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What Ecology Instructors Can Learn from Their Colleagues in Biogeography

"These Raja Ampat Islands are thought to have the greatest marine diversity on earth. By exploring islands like these in the Malay Archipelago (modern day Indonesia), Alfred Russell Wallace (the “father of biogeography") discovered the Wallace Line and crafted a theory of evolution by natural selection. Biogeography can play a similarly important role in the search for underlying drivers of economic development."  Author: Jonathan Chase
“These Raja Ampat Islands are thought to have the greatest marine diversity on earth. By exploring islands like these in the Malay Archipelago (modern day Indonesia), Alfred Russell Wallace (the “father of biogeography”) discovered the Wallace Line and crafted a theory of evolution by natural selection. Biogeography can play a similarly important role in the search for underlying drivers of economic development.” Author: Jonathan Chase

Biogeography was a subject that I had no idea existed when I began my university education.  I always imagined Geography as being a field restricted to climatology, cartography, and GIS (Global Information Systems).  It never occurred to me that there were biogeographers, but once I realized they existed, it made perfect sense.  After all, geography is “a field of science dedicated to the study of the lands, the features, the inhabitants, and the phenomena of the Earth” so of course the study of life and it’s distributions would come into play.

When this enlightenment came, I was in the process of earning my Bachelor of Science in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution (EBE) and I was immediately curious about what this other group of student with overtly similar interests was up to.  It seemed to me that our two fields of study would have considerable overlap and thus their instructors likely employed a similar pedagogical approach and we were enjoying roughly the same educational experience, right?…Wrong.  After interacting with Biogeography students, I quickly  realized that there was a tremendous gap in my EBE education.

The pivotal moment came when I was visiting a botanical garden with my partner, Garrett, who was working on a double concentration in Art and Biogeography at the time.  As we walked along the paths, he could instantly identify (down to Family) just about any plant in the garden.  Furthermore, he could deduce (with remarkable accuracy) what part of the world it inhabited, whether it employed C3 or C4 photosynthesis, and why it was significant to various cultures/animals/other plants, etc.  I was shocked that I couldn’t do the same.  After all, my coursework should have provided me with a similar foundation and similar observational capabilities.  Now, this isn’t to say that I was entirely ill-equipped or that I didn’t have an advantage when the conversation shifted to physiology or specific behavioral mechanics, etc, but I was certainly deficient in my ability to see the broad patterns present in the natural world.  My education was dominated by courses on modeling, statistics, and increasingly reductionist biological subject matter that, while certainly having a high degree of value, seemed to ignore how all the pieces came together.

This is where I find biogeography students excelled.  They were being trained to see the “big picture” first and then distill things down from there.  They were beginning with the generalist courses (such as “Biology of Vertebrates”) that are beginning to disappear from universities and then drilling down. They have a profound appreciation for the underlying mechanics of the natural world and how our planet has shaped the distribution and characteristics of life on this planet.  They are trained to be explorers and generalists in ways that allow them to approach problems in unique and well-informed ways and they are adept at using new technologies to help them answer their questions.  For instance, it was biogeographers who pioneered the use of remote sensing technologies to study vegetation on this planet.

In essence, the lens through which a biogeographer views the world is a marvelous tool that ecology instructors and Department Chairs would do well to pass on to their students.  This isn’t to say that my education wasn’t valuable or that I feel “cheated”, but I would urge my instructors to take care not to neglect “the big picture” in their teaching of the specifics.

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