Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Jeremy – 

Just in time for snot season, scientists discover a ‘blue print’ for a universal flu vaccine. Yay Science!

“The immune system produces these CD8 T cells in response to usual seasonal flu,” Prof Lalvani said. “Unlike antibodies, they target the core of the virus, which doesn’t change, even in new pandemic strains.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Malaysian orchids must be super flattered by the orchid mantis.

“The orchid mantises we observed were not hiding amongst flowers, but were sitting on their own against a backdrop of green vegetation,” O’Hanlon said. “Thus, it was the body of the mantis itself that was attracting the pollinators, and not any flowers in its vicinity.”

From Sarah – 

Another awesome mimic??? WAHOO! But this time it’s Uropyia meticulodina moths and dead leaves.

And it’s not just brown like a curled up, dead leaf, it depicts a leaf catching the light, with shadows in all the right places and you can even see the veins casting tiny shadows along the curled underside. It’s like one of those optical illusions that still work even when you know it’s a trick.

Science news nexus PopSci is no longer allowing comments on their articles…and for really good reasons!

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics… And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Speaking of comments on blogs, we here at Nothing In Biology have posted a very condensed blog commenter and contributor policy. And before you ask – yes, there is a Monty Python reference involved.

From Amy – 

An attractive, simple and delightful motions graphics piece explaining the big concepts in evolution. It’s so fun to watch, you won’t even know you’re learning!

From Noah –

The iconic Darwin’s Finches are being threatened by a parasitic, introduced fly.

“Usually their beak is all messed up,” said George Heimpel, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota who has done research on the fly. “And for Darwin’s finches we know that the beak is an important part of their livelihood.”

From CJ –

The requirements for a perfect colleague (according to one delusional scientist).

I will not work with a colleague that does not have a NIH or NSF career development grant.

I am not looking for any type of colleague that is materialistic or a gold digger or expects a collaborator to pay for everything.

Missed Connections: reproductive isolation and diversification rate

MissedConnections“You: on the earth’s surface. so young. so dynamic. full of life and suggesting a world of possibility. Me: subterranean. really old. fossilized, almost. intriguing but slightly inscrutable. We brushed past each other in Rabosky and Matute (2013). I thought there was something there, but in the blink of a p-value you were gone.” 

One of the perennial questions in evolutionary biology is “What factors determine how many species are on earth?” Researchers take numerous approaches to get at this very big question. One is to look for correlations between attributes of organisms, the environments they inhabit, or geologic history and rates of species diversification. This the study of macroevolution, and it is based on the idea that the discovery of these correlations on large scales (often using datasets with hundreds to thousands of species with deep histories spanning tens of millions of years) would be a powerful indicator of the factors governing species richness. Another approach is to study speciation on a small scale, to examine sets of closely related populations currently in the process of diverging. The thought is that if we can observe the forces driving divergence in contemporary populations, we can use those observations to develop a more general understanding.

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Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Jeremy

Coffee goes really well with information about plant immune responses.

The plant behaves as an integrated organism, but communication from one part of the plant to another is not the same as having a central nervous system.  We might try to imagine what it feels like to be a plant (normally or when under attack), but even if the plant is a unitary creature, its sensory awareness doesn’t have to be ‘conscious’ or centralized for it to be an example of the integration of many parts into a whole.

From CJ

Oh, the stories that whale’s earwax could tell!

Whale earwax is a fat-rich deposit that stores the same chemical data as blubber. But it also records time — similarly to the rings of a tree, the wax is laid down in light and dark bands, with each band correlating roughly to a six-month period. In baleen, or filter-feeding, whales, earwax forms a solid plug that may be tens of centimetres long and remains intact even after its death.

A nicely timed (although slightly profane) complement to CJ’s post last week on science funding.  Do you really f*&#ing love science?

If you really love science, you’ll start making noise about this issue.  You’ll start asking why the US is shooting itself—and the world—in the foot, by putting science on the back burner.  We can spend as much as we want on other things, but in the end, if we’re not funding science, we’re moving backwards.

From Amy

Do you ever feel like you just don’t have enough time to understand contemporary genius’ and their theories? It can’t just be me or this really awesome video – Stephen Hawking’s big ideas made simple – would have been sent to me personally. 

From Noah

It’s like where Neo does that thing with the bullets in the Matrix – except with animals and actual data. Small animals perceive time on a different scale than larger animals and can use that to escape predators with lightning fast reflexes.

“Flies might not be deep thinkers but they can make good decisions very quickly.”

From Sarah

Did you catch Bill Nye on Dancing With The Stars? Some wonder if his performance was a little counterproductive.

His dance did end with fans cheering his name, and he had the biggest social media buzz of any contestants. But I think his over-the-top performance on “Dancing With The Stars” on Monday night was a disservice to the science community by reinforcing stereotypes that scientists are nerdy, old white men who can’t dance.

And finally – the  top 10 – nay – the top 20 – important questions in science. From “What is the Universe made of?” to “Can we travel in time?” with a little “What’s the deal with prime numbers?” in between. Get ready for some brain bending.


Your dinner or your life: What determines the sprint speed of gazelles, zebras, giraffes … and ostriches?

2010 076 Masai Mara b 24

Thomson gazelle, on the run. Photo by ngari.norway

In the evolutionary history of big herbivores and the carnivores that prey upon them, the phrase “arms race” is only technically a metaphor. Antelope and zebras are literally born to run, and many of the things that chase them, like wild dogs or cheetahs, are either masters of endurance or champion sprinters. The evolutionary story almost writes itself: over millions of years of chasing, and being chased, whenever the predators evolved to become faster, the prey were selected to run even faster—until a cat evolves that can go from 0 to 60 faster than my Volkswagen Rabbit.

Except of course there’s more to life than running for your life. An antelope’s frame is under more demands than evading cheetahs—it also needs to travel long distances to follow food availability with the shifting rainy season. In fact, the North American fossil record suggests that big herbivores on that continent evolved long legs for distance running millions of years before there were predators able to chase after them. And then again, not all predators run their prey down; lions, for instance, prefer to pounce from ambush.

In a paper recently released online ahead of print in the journal Evolution, Jakob Bro-Jørgensen sets out to disentangle exactly these competing explanations.

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Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Noah

If you were a Stellar’s Jay, how many times would you have to throw up a Marbled Murrelet’s egg before you stopped eating them in the first place?

Steller’s jays don’t seek out murrelet eggs. But when the birds circle picnic areas near murrelet nests, some discover the chicken-size eggs make a fine treat. The smart, savvy birds will return to the same spot over and over, searching for food. Murrelets, to their misfortune, nest in the same tree every year.

From Jeremy

Can fossilized bone damaged by teeth be distinguished from fossilized bone damaged by claws? Let’s use tigers and cow femurs trapped inside logs to find out!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Nope, it’s bees having sex in the air!

From CJ

The role of odor and smell in avian mate choice:

“Based on odor, females seemed to be not only choosing with which males to mate, but many times they also were selecting different males to raise their nestlings,” Whittaker said. “Interestingly enough, the cuckolding males had higher levels of a ‘female-like’ odor.”

Planning a trip to Vietnam? Maybe you should check Son Doong out – because now you actually can. (Pssst – the pictures look amazing).

The Son Doong Cave in Vietnam is the biggest cave in the world. It’s over 5.5 miles long, has a jungle and river, and could fit a 40-story skyscraper within its walls. But nobody knew any of that until four years ago.

Finally, a little LEGO STEM gender equality!

From Sarah

Did you know that the USA is the world’s second largest consumer of illegal elephant ivory? Here’s one thing we’re going to do about that.

A slightly disturbing history of childbirth deaths – alternatively titled – holy crap, I’m glad it’s 2013!

In the United States today, about 15 women die in pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births. That’s way too many, but a century ago it was more than 600 women per 100,000 births. In the 1600s and 1700s, the death rate was twice that: By some estimates, between 1 and 1.5 percent of women giving birth died. Note that the rate is per birth, so the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth was much higher, perhaps 4 percent.

AT LEAST one of these beakers should be a coffee mug, don’t you think?

What Would Darwin Do With $100,000?

One of my favorite things about professional conferences is getting to hang around and chat with friends/mentors/heros/other biologists. This year I found myself one evening hanging out with a group of exceptional biologist and we came around to discussing some society business.

SSE may have a bunch of this. What should we do with it?

SSE may have a bunch of this. What should we do with it?

One of the biologists in the group is on the board of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). He mentioned a little quirk of numbers over the past few years. You see, the societies try to break even on the conferences. They estimate how much it’ll cost to run the conference, divide that by how many people will attend and then set this as the cost of registration. However, as luck would have it, every year for the past 5 or so there have been more attendees than anticipated. As a result, there is a surplus or funds.

So the question came up, what do we do with extra money?

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Postdoc in evolutionary genetics of complex traits

2012.10.22 - Medicago truncatula

Do you like evolution, genetics, and evolutionary genetics? Would you like to think of things to do with a whole lot of genetic data and a flagship model legume? Well, my boss, Peter Tiffin, is looking for another postdoc. Here’s the post description from EvolDir:

I have available a post-doctoral position to work on association and evolutionary genomics of the model legume Medicago truncatula. Collaborators and I have recently collected genome sequence for > 200 accessions and have used these data for GWAS and population genomic analyses. We are currently working to refine our understanding of genomic variation segregating within this species and are particularly interested in the evolutionary genetics of the symbiosis between Medicago and Sinorhizobia. The successful applicant will have considerable freedom to develop research in their area of interest.

The deadline for submissions is 15 September 2013, so get in touch with Peter pronto if you’re interested. (See the full ad for contact information and the application package requirements—it’s standard stuff.) Benefits of the position include working with population genomic data from the cutting edge of current technology in a collegial lab with some very smart people (and me) in the midst of a fantastic community of biologists at the University of Minnesota—as well as living in the Twin Cities, which are empirically awesome. Yes, even in winter.

Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From CJ A short overview of some bad-ass young people fighting against bad science.

Nobody likes a free-loader – especially the uninformed, communicable-disease susceptible kind:

Last weekend, a teenager in King County whose parents intentionally avoided mandatory vaccinations was diagnosed with measles. Read what happens next!

America’s favorite bow tie lights up the dance floor – for space!

From JeremyWhat would it look like if you mapped science papers like stars in a galaxy? It’d look pretty awesome (and be a handy tool for finding papers, too)!

For those seeking a remedy to the overly bland supermarket tomato:

With the new knowledge, “you can’t help but get a better tomato,” Dr. Bartoshuk said.

From NoahA bona fide scientific mystery:

It features a central spire and an encircling picket-fence that’s been reinforced by horizontal rails, and is strung together by a series of radially oriented guy wires. An impressive edifice at any scale, the structure measures less than 2 cm across. And here’s the real kicker: nobody knows what made it.

From Sarah – An awesome group blog about women in science and tenure track trials and tribulations, including topics like toxic mentors, miscarriage, menstruation, sexual harassment and the upsides to being a woman in science. And those are just from the last month!

Beautiful videos of tiny (and not so tiny) sea creatures over at the Plankton Chronicles.

More great news about young scientists! As in – really young.

And, finally…

this calls for a round of espresso shots! Great big news this week for Friend of the Blog / Occasional Contributor Professor Chris Smith of Willamette University, who recently received an NSF CAREER Grant for his outstanding teaching credentials and research on yucca moths and Joshua Trees!

Species? We don’t need no stinkin species!

The term “species” is probably one we’re all familiar with. It’s a deceptively simple idea – species are groups of organisms that are different from other organisms. Humans are humans, live oaks are live oaks, water bears are water bears. Duh. But deep down in the nitty gritty, defining species is a lot less straightforward. Living things don’t always behave like we expect them to, and this includes who they mate with and how they fit into our mental boxes. Despite the exceptions, many general trends exist.

A pretty standard lecture in Evolution classes is one on speciation. The most common mechanism goes like this:


There are plenty of exceptions to the above narrative – like basically a billion exceptions. However, it’s a straightforward way to think about how different (large, sexually reproducing) species arise in the case of allopatry, which is the scientific term for the speciation-by-physical-separation I just described.

Thinking about speciation in microorganisms, especially obligately asexual microorganisms, is a real brain cramp for someone who has long thought about speciation in vertebrates (i.e., me). But it’s a really fun cramp. Without sexual recombination of genomes, without pre and post-fertilization ways of allowing only suitable babies to live, what unites microbes into cohesive units? And how do we identify them? Some have posited the environment decides: “ecospecies” are organisms in the same environment that perform basically the same function. Morphology is basically useless since there are very few shapes that microorganisms have. Others rely on the genetic makeup of an individual to cluster it with other very closely related genomes, er, organisms. However, empirical data are frequently unable to identify obvious genetic cutoffs for when two sequences belong to the same or different microbial species. This poses the question: What is a microbial species?

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