Today, my student, Shahlo Safarzoda’s first paper came out. This is an exciting paper for a lot of reasons. Number one, of course, is that it’s always exciting to get your work out there, particularly your first paper.1
Second thing that makes this paper special is that Shahlo is an exceptional student. A native of Tajikistan, Shahlo led this paper within three years of learning English, which is, I believe, her 5th (!) language. Her hard work, commitment and skill are absolutely inspiring, and I’m so proud to have worked with her.
The third thing that makes this study exciting is our open science approach to publication. Because Tajikistan is a developing country, access to scientific literature behind paywalls is patchy, even at universities. In this case, it was particularly important to ensure unrestricted access to this paper- to enable Shahlo to disseminate her work widely to relevant people in her home country. Thus, we chose to publish in PLoS One. It was also important for us to use analysis methods that would be accessible to people in developing countries, so, despite having just completed a course in SAS, Shahlo worked with me to instead to analyze her data in R, which, as I’m sure you know by now, is freely available. Also, we wanted to be able to make sure our exact analysis and data were available, should anyone want to replicate our study, so the code and data are all available on github.
Take all that meta for what you will, but there’s some fantastic bug-counting science happening in this paper.
Shahlo used a series of clever exclusion cages to examine how different guilds of predators affect herbivore populations in wheat fields. We found something pretty surprising- when aphid populations are low, early in the growing season, it’s the generalist, ground dwelling predators, the ground beetles, the rove beetles, the spiders, that contribute most to pest species suppression- not your classic heroes of biological control, like ladybugs and lacewings, that you see more often later in the growing season.2 The thing is, early season dynamics are incredibly important for pests like aphids because populations can grow exponentially. Aphids reproduce asexually through much of the year, and under the right conditions, an aphid can complete development and be reproducing herself within a few days of being born. So: a bug that eats 5 aphids early in a season has much, much more impact on the overall pest population over a year than a bug that eats 500, or even 5000 aphids later in the season. So, not to scoff at ladybugs, but, too little to late.
This result has some very important implications for biological control in agricultural systems. Ground-dwelling predators don’t tend to be as mobile as these later-season, more celebrated bugs. This means they eat where they live, so habitats which are more favorable to ground dwelling predators may have fewer pests colonizing them, and this occurs at such a low level that we may never detect them. I have plans to look at some issues arising from these observations in the future.3
So, everyone join me in congratulating Shahlo on her first paper! A terrific milestone.
1 I remember getting the confirmation that my first paper was published, way back in 2006. I was giddy, but thought I had to play it cool, because that’s what dignified scientists do, right? Published a paper, NBD. When my mentor contacted me and asked why I wasn’t running, screaming through the halls, thinking that I hadn’t got the email, I realized that my natural reaction to celebrate shouldn’t be suppressed.
2 I’m trying not to take this personally, as, well, ladybug-aphid interactions have kind of been my life for the past decade. See also: this blog’s header graphic. Those are ladybugs I grew myself. I’m kind of a ladybug husbandry expert. But enough about me, which bugs do you breed?
3 But this gets into a proposal I’m writing right now, and I’m not quite yet in the place where I feel like I can practice open proposaling. You’re all a bunch of filthy idea scoopers, internet. *side eyes*