Nice write-up in Science this week on NutNet (“Nutrient Network”), a huge (68 sites, 12 countries, 6 continents) experiment looking at the effects of nutrient enrichment and mammalian herbivore removal on grassland communities. This ongoing experiment was started six years ago by a group of grad students and postdocs (several of whom I’m proud to count as friends) who met at NCEAS. NutNet has already yielded an important Science paper (Adler et al. 2011) and a number of other publications, with many more in the pipeline (some of which I hope get submitted to Oikos!)
A few off-the-cuff thoughts:
- What a bang for the buck! NutNet is supported by one, count ’em, one NSF grant for $322,000 USD. A good chunk of that money goes towards supporting the data-sharing (e.g., paying the salary of a postdoc to run the centralized database). The experiment itself is simple and cheap to set up and sample, and so many of the NutNet sites are paid for with small “in kind” contributions from the NutNet members. It’s a very different model than, say, NEON, which is going to collect many different kinds of data, using much fancier instrumentation–and which is going to cost $434 million USD and will only cover one country. I’m not saying my American colleagues should dump NEON and replace it with, um…(does long division in head)…150-odd NutNets. For one thing it would be naive to assume that all the money going to NEON would otherwise have gone to projects initiated by individual ecologists. For another thing, I don’t know that there are 150-odd questions in ecology ripe for a NutNet-type approach. But it does serve as a reminder that high-impact science need not be expensive science.
- In some ways, NutNet is very new school, NCEAS-influenced science: highly collaborative, based on data sharing, relying on the internet to facilitate said collaboration and data sharing. But in some ways, it’s very old school: it’s all about collecting new data rather than meta-analysis of existing data, in order to address a question we were already interested in rather than a question we only thought to ask because of the data we happened to have. Indeed, NutNet was born out of frustration with the limitations of existing data, because previous nutrient addition and herbivore removal experiments all used different methods, thereby making meta-analyses difficult to interpret. NutNet also is old school in that the new data can be collected simply and cheaply, without using advanced technology. No remote sensing, no genomics, not even any computationally-intensive stats–just fertilizer, fences, and generalized linear models. It’s almost like citizen science–except the “citizens” are professional ecologists!
- I am now officially kicking myself for not joining NutNet. I actually thought about it briefly when it was first starting up, but decided I needed to focus on getting my own research program off the ground. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake. Not for mercenary reasons like “Geez, I could’ve had my name on a Science paper without doing much work or spending much money”, but just because it would’ve been fun to collaborate with some good friends, and because it would’ve taught me a new way of working (although I have subsequently started some collaborative lines of work).
So, what other questions in ecology could be usefully addressed via a NutNet-type approach?
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Soil nitrogen and carbon are studies in their own right, as are foliar N and C studies, but these are done in isolation largely from biota. Recently there have been indications of declines in small mammal populations in some countries e.g. rodents. TCR White years ago showed how important N was for juvenile invertebrates, and also for adults, and of course this translates to protein foodstuffs for small mammals (insectivores anyhow). My view is that increased temperatures affecting soil and foliar N may be having a flow-through effect on small mammals or may do so in the future. Therefore if you are asking what this project could do, perhaps it could study nitrogen levels in foodstuffs and growth rates of juvenile mammals, in countries affected such as Australia and in West Africa. Of course the suggested declines could be due to other factors such as habitat fragmentation, but the problem is nevertheless a potential one. Perhaps it was even the cause of the decline of the megafauna or the dinosaurs!
Why do we always look for direct effects, such as increased temperature and aridity caused megafauna decline, or even an Act of God such as an asteroid, before noticing that Nature often works by indirect means, so that these climatic factors may instead work indirectly through nutrient cycles or increased disease on the flora and fauna? This is possibly happening right in front of our eyes but there is no big effort that I know of to study it, so I guess I have to await the next asteroid!
A perfect project it seems to me.
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