Last spring, the journal Current Biology published a report describing something new under the entomological sun: A genus of tiny cave-dwelling insects, dubbed Neotrogla, in which females, not males, have penises.
Or, rather, the females have a thing that they stick inside the males. Once it’s in there, that thing inflates and latches into the male with tiny barbs, binding the couple together in a copulation lasting two to three days, while the thing collects a packet containing sperm and a whole lot of (potentially) nutritious protein. What to call the females’ thing seems to have puzzled even the scientists who described it. In the text of their paper, they call it a gynosome (literally, a “female body”); but in the title, it’s a “female penis.”
This synonymy went from confusing to controversial the moment it hit the popular science press, which almost uniformly chose to go penis-first. “Female insect uses spiky penis to take charge” read the headline in the prestigious journal Nature. “Meet the female insect with giant PENIS whose steamy sex sessions last 70 HOURS,” said the Daily Mirror, caps-locked emphasis sic. Most of the stories, even the Mirror’s, got around to using the word “gynosome” eventually, and many went into more detail about how the organ in question wasn’t really a penis as we know it. LiveScience noted it was “a complex organ composed of muscles, ducts, membranes and spikes,” before adding that its size, relative to the body of a Neotrogla female, was “the equivalent of a man who is 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall having a penis about 9.8 inches (24.9 centimeters) long.”
Across eastern North America, one of the most magical signs of summertime is the beginning of firefly activity—hundreds or thousands of flying beetles, their abdomens glowing or flashing, filling twilight backyards and woodland clearings with floating lights.
But those displays—which fireflies put on to attract mates—are getting rarer. Or seem to be, anyway—but we don’t have the kind of comprehensive census of firefly activity that could really tell us how they’re doing. A citizen science project out of Clemson University aims to change that by enlisting anyone with a smartphone or a home internet connection:
The objective of the Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project is to promote environmental
sustainability and stewardship through the participation of local communities in environmental science research. The Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project offers a mobile app that everyone – from elementary students to seniors – can use to measure firefly populations in their communities from neighborhoods, to parks and anywhere in the world they may go!
To help, you follow the project site’s instructions for learning how to count fireflies, then use a smartphone app or a webpage form to report what you see, when, and where. Why not collect some data while you admire the lights in the forest?
(Hat tip to Erik Runquist, on Twitter.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!