Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hiatus for Health

Hi folks,

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

Miss Behavior

Monday, April 20, 2015

Living to Love or Loving to Death?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 13, 2015

Help Protect African Rhinos! (A Guest Post)

by Celia Hein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Behavioral Transplants

Lab mice show off their personalities.
Image by Aaron Logan at Wikimedia.
Twelve Canadian scientists accomplished something we’ve only heard about in science fiction: They transplanted a set of behaviors from one set of animals to another set of animals! And you’ll never guess what part of these animals they physically transplanted to achieve this feat: It was not their brains; It was not their hearts; It was their gut-contents! We have all heard the phrase “you are what you eat”, but scientists have discovered the real truth: You are what you poop.

Today at Accumulating Glitches , I talk about the microbes in our guts that affect our personalities and how swapping personalities may be as simple as swapping poop! Check out the article here.