508 words • 2~2 min read

Great Diagrams of Science: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… a really bad drawing of a bird.

The latest edition of my Great Diagrams of Science series comes from a field near and dear to my heart- using stable isotope analysis to map a food web. Japanese scientists Wada, Mizutani, and Minagawa got the opportunity to study the feeding ecology of penguins in Antarctica, and were some of the first researchers to use stable isotopes for food web analysis. To travel so far and use what was at the time (1991) state-of-the-art technology, they must have received an impressively large grant. Their results played a part in revolutionizing how scientists study food web interactions, so the grant money was well spent in that regard.

However, it seems that none of it was spent on graphic design:

Figure from Wada et al 1991

If you look closely, you can clearly see that one of the central components of this ecosystem is bird poop. To ecologists, this makes perfect sense- nutrients from animal excrement are extremely important in the growth of plants and various biogeochemical cycles. This may, however, be one of the rare cases when a scientific point is best made with words instead of graphics.