Is the Octopus an Alien? No.


The California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) genome was recently sequenced and analyzed (good job science!).

In response some news media outlets seemed to imply that octopuses are alines. As in from outer space. See here, here and here.

However, despite how cool the octopus is, and how interesting it genome is likely to be, it is not, in fact an alien. Just a really REALLY cool cephlapod.



alien octopusSeriously though, let’s celebrate this cool scientific achievement! And if you want to read more about how the octopus is not an alien, but in fact very much from this planet read about it over at Quarks to Quasers.

One Star YELP reviews… of National Parks

The National Park Service turns 99 years old on Tuesday (HAPPY BIRTHDAY!).

To celebrate its awesome, an article over at Mother Jones points out those who might not be as enthusiastic about our national treasures. For example: Yelp is filled with one- and two-star reviews of America’s most pristine and majestic natural wonders.

And I CAN NOT STOP READING THEM. I would like to join the author in thanking those individuals who dislike the great outdoors for leaving the campgrounds a little bit less crowded. And so you can join me in my mirth, I have posted some excellent examples below:

Carlsbad Caverns



Petrified Forest

petrified Petrified

Crater Lake

craterlake Craterlake

Death Valley

deathvalley DeathValley



olympic Olympic


yosemite Yosemite


Why do women leave STEM positions? It’s the cultural climate… duh


This is a new post about women in STEM. But this one offers the unique perspective because it is about women in STEM INDUSTRY positions, rather than academic positions.

I have made it no secret that I’m considering industry over academia (see post here), which is why I found this article over at Medium so interesting.

The author (Rachel Thomas) has the unique perspective of simultaneously being passionate about the work she’s pursuing in industry, and disgusted by the culture of programming in a non academic setting.

Short summary:

Bad News: There is a crazy high attrition rate for women working in tech (38% retention rate for women in engineering). As a result, the pipeline problem might not be in the earlier stages of the pipeline, meaning that educating more girls and women in STEM fields is not enough to rectify the problem. Rather, the author suggests that we need to find a way to change the cultural community within STEM industries.

Good News: The author still thinks change is possible. Within academic settings (Harvey Mudd and Harvard Business School) strong leaders at both institutions caused sweeping changes to address previously male-centric cultures. There is hope!


Shooting wildlife can be dangerous to your health

And not for the reason you think.

Recently a gentleman in East Texas learned this the terribly hard way. He was hospitalized for a gun shot wound. No, our animal in question did not successfully point a gun and shoot it anyone.

However, it turns out that when said gentleman fired his gun at an armadillo, the bullet ricocheted off the armor of our heroic mammal.

This is not the only time armadillos have inadvertently harmed humans.

In Georgia last April, another gentleman shot an armadillo and the bullet ricocheted off the armadillo and hit his mother-in-law. 

The lesson here, don’t shoot at wildlife.


Notes from the field: Failures

I organized/managed/collected data over three field seasons in New Zealand.

Now, as a big chunk of my work has shifted to theory, the time I spent in the field has made me appreciate how hard it is to collect data.

And although none of the NiB contributors are in the field this summer, we have all experienced the joys and woes of field work.

So it seems appropriate that as the summer (and many people’s field seasons) winds down that I share the most epic twitter hashtag of the summer.


Carrie Cizauskas: When your drugged zebra finds the ONE tree on the Namibian plains, which also has a neck-height fork #fieldworkfail

Carrie Cizauskas:
When your drugged zebra finds the ONE tree on the Namibian plains, which also has a neck-height fork #fieldworkfail

Tony Gamble: That cool spider you took photos of then released was an undescribed species #fieldworkfail

Tony Gamble:
That cool spider you took photos of then released was an undescribed species #fieldworkfail

Kate Jones Getting the @ZSLScience truck stuck in a river in the middle of Mongolia whilst searching for bats #fieldworkfail

Kate Jones
Getting the @ZSLScience truck stuck in a river in the middle of Mongolia whilst searching for bats #fieldworkfail

Dr. Alistair Dove Skillfully applied thousand dollar satellite tag to manta ray. The same manta ray I tagged yesterday #fieldworkfail

Dr. Alistair Dove
Skillfully applied thousand dollar satellite tag to manta ray. The same manta ray I tagged yesterday #fieldworkfail

TSV ‏ Group leader read a map wrong. We ended up a mile into an active USAF target range. Left very quickly. #FieldWorkFail

Group leader read a map wrong. We ended up a mile into an active USAF target range. Left very quickly. #FieldWorkFail

Andrew Hendry ‏ Student fishing for guppies in Trinidad just inches from a Fer de Lance. NOT STAGED.

Andrew Hendry ‏
Student fishing for guppies in Trinidad just inches from a Fer de Lance. NOT STAGED.

Laurie Santos 2007:

Laurie Santos
2007: “We can swim there. There are *never* jellyfish.” You can’t swim there. There are many jellyfish #fieldworkfail

The Golden Age of Antibiotics is Over

Ten Most Dangerous Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

Ten Most Dangerous Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

We’ve all heard about antibiotic resistant bacteria. It’s time to admit, we’re losing this war. Drug resistant superbugs like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Straphylococcus aureus), CRE (Carbapenum-resistant enterobacteriaceae), and VRE (Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus) are slowly winning.

However, all hope is not lost! Over at the Genetic Literacy Project, Nicholas Staropoli wrote an excellent article about how we may be losing the war against bacteria, but that is no reason to throw in the towel against disease.

He offers two solutions: Phage therapy and CRISPR technology (which we’ve talked about on this blog)

Phage therapy, where the enemy of my enemy is my friend, involves inducing species specific viruses that attack harmful bacteria.

And if you haven’t jumped on the CRISPR technology bandwagon, now is your moment. Seriously, this technology is not only promising and interesting, it’s getting a ton of great press these days.

Moral of the story? It’s time to rearm ourselves for the continued battles ahead.

Fear the resistance

Fear the resistance


A Reef Made of Mollusks!


Modern reefs are made up predominantly of coral, those fabulous cnidarians that colonize into epically beautiful formations.

However, it turns out that the reefs of the Mesozoic were dominated not by the modern decorative colonizers, but by mollusks, similar to clams.

While the fossils of these organisms, called Rudists, used to be thought of as made by sheep or goats, but we now know that they are the only mollusk to ever construct massive reefs.

They were hardy reef builders, protected by their strong shells. The reef was built not as a colony but because shells often grew close to one another, forming networks of mutual support. This allowed the reef structures to become quite large, some stretching hundreds of kilometers long.

Modern reefs, made up of colonizing corals.

Modern reefs, made up of colonizing corals.

Additionally, the variation in rudist size was vast. Some were only a few centimeters, while others spanned over a meter.

Despite their prevalence in the oceans of the dinosaurs (it all comes back to dinosaurs this summer…), they went extinct approximately 1 million years before the meteorite that caused the dinosaur extinction crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula.

Why they went extinct? It remains a mystery.

Read all about rudists over at American Scientist!



When infection is unavoidable, fruit flies ramp up recombination

So, you wanna head back to my place after this and make some recombinant offspring?

Imagine you find yourself in the midst of a large-scale epidemic, similar to the scenarios portrayed in movies like Contagion or Outbreak (or both!). The disease is extremely contagious, and the probability of becoming infected is high. Now imagine that scientists fail to discover a cure. There is no Dustin Hoffman-led team of military virologists available to develop a vaccine and save humanity, and the disease persists, with the potential to infect subsequent generations. In this harsh, disease-ridden environment, how could you ensure that your future offspring would survive?

It turns out, if you were a fruit fly, you might rely on recombination.

Disease is thought to have played a major role in shaping the reproductive strategies of animals. The Red Queen hypothesis predicts that species experiencing parasite-related selection pressures are more likely to evolve sexual reproduction, along with increased rates of outcrossing and recombination. This is because, in the ongoing evolutionary arms race between hosts and parasites, a little bit of genetic variation can make it a lot harder for the parasite to “win.”

But while strategies for increasing genetic variation may improve disease resistance, they often come at a cost. Increased recombination, in particular, can reduce fitness by breaking up locally adaptive combinations of alleles. One potential way to get around this issue is to increase recombination rates only when the risk of infection is high. However, we have yet to observe direct evidence of parasite-induced recombination in animals.

In a study recently published in Science, Singh et al. sought to investigate the capacity of fruit flies to plastically increase recombination in response to infection. To do this, the researchers infected Drosophila melanogaster females with a variety of parasites, and observed the proportion of recombinant offspring the females produced.

In order to track recombination events, researchers took advantage of the known genetic basis of two visible phenotypic traits. The ebony locus and the rough locus occupy nearby positions on the same chromosome in D. melanogaster, and recessive mutations at each of these loci have easily identifiable effects on the phenotype. For this study, the researchers generated females heterozygous at both ebony and rough.

Next, the researchers infected females with one of several different types of parasites. Two distinct (but similarly disturbing-sounding) methods were used to infect flies, depending on the type of parasite involved. In some trials, the researchers stabbed adult flies in the thorax with a needle covered in disease-causing bacteria. In other trials, the researchers housed larval flies with female parasitic wasps, allowing the wasps to inject their eggs directly into the larvae. Seriously, these flies must have been terrified.

A parasitic wasp (Leptopilina heterotoma) probes for fruit fly larvae with her ovipositor.

A parasitic wasp (Leptopilina heterotoma) probes for fruit fly larvae with her ovipositor. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Martin)

Finally, the researchers backcrossed infected females to double-mutant males, and examined the resulting offspring. Sorting through thousands of individual flies, researchers identified recombinant offspring as those that exhibited one mutant trait but not the other.

As predicted by the Red Queen hypothesis, infected females produced significantly more recombinant offspring than non-infected females. The researchers saw this pattern across all types of infection studied, including infection by species that parasitize D. melanogaster in the wild. Furthermore, the effect persisted across host life stages, with females producing more recombinant offspring even when infection occurred during the larval stage of development.

The study also provided some insight on the underlying mechanism for making more recombinant offspring, which – surprisingly – appears not to involve an actual increase in recombination rate. Instead, the culprit looks to be some form of transmission distortion, whereby recombinant gametes are promoted at the expense of non-recombinants.

This study highlights the remarkable ability of individual organisms to rapidly respond to changes in the environment, as well as the central role disease has played in shaping the evolutionary trajectory of animals.

But the reason I’m REALLY excited about these findings is because of their potential to reinvigorate the post-apocalyptic science fiction genre.

Picture this: 50 years after the emergence of an unprecedentedly deadly cross-species pathogen, the majority of the planet’s human population has been wiped out. The only people remaining are the highly recombinant offspring of those infected with (and ultimately killed by) the disease. In a world where survival of the fittest reigns supreme, these exceptionally disease-resistant individuals must attempt to rebuild society as they contend with resource shortages, lawless bands of savages, and the unknown genetic ramifications of the extreme levels of heterozygosity within their population.

It sounds like the beginnings of a pretty solid screenplay to me.

While you’re waiting for my movie to hit theaters, you can read the full text of the Science article here. And check out the video below (courtesy of Dr. Michael Martin), which shows a parasitic wasp female attempting to deposit her eggs in some (probably pretty freaked out) fruit fly larvae.

Speaking of awesome summer epidemics


I quickly learned while studying disease (and parasites, and coevolution oh my!) that this group of scientist uses strange expressions. For example “Awesome epidemics!”, “Exciting infections!”, “Cool parasitism!”

No, I’m not talking about an increase in the spread of awesome around the world (although now that you mention that…), but rather a tendency to get excited about emerging infectious diseases and pathogen.

This is one of those posts. If disease/parasites/coevolution isn’t your thing, check out this taratula hawk post, this baby bird post, or this sperm whale poop post.

But if you’ve kept reading, then let’s talk about Legionnaires disease. It was first discovered in Philadelphia in 1976, when 221 were sickened and 34 died at an American Legion’s convention (hence the name “Legionnaires disease”).

And this summer, there is another outbreak in the Bronx that has killed 2 so far.

As this is relatively uncommon disease, this outbreak is quite the disease headline! Which you can read all about over at Forbes! The article also includes a list of symptoms for those hypercondriac inclined.

Junk science

Mating Ladybirds

Birds do it, beetles do it … (Flickr: Henry Burrows)

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.”

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