I've suggested before that The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien is a great way to prepare a young person for a career in biogeography. I would go further and suggest that The Lord of the Rings is a great way to prepare someone for ecology and evolution full stop. I have read the book seven times since my uncle gave me a battered copy in 1979 when I was 12. Growing up in New Zealand meant that the images that I constructed of the LotR landscapes were remarkably similar to that of the movies (although my Shire looked more like the larger rolling hills of South Otago than those of the northern Waikato). I have just read the book again and find it just as enthralling as previously. I also find that as I age, I find different characters and sections of the books more or less compelling than in the past. For example, although younger Adrian enjoyed the travels of Sam and Frodo after the breaking or the fellowship, I used to think it was a little slow. Now I find that I enjoy this part of the books more that the daring-do of what happens to Pippin, Aragorn, Gimli and the rest of the gang. My previous read through was in 2007 and I have since lived through a natural disaster (the Canterbury quakes). Maybe I sympathise more with the personal change and growth that Sam, in particular, goes through in response to the stress and tragedy of his journey. Last time I read the LotR with a biogeographer's eye, noticing the deep history, the landscapes and distributions. This time I read the LotR with more awareness of the ecology, noticing the interactions, the descriptions of habitats, the effects of change, even the climate change effects! One of the things that struck me is that the concept of environment and experience interacting with inherited traits to determine the expression of everything from the plants of the Morgul Vale to how the hobbits put right the Shire when they return. Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo are able to rally the Shire on their return to expel Saruman and his occupying forces not because they are genetically superior to other hobbits but because of the experiences that they have been through that have changed their behaviour compared to the rest of the Shire hobbits.
A large part of what ecologists and evolutionary biologists do is to look at how populations adapt to changes in the environment. The plants of Mordor have adapted to living in an environment that was once benign to the harshness created by the proximity of a large active volcano and a dark lord. New Zealand, despite what you might see in the LotR movies, is for the most part highly changed from what it once was, although only parts are Mordor-like. Since humans have arrived much of the country has been converted from native vegetation to exotic pasture on which we graze our sheep and dairy cows. The stories of invasive species establishing in New Zealand are numerous, most sharing a similarly grim ending, usually at the cost of native species and the local environment. One story with a twist is that of the native scarab beetle species, Costelytra zealandica, which has colonized the introduced pastures, causing so much grief that it has earned itself the name New Zealand grass grab and a reputation as a pest species. The larvae of Costelytra zealandica feed on the roots of white clover and ryegrass and is the subject of considerable control efforts. Costelytra zealandica is also found on native vegetation which it often shares with a close relative Costelytra brunneum. Costelytra brunneum, however, is seldom found on introduced pasture species. What makes such a difference between close relatives and when do these preferences form?