Notes from the Field: Above the Arctic Circle!

Friend and sometime contributor, Devin Drown, has recently started up a research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (Congrats Devin!). And this summer he lead an army of undergraduates on a series of interesting projects near or above the Artic Circle.

Sadly, coordinating and advising an army of undergraduates doesn’t leave too much time for writing blog posts. But he has kindly sent me these interesting snippets from the field. Check them out!

Toolik Field Station to use MinION sequencing.

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Fairbanks Permafrost Experiment Station

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Gathering Ancient DNA from Permafrost

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You smell like bacteria… and that’s a good thing

Birds have a number of loud and showy ways to attach a mate. But they also have a subtle one: smell.

And it turns out that some of that smell are naturally made by bacteria in the preening gland.

So I’m not saying you should use “hey girl, you smell like the best bacteria” as a pick up line, but it might be worth trying!

(If you’re a bird. NiB is not responsible for this interaction going south)

Read all about the work by Danielle Whittaker over at Science News!

"Hey girl, you smell like the sexiest microbes"

“Hey girl, you smell like the sexiest microbes”

 

Bones! And what they can tell us

I am a fan of the uncharismatic  (so far I’ve studied plants, snails, trematode and will soon branch to bees).

And there are few things in the world more universally charismatic than dinosaurs. Seriously, look no further than the Jurassic Park movies.

I promise that this is not the start of another AMAZING summer about dinosaurs (see last summer’s posts), but my love of the uncharismatic and my love of dinosaurs meet in this awesome comic about taphonomy! It’s the science of how bones are made into bones!

And it’s a pretty cute cartoon. Go check it out! I haven’t seen the Corkboard of Curiosities blog before, but it looks promising!

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Crowd-funding a Joshua tree reference genome

(Flickr: jbyoder)

(Flickr: jbyoder)

Remember Joshua trees? If you read this blog, you probably do. They’re an ecological keystone species — and a cultural icon — in the Mojave desert, and they have a fascinating, co-evolving relationship with yucca moths. Some contributors to this very blog, have been studying that pollination relationship and its evolutionary consequences for a decade, building on natural history research that goes back to the time of Charles Darwin.

Up to now, though, modern genetic tools have been of limited use for Joshua trees, because no one has assembled the complete DNA sequence of a Joshua tree. Having a “reference genome” would let those of us who study the trees identify specific genes involved in coevolution with yucca moths, compare the evolutionary effects of that pollination mutualism to natural selection exerted by the harsh environments in which the trees grow, and even use genome-scale data to inform Joshua tree conservation planning.

Well, we’ve decided it’s time to do all of that, and we’re asking for help. A team of folks with expertise in Joshua trees’ natural history, Mojave Desert ecology, and genomic data analysis launched the Joshua Tree Genome Project a couple weeks ago, with a crowd-funding campaign on Experiment.com to pay for part of the DNA sequencing we’d need to assemble a reference genome.

We’re approaching 50% of our funding goal, and leading a competition among projects based at undergraduate universities to recruit the most donors, which could win us $2,000 in matching funds — so even if you give as little as $1, you’re providing a big boost to the project. Go check out the Joshua Tree Genome Project website, and then head on over and pledge your support.

Beware of Sea Tomatoes

Arctic lakes are not known for their cute and cuddly organisms. But to be fair, they must endure crazy extremes. During the summer they are blasted with 24 hours a day of ultraviolet radiation, and during the winter they endure months of icy blackness, and low levels of life-sustaining nutrients all around.

And yet, some life seems to thrive in this environment. Take for example, the sea tomato. Sea tomatoes are round, plumn and look adorable. However, they are actually colonies of toxin-producing cyanobacteria. And they are piling up on the bottom of Greenland’s lakes. Although sea tomatoes are not uncommon in general, the sheer size and abundance of these particular pile ups are unusual.

Read about it over at Eos. So strange…

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The controversy over a kingfisher

Over at Huffington Post, Marc Bekoff, recently wrote an article lambasting Christopher Filardi for collecting a Moustached Kingfisher, a rare bird endemic in the Solomon Islands.

Now, there are two sides to this particular controversy, and I am going to do my darnest NOT to pick one.

Side one: How dare you kill that kingfisher!

The HP article criticized killing a rare bird for collection as the opposite of a conservation effort. It is likened to hunting endangered species, and  compassionate conservation. (RadioLab anyone? Don’t mind if I do…)

Side two: You need these kinds of specimen for conservation. And biology. 

An excellent public post was written by my friend Josef Uyeda here.

Additionally, Dr. Filardi himself responded justifying his decision, and why specimens are important over at the Audobon society.

Was it right or was it wrong? You decide.

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Find fireflies, help keep the forests alight

Fireflies

Across eastern North America, one of the most magical signs of summertime is the beginning of firefly activity—hundreds or thousands of flying beetles, their abdomens glowing or flashing, filling twilight backyards and woodland clearings with floating lights.

But those displays—which fireflies put on to attract mates—are getting rarer. Or seem to be, anyway—but we don’t have the kind of comprehensive census of firefly activity that could really tell us how they’re doing. A citizen science project out of Clemson University aims to change that by enlisting anyone with a smartphone or a home internet connection:

The objective of the Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project is to promote environmental
sustainability and stewardship through the participation of local communities in environmental science research. The Clemson Vanishing Firefly Project offers a mobile app that everyone – from elementary students to seniors – can use to measure firefly populations in their communities from neighborhoods, to parks and anywhere in the world they may go!

To help, you follow the project site’s instructions for learning how to count fireflies, then use a smartphone app or a webpage form to report what you see, when, and where. Why not collect some data while you admire the lights in the forest?

(Hat tip to Erik Runquist, on Twitter.)