Thursday, April 12, 2007

This week's citation classic

Hutchinson, G. E. 1959. Homage to Santa Rosalia or why are there so many kinds of animals? American Naturalist, 93: 145-159.

One of the things I enjoyed most about my time at Yale was the history of the place. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the famous scientists that worked there, including Lederberg, Tatum, Altman, Palade, Gilman etc. It gave me a sense of being part of a long tradition, part of something important. But most interesting, to me, was that George Evelyn Hutchinson spent his career there. Hutchinson is best known as the founder of Limnology, but truly he was a renaissance man, cognizant of many fields of arts and sciences. He served as mentor to many future ecologists, including Robert MacArthur, Lawrence Slobodkin and Fred Smith.

The paper, "Homage to Santa Rosalia" is my favorite of Hutchinson's. Here he observes two species of waterbugs living in the same pond in a cave at the Shrine of Saint Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino, Sicily, and asks, "Why are there so many kinds of animals?" The whole story is just so fantastic to me, that a person would travel halfway across the world to visit a shrine in Palermo, Sicily, and would be most interested in the waterbugs. Not only that, but goes on to write one of the most beautiful and lyrical papers in science. Simply stunning!

Check out Hutchinson's wonderful prose:

"A few months later I happened to be in Sicily. An early interest in zoogeography and in aquatic insects led me to attempt to collect near Palermo, certain species of water-bugs, of the genus Corixa, described a century ago by Fieber and supposed to occur in the region, but never fully reinvestigated. It is hard to find suitable localities in so highly cultivated a landscape as the Concha d'Oro. Fortunately, I was driven up Monte Pellegrino, the hill that rises to the west of the city, to admire the view. A little below the summit, a church with a simple baroque facade stands in front of a cave in the limestone of the hill. Here in the 16th century a stalactite encrusted skeleton associated with a cross and twelve beads was discovered. Of this skeleton nothing is certainly known save that it is that of Santa Rosalia, a saint of whom little is reliably reported save that she seems to have lived in the 12th century, that her skeleton was found in this cave, and that she has been the chief patroness of Palermo ever since. Other limestone caverns on Monte Pellegrino had yielded bones of extinct Pleistocene Equus, and on the walls of one of the rock shelters at the bottom of the hill there are beautiful Gravettian engravings. Moreover, a small relic of the saint that I saw in the treasury of the Cathedral of Monreale has a venerable and petrified appearance, as might be expected. Nothing in her history being known to the contrary, perhaps for the moment we may take Santa Rosalia as the patroness of evolutionary studies, for just below the sanctuary, fed no doubt by the water that percolates through the limestone cracks of the mountain, and which formed the sacred cave, lies a small artificial pond, and when I could get to the pond a few weeks later, I got from it a hint of what I was looking for. Vast numbers of Corixidae were living in the water."

The scientific significance of the paper is undeniable. Hutchinson extends the conception of niche that he first presented at a Cold Spring Harbor symposium in the subtly named paper titled, "Concluding Remarks". Hutchinson's conception of niche came to be known as Hutchinsonian (or realized) niche as opposed to the Eltonian (or fundamental) niche. Arguably Santa Rosalia is the origins of the study of biodiversity. In fact, Santa Rosalia has become shorthand for the basic question of species numbers; I found 52 papers that contained Santa Rosalia in the title or keywords and 1,326 papers that cited the work. Although many of the concepts Hutchinson wrote about did not begin with him, he might be credited with bringing order to the discipline by shifting focus to the central role of energy in food chains, available habitat, community stability and environmental grain, and how all this relates to the maintenance of biodiversity.

Even ~50 years later, ecologists can read Homage to Santa Rosalia, not simply for entertainment, but for valuable insight into their own research.

Hutchinson, G. (1959). Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why Are There So Many Kinds of Animals? The American Naturalist, 93 (870) DOI: 10.1086/282070

1 comment:

  1. Maybe it's just my computer, but I'm seeing white letters on black, which is hard to read.