See you in Raleigh!

I’ve just registered (a whole two days ahead of the deadline!) for the 2014 Evolution meetings, which this year are hosted by NESCent at Raleigh, North Carolina. Up to now, my strongest association with Raleigh is from a childhood of watching The Andy Griffith Show, in which Raleigh is the big city from Mayberry’s point of view—particularly this episode where Andy and Barney drive up to town to apply for membership in a posh social club:

(Click here to go direct to the awkwardness.)

… actually, now that I re-watch this, Barney’s performance is a pretty good primer on how not to behave at scientific meetings, too. “Oh, you remember genotyping-by-sequencing, Andy! It’s genotyping. Done by, er, sequencing.”

How many moths must a sloth carry off for the sloth to rely on the moths?

Three Toed Sloth

Is it easier being green? Photo by Bas Boemsaat.

Sloths are weird critters. Cute, in a certain light, but mostly weird. They’re members—with armadillos and anteaters—in a superorder of mammals called the Xenarthra, which are united by a unique form of multi-jointed vertebrae. Their diet consists mostly of leaves, which are poor quality food, and hard to digest. Fortunately, they also have one of the slowest, lowest-energy lifestyles of any mammal, using heavily modified limbs to hang upside down from branches while they browse, their most recent meal fermenting in their guts.

David Attenborough got up close with a sloth—which he calls a “mobile compost heap”—in The Life of Mammals. He also observes one of the sloth’s weirdest behaviors: to answer the call of nature, it climbs all the way down to the ground.

Why do sloths go to all that trouble—and risk—just to poop? Well, according to a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society, they do it to feed poop-eating moths that help cultivate nutritious algae in their fur. No, but really.

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Ed Yong on mind-controlling parasites

Here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, we’re fascinated by all the weird, baroque ways that living things influence and coevolve with each other—so Ed Yong’s new TED talk about mind-controlling parasites is right up our alley. Just like his writing—currently on display at National Geographic‘s Phenomena, among many other venues—it’s a compendium of nifty natural history punctuated with highly educational gross-outs and the occasional black-belt level pun.

Friday Coffee Break: Sounding the alarm on global warming, gut microbes and radiation therapy, and life, uh, finding a way.

Silex 1936 Ad

Here’s what we’ll be chatting about while we’re waiting in line for a latte.

“For anybody who was already paying attention, the report contains no new science. But the language in the 18-page report, called ‘What We Know,’ is sharper, clearer and more accessible than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date.” (via Jeremy)

“Over the last century, almost every frontline antimalarial drug – chloroquine, sulfadoxine, pyrimethamine – has become obsolete because of defiant parasites that emerged from western Cambodia.” (Jeremy)

Here are some adorable, possibly NSFW, definitely anthropomorphic illustrations of the diversity of animal mating systems. (Sarah)

“The aim is to build up a profile of gut bacteria which will allow us to predict who will suffer side-effects that might limit the effectiveness of the radiotherapy.” (Sarah)

“After years of predicting it would happen — and after years of having their suggestions largely ignored by companies, farmers and regulators — scientists have documented the rapid evolution of corn rootworms that are resistant to [genetically modified] Bt corn.” (Sarah, who also notes that this is yet further confirmation of Malcolm’s Law.)

Want to see us in your Facebook News Feed? You should probably do this one weird thing.

Click this, please.

Click this, please.

A whole lot of folks—433!—have “liked” the Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! page on Facebook, which ought to mean that all those people see new posts from the site right in their Facebook News Feed. But we’ve found that our Facebook posts are typically seen by a lot fewer than 433 folks—and the number seems to be declining. This may be a symptom of something happening with Facebook pages in general—fewer posts are reaching the people who’ve “liked” pages, possibly because there are just more pages to “like.” The solution offered by FB is to pay for placement in people’s news feeds, but this “promotion” can reach a lot of people who really aren’t interested, and that’s not why we have a Facebook page in the first place.

If you want to ensure that posts from Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! make it into your News Feed, there is one thing you can do: Turn on the “get notifications” option on our page. This is illustrated above—it’s in a drop-down menu attached to the “Like” button itself. Selecting “get notifications” tells Facebook’s News Feed algorithm to give our posts priority in your feed.

And, if you want a less convoluted option, you can also receive Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! posts on Twitter or via RSS subscription using the links in our sidebar.

(Hat tip to the Facebook page for Small Pond Science for pointing me toward that recent article about the declining audience for FB pages. Ironic sourcing? Yes, maybe.)

Friday Coffee Break: Terror birds, privatized science, and negotiating (or not) for a faculty job

Airway Coffee Ad, c1954

Here’s what we’ll be talking about while we wait in line for a latte.

“The 18 known species, the tallest growing to a staggering 10 feet tall, didn’t bother with flying, instead opting to chase down all those creatures that had only just thrown their good-riddance-to-the-massive-carnivorous-dinosaurs party. The poor things woke up with a hangover, and the hangover was the terror bird.” (from Jeremy)

“In a long, narrow strip of territory from Kansas to New Jersey, two closely related species of chickadees meet, mate and give birth to hybrid birds. Now scientists are reporting that this so-called hybrid zone is moving north at a rate that matches the warming trend in winter temperatures.” (Jeremy)

“Created by divers for divers, this global, underwater survey of rubbish is designed to increase debris removal efforts, prevent harm to marine life and connect your underwater actions to policy changes and prevention.” (CJ)

“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.” (Noah)

“Despite such power players in W’s corner, however, the fact remains that in a substantial portion of the academic discussion, she is being eviscerated, all for having the audacity to stick up for herself for the first (and possibly last) time in her career.” (Sarah)

“I don’t know what happened on the job interview, but that email from the candidate to the Dean is a huge red flag word embroidered with script that reads: ‘I don’t want to teach’ and ‘I expect you to give me resources just like a research university would.’” (Sarah)

Friday Coffee Break: The river of Twitter, the history of an actual river, and evolution in a storybook

Vintage coffee cans 1

Here’s what we’ll be discussing while we wait in line for a latte.

“A healthy first reaction to every and any tweet is ‘Golly, I wonder what the hell the context for that could possibly be!’” (Via Sarah)

“Children learned a lot from one pretty basic storybook intervention so imagine what a curriculum spread over several years might do for scientific literacy long term.” (Sarah)

Time-lapse satellite images track the shifting oxbow curves of Peru’s Ucayali River over 28 years. (Noah)

“It is alarming that so many Nobel Prize recipients have lamented that they would never have survived this current academic environment.” (Noah)

“The data lying behind this graphic reflects some of the biggest changes in the history of English. Today, English borrows from other languages with a truly global sweep.” (Jeremy)

“Ingenuity and lots of sticky tape and glue have helped a rare parrot chick survive against the odds.” (Jeremy)

Life, the universe, and blurry boundaries

2007.03.10 - Pinyon pine

Over at the New York Times, science writer Ferris Jabr wrestles with the difficulty of differentiating living things from non-living things—viruses can reproduce themselves and evolve, but need host cells to do it; inorganic crystals can grow and (sort of) reproduce. He concludes that although “life” as we know it is a useful concept, it’s just that—a concept: “We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads.”

From there, Jabr goes on to a conclusion that (judging from my Twitter stream) has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad idea:

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BAH! This looks amazing

BAHFest , the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, is a competition to develop “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory.” The whole thing was originally proposed in a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip proposing that human infants have been evolutionarily optimized for long-distance dispersal by catapult.

Coming up with “obviously wrong” scientific hypotheses is clever because it helps us think about why, exactly, we choose to believe the hypotheses that we do, and how we use (and misuse) evidence to make those judgements. My personal favorite example is a 1983 article, published in the journal Evolution, which evaluates all the possible reasons that natural selection has made offspring smaller than their parents [PDF]—smaller offspring are easier to hide, cheaper to make, easier to disperse, and easier to control in the event that their interests conflict with their parents’—but completely (and deliberately) misses the obvious, actual reason.

Last year’s BAHFest winner, Tomer Ullman, proposed that babies cry because the irritating, high-pitched noise helps prepare their caretakers for battle:

The next iterations of BAHFest are scheduled for 25 October in San Francisco, and a date to be announced in Boston.

Reference

Ellstrand NC. 1983. Why are juveniles smaller than their parents? Evolution. 37(5): 1091-4. doi: 10.2307/2408423.

Friday Coffee Break: Defrosting an ice age virus, the joy of trilobites, and the collective weight of land mammals

Washington's Coffee

“The last time it infected anything was more than 30,000 years ago, but in the laboratory it has sprung to life once again.” (From Sarah)

“Among the people I do know who have done PhDs, I have seen depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and suicide attempts.” (Sarah)

” ‘A lot of people, when they see these fossils, don’t believe they’re real,’ said Dr. Huber, who is 54, fit from years of fieldwork, and proud that the state fossil of his native Ohio is a trilobite. ‘They think they must be artists’ models.’ ” (Noah)

“Earth’s Land Mammals by Weight.” And, the 2014 Mammals Suck March Madness Bracket! (Amy)

“What’s creepier than a worm rearing up on its tail to snag a passing insect? A thousand worms uniting into a single living, writhing, waving tower to snag a passing insect.” (Jeremy)

“Nye is widely viewed as having won that debate, but Ham may have gotten the last word: on Thursday he announced that his Creation Museum’s proposed Noah’s Ark theme park, including a 510-foot replica of the Biblical vessel, had against all odds secured a last-minute $62 million municipal bond offering.” (Jeremy)