The Lady Gaga of ferns, and the Spartacus of ants

Friend of the blog (and former contributor) Devin Drown is wrapping up his first year on the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he’s been teaching the Principles of Evolution course. As a final assignment, Devin’s students are contributing posts to a class blog, Evolution, Naturally — and the first couple are great!

Margaret Oliver digs into the phylogenetic data used to support the renaming of a genus of desert-adapted, clonally reproducing ferns — after Lady Gaga. It turns out that the singer’s stage name is literally encoded in the DNA sequence that helps differentiate the new genus from its closest relatives, as Oliver illustrates in the best. Phylogeny. Figure. Ever.

(Evolution, Naturally)

Oliver’s Figure 3. (Evolution, Naturally)

Meanwhile, Alexandria Wenninger explains how some species of ants steal larvae from other ant colonies and raise them as workers — and how entomologists are discovering that those kidnapped workers can resist this unasked-for reassignment.

However, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the [captured workers] are not always so oblivious to their origins, as researchers observe more and more situations of what they are calling “slave (host) rebellion”. Czechowski and Godzinska, in their recent review article, “Enslaved ants: not as helpless as they were thought to be”, identify four types of rebelling behaviors, which range from aggressive acts by individual ants to a collective uprising against the parasites.

Biologist Having Too Much Fun Testing Evolution Education Game To Actually Study Evolution

Phylogenetics has never been this much fun. Seriously. (Screenshot: Evolution Lab)

Phylogenetics has never been this much fun. Seriously. (Screenshot: Evolution Lab)

NOVA, the flagship science program on U.S. Public Television, has just launched a new Evolution Lab website, which is chocked full of great information about the history of life on Earth, and how we study it. But my favorite thing has got to be the accompanying online game, which asks you to assemble organisms into evolutionary trees based on their traits and even their DNA sequences — it’s slick and pretty and it guides you into the logic of evolutionary relationships without explaining them point-by-point, unless you want that. I’ll be keeping this in mind for the next time I teach a basic class in phylogenetics.

Don’t Buy This

One of the co-founders of the structure of the DNA, James Watson, is selling his Nobel Prize medallion.

And since he’s bringing himself back into the media spotlight, an article at slate reminds us all of some of his verbal gems.:

“Whenever you interview fat people you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”

When speaking about women in science, “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”

What else did the resident bad grandpa of science say recently? Read more here. 

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“Dance your Ph.D.” winner gets up in the air to explain life underground

The winner of this year’s “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, Uma Nagendra, studies fungi that infect the roots of pine seedlings—seedlings that grow too close to an adult tree, such as their own parent, can be at higher risk of fungal disease transmitted from the adult’s roots. Nagendra depicts those underground interactions, and what happens when a tornado upends them, in a choreographed trapeze performance. Cool!

Celebrating Alfred Russel Wallace with … a symposium of only straight white men?

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A sample of Alfred Russel Wallace’s butterfly collection, which is a lot more colorful than the panel of speakers UCLA has chosen to celebrate his legacy. (Natural History Museum, London)

Update, 31 October: Elizabeth Long asked me to post the following statement about developments since the letter was sent last week:

Perhaps rather naively, I didn’t anticipate the amount of publicity our letter regarding the upcoming public Wallace Centennial Celebration would generate. I had hoped to start a discussion about the issues surrounding diversity and safety in STEM that were raised, and I’m glad to say that this has happened. I have had several very thoughtful and productive conversations with the event organizers and I can confidently and emphatically say that issues surrounding diversity and equality are very important to them. In various ways they’ve each shown this commitment, throughout their careers, through concrete actions.

I asked one of the organizers to help summarize the history of the event. Paraphrasing our discussion: In this specific case the original grant submission included women speakers (4 of 8 speakers) but for various reasons they were ultimately not able to participate. The event organizers wanted to host speakers who are not only excellent scientists and speakers but are also knowledgeable about Wallace and his legacy, which led to a narrow set of selection criteria and led to the original publicized lineup. The revised lineup includes two remarkable women, one an historian of science, and the other an evolutionary medicine specialist.

Update, 29 October: It’s been brought to my attention that the list of symposium speakers now includes Soraya de Chadarevian and Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, which suggests that the organizers are making some changes.

Update, 25 October: I’ve amended the headline of this post to better reflect, I hope, that what the letter and its signatories object to is not the inclusion of white men on the symposium panel, but the lack of inclusion of similarly accomplished folks from groups that are systematically underrepresented in science. As I note below, the panelists are highly accomplished, and appropriate for the Wallace Centennial—but the panel could include women as well without compromising the prestige or topicality of its membership.

2014 marks a century since the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, who is recognized as co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of evolution by natural selection. Appropriately, the University of California Los Angeles is holding a symposium of biologists and natural historians to celebrate Wallace’s life and work. Unfortunately, the panel of speakers chosen for the symposium doesn’t exactly reflect the diversity of humanity, or even humans who are biologists and natural historians. Although there are lots of very accomplished folks on the panel who will likely give interesting talks, they’re all straight (so far as I know) white men. That’s right, the Alfred Russel Wallace Centennial fails the gay bar test pretty spectacularly.

Elizabeth Long, a biologist at UCLA and the Natural History Museum of LA, has organized a group of folks to write a letter to the symposium organizers pointing this out—and, just to make it clear how unnecessary an all-male panel is, included a list of accomplished ecologists and evolutionary biologists who are not men. The letter, which I’ve co-signed, also points out that an all-male panel exacerbates problems that women already encounter in academia, and is at odds with Wallace’s legacy as a supporter of equal rights for women. But I’ll let you read the full text, which is after the jump:

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