Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Let’s Talk Turkey: 8 Surprising Facts About Turkeys

A reposting of an article from November 24, 2014.

A wild male turkey struts his stuff.
Photo by Lupin at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Turkeys are all-American. The modern domesticated turkey is descended from the wild turkey of North America, which is essentially a pheasant.

2. Domestic turkeys can’t fly or have sex. Domestic turkeys have been bred to have enormous breast muscles for our dinner tables. Their breast muscles have become so large that these top-heavy birds have lost the ability to fly and even to have sex! Domestic turkey eggs now have to be fertilized by artificial insemination. Wild turkeys with their functionally-sized breast muscles, however, can fly up to 55 mph for short distances and have sex just fine.

3. Male turkeys (called toms) are courtship-machines. Wild turkey males are substantially larger than females, and their 5,000 to 6,000 feathers have red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Like peacocks, male turkeys puff up their bodies and spread their elaborate feathers to attract mates and intimidate rivals. In comparison, female wild turkey feathers are duller shades of brown and grey to better hide from predators. And as if their flashy feathers weren’t enough, toms also have fleshy body appendages called snoods (the fleshy snotsicle that hangs over their beak) and wattles (the thing that looks like a scrotum under their chin). When the male is excited, the snood and wattle fill with blood and turn bright red. Sexy!

4. Turkeys are intelligent animals. They even have the ability to learn the precise details of a 1,000-acre area. And no, turkeys will not drown if they look up into the sky during a rainstorm.

5. Turkeys are social animals. They create lasting social bonds with each other and are very affectionate. Turkeys can produce over 20 different vocalizations, including the distinctive gobble (produced only by males), which can be heard up to a mile away! Individual turkeys have unique voices that they use to recognize each other.

6. Female turkeys (called hens) are good moms. Wild turkey babies (called poults) are precocial, which means that they hatch out of their eggs already covered in fluffy down and able to walk, run and feed themselves. They stick close to their mother for protection from predators, but unlike many other species of bird mothers, she doesn't have to feed them. Although wild turkeys roost in the trees at night to avoid predators, poults are unable to fly for their first few weeks of life. The mother stays with them at ground level to keep them safe and warm until they are strong enough to all roost in the trees with her.

A wild turkey mom and her poults. Photo by Kevin Cole at Wikimedia Commons.

7. Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be America’s national bird. Benjamin Franklin famously argued that the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, should be America's national bird. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, "For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly...like those among men who live by sharping and robbing...he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little king-bird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district...For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours...".

8. Turkeys were once endangered. Although millions of wild turkeys used to live across the Americas, they were almost completely wiped out due to a combination of over-hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to strong conservation efforts that included better hunting management, habitat protection, captive breeding, and reintroduction into the wild, wild turkey populations are now healthy and found in all of the lower 48 states.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Science Beat: Round 8

It is midterm time again. If you learn science better with a beat, check these out:


Chemistry:




Cellular Biology:




Anatomy and Physiology:




Vote for your favorite in the comments section below and check out other science songs worth learning at Science Beat, Science Beat: Round 2, Science Beat: Round 3, Science Beat: Round 4, Science Beat: Round 5, Science Beat: Round 6, Science Beat: Round 7, and Science Song Playlist. Check out some song battles about the life of scientists at The Science Life, Scientist Swagger and Battle of The Grad Programs! And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future battle!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

What Do Animals Think of Their Dead?

A reposting of an article from September 12, 2012.

You’re running around, going about your day, and suddenly you see a dead guy lying in the sidewalk. What do you feel? Sad? Scared? Do you look around to see if you might be in danger too? Would you feel any differently if the dead body on the sidewalk were that of a squirrel, and not a human? Do animals share these same emotional and thought processes when they come across their own dead?

Teresa Iglesias, Richard McElreath and Gail Patricelli at the University of California at Davis pondered this philosophical question themselves. Then they set off to scientifically test it.

A western scrub-jay collecting peanuts from a windowsill.
Photo by Ingrid Taylar at Wikimedia.
Teresa, Richard and Gail had noticed that when a live western scrub-jay encounters a dead western scrub-jay, it hops from perch to perch while calling loudly, a response the researchers called a “cacophonous reaction”. This boisterous response usually attracts other scrub-jays, which either join in with their own cacophonous reaction or just sit quietly observing. Is this truly a response to seeing their own dead?

The researchers put bird feeders baited with peanuts in backyards all over Davis, California (with the permission of the backyard-owners, of course). Once they find a feeder, western scrub-jays take the peanuts one at a time and fly off to cache them away before returning for another peanut. While the scrub-jays were away caching a peanut, the researchers put a collection of painted wood pieces on the ground, arranged to vaguely look like a dead scrub-jay. Then they snuck away to watch if the scrub-jays responded when they returned. Several days later, they came back to the same feeders, waited until the scrub-jay was away caching a peanut, and then placed an actual scrub-jay carcass and feathers (usually found somewhere in the area). Then they snuck away again to watch if the scrub-jays responded any differently when they returned.

Watch the behavior of western scrub-jays before and after
the placement of a dead scrub-jay. The “after” response starts
about one minute into the video. Video by Teresa Iglesias.

And in a nutshell, they did. When the scrub-jays returned to find a dead scrub-jay, they called like crazy and hopped around in a full-blown cacophonous reaction. In most cases, this reaction attracted other scrub-jays who joined in the lively response. Additionally, when the dead scrub-jay was present, they took 90% fewer peanuts. None of this ever happened in response to a pile of painted wood. When a scrub-jay returned to find painted wood, it went about its day, calling at normal rates and collecting peanuts as usual. One jay was so unconcerned by the painted wood, it even cached peanuts under it!

A western scrub-jay thinks the painted wood makes
a good peanut-hideaway. Video by Teresa Iglesias.

This convinced the researchers that the scrub-jays were not simply responding to something new near the feeder, but were instead responding to dead bodies. But does it matter whether the body is a conspecific (the same species) or a heterospecific (different species)? And what do these group responses mean? Are they gathering in mourning? Or is their response a way of hollering, “Look out! Something out there is killing us!”?

To find out, the researchers did the same thing they had done before, but this time, they placed either a scrub-jay carcass or a mounted great horned owl (a scrub-jay predator). Interestingly, the scrub-jays responded with the same cacophonous reactions and avoided the peanuts in both cases. However, the scrub-jays called for longer and defensively swooped at the mounted owl, something they didn’t do to the scrub-jay carcass. To check if this heightened response to the owl mount was due to its lifelike position, they repeated the study, comparing scrub-jay responses to a scrub-jay carcass or a mounted scrub-jay. Although the dead-looking carcass always elicited cacophonous aggregations, mounted scrub-jays only elicited cacophonous aggregations a third of the time. But when jays did respond to the scrub-jay mounts, they often swooped at it as if it were a competitor, something they never did to a scrub-jay carcass.

What does this all mean? Western scrub-jays respond to conspecific (scrub-jay) carcasses not just because their appearance is surprising, but because they may represent some kind of risk. They seem to recognize that the carcass is not a living threat, because they don’t swoop at it like they do to both owl and scrub-jay mounts. But they do produce an alarm response, much as they do when a predator is present. So their responses to dead scrub-jays are not so much “funerals” in the way that people mourn and reflect on their dead, but rather a way to announce a risk of getting hurt or killed.

Are western scrub-jays uniquely aware of the risk a dead conspecific may represent? Maybe not. Although this was the first comprehensive study of this phenomenon, similar behavioral responses to dead conspecifics have been observed in ravens, crows and magpies, all members of the corvid family of birds, like scrub-jays. But rats and even bees have also been observed to avoid dead conspecifics. Many animals may be more cognizant of death than we give them credit for.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Iglesias, T.L., McElreath, R., & Patricelli, G.L. (2012). Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.08.007

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Smell of Fear

A reposting of an article from October 24, 2012.

Several animals, many of them insects, crustaceans and fish, can smell when their fellow peers are scared. A kind of superpower for superwimps, this is an especially useful ability for prey species. An animal that can smell that its neighbor is scared is more likely to be able to avoid predators it hasn’t detected yet.

Who can smell when you're scared? Photo provided by Freedigitalphotos.net.
“What does fear smell like?” you ask. Pee, of course.

I mean, that has to be the answer, right? It only makes sense that the smell of someone who has had the piss scared out of them is, well… piss. But do animals use that as a cue that a predator may be lurking?

Canadian researchers Grant Brown, Christopher Jackson, Patrick Malka, Élisa Jaques, and Marc-Andre Couturier at Concordia University set out to test whether prey fish species use urea, a component of fish pee, as a warning signal.


A convict cichlid in wide-eyed
terror... Okay, fine. They're
always wide-eyed. Photo by
Dean Pemberton at Wikimedia.
First, the researchers tested the responses of convict cichlids and rainbow trout, two freshwater prey fish species, to water from tanks of fish that had been spooked by a fake predator model and to water from tanks of fish that were calm and relaxed. They found that when these fish were exposed to water from spooked fish, they behaved as if they were spooked too (they stopped feeding and moving). But when they were exposed to water from relaxed fish, they fed and moved around normally. Something in the water that the spooked fish were in was making the new fish act scared!

To find out if the fish may be responding to urea, they put one of three different concentrations of urea or just plain water into the tanks of cichlids and trout. The cichlids responded to all three doses of urea, but not the plain water, with a fear response (they stopped feeding and moving again). The trout acted fearfully when the two highest doses of urea, but not the lowest urea dose or plain water, were put in their tank. Urea seems to send a smelly signal to these prey fish to “Sit tight – Something scary this way comes”. And the more urea in the water, the scarier!

But wait a minute: Does this mean that every time a fish takes a wiz, all his buddies run and hide? That would be ridiculous. Not only do freshwater fish pee a LOT, many are also regularly releasing urea through their gills (I know, gross, right? But not nearly as gross as the fact that many cigarette companies add urea to cigarettes to add flavor).

The researchers figured that background levels of urea in the water are inevitable and should reduce fishes fear responses to urea. They put cichlids and trout in tanks with water that either had a low level of urea, a high level of urea, or no urea at all. Then they waited 30 minutes, which was enough time for the fish to calm down, move around and eat normally. Then they added an additional pulse of water, a medium dose of urea, or a high dose of urea. Generally, the more urea the fish were exposed to for the 30 minute period, the less responsive they were to the pulse of urea. Just like the scientists predicted.

A rainbow trout smells its surroundings.
Photo at Wikimedia taken by Ken Hammond at the USDA.

But we still don’t know exactly what this means. Maybe the initial dose of urea makes the fish hide at first, but later realize that there was no predator and decide to eat. Then the second pulse of urea may be seen by the fish as “crying wolf”. Alternatively, maybe the presence of urea already in the water masks the fishes’ ability to detect the second urea pulse. Or maybe both explanations are true.

Urea, which is only a small component of freshwater fish urine, is not the whole story. Urea and possibly stress hormones make up what scientists refer to as disturbance cues. Steroid hormones that are involved in stress and sexual behaviors play a role in sending smelly signals in a number of species, so it makes sense that stress hormones may be part of this fearful fish smell. But fish also rely on damage-released alarm cues and the odor of their predators to know that a predator may be near. Scientists are just starting to get a whiff of what makes up the smell of fear.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Brown, G.E., Jackson, C.D., Malka, P.H., Jacques, É., & Couturier, M-A. (2012). Disturbance cues in freshwater prey fishes: Does urea function as an ‘early warning cue’ in juvenile convict cichlids and rainbow trout? Current Zoology, 58 (2), 250-259

2. Chivers, D.P., Brown, G.E. & Ferrari, M.C.O. (2012). Evolution of fish alarm substances. In: Chemical Ecology in Aquatic Systems. C. Brömark and L.-A. Hansson (eds). pp 127-139. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

3. Brown, G.E., Ferrari, M.C.O. & Chivers, D.P. (2011). Learning about danger: chemical alarm cues and threat-sensitive assessment of predation risk by fishes. In: Fish Cognition and Behaviour, 2nd ed. C. Brown, K.N. Laland and J. Krause (eds). pp. 59-80, Blackwell, London. 3.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Caught in My Web: Animals of the California Fires

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons
The current California wildfires have been rapidly destroying livelihoods, lifestyles and lives. The damage is horrific and recovery will take time, effort, and lots of support. When fires of this magnitude happen, what happens with our animal friends? We explore this with this edition of Caught in My Web.

1. Sarah Zielinski from National Geographic wrote a very informative article about how wildfires affect wild animals.

2. But while wild animals often have the freedom and abilities to escape the worst effects of fire, those protected in sanctuaries generally do not and have to evacuate.

3. Domesticated farm animals also need to seek refuge, and meeting the needs for large numbers of large animals can be a challenge.

4. Many people have been forced to flee so quickly that they lost contact with their beloved pets. But here is a heartwarming story of two brothers that returned to find their home destroyed and their beloved dog, Izzy, wagging her tail from the rubble.



5. But life does not pause when disaster strikes. Amid the wildfires, the Santa Rosa Wildlife Preserve welcomed the addition of a new baby Nile lechwe (an endangered species of antelope), who is healthy and strong. Their press release states, "It is easy to focus on the darkness in times of trouble but hopefully, stories like ours of a baby born in the midst of disaster, will remind us to see the light".

Do you want to do something to help the animals affected by the California fires? Here is how.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: An Outline

Do you dream about a career of studying animals?
Image by freedigitalphotos.net.
A reposting of an article from March 13, 2013.

**NOTE: Although this advice is written for those interested in applying to graduate programs in animal behavior, it applies to most programs in the sciences.**

So you want to go to grad school to study animal behavior… Well join the club! It is a competitive world out there and this is an increasingly competitive field. But if every fiber of your being knows this is the path for you, then there is a way for you to follow that path. With hard work, dedication and persistence, you can join the ranks of today's animal biologists to pursue a career of trekking to wild places to study animals in their native habitats, testing questions about the physiology of behavior in a lab, or exploring the genetics of behavioral adaptation.

This is an outline of advice on how to get into a graduate program in animal behavior. More details on the individual steps will follow, so leave a comment below or e-mail me if you have any particular questions you would like me to address or if you have any advice you would like to share.


  1. Get good grades, particularly in your science and math courses. And make sure you take all the science and math prerequisites for biology graduate programs.
  2. Prepare well for the GREs.
  3. Get research experience. This can come in many forms (such as volunteering in a lab, working as a field technician, or doing an independent project for credit), but as a general rule, the more involved you are in a project, the more it will impress those making acceptance decisions.
  4. Choose the labs you are interested in, not just the schools. As a graduate student, you will spend most of your time working with your advisor and the other members of your advisor’s lab. This means that the right fit is imperative. Figure out what researchers you may want to work with, then see if they are at a school you would like to attend.
  5. Be organized in your application process. There will be a lot of details to keep straight: due dates, recommendation letters, essays, communication with potential advisors… The more organized you are, the less likely you are to miss a deadline or make an embarrassing mistake.
  6. Write compelling essays. Most schools will ask you to write two short essays: a Statement of Purpose and a Personal History. This is your place to set yourself apart. They need to convey your experience with animal behavior research and passion for working with that particular advisor. They also need to be very well written, so expect to write multiple drafts.
  7. Be organized and prepared when you ask for your recommendation letters. The easier you make it for your references to write a thoughtful recommendation letter for you, the better the letters will be.
  8. Apply for funding. This isn’t essential: Most first-year graduate students do not have their own funding. But the ability of a school and a specific researcher to accept a graduate student depends on what funding is available to support them. If you have your own funding, it is more likely you will to be able to write your own ticket.
  9. Be prepared for each interview you are invited to.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Although heartbraking at the time, it is very common in animal behavior graduate programs to not be accepted anywhere in your first year of applications. If you are rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good candidate. Often it means there is no funding available to support you in the labs you would like to join. Spend the year participating in research and applying for funding so you can reapply next year.
The submission of a successful application takes a lot of planning and preparation. Getting good grades is a continuous effort. Plus, the most successful applicants often have two or more years of research experience. Ideally, you are working on these two things at least by your sophomore year of college. But if you waited too long and you haven’t taken enough science or math prerequisites, your grades are not where they need to be, or you don’t have enough research experience, you can take some extra time after you graduate to take community college courses and volunteer or work in a lab. Persistence and dedication are key to following a challenging path.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mind-Manipulating Slave-Making Ants!

A reposting of an article from October 10, 2012.

An entire colony enslaved by an alien species to care for their young. Slave rebellions quelled by mind manipulation. It sounds like science fiction, right? But it really happens!

Myrmoxenus ravouxi (called M. ravouxi for “short”) is a slave-making ant species in which the queen probably wears a chemical mask, matching the scent of a host species in order to invade their nest without detection. Once inside, she lays her eggs for the host species workers to care for. Armies of M. ravouxi workers then raid these host colonies to steel their brood to become future slave-laborers to serve the needs of the M. ravouxi colony.

A M. ravouxi queen throttling a host queen. Photo by Olivier Delattre.

Enslaved worker ants could rebel: They could destroy the parasite brood or at least not do a good job caring for them. But to selectively harm the parasite brood without harming their own nests’ brood, the host ants would have to be able to tell them apart. Ants learn the smell of their colony in their youth, so any ants born to an already-parasitized colony would likely not be able to tell apart parasite ants from their own species. But what about ants that were born to colonies before they were invaded?

Olivier Delattre, Nicolas Châline, Stéphane Chameron, Emmanuel Lecoutey, and Pierre Jaisson from the Laboratory of Experimental Ethology in France figured that compared to ant species that were never hosts to M. ravouxi colonies, ant species that were commonly hosts of M. ravouxi colonies would be better able to discriminate their own species’ brood from M. ravouxi brood. Host species may even be better at discriminating in general.

The researchers collected ant colonies from near Fontainebleau and Montpellier in France. They collected M. ravouxi colonies and colonies of a species that they commonly parasitize (but were not parasitized at the time): Temnothorax unifasciatus (called T. unifasciatus for “short”). The researchers also collected T. unifasciatus that were parasitized by M. ravouxi at the time. Additionally, they collected colonies of T. nylanderi and T. parvulus, two species that are never parasitized by M. ravouxi. (Sorry guys. All these species go by their scientific names. But really, that just makes them sound all the more mysterious, right?). The researchers took all their ant colonies back to the lab and housed them in specialized plastic boxes (i.e. scientific ant-farms).

On the day of the tests, the scientists removed a single pupa (kind of like an ant-toddler) from one nest and placed it into a different nest of the same species or back in its own nest. They did this for colonies of both non-host species and for colonies of host species T. unifasciatus that were not parasitized at the time. Then they counted how many times the workers bit the pupa (an aggressive behavior) or groomed the pupa (a caring behavior).

Workers from all three species bit the pupa that was not from their colony more than they bit their own colony’s pupa. But the T. unifasciatus (the host species) were even more aggressive to foreign pupa than the other species. And only the T. unifasciatus withheld grooming from the pupa that was not from their colony compared to the one that was from their colony. Although all three species seemed to be able to tell the difference between a pupa from their own nest versus one from another nest, only the species that is regularly enslaved by M. ravouxi decreased care to foreign young. So that is what these ants do when they are not enslaved. How do you think enslaved ants respond to their own species’ young compared to M. ravouxi young?

A 1975 cover of Galaxie/Bis, a French science
fiction magazine, by Philippe Legendre-Kvater.
Image from Wikimedia.
The researchers repeated the study using enslaved T. unifasciatus, placing either a pupa of their own species from a different nest or a M. ravouxi pupa in with their brood. Even though prior to M. ravouxi takeover the T. unifasciatus bit foreign pupa more than their own, after M. ravouxi takeover they didn’t bite foreign pupa of their own species or M. ravouxi pupa very much. Not only that, but they groomed the M. ravouxi pupa more than the pupa of their own species! Ah hah! Mind control!

This, my friends, is the kind of truth that science fiction is made from.

But how might this work? Ants born to an enslaved colony would be exposed to both their own odors and the M. ravouxi odors. Because ants learn the smell of their colony in the first few days after they emerge from their eggs, these enslaved ants would have a broader set of smells that they may perceive as being “within the family”. That would explain why the enslaved T. unifasciatus ants didn’t attack either the foreign-born T. unifasciatus or the M. ravouxi young, but it doesn’t explain why the enslaved ants provided more care to the M. ravouxi than they did to their own species. One possibility is that the M. ravouxi produce more or especially attractive odors to encourage the host workers to take care of them.

There is still more to learn about this system: How exactly may the M. ravouxi be hijacking the pheromonal systems of their host species? How are the host species protecting themselves from exploitation? I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Delattre, O., Chȃline, N., Chameron, S., Lecoutey, E., & Jaisson, P. (2012). Social parasite pressure affects brood discrimination of host species in Temnothorax ants Animal Behaviour, 84, 445-450 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.05.020

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Weirdest Animals on Earth: 12 Amazing Facts About Seahorses

A seahorse in all its glory. Photo by Gustavo Gerdel at Wikimedia Commons.

1. Seahorses are fish. They include about 54 different species of fish and are closely related to sea dragons and pipefish. But seahorses are not your typical fish! A baby seahorse is called a fry (like in other fish), but a group of seahorses is called a herd (like in horses).

2. Seahorses have skeletons unlike any other fish. Unlike other bony fish, seahorses have a neck, an exoskeleton, and a prehensile tail. Seahorses do not have pelvic fins, ribs or scales. Instead, their skin is stretched over a series of bony plates arranged in rings.

3. Seahorses are terrible swimmers and can die of exhaustion if the sea is rough or the current is too strong. The only fin they have to get around with it the tiny one in the middle of their back (the dorsal fin). They use even smaller pectoral fins on the sides of their head to steer. Seahorses and razorfish are the only fish to swim upright, because it is horribly inefficient. It is a good thing they have a prehensile tail to hang on to whatever is nearby.

A pygmy seahorse in camouflage.
Photo by prilfish at Wikimedia.
4. Seahorses are experts at camouflage and can change color. They are even able to grow fleshy appendages (called cirri) that help them with camouflage by giving them a weed-like appearance.

5. Seahorses have terrible smell but amazing vision. They have the fewest genes for olfactory receptors (used in other animals for smell and taste) of any ray-finned fish species known. But seahorses have excellent vision and their eyes can work independently, meaning they can look forward and backward at the same time!

6. Seahorses eat weird. They have a toothless, tubular snout, which they use to suck up small fish and crustaceans. They swallow them whole. Seahorses do not have stomachs and don't digest very well, so they have to eat constantly.

7. Seahorses are one of the ocean's deadliest predators, with a 90% kill rate. Because of the shape of their head and their slow, finless method of movement, seahorses move with near hydrodynamic silence, barely moving the water as their stealthily sneak up on their prey. Once they are within striking distance, they snap their heads and suck up their prey. 



8. Seahorses click when they're courting and growl when their stressed



9. Seahorses are monogamous and pair for life. Their courtship begins with a daily dance between the couple that they do for days. The final courtship dance can last eight hours before the female "impregnates" her partner.

10. Male seahorses get "pregnant". They are the only males that take on the full responsibility of pregnancy, carrying up to 2,000 babies at a time! Although they don’t have a mammalian womb and placenta, they do have an enclosed abdominal pouch specifically for the purpose of incubating the babies. The female deposits her eggs in his brood pouch, in which he fertilizes them and incubates them for 10-45 days (depending on the species). During this time, his body undergoes a number of hormonal and physiological changes. When the babies are ready to emerge as fully developed little seahorses, seahorse dads even experience contractions as they give birth! 



11. Seahorses are evolving faster than any other group of bony fishes. Scientists have sequenced the entire genome of a tiger tail seahorse, a threatened tropical seahorse species.

12. Seahorses are under threat because of the traditional Chinese medicine trade, the pet trade, and the curio trade, all of which capture seahorses from the wild, and because of habitat depletion and pollution.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Caught in My Web: Spiders!

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons
Spiders creep most of us out. But let’s face it: they are pretty darn amazing! For this edition of Caught in My Web, we appreciate our 8-legged friends.

1. Did you know that sea spiders use their gut as a heart?

2. And lace sheet weaver spiders make optical illusion webs to lure nocturnal moths.

3. Even our run-of-the-mill spiders are pretty amazing, when you really look at them. Watch this amazing timelapse of a garden orb web spider building a web:



4. Portia, the spider-hunting spider, is a genius with super-powers:


5. And researchers at the National University of Singapore have now found that personality affects how these smart spiders hunt.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I Know I Want to Work With Animals. Now What?

"What to do? What to do?" Photo by Dmitry Rozhkov at Wikimedia Commons

Does this sound familiar: “I know I want to work with animals, but I don’t know if I want to be a vet. What should I be? How do I prepare for a career if I don’t even know what I want to do?”

If this is you, don’t panic. There are many professions that work with animals, and luckily, there is a lot of overlap when it comes to qualifications for those jobs. This means that there are certain steps that you can take to make you competitive for a range of jobs that work with animals and you don’t have to decide today exactly what that job will be.


Experience With Animals


To get a job that works with animals, you need to be good at working with animals. Seems pretty obvious, but it can be more difficult than you think. To get good at something, you need experience, and to get experience, you need a position, and to get a position, you need to be good at it… AARRGG!

The trick is to get your foot in the door: Train your pets to compete in obedience or agility competitions. Work in a pet store, groomers, or pet boarding kennel. Volunteer at a local animal shelter, animal rehabilitation center, veterinary clinic, or zoo. If you are considering colleges, ask about clubs, internships and other opportunities that they offer to get animal experience.

It is also important to keep a record of all your animal experiences; List all of the experiences by category or position and keep track of your hours. This will be invaluable information to put on applications in the future.


Experience With People


We often forget that many positions that work with animals also require a strong ability to work with people. Veterinary clinics work with pet owners; Zoos and aquariums teach the public; Animal trainers would be more accurately called “pet-owner-trainers”. As counterintuitive as it may seem, you can improve your marketability to animal jobs by improving your people skills.

First and foremost, don’t shy away from face-to-face contact. Yes, texting and emailing is faster and easier, but an actual conversation can have a much better outcome and helps develop your people skills without a conscientious effort. Beyond that, pay attention in English classes, read books, and seek out opportunities to interface with actual people. Jobs in retail and as receptionists are good for this. Look for opportunities in the field of education, perhaps as a tutor or assistant. Volunteer to interact with people in nursing homes, hospitals, or shelters. And again… keep track of your hours.


Education


Educate yourself for the job you want.
Photo by raider of gin at Wikimedia Commons.
There are jobs that work with animals for people with all levels of education, so you may want to pursue the level of education you need for the job(s) that you want.

Before you complete high school, you may be eligible to be a: volunteer (at an animal hospital, rehabilitation center, zoo, aquarium, or animal shelter), pet store employee, pet boarding employee

With a high school diploma, you may be additionally eligible to be a: veterinary assistant, veterinary receptionist, domestic animal care staff, domestic animal trainer, animal control worker or dog warden, animal farmer or breeder

With a specialized 2-year degree, you may be additionally eligible to be a: veterinary technician or veterinary technologist

With a 4-year degree, you may be additionally eligible to be a: zoo keeper or aquarist, educator, wildlife rehabilitator, wildlife animal trainer, assistant research biologist, animal care manager, animal cruelty investigator

With a DVM, you may be additionally eligible to be a: veterinarian (at a clinic, hospital, zoo, or university), research biologist

With a PhD, you may be additionally eligible to be a: research biologist


Are you already in an animal-related career? Share your tips in the comment section below! And for more advice for working with animals, go here.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A New Key to the Story of How the Sexes Have Come to Be


In the beginning, we are all male and female… More specifically, we are all in between male and female. So what makes our embryonic selves choose and follow a developmental path to becoming the sex that we are today? New research has dramatically changed our understanding of this process.

During early embryonic development, all mammals develop a single pair of gonads that are neither testes nor ovaries, but have the potential to become either. Likewise, the external genitalia at this early stage has the potential to become either a penis and scrotum or a clitoris, vagina, and labia. Two pairs of ducts develop to connect the gonads to the undifferentiated external genitalia: One set of ducts, the Wolffian ducts, would become the epididymis, vas deferens, and seminal vesicles if this animal becomes male. The other set of ducts, the Müllerian ducts, would become the oviducts, uterus and innermost part of the vagina if this animal becomes female. So what determines if a given animal will develop male or female reproductive anatomy?

Early in development, mammalian embryos have one set of gonads that has the potential to become either testes or ovaries (here labeled as "bipotential gonad"). These gonads are connected the the developing external genitalia by two sets of tubes: The Wolffian ducts become the reproductive tracts in males and the Müllerian ducts become the reproductive tracts in females. The ducts that do not become reproductive tracts typically disintegrate. However, XX female embryos that lack the COUP-TFII protein do not dismantle their male-like reproductive tracts. Figure from Swain, 2017.

The sex of a mammal is determined by the combination of sex chromosomes it has. If the mammal has two X chromosomes, it will likely become female, and if it has an X chromosome and a Y chromosome, it will likely become male. The story physiologists have been telling for decades is that there is a single gene located on the Y chromosome, called the SRY gene, that single-handedly makes an embryo become a male. When expressed, the SRY gene produces a protein, called testes-determining factor, which interacts with the cells of the undifferentiated gonads to turn them into testicular cells. These newly formed testicular cells produce two key hormones: testosterone, which causes the Wolffian ducts to become the epididymis, vas deferens, and seminal vesicles, and anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH), which causes the Müllerian ducts to degenerate. In other words, if an animal has a Y chromosome, it will typically have an SRY gene that will trigger the sequence of events that causes the animal to develop into a male. If the animal does not have the Y chromosome, it will typically become female. However, it is not just the lack of a Y chromosome that can make a female; Any disruption of this pathway (such as an SRY gene that is not expressed, or the lack of testicular hormones) typically causes the animal to develop into a female. For this reason, females in mammals have been called the default sex. The scientific understanding since the 1950s has been that, in mammals, the development of a male reproductive system is an active process and the development of a female reproductive system is a passive process. However, a new study reveals that the process of becoming female mammal is not as passive as we have thought.

Fei Zhao, Humphrey Yao and their research team at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Baylor College of Medicine discovered a critical role for a specific protein, called COUP-TFII, in the active process of becoming a mammalian female. The research team examined female mouse embryos (which lack a Y chromosome, and hence an SRY gene) that had been genetically modified to lack a particular protein called the COUP-TFII protein. They compared these genetically modified XX embryos to genetically typical XX mouse embryos. When the unmodified XX embryos had developed to have only Müllerian ducts (the “typical” female reproductive pathway), the XX embryos without COUP-TFII protein retained both Müllerian and Wolffian ducts! Unfortunately, these XX mice that lacked the COUP-TFII protein died shortly after birth, so it was difficult to tell if this developmental process would have continued. The research team cultured reproductive organs of XX mice with and without COUP-TFII protein and found that this developmental trajectory likely would have continued after birth.

Images A and B show the reproductive tract from the side (A) and as a cross-section (B) in a "typical" XX female mouse embryo. Images D and E show that XX females that lack the COUP-TFII protein retain both Müllerian (pink arrows) and Wolffian (blue arrows) ducts. Figure from Zhao et al., 2017.

We know that testosterone helps promote the development of Wolffian ducts in XY males, so the most likely explanation of what they witnessed is that the lack of COUP-TFII protein somehow increased action of testosterone in these genetically modified XX embryos. The researchers ran a number of tests to explore this possibility. Testosterone is mostly produced by the gonads, so they compared the gene expression and enzymes of ovaries of unmodified XX mice with the ovaries of XX mice that lacked the COUP-TFII protein, and they found no differences that pointed to differences in testosterone production. They then considered the possibility that testosterone was produced somewhere else in the body, but the XX mice that lacked the COUP-TFII protein did not have more masculine body features compared to the unmodified XX mice. Finally, the researchers gave extra testosterone to the mother mice that were pregnant with unmodified XX mice and XX mice that lacked the COUP-TFII protein. The extra testosterone did not affect any of the mouse pups; it did not cause the Wolffian ducts of the XX mice that lacked the COUP-TFII protein to regress. Together, the researchers found that no, XX embryos that lack COUP-TFII protein do not have any more testosterone-like activity than their non-genetically modified XX sisters. This means that testosterone alone is not enough to keep Wolffian ducts.

This research has shown us that for the Wolfian ducts to go away during the reproductive development of a mammalian female, they need to be actively dismantled using a biochemical process (similar to how AMH dismantles Müllerian ducts during male reproductive development). COUP-TFII protein appears to be the chemical in charge of triggering this process. Female mammals are not the passive result of simply not becoming male, as has been taught in physiology classes for decades. Becoming a female mammal requires a process all its own, and we are only now starting to learn what that is.


Want to know more? Check these out:

F. Zhao et al. Elimination of the male reproductive tract in the female embryo is promoted by COUP-TFII in mice. Science. Vol. 357, August 18, 2017, p. 717. doi: 10.1126/science.aai9136

A. Swain. Ductal sex determination. Science. Vol. 357, August 18, 2017, p. 648. doi: 10.1126/science.aao2630

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Olympic Athlete of the Animal Kingdom: The Circulatory System of a Horse (A Guest Post)

By Emily Fandrey


How do you judge the abilities of an athlete? Is it all about speed? What about endurance? Strength? How would you judge an animal that can run up to 48 kilometers per hour (30 mph), cover 48 kilometers (30 miles) in a day, or clear a 2.4 meter (8 foot) jump, all while carrying a human on its back? Because of these abilities, the horse (Equus caballus) is often considered to be one of the animal kingdom’s best athletes. The major factor behind horses’ advanced athleticism is their unique circulatory system, specialized for delivering large amounts of oxygen throughout the body.

Image by Paul Kehrer at Wikimedia Commons.

A horse’s circulatory system has three major players: the heart, the spleen, and the frog (and no, this has nothing to do with the animal frog, but rather a specialized unit of a horse’s hoof). Due to these three components, horses have one of the best aerobic capacities in the animal kingdom. Let’s look at a racehorse for example: During a race, a thoroughbred can reach a maximum oxygen capacity (the amount of oxygen the blood can carry) of 200 milliliters per kilogram per minute, meaning 200 milliliters of blood per kilogram of weight (or 3.1 ounces per pound) are transported to the body every minute! This is more than twice the oxygen capacity of the most elite human athlete!

This diagram illustrates the horse’s circulatory system,
including the heart, arteries, veins, and spleen. Diagram by Emily Fandrey.

So let’s break down this superior aerobic system, starting with the horse heart. Typically, a horse’s heart weighs 1% of its total body weight; meaning if a horse weighs 450 kilograms (1000 pounds), its heart will be roughly 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds). If this was true for humans, a 68 kilogram (150 pound) human’s heart would be 0.68 kilograms (1.5 pounds), although the average human heart is only about 0.23 kilograms (half a pound). The horse’s heart functions very similarly to a human heart. It contains four chambers and is responsible for getting oxygen to the body by pumping the oxygen-filled blood. After the body systems have used the oxygen in the blood, this deoxygenated blood enters the heart and is sent to the lungs where the blood is resupplied with oxygen from breathing air. This oxygenated blood reenters the heart and is pumped back out to the body. Because of the size of their hearts, horses are able to supply large amounts of blood with oxygen to the body with each heartbeat, averaging a combined 38 liters (10 gallons) per minute (this is about ten times as much as a human).

Horses also have very different heart rates than humans during rest and exercise. A horse’s resting heart rate is 28-44 beats per minute (bpm), compared to the average human’s, which is 60-80 bpm. During exercise, a human’s heart rate is 90-170 bpm, depending on age. A horse’s heart rate, however, rises to 80 bpm during a walk, 130 bpm during a trot, 180 during a canter, and 240 bpm while galloping. At top speed, the fast beating heart of the horse is what allows the heart to pump much more blood to the body than a human, increasing their athletic abilities.

A diagram of how the horse’s frog sends blood back to heart quickly,
working against gravity. Diagram by Emily Fandrey.

With the long legs of horses, the heart also has to work against gravity to get blood from the limbs back to the heart. To combat this, the horse has its “frog”. For a horse, the frog is a vessel-filled tissue structure on each of its four hooves. When weight is placed on the frog, this structure can help the heart work against gravity. How? When the horse’s hoof meets the ground, the ground will push up on the frog, resulting in the frog being compressed and squeezing blood in the vessels out and rapidly up the leg. The frog helps heart work against gravity by sending the blood up the leg and back to the heart, allowing for faster blood circulation, increasing the athleticism of the horse.

The last key factor to the horse’s circulatory system is the spleen. This organ improves aerobic capabilities and the horse’s athleticism. Now, the primary function of the horse’s spleen is to remove damaged blood cells. However, when a horse is relaxed, their spleen will fill with up to 30 liters (8 gallons) of oxygen-filled blood. And then, once the excitement of activities like running or jumping sparks, the spleen will contract and send up to 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of this stored blood back into circulation in mere seconds! So in seconds, the spleen is capable of almost doubling the maximum amount of oxygen the blood can carry, increasing the athleticism of the horse as well.

So if you ever need an excelling athlete on your team, consider an animal with a superior circulatory system: the horse. With a large and powerful heart capable of pumping large amounts of blood, a spleen to provide an extra burst of blood in seconds, and a “frog” to work against gravity, there is no wonder why horse is considered to be one of the world’s superior athletes.


References

Allen, K.J., Young, L.E., and Franklin, S.H. (2016). Evaluation of heart rate and rhythm during exercise. Equine Veterinary Education 28: 99-112. DOI: 10.1111/eve.12405.

Cardiovascular System (2007). In EQUINAvet.

Circulatory System of the Horse (2010). In Helpful Horse Hints.

Equine Circulatory System Vet, Horse First Aid (2012). In Equestrian and Horse.

Norton, J. (2013). The equine circulatory system. In EquiMed: Horse Health Matters.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Caught in My Web: Animal Reactions to A Solar Eclipse

Animation by Locutus Borg at Wikimedia Commons.
A solar eclipse is a rare event that can have dramatic effects not only on us people, but on animals as well. For this edition of Caught in My Web, we think about how animals may respond to such a rare celestial event.







Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons.
1. National Geographic shares many ways animals are known to behave in strange ways in response to a solar eclipse.

2. Much of the effect of an eclipse on animal behavior is utter confusion, but many groups will be watching animals to see how they respond.

3. Researchers at the University of Nebraska will be collecting behavior data on GPS-tagged red-tailed hawks to see how the solar eclipse affects them.

4. Some nature centers are studying animal behavior during the eclipse.

5. If you found any animals that freaked out so badly as to injure themselves, check here for advice.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Striving for a Honeybee Democracy

Democracy is hard. And slow. And complicated. But if it is done well, it can result consistently in the best decisions and courses of action for a group. Just ask honeybees.

When a honeybee hive becomes overcrowded, the colony (which can have membership in the tens of thousands) divides in what will be one of the riskiest and potentially deadliest decisions of their lives. About a third of the worker bees will stay home to rear a new queen while the old queen and the rest of the hive will leave to establish a new hive. The newly homeless colony will coalesce on a nearby branch while they search out and decide among new home options. This process can take anywhere from hours to days, during which the colony is vulnerable and exposed. But they can’t be too hasty: choosing a new home that is too small or too exposed could be equally deadly.

Our homeless honeybee swarm found an unconventional "branch". We'd better
decide on a new home soon! Photo by Nino Barbieri at Wikimedia.

Although each swarm has a queen, she plays no role in making this life-or-death decision. Rather, this decision is made by a consensus among 300-500 scout bees after an intense “dance-debate”. Then, as a single united swarm, they leave their branch and move into their new home. At this point, it’s critical that the swarm is unified in their choice of home site, because a split-decision runs the risk of creating a chaos in which the one and only queen can be lost and the entire hive will perish. This is a high-stakes decision that honeybees make democratically, efficiently, and amazingly, they almost always make the best possible choice! How do they do that? And how can we do that?

The honeybee house-hunting process has several features that allow them, as a group, to hone in on the best possible solution. The process begins when a scout discovers a site that has the potential to be a new home. She returns to her swarm and reports on this site, using a waggle dance that encodes the direction and distance to the site and her estimate of its quality. The longer she dances, the more suitable she perceived the site to be. Other scouts do the same, perhaps visiting the same site or maybe a new one, and they report their findings in dance when they return. (Importantly, scouts only dance for sites that they have seen themselves). As more scouts are recruited, the swarm breaks into a dancing frenzy with many scouts dancing for multiple possible sites. Over time, scouts that are less enthusiastic about their discovered site stop dancing, in part discouraged by dancers for other sites that head-bump them while beeping. Eventually, the remaining dancing scouts are unified in their dance for what is almost always the best site. The swarm warms up their flight muscles and off they go, in unison, to their new home.

Each dot represents where on the body this dancer was head-bumped by a dancer for a
competing site. Each time she's bumped, she's a little less enthusiastic about her own dance.
Figure from Seeley, et al. 2012 paper in Science.

What can we learn from these democratic experts? As much as I would love to see Congress in a vigorous dance-debate head-butting one another, I don't think that is the take-home message of choice. Tom Seeley at Cornell University has gained tremendous insight into effective group decision-making from his years observing honeybees, which he shares with us in his book, Honeybee Democracy. Tom has summarized his wisdom gained from observing honeybees in the following:

Members of Highly Effective Hives:

1. share a goal

2. search broadly to find possible solutions to the problem

3. contribute their information freely and honestly

4. evaluate the options independently and vote independently

5. aggregate their votes fairly

All of these critical guidelines can be encapsulated with a single objective: The decision-making body needs to objectively consider a range of information from individuals with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and knowledge. We can apply this to our own human decision-making: It means that if you don't agree with the decisions of your School Board, Town Board, City Council, County Legislature, State Legislature, or National Legislature, then your background, expertise and knowledge are likely missing from the deciding body. Yes, you can write and call your representatives and provide them with part of your knowledge, or you can run for office yourself and make people with your background truly included in the decision-making process.

Running for a human political office is more complicated and confusing than becoming a honeybee scout. No matter what your background is, you will need to work hard to gain additional expertise in campaigning. But now is the time to get into the game: there is a tremendous upswell of support for people that are new to politics. Many organizations provide free training, connections, even financial support to recruit new people with new perspectives. And these days, there seems to be a supportive group for just about everyone who wants to get involved.

If many of your views align with a political party, you can often turn to the party itself for support. Democrats can turn directly to Democrats.Org or the National Democratic Training Committee. Likewise, Republicans can go to EquipGOP or the Republican Leadership Initiative. Support is also available for Libertarians and members of the Green Party.

Private groups provide additional resources for candidates of particular backgrounds. For example, Camp Wellstone is a training program for any progressive candidate, and Run For Something provides additional support for progressives under 35. Additional groups working to promote more diverse representation are the BRAT-PAC for African American candidates, the Latino Victory Project for Latino candidates, and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund for LGBTQ candidates. And, my own personal favorite, 314 Action promotes scientists and other STEM-trained candidates.

Women candidates, in particular, have more resources than ever right now. This is tremendously valuable to increasing our decision-making diversity, since although women make up more than 50% of the US population, women make up less than 20% of the National Legislature, and less than 25% of state legislatures. Women candidates of every party and background can get support from IGNITE, She Should Run, the Center for American Women and Politics, and the Women's Campaign Fund. The National Federation of Republican Women specifically supports republican women candidates. Likewise, EMILY’s List and Emerge America provides training for progressive women candidates. Higher Heights supports black women candidates for any office.

Many feel that our hive has been homelessly clinging to our exposed branch for too long. If we are going to make good, well-informed, effective, and efficient decisions, we need open and respectful communication across diverse backgrounds. Increasing diversity in the decision-making body improves the quality of the decisions that affect us all. If honeybees can do it, so can we.


Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

2. Seeley, T., Visscher, P., Schlegel, T., Hogan, P., Franks, N., & Marshall, J. (2011). Stop Signals Provide Cross Inhibition in Collective Decision-Making by Honeybee Swarms Science, 335 (6064), 108-111 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210361

3. List, C., Elsholtz, C., & Seeley, T. (2009). Independence and interdependence in collective decision making: an agent-based model of nest-site choice by honeybee swarms Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1518), 755-762 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0277