CanCon 2015, day 1: Ecology and story workshop with Nina Munteanu


It took us a little longer to drive to Ottawa than I thought, so I was late for this workshop. My apologies to Nina and to any of my readers who experience confusion as a result. If you think there’s something missing, you’re probably right 🙂

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Overlapping ecosystems are vibrant.

Ecologists ask why and how.

  • Why do species eat this food and not that one?
  • How do the environment, other species, diet, etc. limit population growth?

Adaptive traits:

  • Mimicry
  • Camouflage

Autotrophs (producers – species which produce their own food)

Phototrophs (produce food from light)

The Bracken Fern. Ubiquitous. Found on every continent except Antarctica. Very successful. Carcinogenic. Breaks down vitamin B. Reproduces by both spores and rhizomes.

Fiddleheads contain cyanide. Aggressive symbiosis. They attract ants which in turn defend it against other predators (peonies do this, too, though they don’t contain cyanide).

Nothing else will grow in a hemlock grove. It kills all potentially competitive species.

Some primates live with viruses that cause disease in other species because the monkey is the virus’s ‘ideal’ host. (Mel’s note: I think this was a digression into other forms of symbiosis–monkeys aren’t phototrophs.)

Chemotrophs (produce food from chemical processes)

Heterotrophs (consumers and decomposers, including us)

Parasites

Saprotrophs – fungi and bacteria

Detrivores – insects and earthworms

Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia hypothesis and symbiogenesis (Google search for more information).

Endosymbiosis – cooperative adaptation.

Darwin’s theory of competition (survival of the fittest) is incomplete. It doesn’t explain altruism.

Symbiosis leads to happiness.

  • Kin selection – the choice to support the reproductive group including sacrifice for the greater good (heroism).
  • Group selection – the choice to limit population growth in favour of x (where x is more food, habitat, etc. for all).
  • Reciprocal altruism – The vampire bat, for example. All hunters may not be successful, but the successful hunters will share their food with the unsuccessful and with mothers/pups (by regurgitation) to ensure the continued strength of the community.
  • True altruism – Dolphins will help humans and other species for no apparent gain. (Mel’s note: they may also rape their own and other species for no apparent reason, but that’s another story.)
  • Communal feeding – Lions in prides.
  • Satellites – In some frog species, the small males will hang out with the big, noisy ones and ‘head off’ the eligible females attracted by their big, noisy brethren.
  • Niche partitioning – competing species that coexist in the same ecosystem by voluntarily partitioning food, habitat, etc..

Adaptation and extremophiles

The brine shrimp of Mono Lake (California) thrive in inland seas with salinity that kills potential predators. They can also survive being dried out.

There are flies that can swim and dive because they carry their own oxygen supplies in air bubbles.

There are bacteria that feed on sulphur.

The Microbes of Lake Untersee in Antarctica live in a super alkaline environment with lots of dissolved methane in the water. They create stromatolites—the largest ever found anywhere.

Bacteria in the Rio Tinto thrive in extreme acidity and high iron content in the water.

The fungi of Chernobyl feed on high levels of radioactivity.

The Atacama Salt Flats in Chile is the most arid desert in the world, yet hypolithic algae have evolved to thrive where no other plant life can.

Tardigrades (also known as water bears or moss piglets) can survive anywhere, even in space (for approximately ten days). They can be revived after a century of desiccation and endure 1000 times the lethal dose of radiation for a human. Technically, they’re not true extremophiles because they have not adapted to prefer, or thrive in these environments. They merely survive.

 

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The rest of the workshop was taken up by an exercise in which we applied ecology to the characters of our stories. How have our protagonists adapted to thrive in adverse conditions, compete against, or mimic, other characters, to become the heroes of our stories? In what ways do they show altruism, and is it true altruism, or another form? How does the unique environment of the story world affect them?

It was a very interesting workshop and I’m sorry to have missed the beginning of it.

Unfortunately, because of my late arrival, I did not get a picture of Nina or the workshop participants.

It was a good start to a great weekend of panels, though.

Come back next Saturday when the CanCon 2015 reportage continues with advice on pitching your novel.

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