Susan B. Anchovy: the story of a whitefish

When you study fish in Alaska, you may find yourself covered in slime. During one slime-intensive day, Duncan Green and his field assistant were wading in knee-deep ocean 200 feet offshore. They looked back to see a polar bear perched on the bed of the truck, sniffing around for helpless terrestrial mammals covered in delicious fish goo. In reality, the bear was probably just checking out the truck, but Duncan had to call for someone to drive out and scare the bear away before they could head back in. Just another day in the life of Duncan Green, fish biologist!

At the end of an exciting 2017 field season, 220 fish, including the illustrious Susan B. Anchovy and Edgar Allen Cod, were live-shipped on ice from the North Slope to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Duncan studies broad whitefish (Coregonus nasus), an Arctic Alaskan species that is an important subsistence food for coastal villages like Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, and Utqiaġvik. Although it is well known that the Arctic is warming faster than other parts of the planet, it is not well understood how ecosystems will respond to this change. To add one small piece to this big puzzle, Duncan is investigating how warming waters may influence whitefish growth rates. Will Susan and Edgar grow big and healthy in warmer waters? Or might they be stressed by an environment that’s just too hot, inhibiting growth? Time, and the data, will tell.


Duncan is a well-rounded man. Beyond his identity as an aspiring fishy scientist, he is also a fat-tire biker (completed the White Mountains 100, a human-powered race through Alaska’s Interior), makes a mean pizza cake (fourteen layers of frozen pizza and pizza rolls, baked all together and topped with cream cheese frosting), and also ice fishes for fish for food. Itching to hear a classic cinematic monologue? Duncan delivers a moving recitation of Quint’s “Indianapolis” speech from the 1975 film Jaws. In short, Duncan is a most colorful person and adds a lot of life to any potluck, field expedition, or fish-naming production.


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 Devin: What Nature has to say about Canadian scientific funding protests.

If the Harper government has valid strategic reasons to undermine vital sectors of Canadian science, then it should say so — its people are ready to listen. If not, it should realize, and fast, that there is a difference between environmentalism and environmental science — and that the latter is an essential component of a national science programme, regardless of politics.

Also from Devin: Questions regarding peer-review and how cross-review can help.

How many scientific results published today in peer-reviewed journals would melt equally fast if subjected to thorough scrutiny by so many peers? How many of those faulty papers will never be challenged? How many of those will be used, as references counted but never read, to justify research grants and appointments for years to come, displacing others?

From Amy: Who would swerve to hit a turtle?

From Jonathan: “The costs of healthcare and over-testing” or “Will someone just fix this poor girl’s ankle?

Five months after twisting an ankle, my otherwise healthy daughter limped out of the radiology office carrying X-rays of her hands. “Mom,’’ she said, “my ankle still hurts.”

From Noah: Genetics confirms what linguists knew 90 years ago. (Yes, that is two links!)

GENETICS LINK: North and South America were first populated by three waves of migrants from Siberia rather than just a single migration, say researchers who have studied the whole genomes of Native Americans in South America and Canada.

LINGUISTICS LINK: The bottom line is that this three-way distinction was known linguistically since the 1920s (for example, Sapir 1921). Basically, it’s a division among the Eskimo-Aleut languages, which straddle the Bering Straits even today, the Athabaskan languages (which were discovered to be related to a small Siberian language family only within the last few years, not by Greenberg as Wade suggested), and everything else.

From Sarah: 97% of the surface of Greenland’s massive ice sheet melted! (And then mostly refroze.)

What was so unusual was the extent of the melting. It was even taking place near the highest point in Greenland, around Summit Station which is 3.2 km (2 miles) above sea level, which hardly ever melts.

Finally, an irresistibly titled link on an observation of bizarre human behavior: Man in goat suit seen living among goats in Utah mountains.

The goat man then put his mask back on, Creighton said, got back down on his hands and knees and scurried to catch up with the herd.  “We were the only ones around for miles,” Creighton said. “It was real creepy.”

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.

Simone is in the field at beautiful White Sands, New Mexico, and blogging about it.

The setting is White Sands, NM – an island of gypsum dunes slowly transforming and shifting through the Chihuahuan Desert. The protagonists are three species of small white lizards inhabiting these dunes. The story is recent and rapid evolution: changing ecology, natural selection, and speciation. Our attempt, as field biologists, is to tell that story.

Noah points us to NASA’s satellite images of the Columbia Glacier in southeastern Alaska, which, like a lot of glaciers these days, is getting smaller.

In 1986, the glacier’s terminus was just a few kilometers north of Heather Island. By 2011, it had retreated more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the north, moving past Terentiev Lake and Great Nunatak Peak. As the glacier has retreated, it has also thinned substantially, as shown by the expansion of brown bedrock areas. Rings of freshly exposed rock, known as trimlines, are prominent in the later image. Since the 1980s, the glacier has lost about half of its total thickness and volume.

Devin suggests a recent editorial in Science on the need to connect people with graduate-level science expertise to high school science education.

At any one time, there are thousands of U.S. Graduate Students with strong Science expertise and an interest in education who would be more than qualified to stem the critical shortage of secondary chemistry, physics, earth sciences, and biology teachers, but who will most likely never set foot in a high-school (precollege) classroom.

Sarah points out that the BBC has a treasure trove of video on adaptations for defense against predators. (The one titled “snake in the grass” is especially great. —Jeremy)

Friday coffee break

Coffee flasks

Siphoned coffee.

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 Devin: A new service, Peerage of Science, which conducts peer review of scientific articles independently of any single journal, is evaluated in the pages of Trends in Ecology and Evolution; see also the response by Peerage of Science.

First, PoS aims to enhance the quality of reviewing by encouraging non-anonymous review, introducing ‘peer review of peer review’, providing the possibility for reviewers to publish their review as a ‘Peerage Essay’ (PE) and to build a ‘referee factor’. Previous attempts at non-anonymous review have discovered, however, that most reviewers prefer anonymity. Peer review of peer review and the implementation of a referee factor are certainly good ideas, but reviewers who want to remain anonymous would waste their time writing a PE. Additionally, it will not always be possible to have an original insight and bring new perspectives to every evaluated paper, and the PE could become outdated after manuscript revision. A solution could be to let the comments to authors be assessed by the other reviewers and make the writing of a PE optional. [In-text citations removed.]

(Jeremy also notes that PoS is either an unfortunate, or a brilliant, abbreviation for a peer review system.)

From Sarah: For the week of Valentine’s Day, Paleontology writer Bryan Switek considers what we know about the mating habits of dinosaurs.

Rather than simply leaning straight against the top of a female like an elephant or rhinoceros does, a male sauropod would probably have to rear up at a relatively oblique angle, and the female would have to assist by moving her tail (which is also a way in which female dinosaurs could have exerted mate choice and confounded any hot-under-the-collar males they would rather not mate with).

From Jon: New research finds that interval training—exercise in a series of brief bursts—can improve fitness faster than more time spent in sustained exertion.

Several years ago, the McMasters scientists did test a punishing workout, known as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, that involved 30 seconds of all-out effort at 100 percent of a person’s maximum heart rate. After six weeks, these lacerating HIIT sessions produced similar physiological changes in the leg muscles of young men as multiple, hour-long sessions per week of steady cycling, even though the HIIT workouts involved about 90 percent less exercise time. [Links sic.]

From Jeremy: Documents leaked from a conservative think-tank with ties to companies like GM and Microsoft reveal plans to excise climate change from basic science education.

One thing I want to point out right away which is very illuminating, if highly disturbing, about what Heartland allegedly wants to do: they are considering developing a curriculum for teachers to use in the classroom to sow confusion about climate change. I know, it sounds like I’m making that up, but I’m not. In this document they say:

[Dr. Wojick‘s] effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.

[Links and formatting sic.]