Friday, May 15, 2009

A joke of a science

This is a joke that the Possingham lab was (and presumably still is) very fond of - originally appeared in a TREE article written by Katriona Shea and colleagues at an NCEAS working group.

There were four population ecologists shivering and starving, trapped in the boreal winter – a conservation biologist, a fisheries scientist, a theoretical ecologist and a pest manager. A moose appeared on the horizon and came thundering towards them – 1000 kg of warm edible flesh. Each scientist drew on his or her expertise and dealt with the moose using all their respective discipline’s wisdom:
  • The conservation biologist couldn’t decide on an objective. He died wondering whether the moose’s existence was more important than his own.
  • The fisheries scientist used the wrong model. Based on her prior knowledge of elk, she predicted that more moose would be coming, so she starved in anticipation of a herd that never appeared.
  • The theoretical ecologist drew out his laptop and quickly wrote a program to calculate the optimal distance at which to shoot the moose. His calculations proved that the optimal distance was an imaginary number, and he would have been successful had the moose entered imaginary space.
  • The pest manager knew immediately that the moose had to be killed – the only question was with what – pesticide or natural biological control? She opted for the environmentally friendly biological control and released a wolf, which turned around and ate her.
The article is pretty short, and a pithy description of how the objectives of management are what make different disciplines different - the underlying models of population dynamics are the same. I often feel that this point is misunderstood when population dynamics gets mentioned in a seperate bullet point from habitat management - as if managing habitat has nothing to do with population dynamics.

Shea K. et al (1998) Management of Populations in conservation harvesting and control. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 13: 371-376.

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