wilson, MacArthur and Daniel Simberloff is a gem. Even though I can't believe they haven't turned their gargantuan brains towards the science of biblioecology.

I enjoyed it. It's informative. It's entertaining. It has shameless puns. What more could you ask of a book on ecology?

Schilthuizen, M. (2008) The Loom of Life: Unravelling Ecosystems. Springer.

* Apologies if I've used that joke before.


Denis Wilson said...

Hi Snail.
Is there a possibility of using those clever bacteria for carbon sequestration purposes (serious question).
Non serious question - what's that about books stuck to duck legs? I am missing something - but I have no idea what.

CR McClain said...

Too late I'm offended ;-)

Snail said...

Denis, there's quite a bit of study into looking at photosynthetic bacteria and other single-celled organisms as a way of tying up excess carbon. The problem lies in keeping it tied up for long enough. I'm not sure about those particular hydrogen sulphide lovin' bacteria. I'll ask our resident microbiologist when she gets back from annual leave.

As for the second question, it's a reference to one of the dispersal mechanisms for small aquatic organisms. The greeblies crawl onto duck feet while submerged, then crawl off at the next stop. Darwin investigated this with a pair of duck legs, a fish tank and a population of juvenile pond snails. As you do. I maintain this is how red-necked wallabies made their way to Hawaii. (There's a colony of *alleged* zoo escapees on the islands but I think it's clear they got there hitch hiking on migratory waders.)

Craig, you hydrothermal vent people are so sensitive! :)

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Snail.
Thanks for the two explanations. Hitchhiking Wallabies seems entirely plausible to me. :-))
The local Wingecarribee Swamp has a Gentian (plant) which is virtually identical to a plant known only from Japan. The theory is it was brought in (probably internally) by Japanese Snipe.
Sorry I did not pick up what is apparently a famous reference.

Dave Coulter said...

I CAN speak with some authority on the ecologies of "book-reefs" that colonize my dwelling ;)

Snail said...

Denis, I don't think it's all that famous! Some of those odd occurrences are really fascinating. I can half remember a recent paper about snails in the Azores that looks at how they were moved around by other than their own feet ... Must check on that.

Dave, do you think they attract other species? I've noticed swarms of bookmarks and the occasional pen and notepad.

Dave Coulter said...

With all kidding aside there probably IS a constellation of tiny (and large) creatures lurking in those reefs! :)