Book Review: The Gyroscope of Life

Gyroscopes are entertaining toys and incredibly useful tools. They retain their balance and resist changes to their orientation as long as their flywheel is spinning. As the flywheel slows or stops, the gyroscope wobbles out of control and ultimately quits. Considering their design and function, it’s easy to find parallels between gyroscopes and living systems. Consistent energy inputs keep living things alive. Changes can bring imbalance; major disruptions can lead to death. There is a reason we often describe the natural world as a sort of balancing act. It is the work of an ecologist to make sense of this balancing act. The better we understand it, the more equipped we are to protect it and operate responsibly within it.

It is through this lens that David Parrish writes about the biological world in The Gyroscope of Life, a book that Parrish refers to as “a love song to the field of biology.” Parrish has spent much of his life observing and studying the natural world and, as professor emeritus of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, undoubtedly shared much of what he presents in his book with countless students over the years. The Gyroscope of Life reads like part memoir and part last lecture, and is the work of someone who has an obvious passion for science and nature.

Parrish spends the first few chapters of his book writing mostly about his life and how he came to be a biologist. He acknowledges his privelege – “born male, white, and American in an era where each of those attributes provided me major advantages” –  having essentially been placed on third base from the start, “well down the third base line.” An aspiring zoologist turned botanist, he spent his early years in graduate school studying seeds and seed dormancy. It’s a topic that obviously interests him, as several pages of the book are spent considering what’s going on inside of a seed. “Seeds provide the widest-spread examples of suspended life,”  Parrish says. Are they alive or dead or neither?

Two additional, major life events play a prominent role in the arc of Parrish’s book. One being his break from organized religion and the other his battle with advanced prostate cancer. He grew up in an orthodox Christian home with a very literal understanding of the Bible. His education put him at odds with what he was taught growing up about (among other things) the age of the earth and its creation. Eventually he came to understand that science and religion “exist in separate non-overlapping spheres – the physical and the metaphysical.” He doesn’t necessarily see science and religion as being inherently at odds with each other, but his understanding of science makes it difficult to “find resonance in religion” due to the “cacophony of dissonance” it offers.

In addressing his prostate cancer, Parrish underwent an operation that gave him a newfound perspective on gender. Freed from “testosterone poisoning,” he was able to more fully consider sex and gender from a biological perspective, which he says he had been doing for decades prior to the operation. He spends a good portion of the book “demystifying sex and gender.” One compelling example he offers involves avocado flowers, which actually change gender over time, a phenomenon known as synchronous dichogamy.

avocado flowers (Persea americana) via wikimedia commons

Over the course of its pages, The Gyroscope of Life covers a significant number of topics in the fields of biology and ecology. It’s a relatively short book, but as it careens through such wide-ranging material, it does so in an approachable and suprisingly succint manner. Parrish’s sense of humor, which doesn’t waver despite how bleak the discussion sometimes gets, helps carry the story along and keeps things interesting. Parrish covers evolution (“[Biologists] argue that, if evolution didn’t happen, it should.”), taxonomy (“the name for naming things”) and sytematics, ecological niches (“[humans] are essentially living niche-free and ecosystemless”), domestication, and so much more. The last chapter is spent discussing agroecosystems (“the organisms and abiotic environment that interact in a human-managed agricultural setting”), a topic he spent much of his career studying.

The underlying message of this book, as I see it, is a simultaneous celebration for life on earth and a concern for the direction things are going considering how humans have managed things. Parrish has some admonition for humans in light of how we’ve treated our home planet, but he isn’t too heavy-handed about it. Overall, reading the book felt like sitting in on a lecture given by a friendly and dynamic professor who has obviously given a lot of thought to what he has to say.

Check out the following video to see David Parrish describe the book in his own words.

More Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Selections from the Boise Biophilia Archives

For a little over a year now, I’ve been doing a tiny radio show with a friend of mine named Casey O’leary. The show is called Boise Biophilia and airs weekly on Radio Boise. On the show we each take about a minute to talk about something biology or ecology related that listeners in our local area can relate to. Our goal is to encourage listeners to get outside and explore the natural world. It’s fascinating after all! After the shows air, I post them on our website and Soundcloud page for all to hear.

We are not professional broadcasters by any means. Heck, I’m not a huge fan of talking in general, much less when a microphone is involved and a recording is being made. But Casey and I both love spreading the word about nerdy nature topics, and Casey’s enthusiasm for the project helps keep me involved. We’ve recorded nearly 70 episodes so far and are thrilled to know that they are out there in the world for people to experience. What follows is a sampling of some of the episodes we have recorded over the last 16 months. Some of our topics and comments are inside baseball for people living in the Treasure Valley, but there’s plenty there for outsiders to enjoy as well.

Something you will surely note upon your first listen is the scattering of interesting sound effects and off the wall edits in each of the episodes. Those come thanks to Speedy of Radio Boise who helps us edit our show. Without Speedy, the show wouldn’t be nearly as fun to listen to, so we are grateful for the work he does.

Boise Biophilia logo designed by Sierra Laverty

In this episode, Casey and I explore the world of leaf litter. Where do all the leaves go after they fall? Who are the players involved in decomposition, and what are they up to out there?


In this episode, Casey gets into our region’s complicated system of water rights, while I dive into something equally complex and intense – life inside of a sagebrush gall.


In this episode, I talk about dead bees and other insects trapped and dangling from milkweed flowers, and Casey discusses goatheads (a.k.a. puncture vine or Tribulus terrestris) in honor of Boise’s nascent summer celebration, Goathead Fest.


As much as I love plants, I have to admit that some of our best episodes are insect themed. Their lives are so dramatic, and this episode illustrates that.


The insect drama continues in this episode in which I describe how ant lions capture and consume their prey. Since we recorded this around Halloween, Casey offers a particularly spooky bit about garlic.


If you follow Awkward Botany, you know that one of my favorite topics is weeds. In this episode, I cover tumbleweeds, an iconic western weed that has been known to do some real damage. Casey introduces us to Canada geese, which are similar to weeds in their, at times, overabundance and ability to spawn strong opinions in the people they share space with.


In this episode, I explain the phenomenon of marcescence, and Casey gives some great advice about growing onions from seed.


And finally, in the spring you can’t get by without talking about bulbs at some point. This episode is an introduction to geophytes. Casey breaks down the basics, while I list some specific geophytes native to our Boise Foothills.


Dischidia and Its Self-contained Watering System

This is a guest post by Jeremiah Sandler.


I was doing some sunday reading in a plant biology textbook, a section about leaves. It was highlighting leaf-specific adaptations and other cool leaf specializations. I came across a paragraph about a “flower-pot” leaf, and my mind was so blown after reading it I had to literally stand up.

It reads:

Some leaves of the Dischidia [genus], an epiphyte from Australasia, develop into urnlike pouches that become the home of ant colonies. The ants carry in soil and add nitrogeneous wastes, while moisture collects in the leaves through condensation of the water vapor coming from the mesophyll through stomata. This creates a good growing medium for roots, which develop adventitiously from the same node as the leaf and grow down into the soil contained in the urnlike pouch. In other words, this extraordinary plant not only reproduces itself by conventional means but also, with the aid of ants, provides its own fertilized growing medium and flower pots and then produces special roots, which “exploit” the situation.

Naturally I had to look up images of this plant because that’s amazing.

Illustration of Dischidia major (image credit: wikimedia commons)

Dischidia major – cross section of “flower-pot” leaf (photo credit:

Dischidia vidalii– cross section of “flower-pot” leaf (photo credit:

In shorter words, the plant grows modified leaves that form a little cavity, within which ants live. The ants incidentally carry soil into the cavity, while fertilizing that soil with their waste. The stomata are located on the insides of these cavities, which expel water from the leaves, where it then waters the soil that is located inside the leaves. Not to mention, the outside of those cavities are photosynthesizing all the while.

So, with the help of ants, an epiphytic Dischidia has evolved leaves to bring the soil to itself up in the trees, where it fertilizes and waters itself? SAY WHAT?! That is so damn cool.


President Obama’s Lichen

It is a presidential election year in the United States of America and, as per usual, it’s a circus. Prolific coverage of the surrounding events is hard to avoid. President Barack Obama is in the final year of his second term, which means that 8 years ago he was in the same position as today’s presidential hopefuls. Ultimately Obama was elected President, but during that lively process something else was afoot.

Kerry Knudsen is the lichen curator at the University of California Riverside Herbarium. In the final weeks of the 2008 campaign season, Knudsen was making collections of a species of lichen that he had discovered a year earlier. As Obama was being elected President, and (as Knudsen terms it) “the international jubilation” surrounding the event proceeded, Knudsen was drafting a paper describing and naming the newly discovered species. The final draft was completed during President Obama’s inauguration, and so it seemed fitting to Knudsen that he name the lichen after Obama. Caloplaca obamae it was – named after the 44th President of the United States, in honor of “his support of science and scientific education.”

President Obama's lichen - Caloplaca obamae - discovered and described by Kerry Knudsen (photo credit: UCR Herbarium/J.C. Lendemer

President Obama’s lichen – Caloplaca obamae – discovered and described by Kerry Knudsen (photo credit: UCR Herbarium/J.C. Lendemer)

Caloplaca obamae is a rare find. It is endemic to Santa Rosa Island, a member of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California near Santa Barbara. Cattle ranching and the introduction of elk and deer nearly removed it from existence. Now that cattle ranching has ceased and elk and deer are being removed, the lichen has a chance of survival.

Lichens are unique organisms. They are the result of a symbiosis between fungi and algae and/or cyanobatcteria. In this symbiosis, a mycobiont (the fungus) is essentially farming a photobiont (the algae/cyanobacteria) in order to feed off the sugars produced when the photobiont photosynthesizes. Photobionts in turn receive protection as well as water and other nutrients collected by the mycobiont.

There are at least 17,000 species of lichens known to science. They occur throughout the world in all manner of habitats from low to high elevation, and they adhere to virtually any stable surface including glass, plastic, and rubber. Lichens are ancient organisms, having existed for as long as 300 million years, with early lichens – or protolichens – dating back at least 400 million years. They are also very slow growing and can be incredibly long-lived.

Lichens are named after the fungal component, which can cause confusion since a particular species of fungus may form lichens with more than one species of algae or cyanobacteria. One way lichens are classified is according to their growth form, which is determined by their thallus – their non-reproductive, vegetative tissues. Three common thallus forms are fruticose (shrub-like), foliose (leaf-like), and crustose (crust-like).

While unassuming and benign in appearance, lichens have great ecological importance. They are involved in soil formation, the water cycle, and nitrogen fixation. They are homes to insects and microorganisms and are used as food by some animals and nesting materials by others. Some species of lichens are even consumed by humans. Lichens have also been used to develop medicines and dyes. Lichens are sensitive to air pollution, and are used to help determine the environmental health of urban areas. If your neighborhood has a healthy lichen population, chances are your air is pretty clean.

Santa Rosa Island - home to Caloplaca obamae (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Santa Rosa Island – home to Caloplaca obamae (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Caloplaca obamae is an orange, crustose lichen. It is terricolous, which means that it grows on soil. It is part of a community of soil dwelling lichens and bryophytes that form a biological soil crust on the Pleistocene soils of Santa Rosa Island. This sensitive community is easily disturbed by activities like grazing, which is why removing cattle, deer, and elk (all of which were introduced by humans to the island) is important for its survival.

Lichens are great, and they deserve much more attention than they get. A lichen named after President Obama is also pretty cool. However, as I researched this story the thing that impressed me the most was Kerry Knudsen himself. Knudsen is a retired construction worker with no academic degrees. He started studying lichens on his own after a medical condition forced him into early retirement. His initial interest grew into an obsession, and he is now among the few lichen experts in the world. He has added thousands of lichens to The Lichen Herbarium at UCR and has helped describe and name dozens of new species. He currently studies and collects lichens in California and the Czech Republic. You can read more about Knudsen in this 2004 article in the Los Angeles Times.

Selected Resources:

Year of Pollination: Most Effective Pollinator Principle and Beyond, part one

Have you ever considered the diversity of flowers? Why do they come in so many different shapes, sizes, and colors? And why do they produce so many different odors – or none at all? Flowering plants evolved around 140 million years ago, a fairly recent emergence evolutionarily speaking. Along with them evolved numerous species of insects, birds, and mammals. In his book, The Triumph of Seeds, Thor Hanson describes the event this way: “In nature, the flowering plants put sex, seeds, and dispersal on full display, spurring not only their own evolution but also that of the animals and insects with which they became so entwined. In most cases, the diversity of dispersers, consumers, parasites – and, most especially, pollinators – rose right alongside that of the plants they depended upon.”

Speaking of dependence, most flowering plants depend upon pollinators for successful reproduction – it is, for the most part, a mutually beneficial relationship. Even the casual observer of flowers will note that a large portion of the creatures that visit them appear to be pollinators. Thus, it is no wonder that pollination biologists have given pollinators so much credit in shaping the flowers that we see today.

Consider G. Ledyard Stebbins and his Most Effective Pollinator Principle which he defined in a paper published in 1970: “the characteristics of the flower will be molded by those pollinators that visit it most frequently and effectively in the region where it is evolving.” He then goes on to reference pollination syndromes, a phenomenon that describes how the traits of flowers are best suited for their “predominant and most effective vector[s].” In my post about pollination syndromes a few months ago, I discussed how a strict adherence to this concept has waned. In the next two posts, I discuss how the Most Effective Pollinator Principle (MEPP) may not be the best way to explain why flowers look the way they do.


To make this argument I am drawing mainly from two chapters in the book Plant-Pollinator Interactions: From Specialization to Generalization. The first is “Ecological Factors That Promote the Evolution of Generalization in Pollination Systems” by Jose M. Gomez and Regino Zamora, and the second is “The Evolution of Specialized Floral Phenotypes in a Fine-grained Pollination Environment” by Paul A. Aigner.

According to Aigner the MEPP “states that a plant should evolve specializations to its most effective pollinators at the expense of less effective ones.” And according to Gomez and Zamora it “states that natural selection should modify plant phenotypes [observable characteristics derived from interactions between a plant’s genes and its surrounding environment] to increase the frequency of interaction [between] plants and the pollinators that confer the best services,” and so “we would expect the flowers of most plants to be visited predominantly by a reduced group of highly effective pollinators.” This is otherwise known as adaptive specialization.

Specialization is something that, in theory, plants are generally expected to evolve towards, particularly in regards to plant-pollinator relationships. Observations, on the other hand, demonstrate the opposite – that specialization is rare and most flowering plants are generalists. However, the authors of both chapters advise that specialization and generalization are extreme ends to a continuum, and that they are comparative terms. One species may be more specialized than another simply because it is visited by a smaller “assemblage” of pollinators. The diversity of pollinators in that assemblage and the pollinator availability in the environment should also be taken into consideration when deciding whether a relationship is specialized or generalized.

That pollinators can be agents in shaping floral forms and that flowering plant species can become specialized in their interactions with pollinators is not the question. There is evidence enough to say that it occurs. However, that the most abundant and/or effective pollinators are the main agents of selection and that specialization is a sort of climax state in the evolutionary process (as the MEPP seems to suggest) is up for debate. Generalization is more common than specialization, despite observations demonstrating that pollinators are drawn to certain floral phenotypes. So, could generalization be seen as an adaptive strategy?

In exploring this question, Gomez and Zamora first consider what it takes for pollinators to act as selective agents. They determine that “pollinators must first benefit plant fitness,” and that when calculating this benefit, the entire life cycle of the plant should be considered, including seed germination rate, seedling survival, fecundity, etc. The ability of a pollinator species to benefit plant fitness depends on its visitation rate and its per-visit effectiveness (how efficiently pollen is transferred) – put simply, a pollinator’s quantity and quality during pollination. There should also be “among-pollinator differences in the evolutionary effect on the plant,” meaning that one species or group of pollinators – through being more abundant, effective, or both – contributes more to plant fitness compared to others. “Natural selection will favor those plant traits that attract the most efficient or abundant pollinators and will also favor the evolution of the phenotypes that cause the most abundant pollinators to also be the most effective.” This process implies possible “trade-offs,” which will be discussed in part two.

When pollinators act as selective agents in this way, the MEPP is supported; however, Gomez and Zamora argue that this scenario “only takes place when some restrictive ecological conditions are met” and that while specialization can be seen as the “outcome of strong pollinator-mediated selection,” generalization can also be “mediated by selection exerted by pollinators…in some ecological scenarios.” This is termed adaptive generalization. In situations where ecological forces constrain the development of specialization and pollinators are not seen as active selection agents, nonadaptive generalization may be occurring.

Gomez and Zamora spend much of their chapter exploring “several causes that would fuel the evolution of generalization” both adaptive and nonadaptive, which are outlined briefly below.

  • Spatiotemporal Variability: Temporal variability describes differences in pollinator assemblages over time, both throughout a single year and over several years. Spatial variability describes differences in pollinator assemblages both among populations where gene flow occurs and within populations. Taken together, such variability can have a measurable effect on the ability of a particular pollinator or group of pollinators to act as a selective agent.
  • Similarity among Pollinators: Different pollinator species can have “equivalent abundance and above all comparable effectiveness” making them “functional equivalents from the plant perspective.” This may be the case with both closely and distantly related species. Additionally, a highly effective pollinator can select for floral traits that attract less effective pollinators.
  • The Real Effects on Plant Fitness: An abundant and efficient pollinator may select for one “fitness component” of a plant, but may “lead to a low overall effect on total fitness.” An example being that “a pollinator may benefit seed production by fertilizing many ovules but reduce seedling survival because it causes the ripening of many low-quality seeds.” This is why “as much of the life cycle as possible” should be considered “in assessing pollinator effectiveness.”
  • Other Flower Visitors: Pollinators are not the only visitors of flowers. Herbivores, nectar robbers, seed predators, etc. may be drawn in by the same floral traits as pollinators, and pollinators may be less attracted to flowers that have been visited by such creatures. “Several plant traits are currently thought to be the evolutionary result of conflicting selection exerted by these two kinds of organisms,” and “adaptations to avoid herbivory can constrain the evolution of plant-pollinator interactions.”

This, of course, only scratches the surface of the argument laid out by Gomez and Zamora. If this sort of thing interests you, I highly encourage you to read their chapter. Next week I will summarize Aigner’s chapter. If you have thoughts on this subject or arguments to make please don’t hesitate to comment or contact me directly. This is a dialogue, dudes.