My First Biodiversity Talk

by Jennifer Frazer on June 14, 2009

The title of this post was inspired by John Cleese (with a dash of Scrubs). When I was in school in Ithaca, Cornell named him an honorary professor and invited him to speak at our interfaith chapel. I showed up on Sunday to find the title of his talk in plastic stick-on letters on the sign outside: “John Cleese — ‘My First Sermon'”.

Back in May, I saw a call by a group of skeptics I belong to for talks at their annual meeting, the Colorado Skepticamp. The talks could be on any sort of skepticism OR on any discipline of science. One of my aims is to speak publicly and frequently on the sorts of things I blog about here, so I jumped at the chance. My idea was to do a quick survey of life on Earth hitting all the major groups in less than 30 minutes, so I called it (with apologies to Mel Brooks), “Life on Earth: The Short, Short Version.” So here you go — My 23 Minutes of Fame.

There are two versions. One has better sound:

And this version has higher resolution:

I made a few mistakes for which I hope you’ll forgive me. . . all I can say is this was my first time giving this presentation and it’s hard when your mouth is moving faster than your brain. I have noted them below. If, after watching it, any of you are interested in having me/hiring me as a speaker, I’d be happy to make it longer or shorter or elaborate on any taxon that interests you. : )


  • I mentioned that Hennig changed the way we do taxonomy by suggesting evolution as our grounds for classification. What I forgot to mention is the way that evolutionary history has now become largely judged by DNA and not always so much by what the organisms look like, where they live, etc. The byzantine circular taxonomic trees I presented were created using DNA sequences – and molecular taxonomy now dominates classification (it’s not always the last word, but it’s almost always the opening sentence). But for all of our scientific efforts, judging the true evolutionary history — especially when different pieces of evidence conflict — can still be a bit of an art.
  • The slide where I show some differences between bacteria and archaea shows a few of the differences between these groups, but there are many more. Don’t think by any means that these are the only two. I mentioned this earlier but not at this point.
  • Flu viruses are in Orthomyxoviridae, not Paramyxoviridae. It’s the taxon directly above the one I point at. I was in the right neighborhood but again, the mouth was moving too fast for the brain. This is what happens when you try to cram life on Earth into 23 minutes.
  • Operculum is Latin for a little lid or a cover, not Greek for cap. I knew what I meant, I just didn’t say it right.
  • Moss spores are haploid, not diploid. Meiosis occurs in the the sporangium in the top of the sporophyte.
  • I seem to imply all cup fungi shoot their spores in a cloud but that’s not accurate. Many cup fungi don’t. Even the ones that do may not if they’re not in the mood. In this respect, they aren’t so different from. . . er . . . never mind.
  • I got a little confused on jellyfish but remembered soon after the talk what the problem is: jellyfish do not have alternation of generations in the same sense plants do. Both forms are diploid (the sperm and egg fuse before dividing further), but they do alternate between sexual and asexual organisms.
  • And finally, I looked it up and Venus’s Girdles are indeed bioluminescent at night. Sorry.

Muchas gracias to Mile High Skeptics for making generously recording and sharing my lecture!

{ 1 trackback }

Taking “Life” on the Road
March 15, 2010 at 7:43 am

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Warren March 17, 2010 at 6:41 am

For those of us who just try to follow along as the scientists shuffle the taxonomic deck, it does get quite dizzying.

I do think one could make quite a funny Monty Python Sketch about the “Skeptics” out camping. (“I would like to make some coffee. Would anyone like some?” — “Are you sure that’s coffee? I’ve got a Coleman-fuel driven ICP-MS over there in my Jeep, we could run a quick analysis…”).


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