Density and competition

Density and competition

In the second year of my PhD scholarship, I boarded my first aircraft, a bog-standard commercial flight from London to Rome but wow, what a thing?

The energy pushing you back into your seat, the stupidity of being suspended 30,000 feet up in the air and the impossibility of such a heavy tube of metal being able to get you and your seat up there. Just one experience I now take for granted that 30 odd years ago were a wonder to a youngster.

The journey was the first of many plane trips in my professional career, including some far more risky ones than a smooth jaunt across Europe. This first one was to attend a scientific conference, a meeting of minds for most of the world’s woodlice researchers. Some 50 people from all over Europe and North America who were into the behaviours, physiology and ecology of the terrestrial branch of Isopoda, an order of Crustaceans, the majority of whom live in water. The isopods that is.

So before we get to the publication, a brief ponder on the notion of a woodlouse conference. That humans, the most curious of beings, should have individuals dedicated enough to spend most of their waking hours understanding the biology of a peculiar group of animals that should be in the ocean but are not is quite miraculous. That these scientists can also be organised enough to get together periodically to discuss their obscure findings is bizarre too. This one in Urbino on the east coast of Italy in September 1986 was the Second International Symposium on the Biology of Terrestrial Isopods. It was a hoot, including a crustacean themed dinner with more than a dozen courses one of the very few meals from the distant past that I can still remember.

I was there to present some of my PhD research on competition and in the conference proceedings appeared my first single-author paper.

Dangerfield J.M. (1989) Competition and the effects of density on terrestrial isopods. Monitore Zoologico Italiano (N.S.) Monograph 4: 411-423

When reading this piece again for this post I could not even recall running the experiments the paper describes. It wasn’t until I read the methods of culturing broods of the tiny critters in plastic containers and feeding them uniformly ground leaf litter that it came back to me. The pots layered up on racks in controlled temperature rooms and hours weighing thousands of animals individually. Such is the dedication and forgetfulness required for higher learning.

A series of experiments tested the effects of crowding (although I called it density for formality) on growth, survival of young and the reproduction in adult Armadillidium vulgare, the common pillbug, with the general result that crowding matters. That is if you’re a woodlouse and you are around your woodlouse buddies too much they affect your biological success. The more is not the merrier for woodlice even if there is abundant food. Woodlice also compete against other woodlouse species, who doesn’t, only the win in the competition is affected by the size of the arena. It would seem that for woodlouse at least life is lived very much in three dimensions.

All up my conclusion and the most likely explanation was that there was interference going on in the cultures. The activity doing enough to generate measurable competitive effects. Noting that there was always enough food to go around, at least that is what I assumed. I remember being quite chuffed at this explanation because at the time the theory was that competition was not just about food but proving this was always tricky. So to have generated numbers suggesting it for such a lowly critter was fair play.

By Franco Folini – San Francisco, California, CC BY 2.5,

It is hard to go past a simple experiment. Easy to design and deliver with all the satisfaction of hypothesis testing at the end. It’s the stuff of early career ecologists, they love it. I certainly did.

Did this science add to the pile of human knowledge? Well, not really, despite my enthusiasm over interference. It is likely that woodlice are competitive and these interactions can have consequences for their populations but there is also a lot more going on. Just because a mechanism exists does not mean it is important. But finding out that it is possible is worth the effort.

Later work could build on the findings but even in themselves, they show how complex patterns in nature can be. Today I would say that all of nature is constantly competitive. It is why we have natural selection and why there is so much diversity. Organisms become different to try and avoid as much of the constant competition as they can, usually with only limited success.

If nature is innately competitive, and we are of nature, not a rhetorical question, then we need not go much further than competition and how to avoid it as an explanation for many a human woe.

Back in 1986, that first plane trip got me started on my research career. My first single-author paper and a small but important step toward independence as a researcher.

Little did I realise how far and wide that journey would go.

Are scientists ready?

Are scientists ready?

The peer-reviewed publications series of posts based on my personal reminiscences from my time as an academic has triggered a number of thoughts and emotions. One is the dubious relevance of the work to anything beyond a young academics career path.

Research is intellectual fun and throughout the time I was a researcher, and at intervals later, along with the endorphins I thought that I had helped add another straw onto the haystack of human knowledge. This banal thinking readily justified the most esoteric of studies, including the sex life of millipedes. And there is some logic here, for should the haystack become large enough then any number of problems are crushed under the sheer volume of evidence. At least that is what we used to tell ourselves.

There are people who have rumbled this ruse including Dr Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge who summed it up as “time for university leaders to double down on the interdisciplinary, solution-oriented work that this complex, problem-filled world needs”.

Questions should be asked about the relevance of university research and there should be suggestions made for change. Bluntly, get real or stop wasting taxpayers money.

And why wouldn’t this happen? Surely this is a given and is not a question that should even be asked. After all, academics are smart folk. They ought to know what is needed and how to make the best use of their considerable intellectual bandwidth. But Dr Vira’s argument is that Universities are not structured to allow this to happen and I have to agree.

It was one of the reasons I left the academic system that always felt too lethargic to be part of the real world. There was currency in research output but no requirement for any of it to be relevant and in my discipline of ecology many a long nose was peered down at anything applied to a real-world problem.

No doubt there are pockets of innovation and nimble responses here and there but collectively the system is not delivering on most of the wicked problems. And all that esoteric research on millipedes didn’t either.

Dr Vira asks for interdisciplinary, solution orientated work. Getting people to cooperate outside their specific area of expertise — read ‘comfort zone’ — and to look for solutions through applied research is asking more than most can give. It takes great courage and self-confidence to walk into a room of specialists from another discipline and ask them to work with you. Not many people can do it.

The narcissists, bullies, and fools can, but they are not the source of effective collaboration.

Humans fake cooperation when it is a requirement for a paycheck, so industry and commerce can build teams of sorts, but even when the incentive is clear, businesses need small armies of project managers and change consultants to make sure output happens.

So, can academics work together to save the world from its woes?

Unfortunately, my friends, not in a million years.