Monday, July 27, 2015

Y'all Tawk Funny, Doncha Know

All of our struggles for dialectal conformity (admit it, even you have tried to talk like the cool kids at times) have come from the fact that we learn language through both vertical and horizontal transmission (and no, I’m not talking about the way STDs are spread). We learn language both from our parents (vertical transmission) and our peers (horizontal transmission). We now suspect that orcas (also called killer whales) do too.

Photo by Olga Filatova.
Today I am revisiting my thoughts on dialects, learning languages, and orcas from an article I wrote in the early days of The Scorpion and the Frog. You can read the article in it's entirety here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

How We Know the Colors of Prehistoric Animals

Image from Vinther's 2015 paper in Bioessays.
Through their studies of bones, fossils, and geology, paleontologists have uncovered the prehistoric worlds of Earth's past. We watch movies and TV shows of computer generated versions of long-extinct dinosaurs, fish, birds, and even mammals and it seems obvious how we know about the sizes and shapes of these animals...but how do we know what their colors were like? A new scientific field is emerging, called paleocolor (or palaeo colour, if you're British), in which scientists use fossils, chemistry, cellular biology and comparative biology to reconstruct the color patterns and related behaviors of animals long since passed.

Today at Accumulating Glitches, I discuss the major findings of paleocolor and how we know what colors the dinosaurs and other long-extinct animals actually were. Check out the full article here.

Further reading:

Vinther, J. A guide to the field of palaeo colour, Bioessays, 37, 643-656 (2015). DOI: 10.1002/bies.201500018.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Caught in My Web: Online Animal Behavior Resources

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia.
I often receive questions from readers on how to find out more about a particular topic: How do baboon troops make decisions? Do other species have slaves? Where can I learn more about how hormones affect behavior? In addition to this site, there are many online resources out there to learn more about animal behavior. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. The Conversation is one of my all-time favorite news and information sources. It is a news website with articles on practically every topic that are written by the academic experts that study them. They have a team of editors to help with the journalistic process and writing, resulting in articles that are fascinating, understandable and incredibly informed and accurate. The Conversation launched originally in Australia in 2011. It has since launched regional versions in the UK in 2013, in the US in 2014, and in Africa in 2015. You can search by topic, and their animal behavior articles can be found here.

2. The Nature Education Knowledge Project has a number of articles covering a wide range of topics in animal behavior at basic, intermediate and advanced levels. The Nature Education Knowledge Project was a project by Scitable, a free online teaching/learning source that has high quality educational articles, videos, blogs and other resources in the sciences. Scitable is produced by the Nature Publishing Group (which also publishes journals and magazines such as Nature and Scientific American).

3. Alberto Redondo Villa from University of Córdoba in Spain has a fantastic web-TV channel on animal behavior. Check it out here.

4. Isabella Rossellini, Italian model, actress and filmmaker, has several incredible series of short (1-5 minute) videos on animal sexual behavior in which she plays a different species in each video. The original, called Green Porno, was followed by Seduce Me and Mammas. If you haven't seen it yet, it is a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon. Here is one on earthworm sex:

5. If you are interested in taking a free college-level course on the topic, The University of Melbourne offers an animal behavior course (called “Animal Behaviour”, because they’re Australian) at Coursera. Learn more about the course and the next available dates here.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Song Battles With Other Species Can Change Your Tune

Many animals defend territories from members of their own species for mating, breeding, and finding food and they often use species-specific vocalizations to do this. Defending a territory can be risky and costly in both energy and time, so even territorial animals generally don’t waste this effort on other species that do not share their same food and breeding needs. But what do you do if you live around another very similar species that has the same needs that you do? Can two species learn to speak each other’s languages to live in territorial harmony?

A common nightingale.
Photo by Frebeck at Wikimedia Commons.
A thrush nightingale.
Photo by Locaguapa at Wikimedia Commons.
Today at Accumulating Glitches, I tell the story of two species of nightingales and how they are learning to sing each other's songs to defend their territories! Check out the article here.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Loony Locomotion (A Guest Post)

By Emma Doden

For those of us who have worn fins while snorkeling or swimming before, we know how much faster you are able to cut through the water with them on your feet. But as soon as you try to walk on land with those big flippers on, that grace and speed turns into awkward and ungainly steps. You have to concentrate very hard on not falling flat on your face and find yourself thinking that your own two small feet are much more convenient for walking on land than the flippers.

The common loon in flight. Notice how far back on the body its feet are placed!
Photo by Ano Lobb from Wikimedia Commons.
The common loon is a familiar flipper-footed bird for those of us residing in the Northern Midwest. Found on many lakes in the North Woods from late March to September, their black and white plumage, ruby red eyes, and haunting calls make them unforgettable. However, just like any other waterbird, as soon as they come onto land, all of their beauty and poise vanish. Loons do not have the luxury of removing their flippers when they come onto land. Instead they flip and flop clumsily on their bellies, probably feeling just as frustrated as any person frog-stepping with flippers on.

So why do loons have so much trouble walking on land?

Because most of their lives are spent in water, the common loon’s legs and feet are located extremely far back on their bodies, allowing them to swim and dive more efficiently. Loons don’t use their wings to aid in propulsion while underwater, so they need all the power they can get from their legs and feet to catch tasty fish.

The placement of their legs means that they must slide on their belly while on land. Their legs can’t support the weight of their body and so they instead use them to push off of the ground and slide forward. The only time you will find a loon on land is for mating or nesting. Common loons will build their nests on the shore, usually no more than 5 meters from the water, because it takes a lot of effort to belly flop even that short distance!

Watch the video below to see how comical a loon looks when stranded on land:

Though loons are strong fliers as well as divers, coming in for a landing can also be challenging. Their legs are too far back to thrust forward and use as landing gear, so they stick them straight back and make a splash-landing on their bellies, penguin style!

But what makes their legs and flippers so good for swimming and diving?

Common loons propel themselves through the water with sideways strokes of their legs and feet, similar to oars on a boat. Diving birds have leg bones with a long spike-like extension at the knee where very strong muscles connect. This part of their leg acts like a lever when a loon paddles, allowing the leg and foot to be powerfully propelled through the water. Each foot is fairly large with webbing between each toe. When a loon paddles through the water, the webbing fans out and the foot rotates slightly in relation to the body on the downstroke, allowing the maximum surface area to push off of the water. On the upstroke the toes will compress together and the webbing will bunch up so that there is minimal resistance cutting through the water. The motion of the foot splaying out and compressing in with each stroke creates an efficient mode of transportation for the water-loving loon. With legs and feet like these, they are able zoom through the water as fast as fish and dive up to 200 feet!

Loons rarely come onto land, and so it is not often that you will find one of these majestic creatures floundering through the mud of a lakeshore. You are much more likely to see them gliding effortlessly across a lake, until they disappear below the surface. Then you can imagine them easily hunting fish using their powerful legs and feet to propel them while diving. Even more so than wearing flippers to help you swim, just think how much faster you could be in the water with the streamlined body and strong legs and feet of a common loon!

To learn more about common loons and their flipper-foot conundrums visit these websites:

Piper, Walter. The Loon Project.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2011. Common Loon, Life History. All About Birds.

Evers, David C., James D. Paruk, Judith W. Mcintyre and Jack F. Barr. 2010. Common Loon (Gavia immer), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; The Birds of North America Online.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 2014. Common loon (Gavia immer).

Shearwater Seabird Osteology. 2013. Divers/loons: Osteology.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Suicidal Sex

A brown antechinus. Males of this species mate like crazy
for two weeks, then die. Photo by Alan at Wikimedia.
Although most species breed repeatedly over their lifetimes, a select few invest everything they’ve got in a single reproductive bout, after which they keel over and die. This strategy, called semelparity, can be beneficial in species that can have many offspring at once and that are not likely to survive long enough for a second breeding attempt anyway. It is most commonly seen in plants, invertebrates and some fish. It is a rare strategy in mammals, in part because mammalian females do not have many offspring at once and they need to live long enough to care for their young after they are born, which dying early would obviously prevent. Despite this, there are over a dozen species of mammals of which all the males die after their one and only breeding season. How could this possibly be adaptive?

Today at Accumulating Glitches, I talk about how patterns of insect abundance and competitive sperm have pushed some mammals to mate themselves to death! Check out the article here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Loving to Death

The brown antechinus may look like a
mouse - but that is where the similarities
end. Photo by Glen Fergus at Wikimedia.
Although most animal species breed multiple times throughout their lives, a few oddballs put everything they've got into a single reproductive season, after which they promptly die. This is a rare strategy (for obvious reasons), especially in mammals. One Australian mammal, the brown antechinus, is just odd enough to pull it off.

The brown antechinus is a small insectivorous mouse-sized critter from Australia that in fact is not a mouse at all. It is a marsupial; but unlike kangaroos and koalas, females do not carry their young in a pouch, but rather let them hang off their eight teats for four months. All males die when they are 11 months old (if not sooner) after a single 2-3 week long mating season during which they do little else than mate as often as possible. The mating season leaves all the males (whether mated or not) sterile, coursing with stress hormones, immunosuppressed, and riddled with microorganisms and parasites. Shortly thereafter all the males die, balding and bleeding messes.

The reproductive strategy of putting everything you've got into a single mating season and then dying is only an advantage if you can have many offspring in that single reproductive event. Male brown antechinuses can only succeed in this suicidal mating strategy if they father many of the young of many of the females. As a result, both male and female brown antechinuses are promiscuous (mate with many individuals).

Male brown antechinuses are generally bigger than females, and DNA testing has shown us that in the wild, larger males and males with bigger testes impregnate the most females. Diana Fisher and Andrew Cockburn from Australian National University tested whether larger male brown antechinuses were more likely to get the girls because females were more likely to choose them or because they were outcompeting other males.

Diana and Andrew trapped brown antechinuses and brought them into the lab. In one test, they placed three males in separate nest boxes next to one another in an arena and allowed females to choose among them and mate with whichever one she chose. Surprisingly, when presented with this choice, females did not consistently choose the largest males. They didn't even check them all out - The females mated with whatever male happened to be in the first nest box she entered.

When the researchers put three males into a single nest box and allowed the females to mate, she almost always immediately mated with one of the three males. The next day, the researchers put the female in a nest box with either the two losers from the day before or with two randomly chosen males she did not know. On this second day, females presented with two strangers immediately mated with one male, whereas females presented with the two losers from the day before were more likely to spend more time evading both males, but often eventually mated with one of them. On the third day, the researchers put the female in a nest box with either the loser from the previous two days or with another randomly chosen stranger. Nine out of ten females paired with a stranger mated with him on this third day, whereas only one female paired with a double-loser was willing to mate with him at all. Males that successfully mated on the first day were generally the largest of the three. Loser males that mated on the second day were generally the second-largest and unsuccessful males were generally the smallest.

Interestingly, when given a choice of males one at a time, female brown antechinuses do not seem to care at all about male size. But when males are directly competing with one another, the largest male seems to get the girl. It appears that body size plays a role in the dominance interactions among the males, and that females are paying attention to how the males relate to one another. Additionally, larger males that were more successful in mating also lived longer and had fewer parasites. This could be because it is more stressful to be a loser than to be a winner. Stress increases the production of stress hormones, which in turn reduces immune function. In all of these ways, bigger males are more likely to father more young, who in turn will be more likely to grow up to be big males too... but not for long...

Want to know more? Check these out:

Fisher, D., & Cockburn, A. (2005). The large-male advantage in brown antechinuses: female choice, male dominance, and delayed male death Behavioral Ecology, 17 (2), 164-171 DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arj012

Doing it to death: suicidal sex in "marsupial mice" at The Conversation

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hiatus for Health

Hi folks,

Due to some recovery time needed for an emergency surgery, I will be on a brief hiatus from The Scorpion and the Frog. But don't go too far - I expect to be back on my feet (or at least back to my computer) in about four weeks.

Miss Behavior

Monday, April 20, 2015

Living to Love or Loving to Death?

Biologically speaking, animals are the most successful when they have the most descendents. Because reproduction is such a major focus of animal life, we invest a lot in it and take a lot of risks for it. During breeding phases, animals often forgo eating or sleeping well, risk getting in fights, expose themselves to predators, and spend lots of energy on finding potential mates and courting them. Because many specific costs and risks an animal must face to reproduce are particular to the species, many reproductive strategies have emerged as a result.

One major division in reproductive strategies is iteroparity versus semelparity. An iteroparous species is one that can have multiple reproductive cycles in its lifetime. They include all birds, almost all mammals, most reptiles, fish and molluscs, and many insects. A semelparous species is one that has a single reproductive period and then dies. Semelparous animal species include many insects (such as cicadas and mayflies), some moluscs (including some octopus), and several fish (including Pacific salmon). Only a handful of species of amphibians, reptiles and mammals are semelparous.

A silvereye mother feeds her clutch of chicks. She will have another one next year.
Photo by Benjamint444 at Wikimedia Commons.

The advantages to being an iteroparous species seem obvious (we are one, after all). For one thing, losing your virginity isn't a death sentence. This means that if we are not very good at finding or courting a mate, sex, or parenting the first time around, we get more opportunities to improve. It means that if the conditions are crappy in one breeding season, another season will come around later. And it means that with every breeding season that you have offspring, your individual "success" improves.

Pacific salmon spawn their one and only time. Photo by Steve Hillebrand at
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, available at Wikimedia Commons.

The advantages to being a semelparous species are less obvious. What possible advantages can there be to dying after your first breeding season? But if we think about the "success" of an animal being how many successfully reproducing offspring it has, and not how long it lives, this strategy starts to make sense. A semelparous animal can put everything it's got into its one reproductive event. There is no point in holding back if you're never going to get another shot. As a result, semelparous species usually produce more offspring in their one reproductive event than iteroparous species do in any of theirs.

Several theoretical models have emerged to predict under which circumstances a species would use an iteroparous strategy versus a semelparous strategy. It would make sense that species that have a greater risk of dying early would benefit more from a semelparous strategy. Species in which each additional offspring is less costly to produce and care for than the previous offspring would seem to benefit from an iteroparous strategy. However, strangely enough, the data we have on animal reproductive strategies do not clearly show these patterns.

We still have a lot to learn about these reproductive strategies and the complexities of what makes a species live to keep on loving or love to their death.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Help Protect African Rhinos! (A Guest Post)

by Celia Hein

South Africa is a hotspot for rhino poaching, which is at an all-time high. Rhinos are critically endangered, and in South Africa alone, 1,215 were killed in 2014, which is one dead every 8 hours. South Africa is home to about 70% of the world’s remaining rhinos, and poaching has turned into a highly organized crime syndicate. In many cases, poachers use high-powered rifles, helicopters, and chainsaws. Many of them have had previous military training, and they’re turning our planet’s few precious wildlands into warzones. The park I visited is next on their list.

My name is Celia Hein, and I am studying Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point (UWSP). Earlier this year, professors and faculty from UWSP and Rhodes University, South Africa led an amazing group of wildlife ecology students (including me!) on a South African Wildlife Ecology course to study in the field and collect data for research in national parks. During this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, we were lucky enough to spend over a week living in one of these parks.

The park is over 45,000 hectares in area (450 square km or 174 square miles) and houses one of the world’s largest remaining populations of black rhinos. We spent several days with the park manager, who shall remain anonymous for privacy reasons, and discovered that at the park they have to maintain their field equipment, fencing, and pay their dedicated staff of over 100 members with an annual budget of only about 10,000 US dollars! The poachers are better equipped than the park rangers. These brave park rangers are undermanned and outgunned, yet all these professionals we met were so passionate, dedicated, and hopeful. I admire their courage. Many work 10+ hour days in the field, risking their lives, and many of them do not have essential gear like binoculars, flashlights, headlamps, or digital cameras. Many of them do not even have proper boots, let alone a firearm to protect themselves and their rhinos, which are predicted to disappear from our world in about 10 years.

Notice there are no rhinos in this photo of the park. Hacking GPS coordinates
from photos is the #1 way poachers find rhinos. Photo by Celia Hein.
We are doing a used equipment drive and an online fundraiser to supply the rangers of the park. We'll take anything! Flashlights, headlamps, binoculars, sunglasses, hats, GPS, cameras, old backpacks, camping gear, etc. If you want to donate equipment, you can mail it to:

Susan Schuller
403 LRC, WCEE, UW-Stevens Point
Stevens Point, WI 54481

And if you would like to donate money, go here. Please donate to help improve security to protect our rhinos, rangers, and wildlands. 100% of your donation will go directly to this park! And please share on Facebook or email to help spread the word.

Thank you so much!