Happy Anniversary, Planet Earth! Episode 5: “Deserts”

As the fifth episode of Planet Earth begins, it feels like you might have stepped onto another planet.

The Namib desert (flickr: mariusz kluzniak)

The Namib desert (flickr: mariusz kluzniak)

Desert landscapes have an alien, otherworldly feel to them; vast swaths of sand around the world have acted as the backdrop for NASA equipment tests, science fiction classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, of course, supposed extraterrestrial activity. But despite their interstellar associations, deserts are very much of this planet. As narrator David Attenborough tells us, deserts cover a third of the Earth’s surface, and all of them are populated with life.

“Deserts” takes us into a world of extremes, where the environment can go from habitable to hostile in an instant. In this 10-year anniversary post we will relive the episode’s most intense moments, highlighting the incredible challenges that accompany life in Earth’s driest places. We will also take a look at the unique difficulties conservationists face in attempting to protect the organisms that inhabit these inhospitable regions.

Desert Survival is About Timing

In the deserts of our planet, extremes are the norm. Attenborough tells us that temperatures fluctuate annually in the Gobi Desert from -40° C in the winter to 50° C in the summer. Death Valley holds the record for highest temperature ever recorded, at 56.7° C. In the Sahara Desert, sandstorms to rival Mad Max can reduce visibility over regions the size of Great Britain for several days, and the resulting dust clouds can affect weather patterns around the world.

Things don’t happen in moderation here.

Good conditions are transient, and when they do occur, organisms must be ready to take full advantage of them. Timing is everything when you are trying to survive in the desert, a fact that is apparent in multiple segments of the “Deserts” episode. Kangaroos in Australia forage in the early morning when temperatures are moderate, but must find a tree that provides suitable shade from the sun before midday, lest they risk overheating. Scorpions and toads in the Sahara have almost no tolerance for the sun’s rays, and must emerge from shelter only at night.

The importance of timing shows up in somewhat unexpected ways as well. For example, wild camels have fine-tuned the timing of their breeding season to coincide with the onset of winter, when precipitation is the most abundant. In the Gobi Desert, snow covers the ground throughout the winter months, providing a reliable and widespread source of water for the camels. Planet Earth camera crews searched the Gobi for two months for these rare and elusive animals, finally obtaining fantastic footage of the bizarre mating rituals of the species.

The ephemeral nature of favorable conditions means that a single bout of resource availability must sustain desert plants and animals for long periods of time. In Namibia, a flash flood (one of just a handful that occur annually) produces a burst of vegetation growth. This rare resource attracts oryx to area, which in turn attract a family of lions. Attenborough tells us that a single oryx will sustain the entire lion family for a week. These infrequent bouts of productivity are key in maintaining life here, for a range of species.

Rain is also infrequent in the Sonoran Desert. Consequently, the saguaro cactus is well-adapted to make the most of the brief Arizona monsoon season. The pleats on its trunk allow the cactus to expand, so that it can absorb as much of this valuable resource as possible- up to 5 tons! And if the cactus is good at collecting water, it’s even better at making it last; it can live off these stores through multiple months of drought.

A saguaro cactus (flickr: Michael Wilson)

A saguaro cactus (flickr: Michael Wilson)

When resources like water are so difficult to come by, one survival strategy utilized by many desert species is to rely on other organisms collect them first. In the Atacama, the only predictable source of water comes in the form of a fog generated by cold ocean currents. Coastal communities of plants called lomas collect the fog’s moisture, and provide life-sustaining hydration for a number of desert organisms. Guanacos eat cactus flowers for the water they contain, and coyotes lick dew off of moisture-loving lichens.

Interacting with other species can also be key if you are a traveler, trying to get across the depauperate desert environment as quickly as possible. For just four weeks during the summer, saguaro cacti bloom during the night. The timing of this event corresponds to the annual migration of the lesser long nosed bat. As bats travel across the Sonoran during their trip from Mexico to the United States, they subsist on nectar from the flowers, fertilizing the next generation of cacti along the way. The bats would have no hope of making it across if it wasn’t for this short-lived food source, and the saguaros in turn rely the bats for pollination.

While resources are fleeting in the desert, we learn that some elements of this ecosystem stick around for a surprisingly long time. For instance, star dunes in Namibia can reach up to 300 meters high. The sand at the peaks of these dunes is in almost constant motion thanks to the wind, but sand at the base may not have shifted for 5,000 years. In addition, locust eggs lie dormant for 20 years before they hatch, and seeds in Death Valley can wait for 30 years for favorable conditions before they sprout. A “superbloom” of wildflowers is currently taking place in Death Valley- what a fantastic way to celebrate the anniversary of Planet Earth!

The Curious World of Desert Conservation

In the desert ecosystem, organisms face a somewhat bizarre set of conservation challenges.

From the illicit underground cactus trade, to the legacy of nuclear weapons testing; from rabbits run amok in Australia, to the controversially brutal hemorrhagic disease released to control them; from a history of violent confrontations between the federal government and armed ranchers, to the endangered desert tortoise that first set those land disputes in motion- conservation in the desert has a strange and dramatic past.

In terms of scale, The Great Green Wall of Africa is as dramatic as conservation comes. An effort to counteract the ongoing effects of desertification, the Great Green Wall project proposes to plant a corridor of drought resistant trees along the southern edge of the Sahara. The Great Green Wall, if completed, will be really, really long: 4,750 mile long and 9 miles wide, to be exact. It’s a huge undertaking, with 12 nations currently in collaboration on the project. But if all goes to plan, the Great Green Wall will be quite an amazing feat of conservation.

Big game hunting presents another dramatic desert conservation issue. In 2014, Namibia issued a handful of licenses to hunt desert elephants. Desert elephants are distinct from African elephants, exhibiting a number of behavioral and morphological adaptations for desert life. These locally adapted animals are also exceedingly rare, with fewer than 100 individuals in Namibia. However, desert and African elephants are not technically considered separate species, and thus the Namibian government does not currently extend any additional protection to these populations. This controversy highlights the importance of species delimitation in conservation- an issue that is only more dramatic in the context of big game hunting.

A desert elephant (flickr: Vernon Swanepoel)

A desert elephant (flickr: Vernon Swanepoel)

The plants and animals of the desert are some of the planet’s most hardy, but even they can have difficulty rebounding from disturbance. In the Atacama, the life-sustaining lomas are at risk. Local people rely on the water-collecting capabilities of these plants for survival, but have also destroyed the majority of the vegetation to make way for agriculture. Researchers are attempting to replant one particular plant, called the tara tree, in hopes that it will help to rehabilitate these important communities. But new seedlings seem to have trouble taking hold within existing lomas. Lomas are home to 1,400 plant species, around half of which are endemic; their loss would be truly devastating to the region.

Deserts, with their reputation as barren wastelands, may not seem like obvious targets of conservation. Desert flora and fauna face extreme conditions on an everyday basis, and the added strain of human impacts makes survival all the more difficult for these organisms. But on the bright side, evidence suggests that our effects on deserts can be successfully mitigated. In the case of the once-threatened Eureka dune grass, limiting the use of off-road vehicles in particular regions of Death Valley has been enough to allow populations of the plant to reestablish.

Life in this unique desert ecosystem defies all odds, and protective measures will be key for helping it to persist into the future.

Be sure to stick with us as we continue our celebration of Planet Earth’s 10-year anniversary! Check out our posts on “From Pole to Pole,” “Mountains,” “Fresh Water,” and “Caves.” Next week we’ll be looking at the polar opposite of deserts: ice worlds!


Happy Anniversary, Planet Earth! Episode 2: “Mountains”

In the opening sequence of Planet Earth’s second episode, narrator David Attenborough reflects on humankind’s relationship with the highest parts of our planet:

“Some might think that by climbing a great mountain they have somehow conquered it. But we can only be visitors here.”

The idea that nature is “unconquerable” permeates throughout the entire Planet Earth series, but it is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the “Mountains” episode.


The Karakoram mountain range (Flickr: Maria Ly)

A decade after its original release, “Mountains” remains a dramatic and memorable viewing experience. The episode features breathtaking aerial photography of our planet’s greatest mountain ranges, intimate footage of some of the most rare, difficult to reach creatures in existence, and a score that suggests the viewer is about to embark on an epic journey. When you watch it, you can’t help but feel a little bit like Bilbo Baggins.

In this 10-year anniversary post we will celebrate the legacy of Planet Earth by reliving some of the most unforgettable moments in “Mountains.” We will also revisit several of the filming locations from the episode to find out how these iconic places have changed over the last decade.

Remarkable Mountains and Robust Mountaineers

During the episode we travel throughout many of the world’s major mountain ranges, focusing on the forces that shape these regions and the unique struggles of daily life for the plants and animals that live here. The alpine environment is incredibly volatile, and Attenborough touches on a number of factors that make it such a difficult place to inhabit.

Summertime blizzards strike without warning in Patagonia, pummeling guanacos and other residents with snow. Avalanches crash across the slopes of the American Rockies at over 400 kilometers per hour. Massive glaciers carve their way across the landscape- the Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan stretches 60 kilometers long, its path through the Karakoram mountain range visible from space.

With these near-cataclysmic forces at work, it’s a wonder anything survives here at all.

However, a number of organisms survive and even thrive here. From golden eagles to giant pandas, mountain lions to musk deer, red pandas to rhododendrons, a range of odd and interesting plants and animals have adapted to life in these high up places. And while the alpine environment is certainly a harsh place to live, one of the most interesting things about life here is that this harshness can sometimes come in handy for certain mountain inhabitants.


The red panda, found throughout the Eastern Himalayas (Flickr: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard)

For example, in the Ethiopian Highlands we meet a troupe of monkeys known as geladas. The Ethiopian Highlands are certainly not an easy place to live; the region is so resource-poor that geladas must subsist almost entirely on grass (they are the only primates in the world to do so). However, the challenging terrain is also crucial to the geladas’ survival; the sheer cliffs provide refuge from predators that roam the Highlands, like Ethiopian wolves. It’s an example of how, paradoxically, some of the most inhospitable aspects of the environment can be exactly those that help an animal survive.

Similarly, in the Rocky Mountains we follow a female grizzly bear and her two cubs as they emerge from hibernation at the onset of spring. We learn that male grizzlies would likely kill the cubs if given the chance, but the female has built her den high up in the steep, snow covered cliffs, at an altitude where larger animals find it difficult to get around. This is another example of how the most challenging landscapes can sometimes be the safest. But in this case, the benefits to the mother and her cubs are temporary- there are not enough resources here to sustain the family indefinitely.

In showcasing the struggle to survive the alpine wilderness, “Mountains” also shows us footage of some phenomena that had never-before been captured on film.

In the Karakoram mountain range, we watch as a snow leopard stalks a young markhor along the jagged cliffs. The hunt culminates in a frantic chase, predator and prey moving down the mountain with an agility that is almost incomprehensible. This is the first recorded instance of a snow leopard on the hunt, and one of the most iconic moments in the Planet Earth series.


Demoiselle cranes (Flickr: Alastair Rae)

In the final moments of the episode, we journey with 50,000 demoiselle cranes as they fly across the Himalayas during their annual migration. This is another never-before filmed event, and catching it on camera was hazardous. The Planet Earth crew filmed at record-breaking altitudes, nearly losing a crewmember to hypoxia.

The danger of the mountain environment is well captured in this behind-the-scenes anecdote. Humans are poorly suited to this setting, and, as Attenborough stated at the beginning of the episode, “we can only be visitors here.”

Ongoing Change in the Alpine Environment

The highest peaks featured in the “Mountains” episode are unconquerable, untamable, and (for the most part) uncolonizable for humans. But although we might not be able to colonize the mountain landscape, we are still affecting it.

With recent temperature increases due to climate change, glaciers in mountain ranges around the world are melting. The Andes have been hit particularly hard, with the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field having receded by around six feet per year from 2000 to 2012. Seasonal runoff is a major source of drinking water for human populations downstream of glaciers, and the rapid depletion of reserves like these could have catastrophic effects for millions of people.


The Perito Moreno Glacier, fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice field (Flickr: Jorge Láscar)

The mountain ranges of our planet are also important in shaping global weather patterns, and climate change in these regions could be causing an increase in extreme weather events. As explained in “Mountains,” the Himalayas play a role in creating summertime monsoons in southern Asia. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide appear to be causing increased rainfall in the region, with the potential to trigger devastating floods in highly populated areas.

Climate change seems even to be contributing to the crumbling of iconic peaks in the Alps, including the Matterhorn.

Alpine animals are also feeling the effects of human activity. Numerous animals featured in the “Mountains” episode have seen population declines in recent years. The Ethiopian wolf, snow leopard, giant panda, golden snub-nosed monkey, Himalayan musk deer, and red panda are all classified as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Common reasons for these declines include habitat destruction and fragmentation, human encroachment, disease, poaching, and competition with livestock.

Furthermore, some of the wildlife in “Mountains” probably would not even be found at such remarkable heights if it weren’t for us. The walia ibex (featured in the Ethiopian Highlands segment of the episode) used to range widely throughout the Semien Mountains. However, increasing human encroachment has decimated the species, and the remaining populations are currently restricted to marginal habitat at higher than typical altitudes. The extremes of the high mountain environment seem to have provided the walia ibex with some reprieve from our impact, for the time being. But with just 500 individuals left in the wild, the long-term effects of living in such a difficult place remain unclear.


Walia ibex in the Semien Mountains (Flickr: Rod Waddington)

In short, many of the locations featured in “Mountains,” along with their flora and fauna, have been (and will likely continue to be) negatively impacted by human activity.

And yet, there are also some species whose plight has improved in recent years. The markhor in particular is a conservation success story, or at least the hopeful beginnings of one. When Planet Earth aired in 2006, the markhor was considered endangered. With fewer than 5,000 individuals in existence, populations were in rapid decline due primarily to excessive hunting. But thanks in large part to the efforts of local conservation organizations, markhor populations are currently stable, and the species’ IUCN status has improved to “Near Threatened.”

Ten years after the release of Planet Earth, the outlook for many of the species featured in “Mountains” is quite dismal. It is shocking to realize that we have had such a profound impact on places we can barely even reach. But stories like the markhor’s suggest that, with appropriate action, we may yet be able to preserve some aspects of these astonishing, unreachable places into the future.

Be sure to stick with us as we continue our celebration of Planet Earth’s 10-year anniversary! You can find our “From Pole to Pole” post here. Next week, we’re headed for “Fresh Water.”

This Valentine’s Day, Celebrate Science-Love

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and what better way to celebrate than by showing some love for science?

(Tumblr: kochajikan)

(Tumblr: kochajikan)

Portrayals of science in popular culture are often quite negative, which is why it can be so impactful to come across works of fiction with a pro-science message.

The podcasts/movies/books below cast science in a positive light. They depict scientists as the heroes of the story, rather than the villains. They include characters that are excited about doing science, and encourage the development of scientific thinking. They celebrate the power of science to explain the universe around us. And most importantly, they evoke feelings of passion, affection, and fondness towards science. Which is why I love them!

If you like your science-love in audio form:

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast that details the goings-on in an exceedingly weird fictional desert town. One of the main characters in the show is a scientist named Carlos, who frequently uses science to solve problems within the community. For instance, throughout the show Carlos has rescued the mayor, prevented citizens from transforming into mysterious shadow creatures, and disposed of a set of plastic flamingos threatening to disrupt the space-time continuum- all with science! Welcome to Night Vale portrays Carlos as a hero, and celebrates the power of science to improve people’s lives.

If you like your science-love with some action and adventure:

The Martian is the story of an astronaut named Mark Watney, who is mistakenly stranded on Mars. In an effort to survive the ordeal, Watney is forced to do a lot of science, including rebuilding an abandoned spacecraft and growing potatoes with his own poop. The Martian is a celebration of science because it captures the exuberance of scientific discovery, along with the frustration of scientific failure. The Martian is both a movie and a book, so you can choose your favorite! It is also the source of one of my favorite science catchphrases of all time.

If you like your science-love animated:


Frankenweenie is a movie about a boy named Victor, whose dog, Sparky, dies. Victor then attempts to bring Sparky back to life, using some lightening and his school science lessons as a guide. If it sounds like a standard retelling of Frankenstein, it isn’t. Frankenweenie manages to successfully subvert common mad scientist tropes, while also providing meaningful commentary on the current state of science education. Frankenweenie thus offers a science-positive message by celebrating and encouraging the development of young scientific minds.

If you like your science-love to horrify you:

If you’re looking to fill your Valentine’s Day festivities with terrifying monsters, this one’s for you! Spring is the story of a biologist named Louise, who carries an ancient secret in her DNA. I like Spring because it’s one of the few horror movies that does not blame science for the horror we witness throughout the movie. Instead, Spring celebrates the power of science to address as-of-yet unexplained phenomena in the universe.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, most of the suggestions above feature love in some form or another. Spring is the story of a romance thousands of years in the making, Frankenweenie tells the tale of the bond between a boy and his dog, and Welcome to Night Vale follows the development of Carlos’ relationship with his radio host boyfriend, Cecil.

So really, what more could you ask for? This weekend grab some chocolate and red wine, and let’s show some love for science!

Unexpected Applications of Evolutionary Biology

Here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! we spend a lot of time thinking (and writing) about evolution. But, if I am being honest, I also spend a lot of time not thinking about evolution. In fact, I often find myself pondering questions that seemingly have nothing to do with evolutionary biology.

Questions like:

  • Why does cheese taste so good?
  • Why do all the songs on the radio sound the same?
  • Does grammar exist with the sole purpose of giving me a headache?

It turns out, evolution can actually help us answer all of these questions! Evolutionary methods can be applied in all sorts of unexpected ways, to help us understand things like music, food, and language. Here are three examples of recent studies that use an evolutionary approach to enrich our understanding of the not-so-natural world around us.

Flickr: Kevin Dooley

Flickr: Kevin Dooley


The music we listen to is constantly changing, and researchers at Queen Mary University of London are using evolution to help us understand why. In a recent study, researchers used the Billboard Hot 100 as something of a musical fossil record, applying evolutionary analyses to investigate trends in popular music over the last 50 years. The researchers took samples of songs appearing on the list and measured their characteristics in the same way a biologist might measure traits of a study organism.

The researchers then examined the frequency of different characteristics over time, looking at patterns of diversity throughout music’s “evolutionary history.” The findings? Musical evolution has been punctuated by three major revolutions, the biggest of which coincided with the rise of rap in the 1990s. Furthermore, musical diversity is not currently declining, but instead reached a low point in the 1980s. So, there you have it: scientific evidence that not every song on the radio sounds the same (contrary to what my brain tells me during my drive to work every morning).


Evolutionary methods have also been used to shine some light on the origins of language. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Auckland quantified relatedness of different languages using cognates. Cognates are words from different languages that have similar meanings and presumably share a common origin. The researchers identified the presence or absence of specific cognates across over one hundred ancient and contemporary languages, and used phylogenetic methods to trace the most recent common ancestor of all Indo-European language to what is now Turkey.

Similar analyses have also been used to examine sentence structure evolution, with one study suggesting that the grammatical features that tend to be lost over time are the ones that are particularly tricky for our brains to process. So, if you tend to have trouble with specific grammar rules, just remind yourself/your teacher/your boss that they will probably be phased out eventually anyway. Science says so.


Finally, cheese. I love cheese. And as a cheese lover, I am also, by extension, a fungus lover- because cheese is made possible by the action of a few hard-working species from the genus Penicillium. In a recent study, researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research took an evolutionary approach to find out how these particular species got so good at making cheese. The researchers collected samples of multiple species of Penicillium, including some species that are used commercially to make cheese, in addition to a few species that spoil cheese. They then analyzed the genomes of these species, looking for genes that the cheese-associated fungi had in common.

The researchers found evidence for extensive horizontal gene transfer, where cheese-making species appear to be exchanging genes that help them to thrive in the lactose-dominated environment. This gene transfer appears to be a side effect of domestication, as the genes were absent in the cheese-spoiling species. However, the researchers warned against the possibility that the cheese-spoilers could pick up some of these genes in the future, potentially causing a major cheese shortage. Which sounds absolutely terrifying. A cheese-free world is not a world I want to live in.

Evolution is enriching our everyday lives in a multitude of unexpected ways. Besides being central to our understanding of the natural world, evolutionary biology has helped to identify major landmarks in human history, has given us a greater appreciation of groundbreaking pop-culture phenomena, and has played a major role in keeping our cheese delicious.

Who knows what evolutionary biology will help us do tomorrow? I think I’ll have some cheese while I wait to find out.

The Complicated Legacy of the Mad Scientist

When I was around ten years old, I dressed up as a mad scientist for Halloween. I wore coke-bottle glasses and a lab coat splattered with a mysterious green substance. I carried a (fake) lab rat in my pocket, along with test tubes full of brightly colored solutions. And my mom did my hair, using a comb and A LOT of white hairspray to give me a look that I hoped was reminiscent of Doc Brown (but that probably looked more like Beetlejuice).

I have been fascinated by the mad scientist for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my favorite television shows included Pinky and the Brain, Beakman’s World, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I loved Back to the Future, and I watched Batman Forever over and over again to see Jim Carrey play Edward Nygma.


Doc Brown in Back to the Future

Once I got a little older, I was able to appreciate some of the more sinister mad scientists in cinematic and literary history; characters like Dr. Moreau, Dr. Seth Brundle, and, of course, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The mad scientists of movies and books helped to nurture my interest in the natural world, capturing my imagination in ways that the standard, garden-variety scientist sometimes did not.

Though an important and positive part of my childhood, the legacy of the mad scientist is actually quite complicated. The mad scientist archetype has grown out of society’s simultaneous fascination with, and fear of, scientific discovery, and thus it has had both positive and negative effects on the public perception of science.

The good: mad scientists are creative and exciting

One great thing about mad scientists as fictional characters is that they help keep the public engaged in science. Science is commonly perceived as boring. Scientists are generally thought of as generic and unsmiling (even by scientists themselves!) and science is seen as a mind-numbingly mundane process. Mad scientists, in contrast, are anything but boring. The mad scientist is an engaging character that tends to shake things up- when a mad scientist is on the scene, you know things are about to get interesting (and probably a little bit weird, too).

Another positive of mad scientists is that they help to dispel the myth that science is not creative. Science is often viewed as the antithesis of art: people who are good at science aren’t creative, and people who are creative can’t hack it at science. This misconception is particularly frustrating given that successful science actually requires a good deal of ingenuity and innovation. Mad scientists aren’t afraid to think outside the box- in fact, this is one of the hallmarks of their madness. They push the boundaries of scientific discovery, with sometimes spectacular, and sometimes disastrous, results.

The bad: mad scientists are eccentric, greedy, and immoral

The mad scientist has also done a fair amount to negatively impact the public perception of science. In fact, some of the most common misconceptions surrounding present-day scientists share apparent connections with the mad scientist archetype.

For instance, even the most benign mad scientists in fiction are often portrayed as zany and peculiar. Their laboratories are full of ridiculous rube goldberg-esque inventions, and they spend time developing elaborate and impractical schemes to solve trivial problems. Characters with these qualities include Back to the Future’s Doc Brown and Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth. At first glance, this trope may seem fairly harmless to scientists in the real world. However, politicians like Representative Lamar Smith routinely rely on this trope to argue against government support of academic research, citing seemingly obscure-sounding NSF-funded projects in order to make scientists sound eccentric and irresponsible.

Another common characteristic of mad scientists is that they are doing mad science for some kind of personal gain. Alchemists in 15th century fiction were commonly depicted as being motivated by greed, while comic super villains such as Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom are often in pursuit of power and control. And in this summer’s Jurrasic World, Dr. Wu got the mad scientist treatment when we found out he was creating genetically enhanced super-dinos for the US military, for profit. In the real world, this trope is particularly relevant to the climate change debate. Climate change deniers, seeking to undermine experts in the field, often argue that the researchers have fabricated results in order to increase job security and funding.

Finally, mad scientists in books and movies are frequently portrayed as having a corruptive influence on society. The scientist’s research is itself in direct conflict with morality, resulting in harm to the scientist and those around him. For example, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Nathan from Ex Machina, and the creator of the Replicants in Blade Runner are all scientists that pursued taboo work, with disturbing results. In the real world, some of the most direct effects of this trope can be seen in the field of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary theory is thought by many to encourage immoral behavior, and this viewpoint is common enough that it continues to affect science education in schools throughout the US.

The future: Princess Bubblegum and diversity in the mad sciences

Mad scientists are exciting and creative. They are also often eccentric, greedy, and morally misguided. The mad scientist’s ambiguity is one of the things that makes him such a compelling character, but the negative characteristics of fictional scientists can have very real consequences for scientists and science educators.

Today, we are entering a new age in the world of the mad scientist. My proof? Princess Bubblegum, of the animated television series Adventure Time.

Princess Bubblegum is a fantastically unique and incredibly interesting character. She isn’t your typical mad scientist- she’s a she, for starters, and she’s a princess! She’s smart, curious, and morally ambiguous. Her science often falls more on the “mad” side of the spectrum. For instance, in an experiment gone wrong she created the Earl of Lemongrab, a lemon-headed creature who terrorizes and cannibalizes the inhabitants of his earldom. So yeah, definitely some mad science going on there.

Princess Bubblegum, doing science

Princess Bubblegum introduces some diversity into the incredibly one-dimensional world of the mad scientist. And her arrival on the mad scientist scene comes at a time when our perception of scientists in the real world is experiencing an overhaul as well.

Historically, we as a society have had a very narrow definition of what it means to be a scientist. Scientists have traditionally been pictured as straight white males, and also as “lone geniuses”- socially isolated, naturally gifted individuals that exhibit a dedication to their work that borders on obsession. In other words, what we commonly think of as the “ideal” scientist is essentially just the archetypal mad scientist, minus the bad hair day. Really, is it any surprise that the line between scientist and mad scientist can sometimes seem so blurry?

Fortunately, we are beginning to move away from this one-dimensional view of what makes a scientist a scientist. Thanks to recent campaigns highlighting diversity in STEM fields, greater recognition that scientific progress tends to be collaborative in nature (rather than the work of a single “genius”), and a push to address the shockingly pervasive “culture of acceptance” surrounding mental health problems in academia, we are closer than ever to dispelling the myth that only certain people belong in the sciences.

As we continue to achieve greater levels of diversity in the sciences, I hope that we also continue to broaden our horizons with depictions of mad scientists in fiction. And as the motivations, backstories, and personality traits of these characters become more varied, the outdated tropes of the archetypal mad scientist will inform our perceptions of real scientists less and less.

So here’s looking forward to mad scientists that shake things up, that break the mold, that play by their own rules push the boundaries of what we already know. Because, really, isn’t that what the mad scientist is all about?

And in honor of the upcoming holiday, please check out our compilation of some of the greatest mad scientists in cinematic history. Happy Halloween!

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.

Finding bias in discussions of campus sexual assault data

When science is used to support proposed changes to public policy, it isn’t uncommon for opponents of the policy changes to question the legitimacy of the studies cited. This often leads to rejection of scientific studies for completely unscientific reasons, and can even devolve into outright scientific denialism.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration proposed controversial policy changes related to sexual assault prevention on college campuses. As evidence of the need for reform, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault cited the statistic that one in five women attending college are sexually assaulted at some point during their time on campus. Unsurprisingly, those opposed to the sexual assault policy changes are questioning the legitimacy of both the statistic and the study that produced it.

Recently, Emily Yoffe published an article in which she argues that the statistics on sexual assault presented by the Obama administration are misleading. Yoffe describes herself as “bringing some healthy skepticism to the hard work of putting a number on the prevalence of campus rape.” The thing is, skepticism in and of itself isn’t really that helpful unless you understand how to think critically about scientific studies. Yoffe’s article presents a good example of how misconceptions about research methodology and statistics can derail an otherwise productive conversation and steer it towards the territory of science denialism.

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Natural selection at the movies: Only the bad guys evolve

You can thank evolution for making xenomorphs so gosh darn scary.

You can thank evolution for making Xenomorphs so gosh darn scary. (Flickr: Maggie Osterberg)

It’s almost Halloween, and if you’re anything like me, you celebrate the season by watching scary movies. Although the horror movie marathon is a typical annual tradition of mine, this year I set out with a specific task: to identify as many movies as possible where the villain is somehow associated with evolution by natural selection. As it turns out, there are a lot of them.

Think classic horror films like Alien and Jaws, and also more recent movies like Chronicle, Resident Evil, and Slither. The trend also isn’t restricted to horror movies, with references to natural selection cropping up everywhere from science fiction/adventure films like Edge of Tomorrow to sports dramas like Rocky IV. Nor is it limited to movies alone- television shows like The Walking Dead can give you your fix of “survival of the fittest” references on a weekly basis. Even the urbandictionary.com definition of the word “villains” involves natural selection.

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