Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Miss Behavior’s Picks of 2013

Image from

2013 is quickly drawing to a close and we find ourselves in a time of reflection and reminiscences of the last twelve months. Science blogging continues to grow and our many talented and experienced science writers are finding themselves joined by a new cohort of young energetic writers bringing new perspectives. This is an exciting international community of passionate thinkers, debaters, and science communicators. These are my picks for The Top 5 Animal Physiology and Behavior Blog Posts of 2013 (not including The Scorpion and the Frog posts and in no particular order).

On the new blog, Viruses 101, Julia Paoli, a high school student and talented science writer discusses a scientific estimate of how many unknown viruses lurk within our fellow mammals in Mammals Harbor At Least 320,000 Undiscovered Viruses.

Natalie Wolchover at Quanta Magazine pondered the value of partial honesty among animals from a game theory perspective in Hunger Game: Is Honesty Between Animals Always the Best Policy?

We all carry communities of microbes within our bodies that have now been found to be involved in our health and behavior in ways we never previously imagined. In Inspiring Science, Sedeer el-Showk talks about research linking differences in our microbiomes to hormone levels and disease resistance in Sex, Hormones, and the Microbiome.

On EveryONE by PLOS Blogs, Alex Theg tells the story of a jumping spider species that uses multiple deceptive tactics. Read about the spiders that use visual mimicry to trick predator spiders and chemical mimicry to trick predator wasps in Ant-Mimicking Spider Relies on a “Double-Deception” Strategy to Fool Different Audiences.

Felicity Muth discusses animal homosexuality in her blog, Not Bad Science. Check out her article Homosexuality in Female Beetles, and What We Can Learn from It.

Merry Christmas and stay curious!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What Does the Fox Say?

Image by Rotfuchs at Wikimedia.
In early September, two brothers that host a popular late-night talk show in Norway released a music video to promote their show’s season premiere. Those brothers form the comedic duo called Ylvis, and the song: “What Does the Fox Say?”. A complete surprise to the Ylvisåker brothers (their last name), who designed their video as a comedic music video flop, their video went viral. It spent three consecutive weeks as number 6 on Billboard Hot 100 and is quickly approaching 300 million views in just over three months!

The premise of the song is that there are a number of animals whose sounds everyone knows, but the fox stumps us. As their lyrics go:

Dog goes woof, cat goes meow.
Bird goes tweet, and mouse goes squeak.
Cow goes moo. Frog goes croak, and the elephant goes toot.
Ducks say quack and fish go blub, and the seal goes ow ow ow.
But there's one sound that no one knows...

…And then it gets weird as they propose their thoughts on what sounds foxes make:

The funny thing is, it’s not that hard to find out what sounds foxes really make. Although they may not be among the common farm and zoo animals that make it into our children’s toys and books to teach us all about the world of animals, fox vocalizations have been studied by scientists for years. Strangely enough, our comedic duo was not that far off with their “Jacha-chacha-chacha-chow!” guess, which is similar to the fox gekkering call used in aggressive interations.

“The Fox” video (as it has come to be known) has spawned countless spoofs in the last few months. As with most internet spoofs, most are pretty lame, but there are a few gems. My favorite, created by some talented Harvard Medical School students, addresses the equally perplexing question “What Does the Spleen Do?” (Which we also know the answer to. Check out the end of the video for the true answer).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Personality and the Spread of Disease

This image was provided by the CDC and the Partnership, Inc.
Available at Wikimedia Commons.
Studies of the spread of infectious diseases have shown that behavior plays a strong role in which individuals are more likely to be infected and which ones aren't. For example, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are more commonly diagnosed in people that have more sexual partners. But despite our understanding of how diseases are spread among people, we know very little about the spread of diseases among wild animals. Do their personalities play a role in the spread of wildlife diseases?

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about personalities in deer mice and the role they play in the spread of hantavirus. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check this out:

Dizney L, & Dearing MD (2013). The role of behavioural heterogeneity on infection patterns: implications for pathogen transmission. Animal behaviour, 86 (5) PMID: 24319292

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Scorpion and the Frog’s 100th Post!

Fireworks image by Liz Noffsinger at

We have reached a major milestone: This is officially The Scorpion and the Frog’s 100th post! Not bad for a weekly science blog, eh? In celebration of this momentous occasion, I thought I would share with you some of the things you can find in these 100 posts:

1. Articles: The heart and soul of The Scorpion and the Frog lies in the articles on animal physiology and behavior. Some articles, like Thanks Dad!, explain a concept. Others, like Mind-Manipulating Slave-Making Ants!, describe research I found interesting. If there is an animal physiology or behavior topic you would like to learn more about, I also take requests for future articles.

2. Guest posts: I am not the only one that writes articles for The Scorpion and the Frog. A number of Guest Science Writers have contributed fantastic articles on everything from the neurobiology of love to how parrots speak human language to the odd relationship between sea cucumbers and the fish that live in their butts. They are a talented group of writers with a range of perspectives and interests.

3. Biology music videos: This series highlights videos mostly made by scientist- musicians to celebrate, poke fun of and teach about science and the life of a scientist. My personal favorite is Science Beat.

4. The How to Get Into an Animal Behavior Graduate Program guide: Although the title of this guide is specific to animal behavior programs, the advice in it holds true for most any graduate program in the sciences. There are a series of links within it to provide more detailed advice and I continue to add to it.

5. Where the Wild Things Are: Amazing Animal Watching Vacations is a series that explores things you can do on your own or with family and friends. It highlights zoos, aquariums, and wildlife vacations. Find a summary of activities here.

I hope you enjoy exploring everything we have in this blog as much as we enjoy sharing it with you!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Caught in My Web: Chimpanzee Memory, Beatbox-Dancing Cockroach Legs, Cute Animals Behaving Badly, Behavioral Catastrophe, and Scientifically Accurate Spider Man

This week in Caught in My Web, I share some quirky web pages that open our eyes to some aspects of animal behavior that we don't often think about:

1. Lee Rannals describes on redOrbit research that discovered that chimpanzees use long-term memory of how various trees produced fruit in previous years to forage today.

2. On TEDEd, Greg Gage hooks up a cockroach leg to a device that allows us to hear nerve impulses! And if that wasn’t cool enough, he then gets the cockroach leg to dance to a human beatbox. You have to see this.

3. Cute animals behaving badly. Need I say more?

4. Animals will sometimes continue their behaviors even when they end in catastrophe. George Dvorsky at IO9 describes 8 of the most deadly.

5. And if ADHD's Scientifically Accurate DuckTales was too much for you, DO NOT WATCH Scientifically Accurate Spider Man:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Cetaceans Can Teach Us About Culture

A bottlenose dolphin mother shares her culture with
her offspring. Image by M. Herko at the National
Undersea Research Program (NURP) available
at Wikimedia Commons.
We often think of culture as being food dishes, music, dance, and clothing that are specific to a group of people. But are we the only species that have culture? What is culture exactly and how does it relate to relationships?

Scientifically, culture is behavior that is socially transmitted between individuals and shared within population groups. Culture fundamentally depends on learning, and specifically learning from others. But everyone doesn't learn equally from everyone else. We tend to pick up behaviors more from individuals that we spend more time with than those that we don't. We also tend to spend more time with individuals that we share behaviors with. And we're not the only ones to show these tendencies.

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about various ways whales and dolphins share culture and are influenced by it. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check these out:

Cantor, M., & Whitehead, H. (2013). The interplay between social networks and culture: theoretically and among whales and dolphins Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (368), 1-8 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0340

And learn about how orcas share dialects here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can Animals Sense Each Other’s Wants and Hopes?

Is the ability to empathize uniquely human? This question has long been pondered by philosophers and animal behaviorists alike. Empathy depends in part on the ability to recognize the wants and hopes of others. A new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that we may not be alone with this ability.

A male Eurasian jay feeds his female mate. Photo provided by Ljerka Ostojić.
Ljerka Ostojić, Rachael Shaw, Lucy Cheke, and Nicky Clayton conducted a series of studies on Eurasian jays to explore whether male jays could perceive changes in what their female partners desired. Eurasian jays are a good species with which to explore this phenomenon because males routinely provide food to their female mates as a part of their courtship. The researchers wanted to know if males would adjust what food items males offered their mates depending on what food type the females wanted more.

In order to make a female prefer one food type over another, the researchers fed each female one of two food types (wax moth larvae and mealworm larvae) until they were full. But being full of one type of food doesn’t mean you can’t find room for desert, right? So when the researchers then offered the females access to both wax moth larvae and mealworm larvae, those that had previously eaten wax moth larvae now preferred mealworm larvae and those that had previously eaten mealworm larvae now preferred wax moth larvae. But could their male partners tell what they preferred at that moment?

In order to test whether male jays were sensitive to their partners’ desires, the researchers fed the females either wax moth larvae or mealworm larvae until they were full. They did this while their male partners watched from behind a transparent screen. They then removed the screen and gave the males 20 opportunities to choose between a single wax moth larvae or mealworm larvae to feed their partner. In this context, males usually chose to share with their mates the food that their partners preferred rather than the food their partners had already been fed! But are the males responding to their mate’s behavior or are they responding to what they saw when the females were eating earlier?

This video (provided by Ljerka Ostojić) shows the experimental process
in which the male chooses a food type and then shares it with his mate.

The researchers repeated the study with an opaque screen so the males could not see their mates while the females gorged on one particular food type. Without the ability to see the mate eating beforehand, males chose both food types equally and did not attend to their mate’s preferences. Because the females still had a preference for the opposite food type but the males were not adjusting for that preference, this means that the males are not responding to their mate’s behavior in this experiment or the previous one. This suggests that if male Eurasian jays see what their mates are eating, then somehow they have the ability to know to give their mate the opposite food type!

Whether this process involves the males having an understanding of their mate’s desires or some other mechanism is not fully known. But male Eurasian jays are certainly adjusting what they give their mates according to what she wants. Now if we can only teach human males to do that!

Want to know more? Check this out:

Ostojić, L., Shaw, R.C., Cheke, L.G., & Clayton, N.S. (2013). Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays PNAS, 110 (10), 4123-4128 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1209926110

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Science Beat: Round 2

Sometimes science just makes more sense with a beat. Last January, I shared with you some fantastic music videos on fish genetics, climate science, and sexual reproduction. Here are the competitors for Round 2:

The Periodic Table:

Cellular Respiration:

Skeletal Muscle:

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below and check out other sciency song battles at Science Song Playlist, The Science Life, Science Beat, Scientist Swagger and Battle of The Grad Programs! And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future battle!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Mimic Octopus: Master of Disguise

The disguises of the mimic octopus: (a) shows a mimic
octopus looking out of its burrow; (b) is a foraging mimic
octopus with coloration to blend with the sand; (c) shows
a mimic octopus as a sole fish and (d) is an actual
sole fish; (e) shows a mimic octopus as a lion-fish and
(f) is an actual lion-fish; and (g) shows a mimic octopus
as a banded sea-snake and (h) is an actual banded
sea-snake. Images from the Norman, 2001 article
 in Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B.
Different animal species have evolved a number of ways to hide in their environments. One of the most popular tactics is by camouflage, often by matching the background or by having patterns that break up the animal's outline (think: zebras and leopards). Others have evolved to resemble other species that are generally toxic or venomous, in a technique called mimicry. But a few amazing species have been recently discovered to have the ability to alter their mimicry to actively imitate a range of species, depending on their circumstances. The most remarkable of these is the mimic octopus, which shifts its shape and behavior to mimic a number of different species as fluidly as a real-life Mystique from the X-Men.

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about the remarkable acts of mimicry by one of our planet's most fascinating species, the mimic octopus. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check these out:

1. Norman, M.D., Finn, J., & Tregenza, T. (2001). Dynamic mimicry in an Indo-Malayan octopus Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B,, 268, 1755-1758 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1708

2. Hanlon, R.T., Conroy, L., & Forsythe, J.W. (2008). Mimicry and foraging behaviour of two tropical sand-flat octopus species off North Sulawesi, Indonesia Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 93, 23-38 DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.2007.00948.x

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nature’s Halloween Costumes

Image by Steve at Wikimedia Commons.
It seems like everyone is racking their brains to come up with a great Halloween costume. But we’re not the only ones to disguise ourselves as something we’re not. Many animals put on costumes just like we do. Take this gharial crocodile for example (do you see him?), covering himself in parts of his environment to hide.

Other animals, like this tawny frogmouth below, develop physical appearances that help them blend in with their surroundings. When threatened, these birds shut their eyes, erect their feathers and point their beak in such a way to match the color and texture of the tree bark.

Image by C Coverdale at Wikimedia Commons.
Rather than hide, some animals have a physical appearance to disguise themselves as other species that are often fierce, toxic or venomous. This type of mimicry is called Batesian mimicry, named after Henry Walter Bates, the English naturalist who studied butterflies in the Amazon and gave the first scientific description of animal mimicry. This plate from Bates’ 1862 paper, Contributions to an Insect Fauna of the Amazon Valley: Heliconiidae, illustrates Batesian mimicry between various toxic butterfly species (in the second and bottom rows) and their harmless mimics (in the top and third rows).

This plate from Bates’ 1862 paper, Contributions to an Insect Fauna of
the Amazon Valley: Heliconiidae is available on Wikipedia Commons.
The bluestriped fangblenny takes its costume another step further, by changing its shape, colors, and behavior to match the company. This fish changes its colors to match other innocuous fish species that are around so it can sneak up and bite unsuspecting larger fish that would otherwise bite them back! Learn more about them here.

The fish on the far left is a juvenile cleaner wrasse in the act of cleaning another fish. The two fish in
the middle and on the right are both bluestriped fangblennies, one in its cleaner wrasse-mimicking
coloration (middle) and the other not (right). Figure from the Cheney, 2013 article in Behavioral Ecology.
But the Master of Disguise title has got to go to the mimic octopus. This animal can change its color, shape and behavior to look and behave like a wide range of creatures, including an innocuous flounder, a poisonous lionfish, or even a dangerous sea snake! Check it out in action:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Caught in My Web: What Your Dog Really Thinks About You, Understanding Gestures, Camera Traps and Pruney Fingers

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons.
This week in Caught in My Web, I share what I found when pondering interactions between humans and animals, what we have learned from camera traps, and what our pruney fingers in the bath may have to teach us about our animal nature.

1. Greg Berns, a psychiatry professor at Emory University, set out to use an fMRI scanner to learn more about what dogs think about their humans. Read his story here at Psychology Today. And check out this video describing The Dog Project:

2. Although dogs may be “man’s best friend”, they have failed numerous tests in understanding our gestures, such as pointing, without training. Even chimpanzees require training before understanding the meaning of human pointing. But elephants are now the first non-human species that seems to innately understand human pointing, naturally investigating objects pointed to (comparable to a 1-year-old human). Jack Flanagan discusses this research at NewScientist.

3. At The Thoughtful Animal, Jason Goldman discusses camera traps (weather-resistant cameras that use motion detection sensors to photograph wildlife) and how they are used in animal research. He also reveals the secret ingredient to luring jaguars to the cameras at You’ll Never Guess How Biologists Lure Jaguars To Camera Traps.

4. While we’re talking about camera traps, Siberian tiger researchers set up camera traps in southeastern Russia. One of their cameras took a series of 3 amazing pictures of a golden eagle attacking a sika deer. Check out the pictures at National Geographic.

5. Ever wonder why your fingers get pruney in the bath? Maybe it is a primate adaptation! Mark Changizi explains why at TEDEd:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Honeybees Can Avoid Deadlock When Making Group Decisions, So Why Can't We?

This honeybee swarm has precious little time to make a democratic decision as to
where they will move to. A decision deadlock could have fatal consequences.
Image by Nino Barbieri at Wikimedia Commons.
In case you've been living in a cave lately, the U.S. Government has been shut down since October 1st. Not because of a terrorist attack or a bank system meltdown or a natural disaster, but because Congress cannot agree on a spending bill to determine our government's funding plan for the next year. The government shutdown has its consequences (such as closed national parks, postponed federal research funding, the halting of the CDC's flu vaccine program, and unpaid federal employees), but these will seem like a slap on the wrist if Congress can't agree to raise the debt ceiling by October 17. If we are still in a government deadlock at that point, we will default on our national loans and suffer disastrous consequences (such as the devaluation of the dollar, social security payments not being made, spiking interest rates, and devaluation and forced selling off of bonds). Congress is up against a deadline to make a group decision, and the consequences of not making one in time are much higher than the consequences of making an inperfect one. It's hard to come to a consensus when so many individuals in the group have a strong opinion one way or another, but the fact of the matter is: honeybees can do it. So why can't we?

This week at Accumulating Glitches I tell the story of how honeybees democratically decide on what new home to move to, all while avoiding a deadlock at indecision. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check these out:

Seeley, T.D., Visscher, P.K., Schlegel, T., Hogan, P.M., Franks, N.R., & Marshall, J.A.R. (2012). Stop signals provide cross inhibition in collective decision-making by honeybee swarms Science, 335, 108-111 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210361

Seeley, T.D. Honeybee Democracy, Princeton University Press (2010).

And learn more about group decision-making in animals at Can a Horde of Idiots Be a Genius? and Why This Horde of Idiots Is No Genius

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Applying For Funding

Image by

The first time I applied to graduate school to study animal behavior I was rejected. Heartbroken yet determined, I called them to ask what I could do to strengthen my application for the next year. The response from the woman on the other end of the phone was, “Well, what funding did you apply for?”

Applying for funding had not occurred to me. Wasn’t the whole process of applying for grad school enough? “What funding should I apply for?” I asked. I scribbled down the names of the fellowship programs she listed and immediately looked into them.

Of the list she gave me, I was only eligible for one of them (the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship). So I looked it up, completed the application as best as I could and submitted it at the same time as I submitted the next year’s round of graduate applications.

By the next March, seven of the ten graduate programs I had applied for had rejected me. One had accepted me and the other two had not yet made up their minds. …And then the letter came: I had been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Big Whoop, I thought. The schools have already made up their minds. But my parents talked me into contacting all the schools anyway so they could update my files.

Within a week, I had received e-mails, letters and personal phone calls from not only departments, but researchers from almost every school I had applied to. They all apologized for not accepting me and explained that they just can’t possibly accept all qualified candidates. The limiting factors are the advisors’ time and money available to support the students. Now that I had my own money to support myself, I was accepted into nearly every program I had applied to!

As much as we like to think about our paths in science as pursuing our passions and curiosities, the fact of the matter is money often dictates the limits of what we can and can’t do. Obtaining your own money will not only help you get into graduate programs, but will help you be able to pursue the questions that you are passionate about. Here are some funding opportunities available to students during the time that they are applying to graduate schools:

The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP; The NSF Fellowship)
The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is a fellowship that awards outstanding graduate students and graduate student candidates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Awardees get three years of an annual stipend (this year’s stipend is $32,000 per year!), some tuition for the university, and access to international research and professional development opportunities. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or permanent resident; be enrolled in a U.S. graduate program by the following Fall; and have less than 12 months of experience as a graduate student.

Applications for the NSF Fellowship are generally due in the first week of November. Most of the application process is similar to applying to graduate school; They ask for a personal statement, graduate research statement, 3 reference letters, and academic transcripts. It is all online and the technical version of the instructions (which you really should read) are in a document called the NSF GRFP Program Solicitation. This year’s document can be found here.

The heart of this application is your graduate research statement. This is a short research proposal of something you would like to study in graduate school. As a proposal, it should include a hypothesis, the background research that lead you to this hypothesis, briefly how you would test your hypothesis and how you would interpret your results. If you get the award, you won’t be held to the project you propose, but they will be looking for how you think as a scientist, whether your research plan is feasible with reasonable university resources and time, and how your proposed research could contribute to advancing knowledge and benefiting society.

The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships

The Ford Foundation Fellowship Programs seek to increase diversity in academia and promote the use of diversity as a resource for enriching student education. The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship is a program that provides three years of funding to Ph.D. and Sc.D. graduate students and graduate student candidates in a broad range of fields, including life sciences. Awardees get a $20,000 annual stipend, a small university payment, expenses to attend a Ford Fellows Conference and access to Ford Foundation mentors. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, permanent resident, or granted deferred action status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program; be enrolled in a research-based graduate program at a U.S. graduate institution by the following Fall; and have more than 3 years left before you complete your graduate degree.

Applications are generally due in late November. They ask for a personal statement, statement of previous research, statement of proposed research, 3 or 4 reference letters, and academic transcripts. Instructions can be found here.

Because the focus of the Ford Foundation Fellowships is to promote diversity in academia, they are looking for applicants that have very high academic achievement, display interest and promise in following a career as a scholar and teacher, and display a capacity to serve the needs of a diverse student body. Although race and ethnicity does not determine eligibility, they do look favorably upon applicants from underrepresented groups in academia. They also look favorably upon applicants that engage with and will continue engaging with underrepresented communities and who will use diversity as an educational resource in teaching and research.

Marshall Scholarships

If you are a U.S. citizen and you would like to study in the United Kingdom, then a Marshall Scholarship might be for you. This prestigious award can be used for any field of study at any college or university in the U.K. as long as the program can be completed in two years (although it can be extended for a third year under some circumstances). Award amounts vary, but awardees get tuition, travel expenses, living expenses, and an arrival allowance. The interesting thing about this award that you must specify your first choice of where you would like to attend (even if you haven’t applied to it yet) and if you get the award, you must attend that program to get the award (they will try to ensure you get in). Their rules for this year can be found here.

The application is generally due in early October. It is online and they won’t give you the instructions until you open an account and start the on-line application.

All of these fellowships can be applied for in the same Fall in which your graduate applications are due. They are all highly competitive and require that you have good grades and test scores in addition to a spectacular application. But if you are one of the few that can secure your own funding for the start of your graduate program, your chances of getting into a program and specifically the program of your choice will increase dramatically.

Good luck!

Would you like to add a fellowship program to this list? Write it in the comment section below! And for more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Just Another Day (A Guest Post)

By Cassie Apostolou

The zooplankton picture on the left was provided by the EPA at Wikimedia Commons.
The human picture on the right was provided by Cassie Apostolou.
Check out the two pictures above. It doesn’t look like those two animals share a lot in common, right? Obviously the two organisms don’t look alike and the zooplankton (the odd looking microorganism creature in the left picture) lives in water and us humans typically like to stay dry on land. But if you dig a little deeper than just what you see, you’ll notice that most humans (probably you too) tend to endure specific daily migration patterns just as these little creatures do as well. Curious? Or maybe even offended that I pretty much just compared you to a zooplankton? Then continue reading and obtain the information you can throw in a friend’s face next time they are on an ego trip!

Whether you are in school or have a job, I’m sure you have a daily schedule you stick to. A daily example most people can relate to is this: you wake up to the annoying beeping of your alarm, maybe take a shower, change clothes, eat some breakfast, and then are headed off to work or school, you stay there for so many hours and then turn around and head on home (probably even taking the same routes most days too!) Well, as we do this on a daily basis, many zooplankton have a regular schedule too.

Photo of drifting zooplankton by
NOAA at Wikimedia Commons.

Zooplankton means “animal/water drifters”. Most get this name from performing daily vertical migrations cycles by floating or swimming to the surfaces of waters at night, while during the day time they stay in deeper depths of the waters. Why do they do this though? Well, research has shown that some zooplankton perform these daily cycles to escape fish predators and to obtain their food source. Also, daily migration occurs for the prevention of solar damage (just like humans and sunburn). There is also current research testing if metabolic advantages are also a cause for these migration patterns. Furthermore, studies have looked into external changes (such as temperature, salinity, and even acidity changes) as being a reason.

Photo of zooplankton under the microscope
by Ma.C. Mingorance Rodriguez at Wikimedia.
How do these animals with hardly any external features perform these day-to-day migrations? These creatures have to be in good physical shape to out-swim the predators. Also, they have to be able to adapt to the changing temperatures due to the sun or even the temperature changes in their environment. Plus, they have to be able to swim within a large group of other zooplankton to push against the ocean factors. Lastly, the zooplankton that perform the daily migrations are physically able to do so because some have evolved a pseudopodia (aka “false feet”) or flagella (tail like structure) adaption to help them move.

Still think you are way different than a zooplankton? Well, don’t you return to a safe area at the end of the night? I’m sure you eat at certain times and not at others and the food you get is mainly from the same places (probably your refrigerator or favorite restaurant). So in the end aren’t we all just walking around to obtain the necessities we need in life, just like zooplankton? I think when it comes down to the basics yes, but humans have put their own twists on life too.


1. Forward, R.B. Diel Vertical Migration: Zooplankton Photobiology and Behaviour. in Oceanography and Marine Biology Vol. 26, ed. H. Barnes and M. Barnes, Aberdeen University Press, 1988, 361- 393.

2. Haney, J.F. (1988). Diel Patterns of Zooplankton Behavior Bulletin of Marine Science, 43 (3), 583-603

3. Iwasa, Y (1982). Vertical Migration of Zooplankton: A Game Between Predator and Prey The American Naturalist, 120 (2), 171-180 DOI: 10.1086/283980

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hiding in Plain Sight

The fish on the far left is a juvenile cleaner wrasse in the act of cleaning another fish. The two fish in the middle and on the right are both bluestriped fangblennies, one in its cleaner wrasse-mimicking coloration (middle) and the other not (right). Figure from the Cheney, 2013 article in Behavioral Ecology.
Sometimes the best place to hide is right under everybody's nose. If you look like you are innocuous and you belong there, every so often you can get away with trouble.

The bluestriped fangblenny, a coral reef fish in Australia and Indonesia, takes this mimicry strategy to a whole new level. The bluestriped fangblenny doesn't simply look like another species, but it can
change its look to resemble any of three different species, depending on who happens to be around! When surrounded by olive-colored damselfish, they take on an olive hue. When surrounded by yellow anthias, they turn orangey-yellow. But their most impressive costume is that of the black and blue striped juvenile cleaner wrasse. And when they are not around a species they mimic, they revert to a brown shade and hide.

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about how the bluestriped fangblenny uses mimicry of juvenile cleaner wrasse to sneak up on an bite their predators! Check it out here.

And to learn more, check these out:

1. Cheney, K.L. (2013). Cleaner fish coloration decreases predation risk in aggressive fangblenny mimics Behavioral Ecology, 24 (5), 1161-1165 DOI: 10.1093/beheco/art043

2. Cheney, K.L., Skogh, C., Hart, N.S., & Marshall, N.J. (2009). Mimicry, colour forms and spectral sensitivity of the bluestriped fangblenny, Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 276, 1565-1573 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1819

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

With a Fish in Your Pooper, Things Are Never Super (A Guest Post)

By Brittanie Delorit

You’ve probably heard of relationships between animals before: fish hitching a ride with a shark, clown fish hanging out in their anemones, or barnacles clinging to the fins of whales as they go for a swim; These are all unique in their own way. But have you ever heard of a fish living in the butt of another animal?

A Thelenota ananas sea cucumber
(one of the species used in this study).
Photo by Leonard Low at Wikimedia.

The sea cucumber, an echinoderm (along with sea urchins and sea stars), is found in shallow, sandy areas in all the world’s oceans. They eat by gulping in sand through their mouth, extracting decaying organic matter through their digestive tract and then excreting all of the unused matter from their anus. As if the way they eat isn’t strange enough, even more strange is the fact that sea cucumbers breathe using their anus. The sea cucumber gulps in water through its anus taking the oxygen out of the water… and that’s where the pearlfish come in, literally!

Several undergraduate scientists, Brooke Luciano, Ashleigh Lyman, Selena McMillian, and Abby Nickels, from the University of California in Santa Cruz, were on a Marine Ecology field course in French Polynesia. As part of their semester abroad, they wanted to study the interactions of pearlfish and their host, the sea cucumber. They focused their study on four main questions: 1) Is there competition to find a host?, 2) Is the pearlfish host specific and do they return to their original host after leaving?, 3) When the pearlfish finds a host are association cues present between the two?, and 4) Is the pearlfish nocturnally active?

To find results to their five hypotheses, studies were conducted. Two species of sea cucumbers were collected from sites outside of Opunohu Bay on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. To remove the pearlfish from the sea cucumbers, the cucumbers were placed in a shallow, oxygen depleted container of water.

To answer the first question (Is there competition to find a host?), the pearlfish and the sea cucumber it inhabited were both tagged and observed to see if any fighting occurred between pearlfish. They also recorded if and when a pearlfish chose a different host to inhabit. Once they observed an incident of two male pearlfish fighting to the death inside a sea cucumber and resorting to cannibalism inside the cucumber. They also saw a pearlfish eating its way out of the sea cucumber it was inhabiting.

  It's reported that most pearlfish enter tail-first, like in this video. 
But cases of pearlfish entering head-first have been reported.

To answer the second question (Is the pearlfish host specific and do they return to their original host after leaving?), the pearlfish were tagged and then placed into a tank with multiple sea cucumbers including their present host. They then observed which cucumber they chose to inhabit, if they returned to it, and for how long. Conducting these studies concluded that no selectivity was found while observing the fish; most fish inhabited the first cucumber they came across even if it wasn’t theirs.

To answer the third question (When the pearlfish finds a host are association cues present between the two?), observations of the fish interacting with a potential host were recorded. Pearlfish smelling the length of their potential host was observed before actually entering the anus of the cucumber were recorded. The pearlfish were also observed listening along the sides of the cucumber, checking for another pearlfish already inside, and after checking, the pearlfish performed a type of knocking around the anus, encouraging its entrance into the body cavity of the cucumber. The sea cumber needs to open its anus to allow entrance for the pearlfish.

To answer the fourth question (Is the pearlfish nocturnally active?), night observations were done. But observations done at night showed no nocturnal behavior. This is strange because in the wild it has been observed that pearlfish live in the cucumber during the day, using them for protection, and then emerge at night to feed and scavenge. The reason no nocturnal behavior was observed in this study is thought to be because the pearlfish were under stress.

The relationship between pearlfishes and their sea cucumber hosts is one of the more intriguing cases of parasitism in the fish world. So if you happen to be a sea cucumber, make sure to hold your breath the next time you see a pearlfish swimming your way!

Luciano, B., Lyman, A., McMillian, S., Nickels., A. 2002. The symbiotic relationship between Sea cucumbers (Holothuriidae) and Pearlfish (Carapidae). A project of the Marine Ecology Field Quarter at the University of California, Santa Cruz, pgs 1-8. Available online:

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Who Said What? (A Guest Post)

By Porscha Carriveau

A Quaker parrot shows off his beak
and tongue. Photo by Alex Nelson
at Wikimedia Commons.
As an aviculturist-turned-scientist, to me, it is common sense to tell people that birds are heard more often than seen. People study bird songs or calls for a variety of reasons. The reason I study bird songs is to identify the songs that my African grey parrot has learned to mimic. His repertoire includes the vocalizations of several birds’ songs such as robins, cardinals, cat birds, and chickadees. He also mimics humans. When leaving home in the morning, the last thing that I hear heading out the door is "gotta go to work" and the sound of being blown a kiss. Most people would think nothing of it, but I am being told this by a bird that has no lips.

Here is an example of an African grey parrot producing sound :

Humans produce sound by using their vocal tract, which includes the larynx (known as the voice box), where the vocal folds are located. Sound is produced with the help of the trachea, which controls air flow through the larynx. In the larynx the vocal folds make sound by vibrating. The remainder of the vocal tract includes the throat, nose, tongue and lips which are involved in the articulation of speech. On the other hand, parrots have a syrinx (what rivals the larynx), a trachea, a tongue and a beak. This means that birds do not have vocal cords to produce the sounds that we as humans make; they instead have two air passages that come together at the organ known as the syrinx creating a vibration that produces sound.

From my experiences working with and owning a variety of parrots, I would say that African grey parrots and monk parakeets (also known as Quaker parrots) are the two clearest and best mimicking parrots. Quaker parrots originate from South America. Over the years these birds have learned to adapt to their environment extremely well, leading to the birds becoming an invasive species in many parts of the world, including several U.S. states where they are now illegal to own as pets.

Research done by Verena Ohms, Gabriël Beckers, Carel ten Cate and Roderick Suthers recently set up a study using x-ray imaging to determine what is taking place in the vocal tract of a Quaker parrot while producing species specific calls. To do this, a piece of metal wire was placed on the underside of a Quaker parrot’s tongue and two pieces of wire were placed inside the trachea attached to tracheal rings. Here is an example of what researchers were looking at which allowed them to monitor the bird’s tongue, beak, and trachea movements.

Researchers looked specifically at a few measures when a bird produces sound: the bird’s tongue height (TH), the size of the beak opening (BO), and the amount of tracheal stretching (TS).

Diagram of the measures taken from Quaker parrots. Figure from Ohms, et al., 2012.
Through observing the changes that occurred from the metal wires placed inside a Quaker parrot’s tongue and trachea while producing calls, researchers were able to conclude that a parrot's tongue functions much differently than a songbirds’. Even more amazing is that a parrot’s tongue is similar to a human tongue in the way that it is manipulated while producing sound. Researchers also determined that these parrots manipulate the sound frequency (pitch) of their calls by moving their tongues in and out. The researchers were also the first to observe a circle-like movement in the trachea that had not been described before in this species.

So whether my trouble-making parrot (you should hear him burp and excuse himself) is blowing me a kiss or mimicking a bird song, there are many similarities in the way that humans and parrots produce speech sounds. This is pretty amazing for two groups of animals that are so different!

Work Cited

Ohms, V., Beckers, G., Ten Cate, C., & Suthers, R. (2012). Vocal Tract Articulation Revisited: The Case of the Monk Parakeet The Journal of Experimental Biology, 215, 85-92 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.064717

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Some City Birds Are Changing Their Tune

European starlings are one of the many bird species changing their songs
 in urban environments. Image by 4028mdk09 at Wikimedia Commons.
The human world population has climbed to over 7.1 billion people and for the first time ever, more than half of us live in an urban area. Urban areas are spreading and more animals are either getting pushed out or are becoming urbanized in the process. Birds are among the many species we are used to seeing and hearing in our cities, but how exactly are they and their songs being affected by urban spread?

This week at Accumulating Glitches I tell the story of how urbanization is changing our avian soundscape. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check this out:

Slabbekoorn, H. (2013). Songs of the city: noise-dependent spectral plasticity in the acoustic phenotype of urban birds Animal Behaviour (85), 1089-1099 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.01.021

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Getting Good Grades

There's a strategy to doing well
in college courses. Image by
I showed up to my first year of college wide-eyed and ready to take life by the horns. It was the first time I had lived away from my parents’ rules and I was surrounded by an exciting new world of dorms, Outdoor Clubs, new friends and parties… Oh, the parties. Needless to say, I was distracted. And by the end of my freshman year, my grades showed it. If I was going to get into a graduate program after I graduated (which was already my goal), I was going to have to turn things around.

Getting good grades in a rigorous college course requires more finely-tuned study skills than getting good grades in a high school class. Simply showing up to classes and skimming through your notes the night before the exam may have gotten an “A” in high school, but it’s barely enough for a “C” in college. Unfortunately, many of us get into college (and sometimes a few years in) without having learned these critically important study skills that in the end will make you less stressed, more prepared, and more impressive. Here is some advice on how you can get the most out of your college classes and get good grades while doing it (That is, after all, why you’re paying all that college tuition, right?).

There are two essentials to getting good grades in college courses, and no, being a talented genius is not one of them. They are simply to be organized and put in the time.

If you haven’t gotten one yet, go and get yourself an academic planner (at any bookstore or office supply store). There are many different types, but my preference is for a monthly/weekly planner, which has monthly calendars followed by sections for daily notes. Once you get your planner, fill each week out with your scheduled obligations: class times, work schedule, club meetings, etc. Don’t forget to include workouts, meals and sleep (which can be as important to your grades as studying).

An organized planner is your secret weapon to achieving your goals.
Photo by electrictuesday at flickr.
Once your “fixed” schedule is written in the planner, you should be able to see blocks of time that are still available (if you don’t, you should consider cutting back on work hours, cutting back on the number of clubs you’re participating in, or dropping a class). These are the blocks of time where the real course work happens. For each course, calculate roughly how much weekly study time you should be putting in. Each college and course is a little different, but a general rule is that you should expect to put in 3 hours of time per week for each college credit. That means that for a 4 credit class, you should put in 12 hours per week. It may seem like a lot, but full-time students generally take 12-14 credits in a semester, which would translate to 36-42 hours per week, which is roughly equivalent to a full-time work week for any job. Subtract the time you spend in classes and labs (yes, that counts) from the total time you should spend on a class per week to get the amount of time you should schedule to study for that class. Now, find blocks of time to schedule your studying time for each course. You can make those blocks as long or short as you like, depending on your studying stamina. Just make sure that the total for each course adds up and doesn’t include time spent on Facebook or watching ridiculous YouTube videos.

Now the question is, what should you do with your studying time? Most professors give required or recommended readings to accompany their lectures. It is a good idea to read these before the lecture they are paired with. This will allow your brain to process the topic and the concepts and will often generate questions. Don’t expect to memorize or even understand every word, but do jot down the parts that you find confusing or have questions about.

In class, take notes. Even if the professor gives you handouts or printouts of slides, it is important for you to write down terms, diagrams and concepts. This is because the physical act of writing these down will help you remember them (Remember in elementary school when the teacher would make you write down vocabulary words over and over?) Also, now is the time to ask about the parts that you found confusing in the reading.

After you have been exposed to the material is when the learning really takes place. This is the integration phase. Using your notes from class, your readings and any materials your professor may have given you, reorganize and rewrite your notes in a format that makes sense to you. You may want to do this as an outline, a set of flash cards, or in diagrams. The most important thing is that it makes sense to you and includes everything the professor says you need to know. As you run into concepts you discover you don’t fully understand, look them up in your assigned readings, in other books or on the internet (But go to credible sites only – There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet). If you still need clarification, ask your professor.

A good way to test your understanding is with a study group. Going through the concepts with friends can help you find out if there are still details you don’t understand. And if there are details a friend doesn’t understand, nothing will help you understand the material better than teaching it to someone else.

By the time the exam comes around, you will have read the material, been lectured to about the material, studied the material and taught the material. You should know it pretty well. Now you just need to look over your notes one last time and maybe test yourself on some memorization or practice questions, but you don’t need to have a major pre-exam cramming session. Just eat well, work out and get 8 hours of sleep.

If this is all new to you and you have some semesters of grades you are not so proud of behind you, don’t think the graduate school doors have closed on you. There are two stages in the application process when grades are important. Your application is first examined to see if you meet the program’s basic requirements. At this point, you must have met their minimum GPA (and perhaps minimum GPA for science and math classes by themselves). If your current GPA does not meet this minimum (which is generally announced on their web page) you need to take more courses to get that GPA up before it will even be worth your time and money to apply.

If your application passes the first round of cuts, it will typically be given to the professors/researchers you would like to work with. They will usually assess what courses you have taken and how well you did in them. They are often looking either for consistently high grades or a strong pattern of improvement. This means that if you have some less-than-desirable grades in your past, they could be tolerated if your grades dramatically improve and remain high. If you apply these study skills to your courses from here on out, you could make yourself a major contender for one of those prized slots for incoming graduate students. Whether you’ve been distracted by the social aspects of college like I was or you’ve just realized that you want to pursue a graduate degree in a subject that has caught your imagination, these study tips will help you get there.

Good luck!

Did I miss your favorite study tip? Write it in the comment section below! And for more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.