About the Cover – Rafe’s humorous way to explain how difficult was to get the right book cover. Originally posted on Sept. 17, 2012.

The tabloid rumors are true – we had knock-down, drag-out fights about the cover.  Actually, they were just long strings of complaining emails from me and sometimes Anibal, and calm, reassuring responses from our wonderful editor Barbara Dean, that we would eventually get a cover we were all happy with.  I am happy to report that we love the cover Maureen Gately ultimately put together.

We wanted a cover that illustrated the many layers and scales of “Observation and Ecology” – one that combined the ancient ways of natural history with the modern, sometimes technologically aided ways of observing a complex world.  Oh, and we also wanted to illustrate the recursive nature that marks the process of observing  (you observe more broadly the more observing you do), the march of science (it grows and changes based on its past states), and nature itself (it also grows and changes based on its past states).  Not too much to ask, right?

The first efforts at this mashup had all of the elements, but they just seemed too cut and paste–they weren’t really integrated – and that’s where the power of today’s ecology comes from.

The final version is a wonderful collage with a background taken from old whaling ship logs (alluding to the basic natural history, historical ecology, and “citizen science” aspects of the text), a beautiful phylogeny of honeycreepers (marking the integration of good natural history and modern molecular technology), generously provided by H.

Douglas Pratt (check out hdouglaspratt.com), and that somewhat esoteric spiraling clockface, which gets at the recursive nature of time, evolution, science, and our own personal growth of observers.

The cover nicely captures all of these elements – and it looks good too – so put one on your bookshelf today!

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IPBES: Understanding biodiversity and ecosystem services from multiple perspectives.

IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) www.ipbes.net is a global initiative, involving more than 120 countries, aimed to “to provide policy relevant knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services in response to calls from policy makers and other users of biodiversity, in order to inform decision making” (see editorial).

Last week, I have the opportunity to participate in the First meeting of IPBES for the Regional Assessment for the Americas. IPBES provides a very interesting new approach to deal with information coming from multiple sources and how to communicate and translate information so it can be understood by multiple stakeholders (Díaz et al. 2015). The idea is to recognize that each stakeholder has unique visions and languages to refer to nature and its benefits for humankind.

Observations, such as those discussed in our book with Rafe (Sagarin and Pauchard, 2012), may provide a unique way to connect multiple visions on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Because observations can be made by all stakeholders, within their own context; observations can help to not only observe the natural phenomena but also provide information on the observer and his/her/their view of nature. Obviously, this is not an easy process because it will require gathering information from multiple observers and understand the specific “language” and “context” of these observers. However, it will sure bring a more comprehensive view of the problem by not only adding the social dimension, but also opening new perspectives and delivering new insights into nature.

IPBES has a great challenge ahead, especially when including local indigenous knowledge and combining multiple societal views, but this is the challenge that we need to face right here, right now if we want to find a way to conserve biodiversity and at the same time improve human well-being.

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Combining observations and experiments to quantify invasive species impacts.

Biological invasions have for long being considered a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystem services. However, measuring the magnitude of such impacts have remain elusive and most information remains very local or taxon-dependant. For plants, this is particularly critical because plants can have effects that may take years to actually become evident in the invaded ecosystem, depending on the type of invader and the ecosystem which they invade. For example, trees in open ecosystems such as grasslands may take decades before they reach a density that is able to affect species diversity or alter ecosystem cycles (e.g. fire regimes).

To quantify and understand impacts of plant invasions, a combined  experimental  observational approach may be particularly useful. In this recent paper lead by Jacob Barney, we have summarised a novel standardised protocol called Global Invader Impact Network (GIIN). We propose to take advantage of plant invasions that have already occurred and therefore provide a “natural experiment” and observe the changes they have cause by comparing invaded and non-invaded communities. Of course, there are caveats to this approach that need to be faced but that enough replication may solved. In addition, manipulative removal experiments may help us to understand the legacies of such invasions and identify which impacts can have lasting effects on the ecosystems. This approach requires an important component of monitoring in the long-term as well as a carefully selection of biotic and abiotic variables to be recorded.  Nonetheless, the most powerful tool of our approach is the potential to be replicated across multiple regions, multiple sites and multiple species. We believe that this global approach may shed light into the generalities, but also the peculiarities, on plant invasion impacts. Undoubtedly, this will improve our ability to prioritise the management of the most harmful invaders. I think this is good example of innovative approaches that use observations to capture nature complexities as we have promoted with Rafe in our book.

Please take a look at the new paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.1551/full


Barney, J.N., Tekiela, D.R., Barrios-Garcia, M.N., Dimarco, R.D., Hufbauer, R.A., Leipzig-Scott, P., Nuñez, M.A., Pauchard, A., Pyšek, P., Vítková, M. & Maxwell, B.D. (2015) Global Invader Impact Network (GIIN): toward standardized evaluation of the ecological impacts of invasive plants. Ecology and Evolution, early online.

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Evolution as a way to think and to relate to nature.

There has been a long controversy in the US and worldwide about evolution vs. creationism. Strikes me, as probably stroke Rafe, that we are still debating the basics of biological science. Evolution is the key to understand all biological problems, but more importantly is the tool of us to understand how we can relate to nature in a more sustainable and functional way. With Rafe, we spoke about the importance of teaching ecology and evolution since very early childhood. Both disciplines gives the basic principles for a human being to relate to nature in a more harmonic and conscious manner, without them we see nature just as a static, God-given, scenario where humans can do whatever they please without facing any consequences (look at climate change and the extinction crisis). This simplistic view is just fundamentally wrong and can lead to serious mistakes for humankind.

Today, I came across this very inspirational video that shows how a 21 years old, Zack Kopplin, is fighting for the right to teach evolution in schools in the US. This goes along what Rafe and I pushed for in our book, to have a solid ecological literacy in all society. We need more people, young and old, to be like him.

Take a look: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/24/1396124/-Bobby-Jindal-is-being-exposed-by-his-old-friend-s-21-year-old-son-over-and-over-and-over-again?detail=facebook or the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xSqH5Hh_M_I

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Rafe’s interview: Thinking in how ecology and evolution can help us understand the world

In this interview, Rafe Sagarin addresses the importance of biological evolution in every day life, security and global change. One of the key elements of Rafe’s views was his exceptional power to make inductive thinking, by reviewing a number of case studies, he could create a strong narrative. This narrative went far beyond pure ecological problems, but rather it could be applied to all issues in human society. We need more scientists willing to take such as step, to cross disciplinary boundaries and make sense of ecology for our everyday life.
Rafe also comments on our book Observation and Ecology, showing that we live an era where ecology really can benefit from using such massive amounts of data that has not necessarily being collected for scientific purposes. Again, Rafe was provocative when calling for inclusion of non-ecologists into the development and application of ecology.
Enjoy Rafe’s interview.
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Remembering Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin passed away on May 28th, 2015 while riding his bicycle to work and being hit by a drunk driver. He left behind his beloved wife and two beautiful daughters as well as a loving family and myriads of friends and colleagues. He will be deeply missed.

I will use this site to maintain his legacy for ecology, science and conservation.

First post after Rafe is gone…

Here is Rafe, Rebecca, Ella and Rosa, along with me, my wife Paula and my son Benjamín. This photo was taken in February, 2011 in Tucson, while we were writing the book.


A tribute and a last letter to Rafe Sagarin

Rafe and I met by email in July 2007. He had written a letter arguing against setting only experimental priorities for ecology (a paper published that year in Fronties in Ecol and Evol.). I also was upset by that paper and I wanted to do something, so Rafe’s letter was like a great discovery. I wrote to him congratulating him on such letter and he quickly replied saying that we should do more. This rather random reading of his letter was the beginning of an incredible collaboration and friendship. As Rafe said, we were both good at writing “angry letters”, stating out opinion about issues in science, ecology and conservation. Needless to say, we wrote a paper (not knowing each other in person), a book and many small blogs and talks, besides the hundreds of emails we wrote discussing from the most intricate philosophical issue, up to how to come up with the perfect cover for our book. It is amazing to think that, coming from such different background, cultures and countries, we were practically soul-mates in how we view the role of ecology as a tool to understand and protect nature. Of course, you Rafe, were the outspoken, extremely fluent, and inspirational in our team. I have to admit I felt shy in front of such a vast display of communicational skills, but soon I learn that there was an important role for me to be played. You joke about me about being the moderator of all your revolutionary ideas, even toning down, and I quote “the revolution to an evolution”. Yes, that was true, I found that our message was so strong that I didn’t wanted it to get lost in an unnecessary confrontational tone. I think we both learn tons out of those discussions and the long emails, and you always were extremely patient with my slow writing and my always “busy” agenda. Thanks so much. I can’t express how much I will miss our partnership, Rafe. But I have to say we did our best! I promise to keep fighting to promote our “little green manifesto” on observation and ecology, and all the other ideas that will emerge from there. I am sure there will be lots of people fighting for your legacy including your projects at Biosphere. I will also, with the help of Paula, check on Rebecca and your girls, Rosa and Ella, so they know you are always with us and how great you were as a scientist and a friend. Rafe, I hope to see you somewhere, sometime, maybe we will write another “angry letter” or another “re-evolutionary manifesto”. Farewell, Rafe, you can be sure your legacy will remain and expand!

Your friend, Aníbal

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Powerful Observations of a Backyard Ecology

I wanted to share the work of Arizona State University School of Sustainability graduate student Edgar Cardenas.  Edgar’s work, a photographic exploration of the changes of his scraggly back yard over the course of time, reminds us that anywhere is a good place to practice the art of observation. Check the links below for more on this great work:

Visual Work: http:///littledramas/Cursor_and_one_hundred_little_dramas._—_edgar_cardenas_photography
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On Observation – a journey up the California Coast

It’s been years, but I finally published my account of a wonderful observational field expedition I took with 13 students from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment up the California coast.  Here’s a few excerpts…

“Observation is not just the task of looking at stuff. It is also the concept and process that paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij calls “the role of sensation—of observation with the brain in gear,” and it has been a little irritant in the mantle of my mind since I first started serious scientific observation of the California coast a few decades ago. I’ve come to see science as a shifting, evolving thing. It doesn’t really shift around the astounding new discoveries that make headlines, as we often are led to believe. Instead, like all evolutions, it shifts holistically in system-wide modifications of simple, ancient processes. Those simple and ancient processes are driven by observation—how we observe and how we use the products of our observation—and observation has become more powerful than at any previous point in scientific history.”

“On a scientific level, dealing with negative observations is problematic. Maybe we happened to snorkel on a day the rockfish were mating on the other side of the island. The best way to sharpen the outline of that negative space is to get more basic observations—dive around the island, dive throughout the year, learn when and where the fish mate, set up well-enforced reserves, and see if the fish come back. On a personal level, it can be disheartening to always observe the negative space. It takes some of the unbridled joy out of floating in a kelp forest or hiking up a canyon. However, it does give a sense of direction for a conservation pathway, which always starts with that missing element or altered state, winds its way through trophic webs, habitats, climate, and history all the way back down to one important driver of change: people.”


“…fire brought out the best moments of our trip, as well. On cold coastal nights after long drives and long days of activities, we had excellent fires. They raised our primordial subconscious memories, and we became a clan. On the last night of the trip, we gathered by the fire one more time and we shared our best moments with each other. Some were simple things unique to our small group, such as making pasta dinner in a windswept shack on a coastal bluff. Some were grand things that have been commonly felt with reverence and awe by millions of people across generations, such as a quiet sunset walk in Muir Woods. Some were very personal memories that we were grateful to be invited to share. Some moments took place in specific places, and when we heard of them we all remembered how that place looked and smelled and sounded. Afterward, we sat by the fire quietly and listened to the waves crashing on the rocks and watched the flickering embers rising to meet the flickering stars, and I thought how everyone’s favorite moment had become my favorite moment, too. So in that moment I was finally taken to that place that existed only on paper when we started the trip, a place mapped out in prose by Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck on one of their own leisurely journeys of travel and research:

‘And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.’



From: On Observation, published in the Fall 2014 Boom: A Journal of California:


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