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.

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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.)

When a bad bird goes good … and then bad again.

cuckoos

Brood parasites are definitely the bullies of the avian world.  They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, sometimes destroying the host’s own eggs or just waiting for their nestlings to do the dirty work after they hatch.  They then outcompete any surviving host nestlings for food, while the poor host parents are worked to the bone to feed the monstrous nest invader.

In spite of the steep costs of nest parasitism, most avian host species do not have effective mechanisms for detecting and removing brood parasites from their nests.  So, why don’t mama birds notice they have a GIANT intruder in their nest and carry out some infanticide of their own?  One hypothesis is that the cost of a mother bird making a mistake and pushing the wrong baby out (i.e. her own) outweighs the benefit of developing such a behavior.

This week in Science, Canestrari et al. published evidence for another hypothesis – that sometimes, it might actually be good to have your nest parasitized.

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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)

Adjunctivitis

View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

A lot of pixels have been spilled on the subject of the adjunct crisis in academia. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it refers to the explosive growth in the use of adjunct faculty to teach courses at colleges and universities in the United States. These faculty are hired on a course by course, semester by semester basis. They receive no benefits and don’t have a shred of job security. By some estimates an average “full-time” adjunct faculty member teaching 8 courses a year (3 each semester and 2 in the summer, perhaps?) would make less than $30,000 a year and it’s thought that adjunct faculty are now doing 70% of the teaching at higher education institutions in the US.

Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the perceived fundamental unfairness of employing highly educated professionals in such an absurd fashion, or on the pyramid scheme-y aspects of graduate programs that chew up students and spit them into this cesspool of underemployment. In the comments sections of these pieces, there is an ever-present retort, presumably emanating from those free market-loving capitalists among us, that if adjunct faculty hate their plight so much, they should change career paths.

In response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of that coin: when you offer shitty compensation, you might just get shitty employees.

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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)