Visualizing the Invisible Lines

Conservation biologists graphically map interactions between species

September 24, 2010

“When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe,” John Muir wrote, in his journal in 1869.

Today, scientists are still interested in finding those connections. “We want to make those invisible cords visible,” said Eric Sanderson who created Muir webs as a component of his research for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. This one represents the interactions between species and their environment on Manhattan in the year 1609, when Dutch explorers first sailed up the Hudson.

Each little dot on the image, from which the lines radiate, is either a species (beaver), or a group (nuts), or a habitat (wetland), or simply a physical element (soil moisture).  The lines between dots indicate need – a beaver needs a stream, for example, so there’s a line between the two.

It’s an odd way of going about things, and the web doesn’t take into account a whole host of important factors like microbes, invertebrates (aside from butterflies and dragonflies), competition for resources, or temporal relationships.  Were those to be added, it might look entirely different.

But, Eric says, it’s just as much art as it is science (here he explains in detail how the webs are built). Without labeling or explanation, this big picture doesn’t really tell us anything.  We don’t know what each dot is, or even, what kind of dot it is.  It’s just a big mash of dots connected by lines that we don’t know anything about.

The Manahatta website does a good job of turning this mash into something educational.  There, you can click around a highly magnified and labeled version of web, and learn about the interactions between the forest and the big brown bat, the squirrel and the nuts and the beaver and the river.  Or, if you’re like me, you can just stare at the complete image and feel very, very small.

About the Author

Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a B.S. in ecology and a minor in writing. She spent the last four years there poking around in labs, studying krill, climbing trees, riding bikes and perfecting her fish doodles. A sucker for being lost in strange places, she recently wandered her way through Costa Rica, Portugal, Tokyo and Bonaire and is excited to take her wandering to the epicenter of strange places, New York City.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.