Director’s Letter November 2023

The Power of Mitzvah: from Thanksgiving to Hope


“A great flame follows from a little spark.”

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 1321 AD (Courtney Langdon translation)

Communities and futures are built upon lifetimes of small actions.

We gathered on an earthly knoll within the Crested Butte cemetery, in the embrace of the surrounding mountains. We gave thanks and celebrated the life of Steve Polan. A New Yorker, Steve and his wife, Betsy Roistacher, found their way to Crested Butte, where they fully immersed themselves. I came to know them as they became involved in, and supported, RMBL. In his role leading the Crested Butte Public Policy Forum, which promotes civic engagement by bringing distinguished speakers to Crested Butte, Steve actively looked for ways for RMBL and the Policy Forum to collaborate. A friendship built on small exchanges, I had the privilege of joining friends and family in placing dirt on his grave, interring him in his Garden of Eden.

With bluebird skies and time to connect with friends, I fell into conversation with another active community member of Crested Butte and supporter of RMBL who explained “mitzvah”. Within the Jewish religion, the primary meaning of mitzvah is “commandment”. But more commonly it is used to describe good deeds, especially those that emphasize kindness and empathy, and which build community. It was a fitting conversation.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I find much for which to be grateful, including time to enjoy family and friends as well as the joy I take in living in the West Elk Mountains. I give thanks to RMBL’s many supporters, from docents that invest their time volunteering to our donors that make great science and education possible. The kindness that leads people to support RMBL, or any nonprofit, is humbling and inspiring.

But beyond thanks, I find hope in these mitzvahs. Collectively donations to RMBL add up, making possible the services we provide scientists and ensuring students can afford to spend a summer in Gothic. But these small actions can also spark something greater. This week we profile two RMBL supporters, Pete and Char Carbone Rowland. If there is anybody that symbolizes the spark, it is Char! A talk by RMBL scientist, Dr. David Inouye, lit her up. Since then, she has made it her mission to spark others to join in RMBL’s community of supporters. You can find out more about Char and Pete, and their decision to support RMBL, in the adjoining article.

A future of environmental challenges, from climate change to biodiversity to human health, can be overwhelming. A sense of a future that is beyond our individual action. But collectively, through our small actions, and more importantly in how we spark others, we can build a community that has a power that is beyond any of us individually. This spark can be created in other unique and unexpected ways. One example is work not by scientists but by artists working at the conjunction of climate change and Dante’s Divine Comedy – From A Little Spark May Burst A Flame: Ackroyd & Harvey’s ‘Script’ (

Whether you participate in the RMBL community, or have another community that lights you up, I encourage you to give thanks and generate hope through mitzvah. You can make a year-end donation to RMBL at Donate to RMBL – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Collectively we can transform field science, sparking something much greater!

Director’s Letter October 2023

“History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme”

James Burn, In the Christian Remembrancer, October of 1845

“The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and .. there is no rational explanation for it”

Eugene Wigner, In The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, 1960

A trout jumping in a riffle, releasing a whiff of trout and algal aroma and a wolf lurking in the forest, generating a sense of foreboding.

Ancient bacteria processing methane in a backyard in Berkeley and the meanders of the East River, below Gothic, CO.

A bee, navigating fields of flowers, domesticated and wild, moving in a straight line each time a flower comes up empty of nectar, but turning when discovering golden nectar.

While the details of the rich tapestry of life are unique in time and place, from fear cascading through ecosystems and causing fundamental changes in biomass productivity and community composition, to conserved metabolic processes carried in genes around the world, to bees optimizing how they collect and spend energy, biology harbors resonant themes, with complexity yielding to order.

Mark Twain is often posthumously quoted, but we have James Burn, an influential 19th century publisher of children’s tales, to thank for first describing the rhyming nature of human history. Just as great artists create works, rooted in the details of a human life, that speak to people everywhere, so too do great scientists pull back the curtains of complexity to reveal recurring patterns and theories. We may not fully understand the powers of nature that generate these recurring patterns, but whether expressed as a theory, or a mathematical equation, we can still be grateful. They give us the power to simplify an otherwise overwhelmingly complex world.

The research RMBL scientists conduct on the valleys and mountains around Gothic changes how we see the world. It gives us a look into recurring patterns and provide conceptual tools to think about very different ecosystems and processes. The sheer volume of scientists trained through RMBL has created scientists across the globe who provide environmental leadership in academia, governments, and non-profits.

As an example of how RMBL’s impact reaches well beyond Gothic, this week we profile Dr. Rebecca Irwin, touching on her work at RMBL as well as her leadership of the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center Consortium through North Carolina State University. The center delivers science and synthesis for climate adaptation, helping communities effectively navigate a changing world.

As fall turns to winter, share our joy in the beauty and richness of whatever ecosystem you find yourself in, from the cornfields of Kansas to the tundra of the North Slope of Alaska, to the aspen groves of the Colorado Rockies. But also join us in our appreciation of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics and the power of place to inform how we understand and manage the world!

To reach more about resonant themes across math, art, and music, check out the Pulitzer prize-winning book, Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter.

Director’s Letter September 2023

Philosopher and historian Will Durant reminds us that we might benefit by occasionally considering the ground upon which our feet stand, metaphorically as well as literally. Geology is often destiny, and explains Crested Butte’s coal mines, ski resort, and even RMBL.

The presence of Crested Butte’s coal mines is explained in part by the Western Interior Seaway that split North America into two landmasses. Decomposition lacking oxygen is inefficient, leaving energy behind. Coal is just concentrated energy and was generated through plant material that accumulated in swamps and wetlands adjacent to the Western Interior Seaway, places where dead plant material would accumulate but oxygen was limited.  Geology explains CB coal mines!

The Crested Butte Mountain Resort is located on a laccolith, formed when magma bubbled up from the Earth’s crust, giving us a mountain upon which to ski. The local laccoliths, including Snodgrass and Gothic mountains, are located on mancos shale and are prone to landslides. While landslides on Snodgrass were intensively studied to assess whether a ski resort expansion was appropriate, the removal of Snodgrass from the ski resort boundary through the recently released Forest Plan Revision by the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre, and Gunnison Forests is more about economics and politics than geology.

Local mancos shale, on the other hand, is partly responsible for RMBL’s persistence. Mancos shale dates to 80-95 million years ago, or the late Cretaceous when dead plants accumulated on the shallow bottom of the Western Interior Sea. With plant material accumulating in stagnant waters and a low oxygen environment, the mudflats became shale, with less energy than coal.

The relationship between mancos shale and Crested Butte’s wildflower diversity is less than clear, at least to me. I’ve seen mancos shale described as being a barren soil upon which plants struggle to grow as well as a sponge that provides water maintaining plant productivity and hence diversity. My best guess is that our diverse wildflowers likely are a result of diverse habitats associated with the shale. Work from the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (Lawrence Berkeley Lab) finds variability in types of mancos shale that is correlated with different vegetation types. Mancos shale moves and breaks, and when combined with lots of water and complex terrain, produces a complex and variable landscape, supporting diverse wildflowers.

Pre-World War Two scientific work at RMBL took advantage of this diversity; botany and mammalogy classes leveraged it to introduce plants and animals. This landscape complexity became a barrier in the 1970s when a push towards experimentation put a premium on large homogeneous landscapes. But now, the increasing power of sensors combined with big data, give us the inferential power to untangle this complexity, revealing fundamental processes lacking in simpler landscapes. I will take the beauty and statistical power of the Elk Mountains over the monotony of cornfields!

Big picture, how we manage the release of stored carbon from anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition, will determine the world’s future. RMBL, leveraging emerging sensing techniques and unique long-term research that integrates geology, hydrology, biology, and atmospherics, will play a major role in revealing, and hopefully managing, our geological destiny!

Learn more about geology and biology by reading the accompanying essay by Dr. Amy Ellwein. Check out her amazing book, Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope!

Director’s Letter August 2023

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?

From “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke

As children we are the original scientists.

Born into a world of disordered shape and color we find pattern, grasping onto order to navigate the world. We scaffold reality, integrating novel observations into the known. Research published in Science (2015 Stahl and Feigenson) demonstrated how children explore the world as scientists. They spend more time exploring the unexpected, working as scientists to integrate the novel into the known.

With the passing of time marked by the pace at which the world passes us by, we speed up as we age and see less of the world, relying rather upon internal landscapes to navigate.

Great scientists find new ways of seeing. Albert Einstein wondered what the world would look like if he jumped on a beam of light. That thought experiment helped him develop the special theory of relativity.

Over 30 years ago two Susans, Susan Alan Lohr, RMBL’s first permanent full-time director, and Susan Brown Hoffman, RMBL’s first youth science program director, had the vision to create our youth science program. Adding younger ages to our traditional college programs complements our community. Striving to see the world through their eyes provides the opportunity to see the world anew, creating possibility of discovery! Volunteering with the program also provides budding scientists opportunities to explore science teaching as a career opportunity.

RMBL’s K-12 program is unusual in how children participate in an authentic research community. Brianna Guijosa, profiled in the accompanying article, has been one of our top science volunteers with the program. Coming to us from East Los Angeles College and transferring to Humboldt University, she has spent the last two summers in RMBL’s undergraduate research program studying how carrion beetles affect soil nutrients. Enthusiastic, passionate, and good at explaining the why and what of her research, instructors seek Brianna out.

This summer we received a huge financial assist from the Gunnison Metropolitan Recreation District, targeting north valley youth. A combination of program fees, growing year-round programs, and philanthropic support from a handful of individuals recognizing the special nature of the program, has made it possible to maintain a year-round youth programs director, reflecting the expertise needed to effectively bring science to youth in an outdoor setting. But there has always been a financial gap that we’ve struggled to fill, especially to support local schools. But with Met Rec’s support, the program will not just survive, but thrive, enabling us to bring authentic research to local children.

Thanks to everybody who has helped us bring financial order to a program that started as a vision of what could be! RMBL will only benefit from actively integrating the youngest of scientists into our community, extending our scientific lives as they reveal new ways of seeing!


To better understand how we construct the world around us, look for the “Invisible Gorilla” on YouTube.

Director’s Letter July 2023

“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”


Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818


In the age of the Anthropocene, when geologists thousands of years in the future will be able to read the moment in time when humans first left detectable fingerprints in the earth’s stratigraphy, I find myself pondering legacies, good and bad.

Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias was an implicit criticism of King George III, calling out the long and unpopular reign of the mad farmer King. At the peak of his power King George III ruled over 20% of the world. He was considered by many, including his English subjects, a tyrant, a characterization reinforced by his role overseeing the losing side of the American War of Independence.

One of the King George’s many legacies was Kew Gardens, an institution inextricably linked with the emergence of science. Under his watch Kew Gardens grew into a significant botanical institution.  Plants from across the world, including curiosities like the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanium, which smells like rotten meat and is found in Sumatra, and economically important plants such as Coffea arabica, which supports approximately 2 billion cups of coffee daily worldwide, were cultivated. The scientific powerhouse behind Kew Gardens at the time was Sir Joseph Banks, who served as President of the Royal Society for 41 years, the organization that birthed modern science. King George III left legacies that changed the world, but that also left chaos and destruction in their wake as the lives of millions of native peoples were destroyed in the wake of British colonialism.

On a more modern and upbeat note, a conversation with Dr. Scott Wissinger about his legacy has always stuck with me. Scott was a faculty member an Allegheny College, an institution focused on undergraduate education. He worked at RMBL for 30 years before prematurely passing in 2019. While Scott had an active publication record and regular NSF funding, he measured his impact by the students he trained and their successes.

This month we profile Dr. Susan Washko, one of the many students Scott trained (see adjoining article). An Allegheny alumna, Susan originally came to RMBL to work with Scott. She now helps with RMBL’s undergraduate research program, managing professional development activities, helping students stay on track, and providing personal and professional support as the undergraduates make the transition from classroom learners to active field scientists.

The power of RMBL’s people, and our programs which train the next generation of leaders in field science, should not be underestimated. Society’s capacity to navigate rapid societal change, not just the technical expertise, but having the social capital, the trust and a shared sense of purpose in the necessity of wisely managing the earth’s resources, will be determined by the collective capacity of the leaders we train. Investing in people gives us hope that the legacy of our generation will be more than just a geological stratum composed of plastics and radioactive material, but rather a legacy that honors the richness and beauty of earth’s biodiversity.

Director’s Letter June 2023

With the GPT-3 chatbot writing college essays and computer programs for students desperate to reduce homework loads, concerns about artificial intelligence (AI) destroying humankind have taken on a new urgency.

One version of AI-driven doomsday involves a computer program deciding on its own to eliminate humans. This ascribes an intentionality to AI that seems unlikely. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution have not only generated organisms capable of predicting and navigating the world, but organisms driven to reproduce. Lacking such evolutionary pressure, AI seems unlikely to develop a “selfishness” revealing humans as a problem to be solved through elimination.

More narrowly, as Stephen Marche noted in his essay “Of God and Machines” (Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 15, 2022), AI does what you literally tell it to do, not what you intend it to do. Consider the apocryphal story of the Air Force conducting warfare simulations using an AI-supported drone. The drone operator introduced challenges to explore AI’s ability to dynamically respond. With the ability to complete missions autonomously, the drone eliminated the operator, eliminating the emergence of new barriers. If we naively ask AI to save the Earth, would it accomplish the mission by eliminating humans?

But perhaps AI will save the world for humans. Dr. Ian Breckheimer (see adjoining article) is harnessing machine learning (ML), to better predict the world. Integrating data streams from satellites, planes, drones, and embedded sensors, he has been predicting snowmelt date for trails and meadows across the Gunnison Basin. He is extending these predictions into the world of biology, such as when plants start and stop growing, and how bees interact with wildflowers.

Dr. Breckheimer is closing the “ecological observing gap”. With human health on the line, we have invested enormous sums in understanding what happens inside bodies, from fruit flies to humans. On the scale of football fields and up, a fleet of expensive satellites constantly surveils the world. But from food productivity to carbon flows, important things happen between human bodies and football fields. This is the scale at which field biologists often work. But with notebooks and pens, there is a limit to what field scientists can measure. Until now!

Science has returned magic to the world. Arthur C. Clarke famously noted that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Chatbots such as GPT-3 use hundreds of billions of parameters, or pieces of information, derived from training languages to mimic any type of human conversation. The programs succeed in ways that are inscrutable to us, not like magic, but as magic.

Almost 600 hundred years ago, explorers started spilling across the world. Those mysterious places where the dragons lived were slowly erased from our maps. However, with the emergence of AI, the mystery, and magic, has returned, with enormous potential to do good!

Director’s Letter May 2023

“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a [silver] sixpence in her shoe.”

You will have to bear with me to see how I connect the dots. But oddly enough this traditional wedding rhyme captures RMBL’s Science Strategy.

First, the old.

It’s great to see the exposure that the RMBL Phenology Project is receiving in the April edition of National Geographic. Beautiful photos and great writing, the article puts a well-deserved focus on long-term research. Initially the project provided a way to look closely at wildflowers. However, with increasing interest in climate change, the study provides one of the most comprehensive looks at ecological change. Started in 1973 by Dr. David Inouye (see adjoining article) the project has accumulated millions of observations and has grown from a focus on plant flowering times to include roots, climate, animal arrival data, and bees.

Something new.

That would be Dr. Ian Breckheimer (RMBL) and the Spatial Data Platform. Ian arrived in Gothic with a drone in hand in 2018. His goal was to use drones to look at plant flowering times across larger areas, taking advantage of machine learning techniques for processing the data. While sensors on a drone are not a match for the detailed observations made by the phenology crew, the phenology crew can’t match the scale of a drone. For the last three years Ian’s been building data products as part of the Spatial Data Platform that describes environmental dynamics across entire watersheds at the scale of meters. It is stunning work that is transforming how we see the world.

Something borrowed and something blue.

RMBL is traveling a path forged by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. From high throughput gene sequencing to documenting the diversity of life in deep sea thermal vents, to the use of deep-sea submarines, to a globally distributed sensor network, WHOI uses engineering to advance the understanding of one of Earth’s last unexplored frontiers, the deep blue ocean.

The challenges of reaching the far corners of the ocean, much less plumbing its depths, have always put a premium on the integration of technology into oceanography. Many a terrestrial scientist, however, has generated ground-breaking research relying on eyes, a notebook, and math that is equally at home on an abacus as on a computer. But emerging technology now offers satellites, planes, drones, and embedded sensors to link biological processes across scales from genes to ecosystems.

The power of RMBL’s approach, however, is not in replacing the old with the new, but integrating the two. Long-term studies give us a look back in time that cannot be recaptured with new technology. And while sensors are increasingly sophisticated in what they can do, these new technologies complement human observation, rather than replace it.

And the silver sixpence.

The sixpence represented prosperity for the couple. Without a doubt, maintaining the quality of life for humankind amidst rapid environmental change will require all our ingenuity. Investing in RMBL’s science strategy, integrating the old, in the form of long-term research, and the new, such as RMBL’s Spatial Data Platform, borrowing the successful approach of integration of technology and discovery that has been so successful in the oceans, is an investment in the prosperity of future generations.

Director’s Letter April 2023

“The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the cliffs in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple—a universe.” Annie Dillard, Pilgram at Tinker Creek

Dr. Ed Johnson (Director of the Kananaskis Field Station of the University of Calgary) once described field stations as landlocked naval vessels. The British Navy carried explorers who were filling in gaps on their maps (or as I like to call it, as in our July 2022 enewsletter, “chasing dragons out of the world”). Field stations, however, support “discoverers”, scientists who fill gaps in our understanding of the world.

While modern scientists do not have to worry about scurvy or hidden shoals, field science shares many of the challenges of early voyages.  Scientists have to raise funds to support the costs of discovery, tapping into federal funding agencies, their home institutions, or in some instances, personal funds. Field seasons can involve extensive time away from home, creating challenging family dynamics.  While I have never seen a full on mutiny, managing field teams in remote environments can require significant attention to people management skills.

And exploration and discovery can be a life-time commitment. James Cook spent most of his 50 years at sea, captaining 3 voyages from 1768 to 1779. Dr. Ward Watt has studied butterflies at RMBL for over 60 years and Dr. David Inouye has logged over 50 years of tracking plant flowering times.

Logistics was the key to early naval voyages and field science is no different. The ship’s bosun was the individual responsible for smooth operations of the ship and its crew. RMBL’s equivalent is our Director of Administration, or Brett Biebuyck. Brett and his staff sit at the interface between operations and science and education. They handle housing and research space assignments and oversee food services. Like on an ocean-going vessel, there is little to no separation between work and life, so his staff also has responsibility for ensuring a constructive and healthy social environment.

Brett came to RMBL from the Toolik Field Station (see adjoining article) on the North Slope of Alaska, where he worked for 17 years in a similar role. Explorers such as James Cook and George Vancouver traveled to Alaska in the 1700’s to document a region that was then unknown to Europeans.  But with the transition from exploration to discovery, the Toolik Field Station hosts research covering a range of topics, from wolverines and ground squirrels to carbon and atmospherics.

With his experience and dedication, we are fortunate to have Brett at RMBL, providing support for the scientists endeavoring to fill in the critical gaps in our understanding of the fundamental environmental processes that support our food, water, and health. Or, to slightly paraphrase Annie Dillard’s reference to the Old Testament (Ezekiel 22:30), “he stands before us in the gap on behalf of the land”.

Director’s Letter March 2023

Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel,

but it is a centre hole that allows the wheel to function.

We mould clay into a pot,

but it is emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful.

We fashion wood for a house,

but it is the emptiness inside that makes it livable.

We work with the substantial,

but the emptiness is what we use.


Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu (4th Century BC)


The Japanese concept of “Ma” captures the importance of the snowpack stored in the mountains. Snow from the Rocky Mountains feeds the Colorado River and brings balance to the ecosystems of the southwest and peaceful co-existence to water consumers.

Image result for Mc Escher Negative art Fish Birds. Size: 173 x 185. Source:

“Ma” is a Japanese art concept that roughly translates as negative space. In western art, negative space is the empty space around the subject of an image that brings the image to life. The artist M.C. Escher played with this idea, showing how negative space can both define and become an image, such as with his engraving of fish and birds. But conceptually “Ma” is more than just empty space; it is the space the allows people, places, things, and experiences to co-exist peacefully.

In a striking example of negative space, just outside Gothic my wife and I once came across the imprint of an owl capturing a mouse. Indeed, with a snowpack that reaches 8 feet, sticking above ground, such as cabins, trees, and fenceposts, stands in contrast to a sea of white.

The harshness of winter provides a strong contrast to the colors of spring and summer, serving as negative space in time. About 25 years ago, after six months of whiteness in Gothic, I viscerally felt green observing grass and trees coming to life.  But the snowpack isn’t just negative space that brings imagery to life, it brings life itself! The water contained in the snowpack not only powers the colorful explosion of Crested Butte’s wildflowers, but the Colorado River, fed by snowpack, supports 16 million jobs and $1.4 trillion of annual economic activity. Lacking sufficient snow, the states of the Colorado River Basin are marching towards litigation. A lack of snow means a lack of peaceful co-existence.

This month we feature (see adjoining article) a research project, “Sublimation of Snow”, led by Dr. Jessica Lundquist (Univ. of Washington). Perhaps the epitome of negative space, sublimation occurs when snow evaporates, passing directly from solid to a vapor. When snow blows, sometimes it doesn’t just get deposited elsewhere; it can disappear into the sky. With 40 million people depending upon the Colorado River, just how much snow disappears matters. Evaporating snow is hard to measure, but piggybacking sensors, such as 65’ towers to measure wind at different heights and snow pillows to measure water in the snow, on top of the extensive atmospheric deployment (e.g., X-Band Radar, Doppler LiDAR, and laser scanners) already deployed around Gothic provides a unique opportunity to “see” snow evaporate.

Understanding the lifeblood of the basins by closing the water budget through measuring sublimation is the scientific equivalent of using white space to help images emerge! And let’s cross our fingers for a big snowpack, the “Ma” that will bring balance to the ecological relationships of the Colorado River Basin!

To read more about the research, check out:

And if snow in Japan catches your interest, check out The Snow Country by Nobel prizing-winning author, Yasunari Kawabata.

Director’s Letter February 2023

An MBA might have been better preparation than a PhD for serving as RMBL’s Executive Director. But studying ants turns out to have been good job training.

For 5+ years I hiked up to Virginia Basin above Gothic and counted ants to understand what controls the sizes of colonies. When my friends call me Dr. Ian I clarify I can only consult on their health if they have six legs and two antenna (and nor do I have ants capable of sniffing cancer).

Counting ants is no small task. A study estimated the global population at 2.5 million ants for every human. You don’t become that common without evolving solutions to environmental challenges, such as dealing with mold. The HBO series Last of Us follows a fungal species that eats humans from the inside out and changes human behavior to maximize fungal transmission. Yucky.  Based upon a fungus that manipulates ant behavior, when you live in moist soil, fungi are not your friend. On the other hand, some ant species have coopted fungi! Just like humans use cows to convert inedible grass into steaks, leaf cutter ants use fungi to convert plants into the ant equivalent of McDonalds. Trillions served!

I am fascinated by ant colonies as superorganisms. In deep evolutionary time, single-celled organisms like bacteria joined forces to become multi-cellular, with cells specializing on tasks (e.g., eye and skin cells). Just as humans are colonies of cells, ant workers, queens, and males form a colony, with workers of some species taking on different shapes and specializing on tasks.

Cooperation is key to the evolutionary emergence of superorganisms. When genetically distinct cells merge to form a larger organism, as in some slime molds or sponges, there is a conflict over which cells pass their genes to the next generation. Cell lineages that are willing to sacrifice by serving in the stalk, rather than in the fruiting structure, get left behind, literally and evolutionarily. But if cells are genetically identical, progeny of a pairing of sperm and egg, there is no conflict. Cells can specialize, supporting the emergence of a superorganism, at no evolutionary cost.

As an administrator, I have moved from theoretical investigations to being a practitioner of cooperation. With 4,000+ research sites, finding a field site is no small task for our scientists; coordination takes time that could be spent elsewhere. But there is opportunity in working alongside 100+ scientists, from sharing costs around administration and physical infrastructure to new types of research based upon collaboration and synthesis.

RMBL’s Science Director, Dr. Jennifer Reithel (see adjoining article), coordinates research groups, facilitating communication.  She makes it easier to work on public lands, handling permitting. She solves logistical problems, from chemical management to overwinter storage. In serving the needs of scientists and emphasizing cooperation over competition, she supports new types of research, making possible RMBL’s emergence as a super field station!

To learn more about the emergency of higher levels of biological organization, check out Major Evolutionary Transitions by Eors Szathmary and John Maynard Smith.