Make a mental map of your favorite park or nearest weedy lot. In 3-D. Now imagine contour rings overlaying the map. But instead of marking changes in altitude, they reflect changing concentrations of a particular chemical you are studying. Milkweed toxins, for example. To track the inevitable changes in concentrations over days, months or years, animate the contour map. Areas swell and contract. Then – what the heck – do similar contours and time tracking for the insects that eat the milkweed, and the organisms that eat or infect those insects.
You are on your way to envisioning a key concept Professor Mark Hunter introduces in his new book The Phytochemical Landscape: Linking Trophic Interactions and Nutrient Dynamics. It went on sale Monday, August 8, through its publisher, Princeton University Press, as well as at Amazon.com.
Hunter used a sabbatical year and funding from the National Science Foundation’s OPUS (Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis) Program to kick start the book in the 2012-2013 academic year. And yes, Hunter considers this his magnum opus.
“I felt I was at a stopping point of what I’d been doing for 30 years. Projects that I’d been running for multiple years were coming to an end. So if this is a transition point in a career, it’s a good point to look back and take stock.”
When he looked back, Hunter had a lot of material to synthesize. Over a career spent at various institutions and their long-term ecological study sites (Oxford’s Wytham Woods, Georgia’s Coweeta LTER and the University of Michigan Biological Station), he had examined a lot of different organisms, environments and relationships. From Scotland’s Sitka Spruce forests to North America’s scrub oak habitat, from sawflies to gypsy moths to cyanobacteria, Hunter had it all rolling around in his head.
This breadth begged for synthesis. “A criticism leveled at ecology is that it’s a series of special case stories,” Hunter says. “A project like this allows us to look beyond those special case stories for generalities.”
The language and ideas that aided Hunter in finding generalities came from the many people he’d talked with over time and the concepts they used in their work. His doctoral advisor at Oxford was a taxonomist at heart. “At the University of Georgia, I was the sole population ecologist in a department of ecosystem ecologists. The first couple of years were an exercise in trying to understand what we were saying to each other.” At UMBS, he could have dining hall conversations that touched on isotope ratios in spiders, mammal distributions and “a short course in fern ecology and natural history” all in one meal.
“I’ve been very lucky to have encountered people with different ways of looking at the world,” Hunter says. The payoff from those encounters is an optician’s set of lenses he could apply to his view of the world’s processes. His chemical mapping example emerged from thinking about GIS (Geographic Information Systems). The work of his UMBS colleagues who study global nitrogen and carbon budgets may seem unrelated to his study of butterfly herbivory. “But you can relate them through chemistry. In both cases, they feedback to influence each other. ”
It was feedback of a more unidirectional nature that ultimately shaped the final form of Hunter’s new book. When he sent in a draft for anonymous peer review, he says “I got really important affirmations and I got input on what was missing to wrap it up.” The missing piece? Aquatic ecology. Hunter had only talked about land organisms. A reviewer suggested the book would be much stronger if it included examples from the marine and freshwater worlds. “I thought, ‘That can’t be hard, can it?’” Hunter shrugs, waits a beat. Then says, “It added a year.” Fortunately, Hunter considers the book’s final two chapters, which he added during the revision process, to be its best.
To hear more from Dr. Hunter about phytochemical landscapes, attend his Henry A. Gleason Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology inaugural lecture at 4:10 p.m. on Tuesday, September 20, 2016, in Rackham Amphitheatre.