Monday, May 30, 2016

The Harm of Verbal Promiscuity

Eastern chimpanzees don't want to be judged. Image by Ikiwaner at
Whether they have one true love for life, multiple partners, or are free-loving, animals have many different mating systems. We have different scientific terms for these different mating systems, and most of these terms have very specific meanings. An animal is socially monogamous when it has one exclusive mating relationship, but maybe has sex with others outside of that relationship. It is sexually monogamous when it has one exclusive sexual relationship and is sexually faithful to that partner. Animals are polygamous when they have multiple sexual relationships. Polygamous animals can be polygynous (when one male has a mating relationship with multiple females), polyandrous (when one female has a mating relationship with multiple males) or polygynandrous (when multiple males and multiple females all have a mating relationship). However, one mating system term has been used much more loosely: promiscuous. In some scientific papers, promiscuous is used to describe animals that aren’t choosy about whom they mate with. Others use promiscuous to describe animals that don’t form mating relationships. But promiscuous is also misused by many people, including scientists, to refer to polygamous animals. This loose use of terminology can be damaging to both our scientific understanding and our society.

Scientific terms generally come from common language, but are then are given more specific definitions for their scientific use. When we confuse scientific terms for their common-use meanings, society can be harmed. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes a dozen different definitions of “theory” that all include strong elements of uncertainty (such as “an unproved assumption” and “an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true”). In contrast, the scientific term theory refers only to scientific explanations that have been substantiated through such a large amount of rigorous scientific testing and evidence that we are almost certain they are true (because scientists are supposed to never be completely certain). When the scientific term theory is confused with the common word “theory”, then concepts regarded essentially as fact among informed scientists are disregarded by politicians and many of the general public as “just a theory”.

Promiscuity is one of those scientific terms that was originally borrowed from common language and is now confused with its common-word counterpart. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “promiscuous” as “having or involving many sexual partners”, which is almost exactly the scientific definition of polygamous. Thus, “promiscuous” is often misused, even by scientific researchers, when polygamous, polygynous, polyandrous, or polygynandrous are more accurate. Misidentifying the mating system of a species can obscure meaningful connections between behavior and ecology and can negatively impact conservation, captive breeding efforts, and medical and psychological advances.

Image from
Mark Elgar and TherĂ©sa Jones from the University of Melbourne and Kathryn McNamara from The University of Western Australia found that when “promiscuous” is misused in research, scientists are much more likely to use it to refer to polyandrous females than to polygynous males. This biased misuse of the word reflects our moral judgments and causes us additional harm as a society. The common word “promiscuous” has pejorative connotations and evokes negative emotions, especially when applied to women. Our human cultures generally have expectations that women will be faithful to one partner, while we are more understanding of the infidelities of men. When applied to animals, and especially primates, promiscuity has an anthropomorphic nature that places our human expectations and interpretations on other species. It’s bad enough when we judge each other – let’s try not to judge animals too.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Elgar, M., Jones, T., & McNamara, K. (2013). Promiscuous words Frontiers in Zoology, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1742-9994-10-66

Monday, May 23, 2016

Do Not Google These Animals

This is not my week to be mature, so we’re going to point and laugh at animals with funny names.

Great Tits

Image by Ken Billington at Wikimedia Commons.
The great tit (Parus major) is a common songbird throughout Eurasia. There is actually a whole family of tits, which also includes the less-fortunately named ashy tit (Melaniparus cinerascens), and the strip-clubbing cousin, the stripe-breasted tit (Melaniparus fasciiventer). “Tit” also means small, which is likely the origin of using it to describe a small bird that doesn’t even have nipples.

Brown Boobies

Image by Muriel Gottrop at Wikimedia Commons.
Brown boobies (Sula leucogaster) are large seabirds that commonly breed on the islands in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Like the tit family, there is also a booby family, including the more commonly known blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii). Boobies were named using the Spanish word bobo, which means “stupid” or “clown-like”, due to their clumsiness on land and lack of fear of humans.

Slippery Dick

Image by Brian Gratwicke at Wikimedia Commons.
The slippery dick (Halichoeres bivittatus) is a small fish in the wrasse family that lives in reefs in the tropical western Atlantic Ocean. The name of this unfortunate species apparently predates the present use of the term. "Slippery dick" was mentioned as early as 1859 in John Jones’ The Naturalist in Bermuda as the name fishermen commonly used for this wrasse species. It apparently is difficult to hold onto and easily slips through your fingers. “Dick”, at the time, was the common nickname for Richard and was commonly used to refer to any “fellow”. It was not used to refer to a body part until the late 1800s, and this latter use of the term is attributed to British army slang.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Think You're Stressed Out? At Least You're Not THIS Guy!

It's a stressful time for many of us, and you may feel like life is eating you alive, but at least you're not this poor snake who is having the worst day of his life:

And for some hilarious commentary, check this out.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Princess IS the Frog (A Guest Post)

By Hayley Trzinski

Image by Hayley Trzinski

The Princess and the Frog
is a very fun and imaginative children’s story… but not when pesticides are involved. Have you ever wondered how dangerous pesticides can be? Well, pesticides can harm more than just pests and weeds, and in the case of frogs, many pesticides and herbicides are causing problems. Atrazine, a chemical commonly used as an herbicide, can cause reproduction in male African clawed frogs to be impossible. In some cases, atrazine is even turning some male frogs into females!

Tyrone Hayes, a biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and his research team looked at the effects of atrazine on African clawed frogs. The hypothesis of the researchers was to determine if exposure to atrazine would feminize or stop reproductive ability of male frogs. Tyrone Hayes and his team raised some frogs in atrazine dissolved in a weak ethanol solution and some in only a weak ethanol solution for a control group. Even though the ethanol solutions did not contain enough ethanol to impact the frogs, it is important to put the control group frogs in ethanol as well so both the treatment and control groups are equal in that way. Fertility in the frogs was later determined by looking at the number of developed embryos produced from atrazine-treated males and females, and from normal males and females.

Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it contains chemicals that can change the hormone systems in animals. Some endocrine disruptors block hormone receptors, causing the hormones needed for reproduction to stop working. Atrazine works as an endocrine disruptor by increasing the production and activity of aromatase, a chemical that turns testosterone into estrogen. This decreases the amount of testosterone and increases the amount of estrogen in the male frogs.

Tyrone Hayes and his team saw that aromatase was found in normal females and in atrazine-treated males, but not in normal males. The aromatase production caused a decrease in testosterone and an increase in estrogen in the atrazine-treated males. Subsequently, the atrazine-treated males' calls became less masculine, their sperm died, and they started forming characteristics such as female sex organs.

In the long run, atrazine could affect whole frog populations by skewing the sex ratio, meaning that there will be many more of one sex of frog than the other, making it hard to keep a healthy frog population. The main way that atrazine could skew the sex ratio of frogs is by changing their behavior. This starts by male frogs not being able to mate or by their fertility decreasing. Tyrone Hayes found that the behavior of male frogs treated with atrazine was different than the behavior of male frogs not treated with atrazine. Non-treated males out-competed atrazine-treated males for females and only two atrazine-treated males obtained correct mating posture. Also, non-treated males had much higher testosterone levels when around females than atrazine-treated males. This behavior change in male frogs affected by atrazine could cause fewer of those males to act like males, and more of them to act like females or to not reproduce at all.

Atrazine can skew the sex ratios of frog populations in other ways, too. African clawed frogs have the opposite type of sex determining chromosomes as humans. While human males have one Y and one X sex chromosome and human females have two X sex chromosomes, normal male African clawed frogs have two Z chromosomes and female African clawed frogs have one Z chromosome and one W chromosome. The sex ratio becomes skewed, in part, because even though some of the newly transitioned female frogs can successfully breed, they still have male genetics. When these newly transitioned female frogs mate with natural male frogs, all of the offspring will be males. This is because two frogs that both have original sex cells that are both Z’s create offspring that must inherit two Z chromosomes, making all of the babies male. This is dangerous for populations of frogs, because only one sex of frogs being created could lead to extinction of these creatures.

Although you may like the idea of crops being pest and weed free, there are many negative side effects to the dangerous pesticide chemicals, including changing the reproduction of frogs and even fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals, sometimes including humans. Even though the effects of these pesticides are pretty interesting, I don’t know about you, but I would rather read a story where frogs turn into princes instead of princesses.


Hayes, T., Khoury, V., Narayan, A., Nazir, M., Park, A., Brown, T., Adame, L., Chan, E., Buchholz, D., Stueve, T., & Gallipeau, S. (2010). Atrazine induces complete feminization and chemical castration in male African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (10), 4612-4617 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909519107

Mnif, W., Hassine, A., Bouaziz, A., Bartegi, A., Thomas, O., & Roig, B. (2011). Effect of Endocrine Disruptor Pesticides: A Review International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8 (12), 2265-2303 DOI: 10.3390/ijerph8062265

Monday, May 2, 2016

Science Beat: Round 7

Final exams and final project due-dates are quickly approaching. If you learn science better with a beat, check these out:

Where to Round:

Periodic Table:

Anatomy and Physiology:

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below and check out other science songs worth learning at Science Beat, Science Beat: Round 2, Science Beat: Round 3, Science Beat: Round 4, Science Beat: Round 5, Science Beat: Round 6, and Science Song Playlist. Check out some song battles about the life of scientists at The Science Life, 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!