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

Monday, August 7, 2017

Drinking Beer Makes You More Attractive… To Mosquitoes

Summer is a time of backyard bar-b-ques, camping, baseball games, beer, and mosquitoes. Ugh, mosquitoes! Have you ever noticed that when a bunch of us are hanging out together outside, some of us get eaten alive by those pesky buggers while others are hardly touched at all? It turns out, differences in how much alcohol we have imbibed may be a factor.

An Anopheles gambiae mosquito ready for a meal. Photo by James D. Gathany
at the Public Health Image Library at Wikimedia Commons.

“No! Say it ain’t so!”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, so I’ll let the scientific evidence speak for itself.

A research team from the French Research Institute for Development, including Thierry Lefèvre, Louis-Clément Gouagna, Eric Elguero, Didier Fontenille, François Renaud, Carlo Costantini, and Frédéric Thomas, and Kounbobr Roch Dabiré, from the Institute for Research in Health Sciences in Burkina Faso set out to test whether people were more attractive to female mosquitoes after drinking a beer compared to beforehand. They only tested females because only female mosquitoes bite, requiring extra protein for their eggs.

The researchers put groups of 50 hungry female mosquitoes into the end of a special Y-shaped maze that let them fly in the direction of one of two odors. At the end of one arm of the Y-maze was a fan, simply blowing outdoor air through a tent and into the apparatus. At the other end of the Y-maze was a fan blowing air through a tent past a shirtless man and into the apparatus. This shirtless man had either not had anything to drink recently, or had recently drunk either a liter of beer or a liter of water. Between the starting chamber and both ends of the arms of the Y-maze were traps that would capture mosquitoes that had chosen to head that direction (lucky for the shirtless men). The number of mosquitoes caught in both traps combined (compared to the total of 50 that was initially released) was called mosquito activation, and reflected how many mosquitoes were motivated to take off and fly upwind. The proportion of mosquitoes caught in the volunteer-bated trap compared to those caught in both traps combined was called mosquito orientation, and reflected the attractiveness of the volunteer’s odor compared to the control odor.

Image A shows the two tents: one in which the man-bait sat (having consumed beer or water), and the other with no one in it. Air from each tent blew threw a tube (seen in picture B) and then into the building, past the traps and into the downwind box, where the mosquito starting-line was located (seen in picture C). Photos from Lefèvre et al., 2010.

The mosquitoes significantly increased both activation and orientation in response to the beer-drinking volunteers, but not in response to the water-drinking volunteers. That is to say, that the smell of someone that has had a beer motivates more mosquitoes to actively pursue them, and makes them more of a focused target of the mosquitoes. The researchers believe there is an interaction between how our bodies naturally smell and how our bodies break down beer that increases the attractiveness of our odors to mosquitoes. People that were more attractive to mosquitoes before they drank were also more attractive to mosquitoes after they drank. But interestingly, people that were warmer or gave off more CO2 were not more attractive to mosquitoes.

You should know that this research is much more important than just being a drag on your summer bar-b-que. The particular mosquito species that these researchers studied was Anopheles gambiae, the primary vector for malaria in Africa. They did this study in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa with a high rate of malaria, using a local beer called dolo. Dolo, a fermented sorghum beer with low (3%) alcohol content, is the most common alcoholic beverage in Burkina Faso. So if you are in a place with a high rate of malaria, knowing that you should take extra precautions against mosquitoes when you drink could be a life-saver.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Lefèvre, T., Gouagna, L.C., Dabiré, K.R., Elguero, E., Fontenille, D., Renaud, F., Costantini, C. and Thomas, F. (2010). Beer consumption increases human attractiveness to malaria mosquitoes. PloS one, 5(3), e9546.

Monday, July 31, 2017

How Some Unique Animals Beat the Heat

Man, is it hot out there! While I tuck away in my cool, air-conditioned office, I think about those incredible animals that beat the heat with their own bodies and strategies. It turns out, there are only four major ways to exchange heat with your environment: conduction, convection, radiation and evaporation. The animals that are best equipped for a hot summer are those that take creative advantage of these mechanisms of heat transfer.

"My, what big ears you have!"
"The better to thermoregulate with, my dear!"
Photo by Bernard DUPONT at Wikimedia Commons.
We all exchange heat with our environment wherever our body comes in contact with the environment, namely, across our skin. Animals can increase the rate of this heat-exchange by having a larger surface area relative to the volume of their heat-containing bodies. Big, round animals have a particularly hard time dispersing excess heat, because they have a lot of heat stored in their big bodies, and proportionally not much surface area for the heat to leave from. You may think elephants have such big ears for hearing, but the truth is that they are major temperature-regulation organs. Big, flat body structures provide that added surface area for excess heat to dissipate from. Elephants have large ears with lots of large blood vessels, so they can pump hot blood from the body out to the ears, where they are closer to the cooler environment to dissipate by conduction and convection. The cooler blood then returns to the body core to cool it down.

Built for a life in the cool underground.
Photo by Ted M Townsend at Wikimedia Commons.
Reptiles use a different approach to take advantage of principles of conduction and convection, by burrowing. Burrows create a layer of insulation (usually soil and plant matter) that slows heat exchange and keeps the area below ground a more constant temperature. This means that, compared to the outside, burrows remain cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Many reptiles go into their summer burrow in the heat of day and emerge during cooler times of day. Blind lizards, however, take this burrowing idea to an extreme. Blind lizards are a family of legless lizards found in tropical forests. They are small, skinny, and have narrow heads, which make them look more like an earthworm than a lizard, but it also gives them great burrowing efficiency to stay underground and avoid the heat.

A dragonfly exposing as little of his body to the sun
as possible. Photo by Raphael Carter at Wikimedia Commons.
On a hot summer day, we all seek out the shade. This is to reduce the heat we absorb through radiation, and most of this radiation comes from the sun. But what do you do if you can’t find shade? Some dragonflies and damselflies raise their abdomens to aim their rear-ends towards the sun so they can shield themselves from the full-on intensity of the sun’s rays. This body position is called the obelisk posture, because when the sun is directly overhead, the insect’s handstand looks like an obelisk.

Really? Crapping on my own feet?
There has GOT to be a better way.
Photo by Rob Schoenmaker at Wikimedia Commons.
Evaporation is the most efficient way to dissipate heat. Some animals swim, some animals sweat, some animals pant, but vultures and storks win the cooling efficiency award. Vultures and storks. . . poop on their own legs and feet. With this approach, called urohydrosis, the animal releases a mixture of urine and poop through their single excretory hole, called a cloaca, onto their legs and feet. The subsequent evaporation from the high surface area of their long legs helps them to cool off.

So what can we learn from these heat-beating experts (without pooping on ourselves)? If you are hot, spread your body out, stay in the shade, and wet an area of your body with high surface area and exposed blood vessels (namely, your inner wrists and forearms). I’d use water though.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Where the Wild Things Are: Amazing Animal Watching Vacations

A modified repost of an original article from May, 2012.

School is winding down, the weather is beautiful and it is time to start thinking about summer vacation! Do you love watching and learning about animals? Then consider one (or more) of these animal watching vacations:


Go to a zoo:

Get a great view of a Siberian tiger at the Toronto Zoo.
Photo by Ber Zophus at Wikimedia.
Zoos allow you to explore the world in a single day: Meandering paths lead you past animals from across the globe. Lions, and tigers and bears, Oh my! But don’t forget the primates, reptiles, birds, and sea mammals. No matter what your animal fancy, you can likely see it at the zoo. Walk through the zoo reading the posted information on each species. Or sit at your favorite exhibit and focus on a single animal. Participate in an educational activity like touching and feeding animals with their keepers, a course, or even a sleepover. And while you are there, learn about how the zoo contributes to animal well-being: Many zoos provide research opportunities to study animal behavior and health (such as the friendship study in crested macaques), support captive breeding programs to restore threatened wild populations, rehabilitate injured or abandoned wild animals, and support habitat conservation.

If you have a local zoo, see what it has to offer. And if you like to travel, consider the San Diego Zoo, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, the Singapore Zoo, the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, or the Toronto Zoo. All of these zoos are well-respected institutions that promote animal conservation and have fantastic educational programs.

Learn more about some of these zoos here.


Go to an aquarium:

Interact with dolphins at the National Aquarium.
Photo by the National Aquarium at Wikimedia.
Aquaria are places of wonder and tranquility. Learn about teleost fish, sharks, rays, crustaceans, octopuses, jellyfish, coral, and many more species that inhabit our oceans, lakes, and rivers. Relax while watching the graceful movements of sea animals and marvel at the agility of apex predators at feeding time. Learn about the many aquatic habitats our planet supports and the amazing diversity of the animals that live in them. Like zoos, aquaria provide research opportunities (such as the individual recognition study in octopuses), support conservation, and have fun educational programs and activities.

If you get a chance, you may want to check out the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Georgia Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Aquarium of Western Australia (AQWA) in Perth or L’Oceanogràfic in Valencia, Spain.


Learn more about some of these aquariums here and here.



Take a wildlife tour:

See breathtaking animals in their natural habitat
from the security of your guide's vehicle.
Photo by Brian Snelson at Wikimedia.
If you want to see wild animals in their natural habitats, experienced guides can help you find animals that are often elusive while keeping you safe and preserving animal habitats. Guides can give detailed information about the animals you encounter and can often tell thrilling tales of their own personal experiences. Some even provide lunch.

Maybe your dream has always been to go on an African safari. Consider the Safari Serengeti trip in Tanzania by Overseas Adventure Travel, where you can see animals like Thomson’s gazelles, buffalo, and elephants. Or participate in a North American safari in Yellowstone National Park with Wolf & Bear Safaris by the Yellowstone Safari Company. If a Northwoods flavor suits you, check out Northwoods Outfitters Moose Wildlife Safari in Maine. Or take a Hawaiian vacation and go whale watching with Ultimate Whale Watch in Maui. For a scientific marine vacation, go on an Educational Shark Encounter trip with Fish Finder Adventures based in Ocean City, Maryland. Whatever your dream animal watching trip, a guide can help you bring it to life.


Go somewhere wild on your own:

Kayak by thousands of birds in the Everglades
(but don't forget your anti-bird-poop-hat).
Photo by Matt Magolan.
If you are an independently minded and experienced adventurer, the world is awaiting. And if you want to increase your chances of observing spectacular wild animals in nature, you should go somewhere that has a lot of spectacular wild animals… like Manuel Antonio Park in Costa Rica, where you can see four monkey species, two iguana species, two sloth species, coatis, toucans, vultures, parakeets, and hundreds of other species on a single hike. Or kayak in the Everglades National Park in Florida, where you can see crocodiles, dolphins, manatees and over 350 species of birds. Or SCUBA or snorkel the coral reefs of the Cayman Islands and feel like part of the community of coral, sponges, tropical fish, rays, sharks, and sea turtles.

Learn more about some of these trips here.


We share this world with countless amazing animals. Find your own way to experience, learn about and appreciate them. I’ll go into more detail on these vacations and others in future posts, so comment below and let us know what animal watching vacations you have done and what you are interested in doing in the future.

But for now, I will be going on my own vacation. Don't worry, there will be new The Scorpion and the Frog articles about animals in July!