Research Papers and Presentations

Here are some descriptions of my research projects with links to associated papers. If you don’t like to read, check out my Prezi page for some new presentations of my work, or my YouTube channel on how we can all become more adaptable.



A celebration of new trends back towards observational approaches to ecology.  Now an Island Press book Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World to liven up your bookshelf and Ecology courses everywhere!

We made the cover of my favorite journal, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, in September, 2010, with some photos I took during a research trip to Oaxaca with Jim Greenberg.

Caption:A shell of Plicopurpura columellaris on cotton threads tinted with a dye produced by the living snail. A small cooperative of tintoreros has exclusive access to sustainably utilize the snails in Oaxaca, Mexico. Understanding the social-ecological dynamics of the human-Plicopurpura interaction requires integrating observational-based ecology, traditional ecological knowledge, and anthropology.



This is a book review of Chris Norment’s excellent, “Return to Warden’s Grove” that appeared in Science. Like most book reviews, mine has a secret agenda…


This is my response to an article that appeared in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that made recommendations about what NSF should be funding in ecology.  I thought that the authors’ premise that “experimental approaches will always be required to demonstrate mechanisms underlying ecological phenomena, observational studies complement…an experimental context” was both wrong and backwards:



I have been leading an ongoing project to look at what we can learn from 3.5 billion years of biological evolution to improve security in society.  This work, which focuses on adaptability, can be applied to terrorism, natural disasters, cyber security, emerging infectious diseases–basically anywhere that risk, variability and uncertainty collide.  Nature has a lot to tell us and none of it is classified:

The Natural Security Website

Sagarin.2010.AdaptableSecurity.McClatchy An op-ed I published in McClatchy papers

SagarinEtAl.2010.NatSec.Nature Our recent paper in Nature on Natural Security


What can a long dead marine ecologist who lived (and lived well) on Cannery Row tell us about modern marine conservation? Fix yourself a beer milkshake and sit down with this paper to find out.



Here is what happens when you let a brilliant graduate student in ecology do something completely different.  Mary Turnipseed (now a Fellow with the Moore Foundation), with a little help from Steve Roady, Larry Crowder and I, has put together a robust argument to let the Public Trust Doctrine guide all of our conservation management.  Especially in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, we think this long forgotten bedrock principle of US conservation law needs to be reinvigorated for all agencies entrusted with OUR natural resources:

Public Trust Page




“Trying to remember the Gulf is like trying to remember a dream,” said Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck of their 1940 expedition to the Sea of Cortez.  And it was like a dream to be able to travel with my scientific mentor and friend Chuck Baxter to the Gulf and re-trace Ricketts and Steinbeck’s voyage. A lot has changed there since 1940, as this paper documents:


While working on some biogeography research in Alaska, I learned about the Nenana Ice Classic, a gambling contest that has been held since 1917 in which participants guess the exact minute in spring when the ice on the frozen Tenana river will break, causing a wooden tripod placed there to fall into the water and trip a clock on shore.  I thought, “that would make a great record of climate change,” and it did – probably the most accurate, precise and consistent record of ice melt, and it shows, not unexpectedly, that spring is coming earlier:

Sagarin & Micheli: The Nenana Ice Classic in Science

When writing this paper, a small error that a reviewer discovered led me on a quest to understand how we mark time.  Of course our calendars are just an approximation of the real dates of events like spring and summer (which are truly marked by the Earth’s position relative to the sun).  It turns out that the difference between the calendar year and the real Earth year causes us to slightly overestimate the advance of spring in our phenological records.  This short paper points out why the error occurs and suggests one solution (measure events relative to the time of spring equinox each year).  I’ve since learned that a better solution might be to standardize measurements relative to the time when your particular place on Earth is at a specific angle to the sun – could be fun to re-run the Nenana Ice Classic data using this metric:

Nature paper on bias in phenological records 

My first real scientific study was based in historical ecology.  With Sarah Gilman, we relocated the precise place where a grad student in the 1930s ran an ecological transect to see what was living in the tidepools of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station.  By repeating the same methods in the same places, we were able to show that not only had the intertidal community changed dramatically, but that the most likely cause was climate warming.  This was one of the first papers to demonstrate that climate warming was already affecting natural systems:

Changes to Hewatt’s transect in Ecological Monographs


I have always been interested in whether giving a food product a label suggesting that it has been sustainably harvested and processed actually makes a difference for anyone.  We used the opportunity presented by the Maine lobster industry considering certification of its lobsters by the Marine Stewardship Council to do some investigating.  The lobstermen themselves are split on the issue of whether the cost of certification is worth the benefits.  Seafood consumers seem to place very little value on the ecological considerations of their food.  Instead they care about freshness and they would prefer that their lobster came from Maine.  For the lobstermen, a “Fresh from Maine” label might work better than an “eco” label:



As part of my dissertation, I got interested in the assumption that species are most abundant in the center of their range and decline toward their range edges.  Although this assumption appears everywhere in ecology, a literature review I conducted showed it really hadn’t been shown in nature that often.  I then conducted my own surveys of intertidal populations across species ranges from Baja California to Alaska and also found no evidence for this pattern.  A few years later, I reviewed the new emerging literature that was also showing no evidence for this “abundant center” pattern:


SagarinGainesJB2002 (The data from the Pacific Coast)

EcolLtrs01 (The original literature review)

I made a brief foray into biochemistry to see if Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs) play any role in species ranges.  HSPs go around repairing damaged proteins and they appear in almost all life forms.  I thought that if physiological stress was highest at species range edges we would see elevated HSP levels there.  Looking at two intertidal species, I found that HSP levels were high in the southern edge of their ranges, but also in several “hot spots” that correlated to places with lots of daytime lowtides.  But position in the range was not a big factor in stress protein expression:




There are all sorts of new molecular techniques that could improve endangered species management, water quality control for shellfish and recreation, and other critical conservation tasks.  There are all sorts of political and procedural hurdles that need to be crossed to apply these techniques.  A first step is to bring molecular biologists and managers together to map out a “Molecules to Policy” pathway as we did in the workshop leading to this paper:



Illegal take of animals (poaching) is a tough thing to study because  the activity is secretive and unpredictable in time and space.  In this paper we uncover the “ghost of poaching past” by analyzing the extensive intertidal monitorning data set of MARINe – the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network for size structures of populations of owl limpets.  Losing the large owl limpets at sites throughout southern California due to collection is a big deal because these limpets change sex from male to female as they get bigger, so we lose the most reproductive individuals:



We thought we knew everything about the starfish Pisaster ochraceus on the west coast of North America.  But why would populations of Pisaster possibly have the same ratio of orange to dark colored starfish up the entire outer coast? Is it something they ate? The pounding surf? Or do some lucky ones perhaps change color as they get older?


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