Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tracking the Niche, A Project of Grinnellian Proportions

This post is the second in a mini-series discussing Joseph Grinnell, climate change and ecological niches. The previous post is available here: Joseph Grinnell, Climate Change and the Legacy of the California Thrasher

Joseph Grinnell was THE quintessential field biologist. From the time of his birth in 1877 (or, roughly thereabouts), until his to death in 1939 he marveled at the natural world. He reveled in nature’s aesthetic splendor, and he contemplated its immense mystery. He dedicated his entire life to the field of biology; birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians – he studied them all, and he did so with great detail.

Grinnell’s philosophy of scientific inquiry focused intently on the task of accumulating as much raw data as possible. For example, during the biological survey he carried out in Yosemite National Park between the years 1914 and 1920, Grinnell and his field crews collected 817 photographs, nearly 3000 animal specimens and more than 2000 pages of notes! Being organized and detail oriented is one thing, but Grinnell’s drive for thoroughness approached the obsessive.

As testimony to Grinnell’s view on taking accurate field notes, consider the following precept that he was known for continuously repeating as a mantra for meticulousness;

“Put it all down. You might not think it’s important, but somebody else may.” (1)

It may very well have been the sheer bulk of his available data that guided Joseph Grinnell to develop the concept of the ‘ecological niche’ discussed during the last post in this series (Available HERE). After all, he collected information on everything from the individual behavioral characteristics and morphology of observed animals to the daily weather patterns of Yosemite; all of these informational axes have been incorporated into the ecological niche concept. Even if the ‘niche’ wasn’t born of the data directly, the huge quantity of collected information would certainly have been useful during the writing of Grinnell’s numerous research papers and species descriptions, which are more than 500 in number.

Yet greater evidence to Grinnell’s tenacity can be found in the fact that despite his time spent collecting, he still managed to teach and perform administrative duties as the first Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley. An absolutely astonishing scientist!

In considering Grinnell’s knack for field work, another of his now famous quotes comes to mind. This one (from 1910) relates to the long-term value of the data that he and his colleagues were collecting.

“This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California and the West, wherever we now work.”

This quote would turn out to be very prophetic…

What possible value could be reaped in modern times for century-old data collected during Grinnell’s survey of the ‘Yosemite Tract’? What would comprehensive and weather-correlated descriptions of wildlife niches tell us about contemporary linkages of climate-and-niche?

A few steps are required in order to assess the above questions. As an initial step, there would be a need to quantify the climate-to-niche relationships of current systems. Once such modern data was in-hand, comparisons could be made between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ to identify any patterns or inconsistencies. In other words, to gauge change compare Grinnell’s data with what is exhibited by Yosemite’s ecosystems today.

This is precisely what the present Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley has done. He and his colleagues went to field, and using Grinnell’s notes and methods collected new data for the purpose of comparison. Their resurvey - The Grinnell Project - and findings will be discussed during the next post...

UPDATE: The 3rd and final installment of this series is available HERE.

1-As told to Ward Russell during a field survey; an audio recording of Ward’s 1992 interview can be found at the MVZ @ Berkeley website – HERE

Joseph Grinnell (1917). The Niche-Relationships of the California Thrasher The Auk, 34 (4), 427-433

Joseph Grinnell (1924). Geography and Evolution Ecology, 5 (3), 225-229

Moritz, C., Patton, J., Conroy, C., Parra, J., White, G., & Beissinger, S. (2008). Impact of a Century of Climate Change on Small-Mammal Communities in Yosemite National Park, USA Science, 322 (5899), 261-264 DOI: 10.1126/science.1163428

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