Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

30Jan/09Off

Carnival of Evolution #8 (Part One)

Shiny New Button!

Shiny New Button!

UPDATE* if you do not see your post mentioned, see note at the bottom of the post.

IT...HAS...ARRIVED!

The long awaited, much delayed eighth edition of the Carnival of Evolution is here.

I won't go into the excuses, other than to say that one of them was the death of my grandfather - a man whose love of nature inspired my own long journey into biology.

However, what better timing to resurrect a blog carnival devoted to evolution than now, a mere 12 days from Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in the year of the 150th anniversary of the publishing of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The Beagle Project

The Beagle Project

And on this fitting occasion, the first question you should be asking yourself, as first posed by Karen James of The Beagle Project, is "what am I doing on Darwin Day?"

The second question you should ask is "am I signed up for the Blog for Darwin campaign on February 12th-15th, and if not, why not?"

Before we get into the wonderful evolutionary linkage, you should all first refresh your memories on the origins of the theory of natural selection by doing what I am doing: re-reading "Origin." Go ahead...I'll wait.

While we're waiting for those who just left to dig up their old tattered copies or purchase new ones, the rest of you might do just as well by visiting "Blogging the Origin" by John Whitfield, in which he gives an incredibly entertaining rundown of each chapter in the seminal book.

We all on the same page now? Good.

What? We're NOT all on the same page? Oh that's right, as the fellows at Astroguyz.com reminds us in a new review of that atrocious diatribe against evolutionary theory, Expelled, some people are still on the wrong book. My favorite caption from said post: "Are you there, Darwin? (Its me, Ben.)"

In fact, as Andrew at The Evolving Mind points out, there's a whole AOL network full of these folks. Keep trying people, you'll find the true nature of reality eventually, right? Right??

Or perhaps they will find a truth that is not ours. A real truth in which a giant cuttlefish lies behind the mysteries of life, surrounding them with slimy tentacular truthpendages. Though I doubt anyone but the Digital Cuttlefish could ever find such truth.

No Intelligence Allowed

No Intelligence Allowed

Ah well, at least we still have groups such as the folks over at Portland State affirming the last 150 years of truth for us, via the ALWAYS entertaining Peter Buckland over at Forms Most Beautiful. As an aside, I love Peter's blog name, for it comes from one of the most wonderful quotes from our illustrious 19th century hero. In fact, it is the concluding sentence of the entire Origin of Species:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

So why should we care that some have not found that unifying theme of all life on the planet, present and past? Why does evolution even matter?

Well, for one, as an excellent biology teacher over at FYI: Science! reminds us (in the first of a multi-part series on why evolution matters), evolution is the reason you should all stop buying all those antibacterial soaps and stop taking antibiotics for a viral infection. She also lets us not forget that without the wonders of evolution, we would never have survived the nineties without our favorite paleontologist, Ross, from Friends.

Observations of a Nerds Sci-Fi Parasites

Observations of a Nerd's "Sci-Fi Parasites"

Without evolution, could we really expect to have things such as a parasite that causes the loss of a fish's tongue, promptly replacing said tongue with itself? This wondrous science-fiction parasite (only one example in a series of such beautiful monstrosities at Observations of a Nerd) makes Douglas Adams' Babel Fish seem downright plausible.

Without a thorough understanding of evolution, one might be tempted to rationalize gender inequalities in human society using only partially understood naturalistic worldviews. Luckily, evolution has produced a perfect antidote to this way of thinking in the form of the masterful writer, Greg Laden of Greg Laden's Blog.

There is also personal power to be gained in understanding nature and its evolutionary history. To quote Asmoday of The Asmoday Experiment in an hilarious and entertaining post on our primate nature

You can become incredibly powerful by watching monkies.

Yes, I am dead serious here.

Austroraptor cabazai

Austroraptor cabazai

Ahh, but lest I give our non-biologist readers the wrong impression, I must note that not a day passes in which some new startling, fascinating, bewildering, strange, or subtle new piece of our planet's evolutionary history does not reveal itself to empirical eyes. And in this month's edition we have a plethora of newly published studies unraveled for us by none other than GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life. From the convergent evolution of the Hawai'ian Honeyeaters, the evolution of yawning as a thermoregulatory mechanism, and the discovery of a new Argentinian carnivorous dinosaur to the origins of modern birds, GrrlScientist lays the glory of the data out for us all to see, and most importantly, understand.

Taking a deeper view and delving into the molecular origins of the origins themselves, Hoxful Monsters brings us an excellent review of the importance of the ParaHox genes, paralogous to the familiar Hox cluster. In a related post, he brings us details of a recent study that places the Hox-lacking ctenophores, the beautiful creatures of the sea, as the most primitive of animal groups.

Yet these findings are all mere glimpses into the wonders of the fruits of natural selection.

What will we uncover next?

Find out in one month as the Carnival of Evolution #9 makes its appearance at Moneduloides. Use this handy form for submissions. We are seeking new hosts, so please volunteer if you have the will.

Please note, after discussion with several other bloggers at ScienceOnline09, including the Deep Sea News writer and hilarious musician Kevin Zelnio, the Carnival of Evolution will now be published on a monthly basis instead of biweekly. This is to both increase the quality of the carnival and to increase the number of entries in each edition. The conference was reinvigorating to say the least and I am committed to making sure this Carnival remains successful.

*UPDATE* 1/30/09 - After I published this, I found that blogcarnival.com had backlogged a whole other set of submissions (quite alot actually) for edition #9 (the one after this). If your post is one of these I am SO sorry. They were not included because I did not know they existed! I will set up another edition devoted to this full set of links ASAP. This is actually pretty exciting because it means we have ALOT more submissions than I thought!  Woo hoo!

*UPDATE* 2/3/09 - PART TWO of this edition is now posted here: Carnival of Evolution #8 (Part Two).

21Jan/09Off

Top 6 Search Engine Queries Leading Here

In the past month... (top 6 in entertainment value)

"im a man in panties"
"Sarah Palin is a idoit"
"end of human race dna replication"
"truckpulling black widow"
"preparing for world war iii"
"i'm not even sure we exist same level of consciousness"

I have no idea how most of those came to me.

Really...

20Jan/09Off

Adaptation of the Week – Timber Rattlesnake Camouflage

Image by John White

Image by John White

I've decided to start a weekly series highlighting interesting, strange, or just plain cool evolutionary adaptations. If any of you have suggestions for adaptations that you find particularly interesting, I would be happy to include them.

I'm gonna start off with a species that is dear to my heart, the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Back in my college days, before moving on to molecular and developmental biology, I was an HHMI undergraduate fellow privileged to spend a summer working under Dr. Steven Beaupre radio-tracking timber rattlesnakes in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas.

During the summer, I had about a dozen snakes "assigned" to me. These snakes lived in a large expanse of fairly remote wilderness and it was my job to find each of them on every other day using radio-telemetry, after which I would record a bunch of data on them. One of the most interesting things about the Timber Rattlesnake I learned is that they have largely de-evolved their need or use of their rattle. Granted, this is not really true and most herpetologists and evolutionary biologists would rightly throw a fit for me phrasing it as such; I am using the term de-evolve very loosely. If you pick up one of these snakes and throw it in a bucket (to take it to the lab for example), they will most certainly rattle as if the world is coming to an end.

Watch your step!

Watch your step!

Nevertheless, in the wild these snakes are incredibly loathe to make any noise whatsoever, which is quite different from my experiences with diamondbacks in Texas. Diamondbacks that I have found typically want you to know immediately that you are getting close and should get the Hell back. However, I routinely tracked these Timbers and would sit a mere 5-6 feet away from them while taking down their info. By and large, they were content to stare at me tasting my air. The few times they felt threatened, they simply unraveled themselves and slithered away. In fact, in one of the most frightening events of my life (shortened version of the story here), a particular snake's signal bounced strangely leading me to accidentally kick it. Not only did it not strike me (which would have certainly lead to my death under the circumstances), it never rattled. It simply stood erect on its coil, feinting, and doing a great job of looking incredibly terrifying (in response to which my lungs released a bloody-murder scream that I don't believe I can ever replicate).

Can you hear me now?  Good.

"Can you hear me now? Good."

The point of all this is that the Timber has taken a different route to self-defense: near-perfect camouflage. More often than not, I would track a snake and know that I was standing withing 10 feet of it yet spend an extra fifteen minutes just trying to see it, even though it was often coiled among the leaves in the open.  Many people in the Ozark Mountains can live their entire lives living among Timbers and yet never actually see one in the wild.

Obviously the animal kingdom is filled with myriad examples of camouflage even more amazing than the relatively simple colorations of the Timber Rattlesnake. However, I find the example of the Timber interesting largely because of the public perception of how a rattlesnake should behave (this includes their mild disposition as well as their camouflage).

19Jan/09Off

ScienceOnline09 – Warm, Fuzzy Feelings

Well, it’s official: Science Online ’09 is sadly over.

I don’t even know where to begin in summarizing this truly wonderful, enlightening, and inspiring experience. For those of you who are unaware of Science Online ’09 (at Sigma Xi in Research Triangle Park, NC), it is an annual conference (an “unconference”) devoted to the world of science blogging, writing, education, outreach, and general science enthusiasm.

Many rundowns of the conference’s events, including live-blogging of the conference, have already been written. And of course, Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock is collecting a compendium of conference related posts. Here, I thought I would just give some reflections of a few things that I personally got out of the conference.

BORA!!

BORA!!

First and foremost, let me just say what an amazing job Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic, David Kroll, and all the other organizers have done in making this conference feel like a reunion of friends and family. I had never met any of the other participants in person, though I had chatted with several of them online. However, from day one it felt almost as if I were coming home. I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but one thing I’ve found in living the lab rat’s life in rural North Carolina is that it can be quite hard to find people simultaneously interested in basic science research AND in the passionate outreach and education performed by science bloggers (though I now know that you’re out there). Yet at Science Online ’09, what I saw was a community of people like me: people that love science in all it’s forms and fields, people who spend their free time outside of their day jobs talking and thinking about the most fascinating aspects of reality as seen through the empirical lens, people who LOVE their internets, their gadgets, their widgets, their feeds and aggregators, and most of all their ART (and not just the “fine” kind like that of Glendon Mellow of The Flying Trilobite).

Needless to say, it was one of the most reinvigorating and motivating conferences I’ve been to. Hopefully this newfound motivation will be apparent in the coming weeks here on this blog.

I love dinos

I love dinos

On day 1, I was privileged enough (largely due to the fact that I am local and was willing to be chauffeur) to experience a behind the scenes tour of the entire NC Museum of Natural Sciences, led by the intelligent and humorous Exhibit Director, Roy Campbell. Having lived in the Triangle area for eight years, I’ve visited the museum many times. It’s easily one of my favorite places in North Carolina. Never, however, had I been allowed to see the basements and backrooms, including the paleontology lab and collections. Ever since I was about 6 years old, I have been a fossil collector and paleontology enthusiast, which made the paleo lab all the more exciting for me. Two guys were inside meticulously scraping red rock away from various fossils. The picture below shows a rock 2-3 feet long encasing a creature that my brain had never before even imagined might exist: a bipedal crocodile. That’s right – as if modern crocs weren’t cool enough – there used to be little crocs walking around on two legs. I’m not even sure how to picture it – the best I can do is imagine a therapod (like a velociraptor) with a croc head. The craziest thing was that this guy had spent a year to isolate the bones in the image, and he guessed that it would take another year to finish. Talk about devotion and patience!

bipedal crocodile - that just sounds wrong!

bipedal crocodile - that just sounds wrong!

As for the conference itself, what I took most from all of the discussions was simple inspiration to devote more time to maintaining this blog (and to reinvigorating the Carnival of Evolution). It was just so amazing to feel like a part of a true community trying to make a difference by educating and exciting the world.

As someone trying hard to break into becoming a full-time lecturer/professor at the college level, I found myself constantly hearing the discussions through the ears of a teacher. There are so many ways now to use the internet and blogging as a tool inside and outside the classroom. Of course, there was no more readily apparent example of this than the discussion moderated/hosted by the show-stoppers of the conference: MissBaker’s class, a group of “Extreme Biology” high school students. These kids were not just smart biology students. They were brilliant! And I will most certainly be studying MissBaker’s use of blogs to facilitate learning.

Some of MissBaker's students in the paleo lab of the museum.

Some of MissBaker's students in the paleo lab of the museum.

Much of what I personally gained from the conference came from discussions during lunch / dinner / drinking at the bar. I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Kevin Zelnio (Deep Sea News), Andrew Thaler (Southern Fried Scientist), Karen James (Data Not Shown and The Beagle Project), Miriam Goldstein (The Oyster's Garter), Mark Powell (Blogfish, Carnival of the Blue), Jason Robertshaw (Cephalopodcast) and Mike (10,000 Birds, I and the Bird). Mike mentioned a story of a recent project he and others had undertaken to fund a man in Africa to document a specific bird. After they successfully raised money for a laptop and other equipment, the man was apparently made tribal elder of his village (note I am pulling this from memory – I plan to get full details soon). So why do I find this story so interesting and useful? I recently taught “Topics in General Biology” for freshman non-majors. In this class we spend some time talking about various conservation efforts and the fact that many of the problems with conservation involve issues with providing poor local people in areas of high biodiversity with incentives to preserve their own wildlife and habitats. In areas such as Africa and South America, there is often no incentive to preserving habitat when this land can be used (for a short while) for agriculture and the like. Thus, an immediate goal for conservationists should be to find positive reinforcements and incentives for local peoples to conserve their own natural habitats.

Kevin Zelnio and Andrew Thaler

Kevin Zelnio and Andrew Thaler in between singing sea shanties

Thanks to Mike, I now have an excellent real-world story involving a) people like you and me contributing small sums of money using b) the internet and science blogging to provide at least one man with an increased ability to c) document and spread awareness of his local wildlife and, perhaps through his new found elevated position in his community, d) spread the word about the potential positive outcomes of protecting the tribe’s environment.

Like I said, I am not personally familiar with the details of this story but I plan to put this together into a usable case study (hopefully including images if possible), since Mike has promised to provide the info. I know that there are similar projects occurring, but this one seems particularly poignant and relevant to the specific ways in which I taught my class.

As an aside, I am always looking out for interesting little biological trivia that might benefit particular subjects in the classroom. An always entertaining discussion regards that of sexual selection, which of course is filled with a myriad wacky examples throughout the animal kingdom. Thanks to Miriam, Andrew, and beer, I now have a new example that was heretofore unknown to me: a shrimp flatworm in which the females use dueling penises to get the mate. Again, this info is pulled from my then Newcastle-laden memory, so I might have the details wrong, but I fully expect Miriam to provide me with the full scoop (or anyone else who wishes to enlighten me below). There is nothing that piques the interest of non-major biology students like an entertaining story involving animal sex and strange genitalia.

In essence, it’s the new and hopefully long-lasting relationships and connections garnered from the conference for which I’m most grateful. I find it difficult to find people who share so many of my passions (that’s what I get for living in the woods), and I can’t express enough how reinforcing to my energy it’s been to hang out with so many like-minded individuals.

Thank you all (and feel free to leave a “hi” below – I’m terrible with names).

For more images from the conference: mine are HERE and others' are HERE.

1Jan/09Off

Carnival of Evolution #8 – Update

One thing natural selection is powerless against is selecting for or against anything in an organism post-reproduction. Hence, our bodies are fairly impotent when it comes to fighting cancer (with many exceptions, of course). The mechanisms of evolution are simply blind to most cancers.

It is for this reason that I must delay today's edition of the Carnival of Evolution. My grandfather "Papaw" finally and thankfully ended a long fight with lung cancer thirty minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve. He had just received word that day that the cancer had spread pretty much all over and the prospects for '09 were not looking particularly pleasant.

So, in perfect characteristic fashion, Papaw proceeded to thumb his nose at the potential of an agonizing death by having a heart attack that very day.

He will be missed by many.

The next edition, which was due to be published today, will be published as soon as I return from the funeral next week. Much apologies to all contributors. Rest assured - you will all be included.