Thursday, June 10, 2010

An interesting intersection of ecology and baseball

So just what exactly do the lake sturgeon, chironomid larvae, and the 2007 Red Sox world championship have to do with one another? More than you probably realize. The lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens, center) was once one of the most abundant fish species in the Great Lakes. However, thanks to demand for its meat and eggs and human development, the lake sturgeon is now uncommon. Despite their massive size (the largest individuals can be >6' and 200+lbs), sturgeon eat lots and lots of small organisms, like midge fly larvae in the upper left. Most of the large fish (salmon and lake trout mostly) that were introduced in the Great Lakes are piscivorous, meaning they eat other fish. If you're still here, stick with me. We'll get to baseball eventually, I swear.

Once the lake sturgeon population declined, the chironomid worm population exploded, thanks to the lack of predators. Not only were there no longer lake sturgeon to eat them, but the salmon introduced into the lake ate many of the smaller fish that normally would have eaten the chironomids too. The ecological term for this kind of interaction is a trophic cascade - basically, the change at the top of a food web can work its way down the food web. So what do lots and lots of chironomid larvae have to do with baseball? Perhaps you remember the common name for one species of chironomid - Canadian soldiers.

After the Indians dispatched the Yankees, the Sox were able to overcome a 3-1 deficit to advance to the World Series. And that, of course, led to the above right photo.


  1. Very interesting... a couple of thoughts:

    1) I thought Sturgeons where gigantic monster-fish. If so, that picture does not do it enough justice, especially next to the worm larvae.

    2) Do you think Farrah Lester bedazzled that t-shirt herself, or are those made with all the other championship t-shirts?

    3) Joba has a ridiculous ERA-FIP this year (5.06-2.17), yet gets ESPN headlines like this one from May 29th: "Wilting Chamberlain doesn't stand tall". I almost feel for the guy.

  2. You're right, sturgeon are massive fish. They can be bigger than a person and weight 200 pounds. That is one of the reasons that they're able to control the chironomid populations - they have to constantly be digging them up in order to get enough food.

    As for Chamberlain, I wonder if the Yankees totally screwed up his development. Multiple times in mid-season they've changed his role with the team. People say they jerked around Phil Hughes too, but I think a switch from starter to reliever midseason is a hell of a lot easier than the opposite. Plus, Hughes had the luxury of knowing that he was going to be a starter for an entire offseason. I can't quite figure Joba's ERA either. I thought it might be pitching from the stretch (from here on out, Vazquezitis), but the splits don't really bear that out. Looks like plain, old bad luck to me (.379 BABIP).

  3. I've updated the post to make it clearer that sturgeon are huge.

    Also, I can't really comment on the inner thoughts of a bedazzler, although I'm sure you could buy just about any sports stuff with sparkles at this point. Just ask Ruth about her Patriots shirt!

  4. brilliant! is there more that can be done with ecology and baseball?? this is your niche!

  5. If I think of anything, you can be sure it will go up here. Unfortunately, I'm not sure they overlap much.