The buffet metaphor for my Ph.D.

Publié originalement le 12 décembre 2014

So this is my first blog post about my research (1) and let’s start by stating that I am an ecologist interested in plant-herbivore relationships. More specifically, I am studying how the feeding choices of a large mammal, the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are influenced by neighboring plants (we’ll get to that).

For those unfamiliar with the domain, there is a large part of the literature concerned with feeding choices of herbivores. This is relatively unsurprising: herbivore’s use of plant can compete with our uses. And large herbivores populations are increasing worldwide, thus creating conflict between wildlife and human populations [1]. There is also a large interest in ecological studies about the influence of neighboring plants on feeding choices. My best explanation of the impact of neighboring plant on the risk of being eaten involves a buffet metaphor.

Let’s say you love cheddar, you like olives and you hate broccoli. You are at a Christmas party and we are interested in knowing what is the probability you will eat olives. In the buffet, if the olives are placed close to the cheddar, it might increase this probability: you will stick in that part of the buffet and eat lots of cheddar and olives. On the contrary, if olives are close to the broccoli, this could reduce the probability for you to eat olives. Just seeing broccoli, you will avoid that section of the buffet. This is highly simplified and there are also cases where the influence on probability is reversed. But this will be the subject of another blog post.

Some of the white-tailed deer I’m studying are in a very simplified system, Anticosti Island (2). There are only 3 main tree species and in order of deer preference: birch > balsam fir > spruce. The management objective is to improve balsam fir (Abies balsamea) regeneration, as it is presently over-browsed. So, hey, why not using neighboring species to modify the probability of a deer eating a fir ? Researchers proposed those kinds of initiatives [for an example: 2] in other systems. And that’s partly why my project was launched.

So that was the buffet metaphor I frequently use for explaining my Ph.D. Now that you understand the concept, I will be able to explain in January the fieldwork I will be doing : placing branches in the wood and observing what deer are eating. Oh, and it involves coyote urine.

(1) And incidently, my first in English. If you find outrageous grammar mistakes, please comment and I will rectify. You can find the French version of this post here:

(2) Another futur subject !

1.Côté, S.D., et al., Ecological impacts of deer overabundance. Annual Review of Ecology Evolution and Systematics, 2004. 35: p. 113-147.

2.Aerts, R., et al., Restoration of dry afromontane forest using pioneer shrubs as nurse-plants for Olea europaea ssp cuspidata. Restoration Ecology, 2007. 15(1): p. 129-138.