Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Evolution, you are amazing

We all know that evolution does crazy, crazy things.

If I were to ask most students of evolution for an example of how strong selection can lead to ridiculous and extravagant behaviors or appearances, I would probably get an array of sexually-selected traits as an answer.

Peacocks tails, elk antlers, puffer fish dances, stalk-eyed flies. All of these are weird and wonderful examples of how sexual selection can produce some pretty incredible traits.

In contrast, we usually think of natural selection as favoring practical traits. For example, many small birds are streaky brown, all the better to avoid getting munched, but not super exciting to look at. Or, how a fishes mouth works to optimize foraging, pretty important stuff, but not terribly flashy. This makes sense, most of natural selection focuses on not getting eaten while getting enough to eat yourself.

But every once in awhile an example comes along that turns the usual pattern inside out. Meet the Cinereous Mourner from the Amazonian rainforest. It's a pretty boring bird, as far as rainforest birds go, and looks like it does a good job of not getting spotted by being plainly colored. 


But, this is what the chick looks like. If you are a young bird trapped in a nest and unable to fly away, why oh why would you ever want to be so ridiculous? This makes no sense, right? 

The trick is, this chick is a master of disguise. The picture below the chick is a large, hairy, and toxic caterpillar. When the chick puts it's head down, it looks a lot like the caterpillar. Plus, it moves like one. Go here to see the video, but it bobs it's head around just like a caterpillar looking for a leaf to eat. So if you are a hungry predator looking for a delicious nestling to eat, but stumble onto something that looks and acts like a deadly caterpillar, chances are good that you'll give it a pass and move onto something that looks less likely to kill you if you eat it. So in this case, a crazy exaggerated appearance and behavior is all about not getting eaten.
A great example of how strong selection can lead to some pretty amazing things. This is also a great example of something called Batesian mimicry, which is when something that is harmless acts like something that is dangerous, like milk snakes (not dangerous) and coral snakes (deadly).
Nice one evolution!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Duck penises and ice bucket challenges??

So, a duck penis and an ice bucket walk into the bar...
This might be a great start to an awful joke. Duck penises and ice challenges also provide some pretty interesting insights into how the US is investing (or, more often, not investing) in research these days.

Let's start with duck penises. Not to long ago, during all of the budget debates, some lawmakers pointed out that US taxpayers are footing the bill for some research that on the surface might sound silly. These projects have things in the title that sounds frivolous in light of the countries budget woes. In addition to duck penis research, we are also funding research on snail sex, fly genetics and shrimps on a treadmill.
Shrimp on a treadmill
These things are an easy political target for lawmakers that want to reduce investment in science and have constitutes that have little science background. They even give out awards given for the most ridiculous sounding grants, the Golden Fleece Awards.

However, in reality, these projects are anything but silly. Instead, they are great examples of basic research. In this case, basic does mean remedial or simple, quite the opposite really, it just means that it is not specifically designed to solve a practical problem. Instead, it is geared towards trying understanding our crazy world, period.
Duck penis
Just because basic research is not designed to "cure cancer" doesn't mean that it is silly or useless. Basic research is the foundation that all applied science, medical research and technological advances are based on. Cut off basic research and you cut the legs off innovation and progress. To be fair, we scientist aren't very good at teaching the public about this. Just look at the comments below the popular articles about these studies (like here, here or here) and you'll find hundreds of people complaining about how government funding is being wasted on silly research.We need to get better about talking to the public about our science, and fast.

The truth is, there is no telling where the next big advancement will come from. Two examples. There are some weird jellyfish that glow green.
Art done with glowing bacteria. Seriously.
Biologist thought this was interesting and started trying to understand how it works. What they found led to a Nobel prize. The protein responsible for  glowing is now used for all kinds of research and plays a critical role in research on heart disease. Thanks weird jellyfish! Example 2: a group of biologist studying coral figured out that it is an ideal material for bone grafts, better than anything else we know of. Neither of these research groups set out to solve major human health problems; both lines of research started off as basic research that might look silly to the average tax payer. But the outcomes are anything but, as I imagine the families that are benefiting from this work would be happy to tell you. Both projects nominated for the 2014 Golden Goose Awards, which recognize major breakthroughs from federal research grants. 

What does any of this have to do with the ice bucket challenge? It all comes back to research funding. The US is facing some serious decisions about where to allocate limited money, and lawmakers recently decided that research doesn't need so much money. Budgets for research agencies, like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Health, were cut by 5%. All the ice buckets in the world are not going to make a dent in this loss in research funds. And this is just one disease, what about the rest? There is also a huge mismatch between the how deadly a disease is and how much money we donate towards research. And that's just in the US. The number for world-wide diseases would be even more disheartening. Plus, though cutting funding research might save money in the short-term, it is really bad for jobs and economic growth in the long-term, so we all lose.
Ice-buckets are unlikely to have a long-term effect on ALS research and human health, but it is my hope is that these challenges due serve to shock Americans in to appreciating how important research funding is for their everyday lives, even if they could care less about glowing jellyfish and duck penises.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Do you like it spicy?

They say that variety is the spice of life and this summer (Australian summer) I’m testing that idea.

For all of my previous research I’ve focused on one species at a time. Trying to catch all of the adults, find all of their nests, measure as many as possible, and generally become totally obsessed with one single species. 

Top: Superb-fairy wren. Bottom: Friarbird

This has some big advantages. You  become very cued into all of their little noises, what their nests look like, how they act when building or feeding nestlings, and the other little nuances that you need to get the job done. This knowledge provides the edge you need to get a large enough sample size, a tricky thing when working with free-living birds.
  As a result, I am very, very tuned in to two species, the dark-eyed junco and the superb fairy-wren. For both, I know all their little noises, I know their behaviors, I know where they like to nest and have a well-developed search image for their little hidden nests. 

Top: Varied Sittela, Bottom: Leaden Flycatcher
But now the game has changed. This year, in addition to focusing on female fairy-wren aggression and song, I'm also comparing nestlings color and begging calls. As a result, I need to find nests for a bunch of different species I've never worked with before. Most of them I recognize if I see them, some are new, and I am an expert on exactly none of them. This project is riding on me becoming a bit of an expert for a whole list of species, and fast.

Top: White-throated Gerygone, Bottom: Grey fantail
My days are now split between wrens and just about every other bird species living on the study-site (exceptions are parrots, ducks, birds of prey, etc). The result? Lots of fun and exhaustion. I am very much enjoying learning new birds and the challenge of finding their nests, which they try to hide. This also means that the work is never finished. I might find every fairy-wren nest in the area, but that doesn't mean I 'm done, just time to change gears. There is always more to find.  So, here's a little sample of my day to day.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hurry-up and wait

In the life of a biologist it seems that the days are made up of bursts of hectic activity punctuated by long tedious bouts of waiting: waiting for the animal to show up, waiting for the assay to incubate, waiting for a decision from the granting agency, waiting for a decision from the journal editor. So much waiting, you feel like your brain is rusting.

This can be especially true in the field, where you can spend several hours or days waiting, and then suddenly, within minutes, it's over. In reference to this pattern of events, a colleague of mine once said

"Fieldwork is 80% boredom, 20% sheer terror".

This problem doesn't go away after you've finished the fieldwork, it can also be an issue when you are working on the analysis and writing. There are times when you are really jazzed about a project and don't need any help focusing, just get the heck out of the way and let me work. But, sometimes you find yourself in one of these waiting periods and it can be hard to do anything more than twiddle your thumbs. This doesn't mean there is nothing to do, more likely, there are a thousand things to do, but you are not immediately jazzed about any of them.

Before returning to academia I was not a to-do list kind of person. But lately I have been a list fanatic. Mostly, I use these lists when I'm in one of these waiting periods and don't have a lot of motivation. I've gotten into the habitat of keeping a running list of the many little things that need to be done. Makes me a little bit rust resistant.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Joan Jett
What do rock stars and scientists have in common?
It sounds like the set-up for a bad pun, but in reality we actually have quite a bit in common.
Because my partner is a rock-star (kind of) I am exposed to the music world more than most biologists, and it has granted me some insight into the surprising similarities.
  • Creativity: Both scientists and rock-stars are constantly trying to innovate, and find a way to do something new and exciting. The end results are very different, but for both fields you can choose to do what everyone else is doing, or forge a new path. Doing what everyone else does might work in the short-term, but no-one will remember the copy-cats in a few years. Instead we remember the artists/scientist that give us a new perspective. 
  • Rejection: Talk to any musician or scientist and ask them about rejection. Both will have plenty to say on the subject. Both worlds require a tough skin and a willingness to get back up after being knocked down, again and again. And not only are you being rejected, it is for something you created, something you slaved over, something you are proud of. Sometimes I wonder about the level of masochism in both fields, because despite the low rates of success, we just keep trying.
  • Skill: Sure there is the occasional talentless hack that makes it big in music, but for the most part being a successful musician requires serious commitment and the development of skill. The same goes for scientists. There are a few lucky idiots out there, but most of us work really, really, hard at what we do. 
  • Glamorous lifestyles: Forbes recently produced a list of the least stressful jobs and made the mistake of listing University Professor as the #1 least stressful career. This attracted a tidal wave of backlash from people actually doing the job, and a rebuttal by another Forbes author. While amusing, and way off base, I think the articles tone reflects the general public's opinion of what it is academics actually do, what our day to day lives are actually like. The same can be said for musicians, most of who have to maintain day jobs to support their art. Going on tour sounds exotic and exciting, but the reality is hours on the road, long days, late nights and lots of time away from friends and family. Even the superstar rockers are often exhausted, beaten to pulp by the brutal schedule, constant demands, and the need to perform or face disgruntled fans that feel like you owe them.
  • Passion: So why put up with all this, the rejection, the difficult work, the demanding lifestyle? It all comes down to passion. We're willing to fail and fail and fail, and to work for hours on end because the other options are so much less appealing. There are hundreds of other things I could do for a living that do not require me to cope with rejection on such a regular basis, or would allow me to earn a much bigger paycheck for fewer hours and easier work, but you won't see me heading that direction unless I run out of other options.
Bottom line, because we are pursuing our passions, we have the coolest jobs in the world.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Unconventional teaching tools

Down here in the southern hemisphere classes are starting up again after the summer/holiday break. In my current role as a postdoctoral fellow I'm not doing any formal teaching, and I find that I'm missing it. It's not writing lectures and grading tests that I miss, but the interaction with students. I like the challenge of trying to find a new way to explain an old topic.

Along these lines I recently came across an article discussing effective teaching methods. The author focus on a new style called "peer instruction" that encourages students to learn from one and another, rather than listen to a professor lecture for the full time.

I'm pleased to see methods like these gaining more attention. I have used this particular method in my classes and found it very effective. The students that already understand the concept get a deeper understanding by having to teach it themselves. The students having problems grasping a tough topic often learn better from someone who just figured it out themselves. This method is particularly fun when teaching field courses.

The physicists have done a lot of great work to understand more effective ways of teaching complicated scientific concepts. I'm looking forward to it being a bigger parts of other subjects as well.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The human animal

I've been a little lax about posts lately.
But, to be fair, I'm in the middle of a field season, so cut me some slack.
I generally use this blog to talk about general issues that face field biologist, rather a forum to talk about my own research, leaving that topic for my website.

But, in lieu of a post, here's a link to a recent article in a popular science blog that focuses on animal behavior, The Scorpion and the Frog.
The article uses some of my research on female competition in birds as a jumping off point for discussing female competition in humans.

A great example of how we can gain insight into ourselves by studying animals.