My grandfather, a farmer in rural Virginia, was never much worried about saving endangered species or stopping climate change, or any environmental issue that didn’t directly impact next year’s soybean harvest. But as long as I can remember, he maintained a tiny apartment house on a pole in his back yard — just for purple martins.
Martins are glossy, deep-purple swallows that nest in big colonies. Originally, they used cavities in dead tree trunks and cliffs, but in eastern North America they’re now entirely dependent on human-made birdhouses like my grandfather’s. In a great video, Adam Cole of NPR’s Skunk Bear, talks to some martin landlords, discusses some of the challenges the birds face in modern times, and goes on an expedition to find one of the roosts where they gather in huge flocks before migrating to South America for the winter.
As a follow-up to CJ’s post about hummingbird moths—more generally known as hawk moths—let me recommend this episode of Plants are Cool, Too, which features the work of Chicago Botanic Garden conservation scientist Krissa Skogen. At White Sands National Monument, Skogen tracks the nectar rewards that attract hawk moths, and how far the moths carry pollen.
Here at Nothing in Biology, we are big fans of making stuff up (but, uh, not on the blog… or in our scientific publications… or on our tax returns… or, well, you get the point). So a few of us are thinking of entering some of our fantastical(ly bad) evolutionary theories to the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses. This festival is dedicated to “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory”. To get an idea of what it’s about, see the video below. If you’re in or near the Bay Area or Cambridge, Mass this October, think about checking it out!
We’re big fans of Emily Graslie’s natural history video series The Brain Scoop. The latest episode goes right to the source of the museum specimens that usually take center stage—a fossil hunting expedition.
Watch the whole thing, and you’ll learn some nifty paleontology jargon, like:
“It’s called the 18-inch layer.”
“Is it because it’s 18 inches?”
When he’s not dismantling racist pseudoscience, Chris Smith studies the evolutionary ecology of species interactions. Willamette University sent along a videographer on Chris’s last field trip to study Joshua trees and the moths that pollinate them in central Nevada, and the result is now posted on Vimeo. It’s mainly geared toward showcasing how Willamette undergraduate students participate in the fieldwork, but I’d say it makes the desert look mighty good, too.
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.
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.
Ellstrand NC. 1983. Why are juveniles smaller than their parents? Evolution. 37(5): 1091-4. doi: 10.2307/2408423.