Hawk moths in action, and how biologists study them

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.

THE Darwin Fish.

Looks like this guy:

Is the cartoon version of this guy:

Cuvier’s Bichir

It walks. It breathes air. And apparently it can adapt to terrestrial life relatively “easily”.

The scientists raised groups of bichir on land for eight months to find out how they would differ from bichir raised in the water. They found that the land-raised fish lifted their heads higher, held their fins closer to their bodies, took faster steps, undulated their tails less frequently and had fins that slipped less often than bichir raised in water. The land-raised fish also underwent changes in their skeletons and musculature that probably paved the way for their changes in behavior. All in all, these alterations helped bichir move more effectively on land.


There’s a video too!

Look there, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a moth! It’s a…. hummingbird moth?

Last week NPR posted an excellent article about what can only be the coolest pollinator. Ever.

“like a flip-flop that doubles as a beer bottle opener; an optical illusion; a labradoodle; a frenemy, the hummingbird moth falls into that cryptic category of transformers in life that are more than one thing” – Linton Weeks ” What Exactly is that Birdlike Thing?”


The #IceBucketChallenge, and iced-up budgets for scientific research [Updated]

Ice bucket screenshot

For science!

Well, it had to happen some time, I guess. A friend tagged me on Facebook in the “ice bucket challenge” to raise funds for the ALS Association. It’s gone massively viral: post a video of yourself getting soaked in ice water, donate to ALSA, and nominate more folks to do the same. So far, it’s raised more than $70 million, and it’s not slowing down yet.

My grandfather died of ALS, so I’m all in favor of funding research to find a cure. But as a working biologist, the idea of financing research in spurts of social media enthusiasm worries me a little. As Felix Salmon notes at Slate:

You need to fund scientists year in and year out; throwing a large grant at them in 2014 and then going away would probably end up causing more harm than good. As a result, most of this money will (and should) probably end up simply sitting on the ALS Association balance sheet, maybe earning some modest rate of interest, getting doled out very slowly over many years.

In terms of bang for the buck, then, giving money to the ALS Association is not much better than giving it to Harvard. Rather than being front-loaded and effective, it’s going to be back-loaded and (sadly, given the results of the $100 million that the ALS Association has spent to date) probably ineffective.

The real foundation of science in the U.S. is funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. And those agencies have had a rough decade.

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This spider is doing very well in an urbanized environment, thanks for asking

Spider with lil' spiders

Nephilia plumipes. Photo by Henry Oon.

Urbanization is one of the most dramatic changes humans make to natural habitats. Cities are concentrations of tall buildings, paved landscape, air pollution, and everything else that we do to make life easier for ourselves. But some living things do quite well in these highly altered conditions—think rats and cockroaches, but also red foxes and crows. As the Popular Science blog Eek Squad notes, there’s a new entry on that list: golden orb spiders, Nephila plumipes.

Lowe and colleagues found the city-dwelling arachnids were bigger than their country kin, and the most fertile spiders were found in neighborhoods with the highest socioeconomic status.

Why? The most likely explanation is that cities are warmer, which can lead to bigger invertebrates, and there’s more prey available. The latter is partly because of leaf litter and food for the prey, but it’s also because of a city-related scourge: Artificial light at night. Large spiders were found nearby, or living on, structures like light posts. Insects are drawn to sources of light at night, which could mean more meals for spiders living under bright lights in the big city.

Note that this isn’t necessarily an evolutionary change in response to urban habitats—the spiders probably just find conditions much more favorable in the city, and grow bigger as a result. But that change in resource availability could certainly lead to evolutionary changes over the long term. Go check out the whole Eek Squad post, and have a look at the original scientific article, which is freely available on PLOS ONE.

Skeptical that PMS is an adaptive response designed to break up your relationship? Me too.

In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, this week a take-down of some dubious evolutionary psychology was published by the popular media!  The original article, a perspective piece published in Evolutionary Applications, claims that moodiness associated with PMS may have historically served an adaptive role by driving infertile couples apart. 

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. We suggest that PMS had a selective advantage because it increased the chance that infertile pair bonds would dissolve, thus improving the reproductive outcomes of women in such partnerships. We confirm predictions arising from the hypothesis: PMS has high heritability; gene variants associated with PMS can be identified; animosity exhibited during PMS is preferentially directed at current partners; and behaviours exhibited during PMS may increase the chance of finding a new partner. Under this view, the prevalence of PMS might result from genes and behaviours that are adaptive in some societies, but are potentially less appropriate in modern cultures. Understanding this evolutionary mismatch might help depathologize PMS, and suggests solutions, including the choice to use cycle-stopping contraception.

Check out the response, published by The Daily Beast, here:

Here’s the scapegoat unhappy spouses have been waiting for: According to a paper out last week by Michael R. Gillings, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can ruin a marriage. Gillings claims that PMSing women—in infertile couples in particular—may use feelings of “animosity” as well as risk-seeking and competitive behaviors to leave their husbands and find someone new. I’m sorry to say, but the evidence in favor of this hypothesis is thinner than Always Infinity menstrual pads.

Antibiotic Resistance For Everyone!

Everyone should know what antibiotic resistance is. According to the World Health Organization, “this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.” So, I hope this short “comic” helps make it clear why we should all be thinking about antibiotic use…



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Random Natural History: Ebola

through a glass, darkly

Currently there is a catastrophic outbreak of Ebola happening in West Africa. Over 1700 infections have been recorded with nearly 1000 deaths, making it the deadliest outbreak of ebola known. Infection results in a hemorrhagic fever, which starts out a bit like the influenza, but can result in bleeding from mucous membranes, organ failure, and ultimately death. But what is Ebola?

Ebola is a Filovirus. Filoviruses are a small group of viruses only known to infect mammals. They are so named because of their filamentous shape. They have tiny genomes, only ~19,000 base pairs in length, containing only seven protein coding genes and two regulatory regions. By contrast, the human genome is over 3 billion base pairs, contains around twenty thousand genes and has innumerable (by which I mean as yet unnumbered regulatory regions). Because of ebola’s simplicity, (as with all viruses), it cannot reproduce without commandeering the cellular machinery of its hosts. In the words of Cormac McCarthy, These anonymous creatures… may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us.

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Population geneticists to Nicholas Wade: You know nothing of our work!

Okay, I’m paraphrasing in that headline, but only barely. From Science Insider:

A best-seller by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade about recent human evolution and its potential effects on human cultures has drawn critical reviews since its spring publication. Now, nearly 140 senior human population geneticists around the world, many of whose work was cited in the book, have signed a letter to The New York Times Book Review stating that Wade has misinterpreted their work.

The letter is online, and it doesn’t mince words:

Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.

To those of us who’ve been complaining about Wade’s misappropriation of basic population genetics in support of his ideas about what people of different races may or may not be “adapted” to do, this is the equivalent of that scene from Annie Hall, except with more than a hundred Marshall McLuhans. Updated to add: The full list of 139 folks who signed the letter is posted here.

Sometimes, life is kinda like that. Hat tip to Jennifer Ouellette for the Science Insider story.

Updated to add: See also coverage by Nature, with some choice quotes from signatories; and by Jennifer Raff, who writes, “A strong blow has been dealt to scientific racism today.” Also, from Ed Yong: