Skip to main content

Birds and Hittites: How isotopes have helped a plant ecologist have fun!

Speaker: Dr. Jed Sparks, Cornell University

Over the past twenty-five years, Dr. Sparks has given many seminars presenting biogeochemical and isotope-based ecosystem ecology research. However, in one-on-one conversations later in the day, the talk always turns to some interesting, unique, and sometimes just plain weird applications of isotopes in which he has become involved over the years. In this seminar, Dr. Sparks will reverse things and talk about several odd examples of how a tool can give you experiences well outside your science of specialization, and have a bit of fun.

First, he will describe how we have used isotope ratios to determine ingredients and water sources of beer, or “Is Coors really made from pure Rocky Mountain stream water?”. Second, he will examine a case where a bird has changed color over the past 100 years and isotope ratios may have figured out why. Third, Sparks will describe why isotope ecologists hate phosphorus. Phosphorus is monoisotopic meaning we cannot use stable isotopes to trace or describe its dynamics. It makes us so crazy that we are now using radioisotopes of uranium to trace phosphorus. Dr. Sparks will finish by telling the story of how his lab managed to get a piece of wood from the tomb of King Midas that led them to describe epic droughts coincident with the collapse of the Hittite Empire in 1200 BC.