Of ghosts and germinations

Today our paper on the seed dispersal and seedling establishment of a critically endangered endemic Mauritian tree went online, you can find a pdf of it here. The tree is, in fact, Syzygium mamillatum the gorgeous species that Christine is looking at in the previous post.

Its main content is focused on empirically testing the predictions of the Janzen-Connell model on an oceanic island, and in relation to practical conservation issues. The second focus of the paper, for which we present less empirical data, is the use of ecological analogues to replace extinct species – in our case resurrecting lost seed dispersal interactions using giant tortoises as stand-ins for extinct Mauritian giant tortoises. This is en exciting recent development in conservation and restoration ecology – and one which has to be used with extreme caution, to avoid unwanted ecosystem effects or new invasions. Tortoises are ideal analogues: they move slowly, they grow slowly, and they are thus easily controlled – and I for one have so far not heard of invasive tortoises anywhere on this planet.

Giant Aldabran Tortoise

And they are goddamn cute.


It is now almost two months since my PhD-supervisor, mentor and above all friend, Christine Müller, died much too early at the age of 46 on the 7th of March, after fighting several cancers for five years. She got the diagnosis in January 2003, literally the day before she was going to go to Mauritius with my PhD-colleague Chris Kaiser and me on our first fieldseason. She persuaded us to go anyway; would not hear about us staying for her. This was emblematic of her. She fought off the first bout of disease, and joined us in the field a few months later – the pull of the rainforest much stronger than that of any hospital bed. The next five years she continued the fight, while building up a strong and dedicated research group at Zurich University. I count myself incredibly lucky to have grown my own scientific wings with Christine during those years.

Christine in Mauritius

Since her death, all of us who knew her and worked with her have tried to cope as best we can without her. A large hole has been torn in the fabric of our science and our lives. In her last week the new lab website, designed by Atlant Bieri, a former MSc-student of hers, went online. It now stands as a fitting epitaph for Christine. Together with all of her scientific and human achievements.

How the hell did that happen?

I just got an email from a friend, asking me for a pdf of our paper on indirect interactions between plants & geckos. He ended the email with the following:

And how the hell do you get this in your abstract??

‘Among plants, the nuptials cannot be celebrated without the intervention of a third party to act as a marriage priest, and that the office of this third person is to unite the representatives of different households.. Now the marriage priests who officiate in the vegetable kingdom are insects in search of honey; the winds, or anything which by accident, or design, may carry the pollen from one flower to another.’

Clearly the whole I-bet-you-can’t-get-this-word-in challenge is far too simple for you.

Hmm. That quote is actually from the first pollination paper to appear in The American Naturalist – I put it in as a quote before the introduction, to honour the fact that our paper was one of the first in the recently resurrected section ‘Natural History Miscellany’ that used to figure prominently in that journal in its early years. I wondered how my friend mistook that as part of the abstract though? On a hunch, I checked Web of Science – and lo and behold, this is what it currently shows for that paper:

AmNat Abstract

Oh dear. Now, I believe, is the time to use that link to “Suggest Corrections” in Web of Science. Oh, and by the way, why is that they also seem to think that “CRAB CRUSTACEA” would make a good ‘KeyWord Plus’ that will assist readers to find our paper???