Cool Science -- Studying Mini-Ecosystems

Charles Bryant

I was perusing the net today and came across this really cool story from Wired Magazine's online edition. It's about a Harvard University biologist who studies the tiny ecosystems of the carnivorous pitcher plant -- so named because of its shape and for the fact that it holds rainwater.

Here's the deal... Studying an ecosystem is difficult for a litany of reasons, ranging from the unethical to the impractical. Scientists can observe to their hearts' content, but actually making changes to the ecosystem to see what happens is another matter. We've set up things to replicate nature, like the biosphere project in Arizona, and that's worked to some degree. But you can't do any better than working in nature itself.

Islands and lakes are pretty intriguing to scientists because they're essentially smaller versions of the Earth as a whole. The pitcher plant, with its slippery walls and pool of water, is essentially an even smaller version of a lake. Insects slip into the water and die and the nutrients from those bugs sustain bacteria, which sustains cyto- and phytoplankton, which support single celled organisms, which, in turn, supports fly larvae. There are just as many trophic levels in a pitcher plant as there are in a lake ecosystem. How cool is that?

The beauty of this kind of research is that the pitcher plant can be manipulated and studied and those findings, in theory, are applicable to larger ecosystems. The fly larvae is the number one predator in the world of the pitcher plant, much like a tiger might be at a lake in Africa. Removing this top predator can reveal a lot about how the rest of the pitcher plant's ecosystem reacts. And it's not something you could do at that African lake. Thanks to the pitcher plant, we can learn about these large impacts on a small scale.

How about that for some cool science?

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