Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Your Picks of 2012

This has been a wild first year for The Scorpion and the Frog. I have enjoyed sharing the world of animal physiology and behavior research with you. But even more, I have enjoyed hearing from you about your experiences, thoughts and perspectives.

I gathered data on page visits, comments, and social media attention for The Scorpion and the Frog posts and have determined your top five posts of the year. Here are Your Favorite The Scorpion and the Frog Posts of 2012 (in no particular order).

1. The “Love Hormone” Pageant pits six hormones against one another in a contest for the title of the “Love Hormone”. The "Love Hormone" of 2012 focuses on the big winner (as determined by reader votes), Dopamine!

2. Scientists put the philosophical question, “What Do Animals Think of Their Dead?” to the test. Their results may surprise you!

3. In Snakes Deceive to Get a Little Snuggle, we learn about boy snakes pretending to be sexy girl snakes, all in the hopes of a good cuddle.

4. Male nursery web spiders give silk-wrapped gifts to the girls that catch their eyes. But why waste a perfectly good present when a piece of junk in clever packaging will do? Sex, Lies and Spider Silk tells the story of these deceptive gift-givers.

5. Don’t Challenge a Fruit-Eating Bat to a Drinking Contest. Just don’t. Here’s why.

Thank you for your support and participation over the year. Next year should be full of new wacky animal stories. (And if you’d like to see my 2012 picks for my favorite animal physiology and behavior blog posts at other sites, click here).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Not Fair! Even Dogs Know the Importance of Gift-Equity

Don't leave out your best friend when
gift-giving this holiday season!
Photo by Ohsaywhat at Wikimedia.
When I was a child, I think one of the things that stressed my mom out most about the holidays was making sure that all of us kids got Christmas gifts worth the exact same amount. Why all the fuss? Because if the value of the gifts wasn’t equal, we were guaranteed to spend our holidays in a chorus of “Not fair!” cries rather than appreciating the holiday bounty and cheer around us.

As a species, we have a pretty developed sense of fairness. This sense of fairness is central to our ability to cooperate to achieve goals that are too difficult for one person to accomplish alone. But we’re not the only social species that cooperates… and it turns out, we’re not the only ones with a sense of fairness, either.

Domestic dogs and their wild relatives, like wolves and African wild dogs, are very social and have cooperative hunting, territory defense, and parental care. Friederike Range, Lisa Horn, Zsófia Viranyi, and Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna, Konrad Lorenz Institute, and Wolf Science Center, all in Austria, sought out to test whether domesticated dogs have a sense of fairness.

The researchers tested pairs of dogs who had lived together in the same household for at least a year. All of these dogs had been previously trained to give their paw on command, as if giving a handshake. Each pair of dogs was asked to sit in front of an experimenter (one dog was designated the “subject” and the other was the “partner”). In this position, the willingness of the subject dog to shake paws with the experimenter was tested under six different situations.

An experimenter asks two dog-buddies to each give her a paw and they wait
to see who gets rewarded. Photo from Range et al., PNAS, 2009.
In the basic situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, and both dogs were rewarded with a “low-value” reward (a piece of bread). This happened repeatedly and the researchers measured how many times the subject dogs would give their paw.

In another situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, but the subject dog was rewarded with a “low-value” reward (a piece of bread) while its buddy was rewarded with a “high-value” reward (a piece of sausage).

In a third situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, but only the partner dog was rewarded with a piece of bread (the subject dog got nothing).

In the fourth situation, only the subject dog was asked to give a paw, but both dogs were rewarded with a piece of bread.

In the fifth situation, the experimenter measured how many times the subject dog would give its paw for a piece of bread if his doggy-buddy wasn’t around.

In the last situation, the experimenter measured how many times the subject dog would give its paw for no reward if his doggy-buddy wasn’t around.

When both dogs received bread, they were happy to keep giving the experimenter their paw for as long as they were asked to. But when dogs saw their buddy get a piece of bread when they got nothing, they soon refused to give their paw to the experimenter (and started showing signs of stress). You may think this is just what happens when you stop rewarding a dog for doing what you ask, but something different was going on here. The dogs that never got a reward gave their paw to the experimenter for longer when their buddy wasn’t around than if their buddy was around and getting bread treats. Clearly, even dogs know that equal work for unequal pay is not fair.

But the doggy-sense-of-fairness is limited. As long as they got their bread when they gave their paw, they really didn’t seem to care (or notice) if their buddy got bread or sausage, or even whether their buddy had to perform the same trick or not.

So this holiday season, don’t forget to get a present for your four-legged friend so he doesn’t feel left out. But don’t worry about getting something expensive – He doesn’t care anyway. For him, it’s the gesture that counts.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Range F, Horn L, Viranyi Z, & Huber L (2009). The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (1), 340-5 PMID: 19064923

2. Range, F., Leitner, K., & Virányi, Z. (2012). The Influence of the Relationship and Motivation on Inequity Aversion in Dogs Social Justice Research, 25 (2), 170-194 DOI: 10.1007/s11211-012-0155-x

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Miss Behavior’s Picks of 2012

The "Best in Show" for 2012:
The Top 5 Animal Physiology
and Behavior Blog Posts of 2012.
Photo from
‘Tis the season for year-end lists. As we sift through lists of the most downloaded songs, most popular books, best movies, most interesting people, and most embarrassing moments of 2012, I would feel remiss if I did not contribute my own year-end list for the best animal physiology and behavior blog posts. There have been so many great blog posts across the interwebs this year, it was hard to choose. These are my picks for The Top 5 Animal Physiology and Behavior Blog Posts of 2012 (not including The Scorpion and the Frog posts, of course, and in no particular order).

1. Paternal care is rare in the animal kingdom. Males taking care of babies that aren’t even their own is exceptional. Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish talks about the strange case of a snail species in which males don’t just care for their own babies, but other snails’ babies too in Long-Suffering Snail Dads Carry Illegitimate Babies.

2. Jordan Gaines at Gaines, on Brains explains exactly what happens to your cat when you give her that catnip-filled toy in Catnip Fever: Why Your Cat Acts High.

3. Chimpanzees don’t just use tools, but they carefully select them. Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal writes about how scientists discovered this chimpanzee decision-making process in For Chimps, Tool Choice Is A Weighty Matter.

4. Everything you have ever wanted to know about turtle penises (and much, much more) is brilliantly explained in Tetrapod Zoology by Darren Naish at Terrifying Sex Organs of Male Turtles.

5. In Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong explains how fairy wrens know which babies are theirs in Fairy Wrens Teach Secret Passwords to Their Unborn Chicks to Tell Them Apart From Cuckoo Impostors.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Scientist Swagger

Scientists have a bad rap when it comes to social skills. But I promise you, we’re not all like the guys in The Big Bang Theory (although some of us are). If you thought scientists ain’t got no game, guess again:

The Most Beautiful Girl in the Lab:

Look At Me Now:

Bright Scope / Long Lab Coat:

Hmmm... Now that I look at it, maybe biologists are the exception to the swaggerless-scientist phenomenon. (Biologists also won the Battle of the Grad Programs by the way). Beg to differ? Comment or vote for your favorite in the comments section below. And if you’ve got some science swagger, show it to the world: Make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future battle!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mr. Nanny Makes Mr. Right

Quick! Introduce yourself to this guy before
his baby-high wears off! Photo by David
Castillo Dominici at
What happens if you take a wrestler or action star and force him to babysit obnoxious but lovable kids? Well, if you’ve seen movies like The Pacifier with Vin Diesel, The Tooth Fairy with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarzenegger, or The Spy Next Door with Jackie Chan, you know that he will fall madly in love both with his young charges and with the closest available woman. Hollywood is so sure of this phenomenon that they have based a whole genre of family movies on it. Now, scientists are finding that Hollywood may be on to something.

Prairie voles are one of the only 3-5% of mammals that are monogamous and in which both parents help take care of young. In females, maternal care is regulated in part by the hormones associated with pregnancy, birth and lactation. The fact that males don’t do those things and they still provide paternal care is curious. The fact that male prairie voles will often provide care to offspring that aren’t even their own is even more curious.

Will Kenkel, Jim Paredes, Jason Yee, Hossein Pournajafi-Nazarloo, Karen Bales, and Sue Carter at the University of Illinois at Chicago recently explored what happens to male prairie voles when they are exposed to unfamiliar vole pups. Male voles without any experience with females or pups were placed in a new clean cage. Then the researchers put either a pup (that was not related to the male), a dowel rod (an unfamiliar object), or nothing into the cage with them for 10 minutes. Afterwards, they measured oxytocin (a hormone associated with bonding between mothers and their offspring) and corticosterone (a stress hormone) in the males’ blood at different time points. In another study, they also looked at the activity of brain neurons associated with the production of these hormones.

A male prairie vole is startled to find a baby in his cage...
But then he takes care of it. Video by Will Kenkel.

Both adult and juvenile males exposed to a pup for 10 minutes had higher oxytocin and lower corticosterone compared to the males not exposed to a pup. But this effect was short-lived, as male hormone levels quickly evened out again. Most of these males that were exposed to a pup showed alloparental care (care of a baby that is not their own), like approaching the pup, cuddling with it and grooming it. Males with higher oxytocin and lower corticosterone levels were more attentive towards the pups. Additionally, alloparental males exposed to pups had more activity of oxytocin-producing neurons and less activity of neurons associated with corticosterone-production in a specific brain region called the paraventricular nucleus (or PVN for short).

Oxytocin is strongly associated with pair bonding in prairie voles, particularly in females, and corticosterone affects pair bonding too (generally increasing pair bonding in males and preventing it in females). If exposure to a pup affects these hormones, maybe it affects how the male would interact with adult females. To test this, the researchers put male voles in a new clean cage and put a pup, a dowel rod, or nothing into the cage with them for 20 minutes. Then they put the males with an unfamiliar adult female for 30 minutes. After getting acquainted with the female, the males were put in a “partner preference apparatus”, which has three connected chambers: a neutral center chamber, a connected chamber with the familiar female tethered into it, and a connected chamber with an unfamiliar female tethered into it. The researchers measured how much time the males spent in each of the three chambers and with each of the two females over the next 3 hours.

A prairie vole pair snuggles. Photo from Young,
Gobrogge, Liu and Wang paper in
Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology (2011)
Males that were exposed to a dowel rod or to nothing before they were introduced to a female spent equal amounts of time with each of the two females. But males that were exposed to a pup before they were introduced to a female spent nearly 4 times as much time with that female than with the unfamiliar one. In other words, hanging out with a random pup acted like Love Potion #9 on these bachelor males and made them fall for the next female they encountered! Interestingly, this effect was true not only for the males that acted in an alloparental way towards the pups, but it was also true of males that attacked the pups (The researchers quickly rescued the pups if this occurred). Perhaps, males that were alloparental with the pups had increased oxytocin and males that were aggressive with the pups had increased corticosterone, either of which would make it more likely for them to form a preference for the female they were with.

Hmm… Got your eye on a special someone? Try volunteering him to babysit before your next date.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Kenkel, W., Paredes, J., Yee, J., Pournajafi-Nazarloo, H., Bales, K., & Carter, C. (2012). Neuroendocrine and Behavioural Responses to Exposure to an Infant in Male Prairie Voles Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 24 (6), 874-886 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2012.02301.x

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Competitive Females

Paula Broadwell, the aggressive competitor.
Photo from her Facebook page.
By now, you’ve probably heard all about Paula Broadwell, the woman that seduced the notoriously disciplined CIA director, four-star US Army general, husband and father, General David Petraeus. What kind of a woman might be able to sway a man that has such admirable self-control? Broadwell was Petraeus’ biographer, a West Point graduate with a Harvard graduate degree, an Army Reservist thrice recalled to active duty, a fitness champion, Ironman triathlete and even a machine gun model. Her accomplishments are clearly impressive, but maybe the key comes down to her competitive nature. I mean, she did send several threatening e-mails to an attractive socialite and Petraeus family friend, warning her to stay away from her (other) man.

When we think about competing for mates, we generally think about males competing for females and breeding territories with horns to duke it out, or elaborate feathers to show off, or dance-offs to demonstrate their physical abilities. But females often have to compete for the high-quality males and breeding territories too. And many of the concepts that apply to males competing for females have been found to also apply to females competing for males.

A dark-eyed junco thinking
"What you lookin' at?".
Photo by Kristal Cain.
As much as we know about males competing with one another, we know surprisingly little about females competing with one another, although they clearly do. Kristal Cain and Ellen Ketterson at Indiana University sought out to shed light on female competition and its effect on breeding success. They did this with female Carolina dark-eyed juncos, a socially monogamous songbird species in which both parents care for the young. They were curious whether more aggressive females would also have other competitive traits, like large body size. They also wondered whether aggressive females would have better breeding success.

The researchers caught female juncos to measure and put identifying leg bands on them. They then released them and spent their nesting season looking for their nests. When they found a nest, they identified whose nest it was by the female’s leg bands. The researchers tested how aggressive females were towards competing females by placing a caged female within 3 meters of a subject’s nest and watching to see if she swooped at the caged female. Then they kept an eye on the nest to see if the chicks all survived until they fledged (left the nest on their own) or if the nest was destroyed (usually by a predator) before the chicks fledged.

A female junco in full-on attack mode. Photo by Kristal Cain.
Females that were more aggressive towards “competing” females tended to be bigger and had chicks that were more likely to fledge. Now, if this were a story about competitive males, we might think big aggressive males with more successful chicks might have higher testosterone. Alternatively, low testosterone is often found in males that are better fathers. But these are females… Does it even make sense to talk about testosterone in females? Of course it does! Turns out, males don’t have a monopoly on testosterone; females have it too.

The researchers drew blood from the females and then gave them a “testosterone challenge” by injecting them with a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (or GnRH for short). GnRH is a trigger that causes a series of biological events that result in the gonads producing more hormones, including testosterone. The researchers then drew a second blood sample to measure how much testosterone levels changed in response to the GnRH injection.

More aggressive females produced more testosterone in response to the GnRH injection than did less aggressive females. This same effect has also been shown to be true of males behaving aggressively towards each other. I guess males and females really aren’t all that different, eh? But interestingly, females that produced more testosterone in response to the GnRH challenge also had more successful nests.

It’s important to keep in mind that these results are correlational. Maybe testosterone makes females bigger and more aggressive and better mothers. Or perhaps having a temper increases your testosterone production. Or maybe some other hormone that increases in response to GnRH (there are many) is responsible for the effects. In any case, females that are bigger and more aggressive and have more successful offspring also produce more testosterone in response to a GnRH injection.

Paula Broadwell shows off her aggressive abilities in this KRISS ARMS video
(gif'd by Michael Pakradooni).
As far as we know, no one has given Paula Broadwell a testosterone challenge, but she undoubtedly has a number of correlated competitive traits. Paula Broadwell is a competitive, physically fit, attractive parent who has shown that she can out-compete the spouses of high-quality mates… But then again, so is David Petraeus.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Cain, K., & Ketterson, E. (2011). Competitive females are successful females; phenotype, mechanism, and selection in a common songbird Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 66 (2), 241-252 DOI: 10.1007/s00265-011-1272-5

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Battle of The Grad Programs

Graduate school is an intense time peppered with qualifying exams, botched experiments, difficult advisors, and sleepless nights… Sometimes, grad students just need to vent and let loose, sometimes even at the same time. (Singing relieves pain, you know). And when they put their creative minds to it, we are gifted with gems like these:

Engineering Students:

Neuroscience Students:

Medical Students:

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below. If you are in the thick of the academic grind, don’t forget to take a moment to let your hair down once in awhile. 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 7, 2012

Political Animals

Now that we are finally on the other side of one of the longest, most expensive political campaign seasons of United States history, we find ourselves with a new mixed-bag of leaders. Our nation’s decision-makers include career politicians and new freshman politicians; they include lawyers, military members, doctors, businessmen, farmers, ministers, educators, scientists, pilots, and entertainers; they include Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims; they include white Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic and Latino Americans; they include men and women; they include straight and gay people; and oh yeah, they include Republicans and Democrats. With so many differences that generate so many viewpoints, how will they ever find common ground to make the kind of decisions that will move our nation in a positive direction?

Hey, Look guys! We make a peace sign! Image from Wikimedia.
Research into group decision-making in social animals has shown that ants, fish, birds, and bees have all discovered strategies to make intelligent group decisions. If they can do it, we can do it, right? What can we learn from these critters about harnessing the knowledge in all of us to move our whole group in the best possible direction? We will explore these insights in this post, which is a mash-up of two previous posts. To see the originals, check out Can a Horde of Idiots Be a Genius? and Why This Horde of Idiots Is No Genius.

Jean-Louis Deneubourg, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, and his colleagues tested the abilities of Argentine ants (a common dark-brown ant species) to collectively solve foraging problems. In one of these studies, the ants were provided with a bridge that connected the nest to a food source. This bridge split and fused in two places (like eyeglass frames), but at each split one branch was shorter than the other, resulting in a single shortest-path and multiple longer paths. After a few minutes, explorers crossed the bridge (by a meandering path) and discovered the food. This recruited foragers, each of which chose randomly between the short and the long branch at each split. Then suddenly, the foragers all started to prefer the shortest route. How did they do that?

This figure from the Goss et al 1989 paper in Naturwissemschaften shows (a) the design of a single module, (b) ants scattered on the bridge after 4 minutes (I promise they’re there), and (c) ants mostly on the shortest path after 8 minutes
You can think of it this way: a single individual often tries to make decisions based on the uncertain information available to it. But if you have a group of individuals, they will likely each have information that differs somewhat from the information of others in the group. If they each make a decision based on their own information alone, they will likely result in a number of poor decisions and a few good ones. But if they can each base their decisions on the accumulation of all of the information of the group, they stand a much better chance of making a good decision. The more information accumulated, the more likely they are to make the best possible decision.

In the case of the Argentine ant, the accumulated information takes the form of pheromone trails. Argentine ants lay pheromone trails both when leaving the nest and when returning to the nest. Ants that are lucky enough to take a shorter foraging route return to the nest sooner, increasing the pheromone concentration of the route each way. In this way, shorter routes develop more concentrated pheromone trails faster, which attract more ants, which further increase pheromone concentration of the shortest routes. In this way, an ant colony can make an intelligent decision (take the shortest foraging route) without any individual doing anything more intelligent than following a simple rule (follow the strongest pheromone signal).

Home is where the heart is. Photo of a bee swarm by Tom Seeley
Honeybee colonies also solve complicated tasks with the use of communication. Tom Seeley at Cornell University and his colleagues have investigated the honeybee group decision-making process of finding a new home. When a colony outgrows their hive, hundreds of scouts will go in search of a suitable new home, preferably one that is high off the ground with a south-facing entrance and room to grow. During this time, the house-hunters 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. 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 that results after an intense “dance-debate”.

If a scout finds a good candidate home, she returns to the colony and performs a waggle dance, a dance in which her body position and movements encode the directions to her site and her dancing vigor relates to how awesome she thinks the site is. Some scouts that see her dance may be persuaded to follow her directions and check out the site for themselves, and if impressed, may return to the hive and perform waggle dances too. Or they may follow another scout’s directions to a different site or even strike out on their own. Over time, scouts that are less enthusiastic about their discovered site stop dancing, in part discouraged by dancers for other sites that bump heads with them and beep at them in disagreement. Eventually, the majority of the dancing scouts are all dancing the same vigorous dance. But interestingly, few scouts ever visit more than one site. Better sites simply receive more vigorous “dance-votes” and then attract more scouts to do the same. Like ants in search of a foraging path, the intensity of the collective signal drives the group towards the best decision. Once a quorum is reached, the honeybees leave their branch as a single united swarm and move into their new home, which is almost always the best site. 
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.
But groups can develop better solutions than individuals even without communication. Gaia Dell’Ariccia at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and her colleagues explored homing pigeon navigation by placing GPS trackers on the backs of pigeons and releasing them from a familiar location either alone or in a group of six. Because they were all trained to fly home from this site, they all found their way home regardless of whether they were alone or in a group. But as a flock, the pigeons left sooner, rested less, flew faster, and took a more direct route than did the same birds when making the trip alone. By averaging the directional tendencies of everyone in the group, they were able to mutually correct the errors of each individual and follow the straightest path.

What can we learn from these examples? Like individual congressmen and senators, in each of these examples each individual has limited and uncertain information, but each individual has information that may be slightly different than their neighbors’. This diversity can be our congress’ greatest asset, if they use it in the same way so many animals naturally do. Tom Seeley summarized these approaches based on his insights from years of watching honeybees:

Tom Seeley’s Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives

1. “Group members share a goal”.
This is easy for honeybees, but not as much for us. All of the honeybees in a swarm share the same goal: Find the best possible home as quickly as possible. People are not always similar in our goals, needs and wants and one person’s goals are sometimes in direct conflict with another person’s goals. The trick here is finding common ground.

2. “Group members search broadly to find possible solutions to the problem”.
Seek out information from as many sources as you can. Be creative. Use your personal experience. And if the group is diverse, there will be a broader range of personal experience to harness. Diversity increases the ability of a group to make the best decisions.

3. “Group members contribute their information freely and honestly”.
This requires a welcoming and supportive environment that withholds judgment of the individuals for the ideas expressed. You don’t have to agree with an idea to respect and listen to the person expressing it.

4. “Group members evaluate the options independently and they vote independently”.
Just as scout bees don’t dance for a site they have not visited and assessed themselves, we should not advocate possible solutions or candidates that we have not ourselves looked into and thought critically about. A group can only be smarter than the individuals in it if the individuals think for themselves.

5. “Group members aggregate their votes fairly”.
Everyone gets a vote and each one counts equally. ‘Nuff said.

We can learn a lot from these honeybees. Even when the stakes are high, we can make good decisions for our group if we are open, honest, inclusive, fair and think independently.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Couzin, I. (2009). Collective cognition in animal groups Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13 (1), 36-43 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.10.002

2. 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

3. 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

4. Dell'Ariccia, G., Dell'Omo, G., Wolfer, D., & Lipp, H. (2008). Flock flying improves pigeons' homing: GPS track analysis of individual flyers versus small groups Animal Behaviour, 76 (4), 1165-1172 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2008.05.022

5. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

6. The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

7. The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

Friday, November 2, 2012

Donate To Student Science Projects And Your Money Will Double!

There are just a few days left for the Science Bloggers for Students drive to raise money for science education and we have exciting news! The Board of Directors has made available up to $50,000 for matching funds for anyone that donates to a Science Bloggers for Students page! But for the teachers to get access to this generous donation for their student projects, we all have to donate something ourselves (and the Board of Directors will match dollar-for-dollar for the first $100 per donor). Just think, if you donate $5 for a student project you are excited about, the teacher will get $10 towards making that project happen. And you would be amazed at what a dedicated and creative teacher can do with $10 (In fact, 3 of the projects I am promoting need less than $300 to provide an unforgetable learning experience for their students).

At The Scorpion and The Frog Giving Page, listed under Proudly Independent Science Bloggers, I chose to promote four projects in high poverty areas across the country that teach students about animals in creative and inspiring ways.
  • Help Ms. Bakker’s high school class in Chicago, Illinois build Carnivore Scent Stations (areas with loose dirt on top and animal scent in a hole beneath to attract wildlife) and track the prints of animals that visit the stations.
  • Or help Mrs. Westphal’s elementary students in Astatula, Florida study food webs by dissecting owl pellets.
  • Or help Mrs. Maruri’s class in Pleasant Grove, Utah get dissection kits to study animal anatomy.
  • Or help Mrs. Scherer’s students in Detroit, Michigan study the life cycles of chickens, ducks, ladybugs, crayfish, guppies, tadpoles and butterflies by bringing the animals into the classroom to care for and to study.
Check out these awesome projects here. And if you prefer to give to a different project, the matching gift will apply to any project listed under Science Bloggers for Students! To use the matching code, type in the word SCIENCE as the match or gift code when you check out. It'll look something like this (minus the red box that is pointing out where to type SCIENCE):

Donate to help passionate teachers have the resources they need to inspire our next generation of biologists! Donations of any amount make a difference and are appreciated...Now Twice As Much!

The Science Blogger Challenge and the matching funds run through November 5th, so donate right now before you forget.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

True Blood: Vampires Among Us

Who is your favorite vampire? Are you a fan of Edward Cullen, Bill Compton or Stefan Salvatore? Or do you prefer the classic Dracula, elegant Lestat, or butt-kicking Selene?

Vampires have fascinated us since the Middle Ages, when a hysteria of vampire sightings spread across Eastern Europe. We now know that many of these “vampires” were actually victims of diseases like tuberculosis or bubonic plague that cause bleeding in the lungs (and elsewhere), resulting in the disturbing effect of blood appearing at the lips. Add this attribute to the already poorly understood physiology of decomposing corpses and the cases in which people mistakenly buried alive got up and left their graves, and voila! Vampire mythology is born. So vampires don’t really exist… Or do they?

Actually, there are many animals that feed on blood. So many in fact, that there is a scientific term for blood-eating, hematophagy. And why not? Blood is fluid tissue, chock full of nutritious proteins and lipids and a source of water to boot. And if you don’t kill your prey to feed, the food supply replenishes itself. Here are just some of these animal vampires living among us:

Vampire bat

A vampire bat smiles for the camera
from his Peruvian cave. Photo from Wikimedia.
Vampire bats are our most famous animal vampires, and the ones that most resemble our vampiric lore. There are three species of vampire bats that live from Mexico down through Argentina. Two of them, the hairy-legged and white-winged vampire bats, feed mostly on birds. The common vampire bat feeds more on mammals, like cows, horses, and the occasional human. Their razor sharp teeth cut a tiny incision in their victims and their anticoagulant saliva keeps the blood flowing. Like Dracula, vampire bats sleep by day and hunt by night. But these vampires are not loners like Dracula: They live in colonies of about 100 animals, and in hard times will share their blood-harvest and care for one another’s young.

Vampire finch

The Galapagos Islands are the famous home to numerous finch species, each one with a beak shape specially adapted to their preferred food source. For most of these finches, their food of choice is a type of seed or nut that is appropriately sized for their beak shape and strength. But the vampire finch (also called the sharp-beaked ground finch for obvious reasons) uses its long sharp beak to feed on blood. Their most common victims are their booby neighbors (named for less obvious reasons).


A tiny candirú catfish (being measured in cm) strikes
terror into the souls of Amazonian fishermen.
Photo by Dr. Peter Henderson at PISCES
Conservation LTD. Photo at Wikimedia.
The tiny Amazonian candirú catfish is legendary for one documented case (and several undocumented ones) in which a candirú swam up a local man’s urine stream into his penis, where it attached to feed on his blood. Although terrifying, this is not typical candirú behavior. Actually, it was all just a misunderstanding. You see, candirú catfish do feed on blood, but they usually feed from the highly vascularized gills of other Amazonian fish. As we saw last week, the gills of freshwater fish release high quantities of urea, a major component of urine. So to a hungry candirú, your pee smells an awful lot like a fish-gill blood dinner. Just another reason to not pee where you swim.


Notice the sharp-toothed sucker mouth of the river
lamprey. Photo by M. Buschmann at Wikimedia.
Lampreys are species of jawless fish. With their eel-like bodies and disc-shaped mouths filled with circles of razor-sharp teeth, they look like something from science fiction horror. Although some lamprey species are filter feeders, others latch onto the sides of other fish, boring into their flesh and feeding on their blood. Once attached, they can hitch a ride on their victim for days or even weeks.


A European medicinal leech.
Photo by H. Krisp at Wikimedia.
Leeches are the earthworm’s bloodsucking cousins. With three blade-like mouthparts, they slice into their victims, leaving a Y-shaped incision. They produce anticoagulants to prevent premature clotting of their bloodmeals, which can weigh up to five times as much as the leach itself. The bloodletting and anticoagulant abilities of leeches have led them to be used medicinally in ancient India and Greece as well as in modern medicine.

Female mosquito

A female mosquito getting her blood meal.
Photo by at Wikimedia.
Most of the time, mosquitos use their syringe-like mouthparts to feed on flower nectar. But when the female is ready to reproduce, she seeks out a blood meal to provide the additional protein she will need to produce and lay her eggs. Although their bites only cause minor itching, these lady vampires are truly something to be feared: They kill more people than any other animal due to the wide range of deadly diseases they spread.

There are many other examples of animals that feed on blood. But unlike their mythological counterparts, none of them come back from the dead to do so… Or do they?

Happy Halloween!

Want to know more? Check these out:


2. Francischetti, I. (2010). Platelet aggregation inhibitors from hematophagous animals Toxicon, 56 (7), 1130-1144 DOI: 10.1016/j.toxicon.2009.12.003

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Smell of Fear

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
“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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Future Animal Biologists Need Your Help

Every year science bloggers from across the web come together to raise awareness and money for science education at Teachers send DonorsChoose their wishlists for the projects they would like to do with their students and you can choose which projects you may like to contribute to. This Science Blogger Challenge runs through November 5th. The readers of the blog to deliver the most supplies to students across the country win bragging rights for the year!

As The Scorpion and the Frog is a new blog this year, I have created the very first The Scorpion and The Frog Giving Page, listed under Proudly Independent Science Bloggers. I chose to promote four projects in high poverty areas across the country that teach students about animals in creative and inspiring ways.

  • Help Ms. Bakker’s high school class in Chicago, Illinois build Carnivore Scent Stations (areas with loose dirt on top and animal scent in a hole beneath to attract wildlife) and track the prints of animals that visit the stations.
  • Or help Mrs. Westphal’s elementary students in Astatula, Florida study food webs by dissecting owl pellets.
  • Or help Mrs. Maruri’s class in Pleasant Grove, Utah get dissection kits to study animal anatomy.
  • Or help Mrs. Scherer’s students in Detroit, Michigan study the life cycles of chickens, ducks, ladybugs, crayfish, guppies, tadpoles and butterflies by bringing the animals into the classroom to care for and to study.
Check out these awesome projects and others at!

Donate to help passionate teachers have the resources they need to inspire our next generation of biologists! Donations of any amount make a difference and are appreciated.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mind-Manipulating Slave-Making Ants!

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It Feels Good When You Sing a Song (In Fall)

Most male songbirds will sing when they see a pretty female during the breeding season. But some male songbirds sing even when it’s not the breeding season. Why do so many birds sing in fall at all?

Maybe singing feels good… But how do you ask a bird if it feels good to sing? European starlings are one of those bird species that sing both in spring (the breeding season) and in fall (not the breeding season). Lauren Riters, Cindi Kelm-Nelson, and Sharon Stevenson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison did a series of ingenious experiments to ask starlings if and when it feels good to sing.

A European starling sings his fall-blues away. Photo by Linda Tanner at Wikimedia.
Psychologists have long used a paradigm called conditioned place preference (CPP) to evaluate whether an animal finds something rewarding or pleasurable. CPP is based on the idea that if an animal experiences something meaningless while at the same time experiencing something else that is rewarding, the animal will learn to associate these two things with each other in a phenomenon called conditioning. For example, a puppy that has learned that every time it sits it gets a treat, will find itself sitting more often.

A researcher can also compare how rewarding different types of treats are. If we want to know if puppies like carrots or steak better, we can give one group of puppies a carrot every time they sit and another group of puppies a piece of steak every time they sit. If the group of puppies that are conditioned with steak spend more time sitting, we can conclude that steak is more rewarding to puppies than carrots are.

Lauren and Sharon used this principle to ask starlings if singing is rewarding. They put spring starlings in a cage with a nestbox and a female and let them sing away, while counting how many songs they sang in 30 minutes. Then they immediately put them in another cage that was decorated with yellow materials on one side and green materials on the other, but they restricted each bird to only one of the two colored sides. This is the conditioning phase in which the bird learns to associate the colored cage with the feeling they get from singing.

The next day, they put the starlings in the yellow and green cage without restrictions so they could choose what side they wanted to hang out in. If singing is rewarding, we would expect starlings that sang a lot to spend more time on the side with the color they were placed in the day before.

Do people that sing in the car spend more time in the car?
Photo by

That didn’t happen. The spring starlings spent the same amount of time in the yellow or green side of the cage regardless of how much they sang the day before.

But when Lauren and Sharon did the same test with fall starlings singing without a female, there has a huge effect: Males that sang more spent much more time on the colored side of the cage they were placed in the day before. Singing, for a male starling, is apparently rewarding in fall, but not in spring.

This result actually makes a lot of sense. In spring, males sing to attract and court females, so they are rewarded by the feeling they get from the female’s response, not from the act of singing itself. But in fall, males are not attracting females. So why do they sing in fall? Because it feels good.

It looks like Sesame Street got it right with their 1970s song “It Feels Good When You Sing a Song”:
You can't go wrong
when you're singing a song
Sing it loud, sing it strong
It feels good when you sing a song

But why does singing feel good? At least some of the reason, it seems, is opioids. Not quite what Sesame Street had in mind, but hey.

Despite their reputation for being one of the world’s oldest drugs, many opioids are naturally occurring neuropeptides (brain chemicals). They are involved in pain relief and euphoria, commonly combined in the phenomenon of runner’s high. Could opioids be involved in the feel-good sensation created by singing? Maybe.

Cindi, Sharon and Lauren suspect that singing in fall causes male starlings to release opioids in their little brains, which makes singing more rewarding and makes them want to sing more. But how do we know how much opioid an animal has in its brain? Hmmm… Opioids cause analgesia (pain relief). Therefore, if singing a lot in fall releases more opioids, then birds that sing a lot in fall should be more pain-tolerant, right? The researchers let male starlings sing and counted how many songs they produced for 20 minutes. Then they dipped their foot in uncomfortably warm water and timed how long it took for the bird to pull its toes out. Fall males that sang more took longer to pull their feet out of the birdy foot-spa than did the males that sang less.

Interestingly, if you give starlings a drug to enhance opioids, they leave their feet in the foot-spa longer than if you give them a drug to block opioids. So it seems that singing in fall increases pain tolerance in the same way that opioids do, likely because the act of singing in fall causes the brain to release its own opioids. (Although it is also possible that birds that produce more opioids feel like singing more).

And what about singing in spring? When Cindi, Sharon and Lauren repeated the study with spring starlings, these birds did not get pain relief from singing. Again, they are probably rewarded by their interactions with females and not the act of singing.

So if you ever find yourself in pain, just
Sing a song
Make it simple
To last your whole life long
Don't worry that it's not good enough
For anyone else to hear
Sing a song
La la la la la la la la la la la
La la la la la la la

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Riters LV, & Stevenson SA (2012). Reward and vocal production: song-associated place preference in songbirds. Physiology & Behavior, 106 (2), 87-94 PMID: 22285212

2. Kelm-Nelson, C.A., Stevenson, S.A., & Riters, L.V. (2012). Context-dependent links between song production 1 and opioid-mediated analgesia in male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) PLOS One, 7 (10)

3. Riters LV, Schroeder MB, Auger CJ, Eens M, Pinxten R, & Ball GF (2005). Evidence for opioid involvement in the regulation of song production in male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Behavioral neuroscience, 119 (1), 245-55 PMID: 15727529

4. Kelm CA, Forbes-Lorman RM, Auger CJ, & Riters LV (2011). Mu-opioid receptor densities are depleted in regions implicated in agonistic and sexual behavior in male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) defending nest sites and courting females. Behavioural brain research, 219 (1), 15-22 PMID: 21147175