a bad case of story head

OK, so I just read Carl Zimmer’s blog entry, Climate Relicts — which points to a piece he wrote for Yale Environment 360, published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies — and I was left with that uplift of a shoulder, that intellectual shrug and a yawn — so what? And then I thought, “What if I can’t read science? What if studying literature for so long has ruined me for science? Am I such a story-character fanatic that I can’t take in the information? I know Carl Zimmer writes well. Why can’t I get excited about the piece?

My take: relicts like the European beech (the example Zimmer begins with) sitting in Spain can teach us about other species as the earth warms. The beech isn’t supposed to be in dry and hot Spain, and it wasn’t brought there by a German tourist (Zimmer’s example). The beech has been there a long time. See — I can’t even explain the basics of the article? OK. Let me go back to it and give a summary.

The beeches have been there since the last Ice Age. Zimmer explains how beeches started to spread into Spain after the Ice Age, and then when Spain became hot and dry, the beeches died out. But some remained. I like this sentence: “But in a few moist, cool mountain valleys in central Spain, pockets of beeches have survived, from the age of wooly rhinos and Neanderthals to today.”

Zimmer goes on to tell us that these beeches are an example of what’s called “climate relicts.” Climate relicts haven’t received the attention they deserve, but a recent article is changing that (the article is by Alistair Jump and Arndt Hampe, published in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics). The article seems to have spurred Zimmer’s own piece — and Zimmer underscores the main point of Jump and Hampe’s piece — the warming of the planet creates new climate relicts, and “today’s climate relicts may hold clues about how to protect species from global warming-driven extinction.”

Admirable stuff. Why am I yawning? It’s not Zimmer’s writing. And since Zimmer provides a link to the article, I’m about to go read it. I’ll let you know if I stay awake. I like biology. Anything to do with the environment. Why can’t I get excited? Why can’t I assimilate the information and say, “Hey, this is important stuff?”

Not sure I have an answer. But I suspect that I need strong characters. Where are the characters in the piece? Zimmer starts with the beeches. They’re good characters. OK, I’m letting this be for a bit. Time to read the article.

…a few minutes later…

Right. So I need $20 to access the full text. But I was intrigued by the abstract. Here it is:

Populations left behind during climate-driven range shifts can persist in enclaves of benign environmental conditions within an inhospitable regional climate. Such climate relicts exist in numerous plant and animal species worldwide, yet our knowledge of them is fragmented and lacks a general framework. Here we synthesize the empirical evidence considering (a) relict habitats, (b) abiotic and biotic constraints on population dynamics, (c) mechanisms promoting population persistence, and (d) uncertainties concerning their future prospects. We identify three major types of climate relicts: (a) those primarily constrained by climate-driven abiotic factors, (b) those restricted to areas that are inaccessible to antagonistic species for climatic reasons, and (c) those requiring a host or mutualistic species that is itself limited by climate. Understanding the formation and functioning of climate relicts is essential for their conservation and for our understanding of the response of species and populations to climate change.

What intrigues me? The classification of climate relicts — I’d like to know more about the three types. I’m more intrigued by the abstract than I am by Zimmer’s translation of the article. Why is that? Science writing is supposed to take the hands of non-scientists and guide us through the prickly patches of “abiotic and biotic constraints” and “mutualistic species.” But I want some of those prickly patches. I like cracking my head on the terms, learning some of them.


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