Saturday, September 14, 2019

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: An Outline

Do you dream about a career of studying animals?
Image by
A repost of an original article from March 13, 2013.

**NOTE: Although this advice is written for those interested in applying to graduate programs in animal behavior, it applies to most programs in the sciences.**

So you want to go to grad school to study animal behavior… Well join the club! It is a competitive world out there and this is an increasingly competitive field. But if every fiber of your being knows this is the path for you, then there is a way for you to follow that path. With hard work, dedication and persistence, you can join the ranks of today's animal biologists to pursue a career of trekking to wild places to study animals in their native habitats, testing questions about the physiology of behavior in a lab, or exploring the genetics of behavioral adaptation.

This is an outline of advice on how to get into a graduate program in animal behavior. More details on the individual steps will follow, so leave a comment below or e-mail me if you have any particular questions you would like me to address or if you have any advice you would like to share.

  1. Get good grades, particularly in your science and math courses. And make sure you take all the science and math prerequisites for biology graduate programs.
  2. Prepare well for the GREs.
  3. Get research experience. This can come in many forms (such as volunteering in a lab, working as a field technician, or doing an independent project for credit), but as a general rule, the more involved you are in a project, the more it will impress those making acceptance decisions.
  4. Choose the labs you are interested in, not just the schools. As a graduate student, you will spend most of your time working with your advisor and the other members of your advisor’s lab. This means that the right fit is imperative. Figure out what researchers you may want to work with, then see if they are at a school you would like to attend.
  5. Be organized in your application process. There will be a lot of details to keep straight: due dates, recommendation letters, essays, communication with potential advisors… The more organized you are, the less likely you are to miss a deadline or make an embarrassing mistake.
  6. Write compelling essays. Most schools will ask you to write two short essays: a Statement of Purpose and a Personal History. This is your place to set yourself apart. They need to convey your experience with animal behavior research and passion for working with that particular advisor. They also need to be very well written, so expect to write multiple drafts.
  7. Be organized and prepared when you ask for your recommendation letters. The easier you make it for your references to write a thoughtful recommendation letter for you, the better the letters will be.
  8. Apply for funding. This isn’t essential: Most first-year graduate students do not have their own funding. But the ability of a school and a specific researcher to accept a graduate student depends on what funding is available to support them. If you have your own funding, it is more likely you will to be able to write your own ticket.
  9. Be prepared for each interview you are invited to.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Although heartbraking at the time, it is very common in animal behavior graduate programs to not be accepted anywhere in your first year of applications. If you are rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good candidate. Often it means there is no funding available to support you in the labs you would like to join. Spend the year participating in research and applying for funding so you can reapply next year.
The submission of a successful application takes a lot of planning and preparation. Getting good grades is a continuous effort. Plus, the most successful applicants often have two or more years of research experience. Ideally, you are working on these two things at least by your sophomore year of college. But if you waited too long and you haven’t taken enough science or math prerequisites, your grades are not where they need to be, or you don’t have enough research experience, you can take some extra time after you graduate to take community college courses and volunteer or work in a lab. Persistence and dedication are key to following a challenging path.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Tiny Ninjas, Big Bites

By Alexis Brauner

Venom isn’t just a weapon for snakes and spiders.

A smaller, more dangerous insect is in existence and falls into the realm of venomous creatures: the assassin bug. This little critter is part of a scientific family called Reduviidae, a group where all the members share the same characteristic of being an ambush predatory bug. They prey on invertebrates (animals that don’t have a spine), such as crickets and mealworms, by injecting venom into them.

An assasin bug. Source: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos at Wikimedia Commons.

Assassin bugs are believed to have two versions of venom – one for feeding and one for defense. Both types of venom are made up of more than 100 proteins, but what is unique about it is its ability to paralyze and liquify the inside of the prey. That’s right… liquify. The tissues of the prey turn into a jello-like substance that the assassin bug can then suck through a long tube on its mouth called the proboscis.

How is the venom able to do that?

First, let’s peek at the mechanisms that work to carry the venom through the body of the assassin bug and into its meal.

The venom apparatus of an assassin bug is made up of three main parts: secretory glands, a muscle-driven pump, and a venom channel. The three secretory glands (the anterior main gland, posterior main gland, and accessory gland) are in the thorax and abdomen of the assassin bug. These separate glands release a specific form of assassin bug venom depending on what situation the bug is facing. For example, the anterior main gland releases a form of venom that does not paralyze prey but is thought to be used as a defense mechanism, while the posterior main gland releases the deadly form of venom.

The venom apparatus of an assassin bug. Source: Walker, et. al, 2018, modified by Alexis Brauner

Once released, the venom then makes its way to a muscle-driven pump within the head of the bug. The pump fills with the available venom when the muscle contracts and is released once the muscle relaxes. Think of the venom pump as a clothes pin: when you push on the prongs, the pin opens, and you can put things in it to hold; once you let go of the prongs, the mouth of the pin closes, but now the prong end is open. In this example, your fingers are the muscle and the clothes pin is the pump with one end open at a time. The muscle relaxation releases the venom into the venom channel in the interlocking maxillary stylets (also known as the fangs) of the assassin bug. And then…


Venom is in the food or the foe.

And if it’s in the food, then the tissues of the prey turn into liquid. This liquification phenomenon is caused by enzymes in assassin bug venom called proteases. All enzymes catalyze, or speed up, chemical reactions; however, proteases are specialized enzymes that catalyze the destruction of proteins. This means that the assassin bug venom goes into the prey and the proteases are like Pac-Men with razor sharp teeth that grind up the primarily protein tissue at such a lightning fast speed that, within seconds, the prey is juice!

Scientists continue to research assassin bug venom to learn more about its components, but one thing is for sure: The extraordinary liquid weapon housed in such a small insect is why assassin bugs are tiny ninjas with big bites.

To learn more:

Walker, A., Madio, B., Jin, J., Undheim, E., Fry, B., King, G. (2017). Melt With This Kiss: Paralyzing and Liquefying Venom of The Assassin Bug Pristhesancus plagipennis (Hemiptera: Reduviidae). Mol Cell Proteomics, 16 (4), 552-566. DOI: 10.1074/mcp.M116.063321.

Walker, A., Mayhew, M., Jin, J., Herzig, V., Undheim, E., Sombke, A., Fry, B., Meritt, D., King, F. (2018). The assassin bug Pristhesancus plagipennis produces two distinct venoms in separate gland lumens. Nat Commun, 9, 755. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03091-5

Friday, August 30, 2019

A Tiny Surprise in Regards to Regeneration (A Guest Post)

A reposting of an original article by Jessica Klein in The Scorpion and the Frog.

The ability to regenerate limbs and tails is nothing new to reptiles and amphibians. Many lizards are able to drop their tails to escape an enemy, whereas salamanders have been known to grow back entire legs with muscle after being attacked by a predator. These regenerative characteristics have been seen to some extent in rabbits and pika before 2012, but were later discovered to occur extensively in, surprisingly enough, small African spiny mice.

One of the African spiny mouse species. Photo by Ashley Seifert and Tom Gawriluk.

In a study done by Ashley W. Seifert and Megan G. Seifert at the University of Kentucky, Todd M. Palmer and Malcolm Maden at the University of Florida, Stephen G. Kiama at the University of Nairobi, and Jacob R. Goheen at the University of Wyoming, African spiny mice were studied in order to view the extent of their regenerative properties, why they might occur, and the physiological processes that make it happen.

The rodents were captured in Kenya, where researchers learned that vigorous movement during handling caused the skin of African spiny mice to come apart. One mouse was reported to have an open wound that took up 60% of its back, just from being handled! Therefore, Dr. Seifert measured the amount of strength it took to tear the skin of spiny mice using something called a Hounsfield tensometer. He took the measurements from that tool and graphed them on a plot, creating something called a stress-strain curve which showed how much strength it took to tear the skin of the mouse.

The strength measurements revealed that the skin of these species was 77 times weaker than average mice, explaining why their skin tore so easily during the handling process. In order for the African spiny mice to survive such large injuries due to their extremely fragile skin, it would be beneficial to heal quickly or regenerate the skin. This is exactly what Dr. Seifert discovered.

An African spiny mouse shows
the regenerative process with
(1) being before the wound
(2) being after the wound and
(3) showing how the wound was
completely healed after 30 days.
Figure from Seifert, et al., 2012.
After the strength measurements were completed, the rodents were anaesthetized and had 4mm and 1.5cm wounds made on their skin, as well as 4mm holes punched in their ears in order to view the regeneration process. In an average rodent, the repair of a 4mm skin wound takes around 5 to 7 days and is accompanied by a significant amount of scarring. However, in the African spiny mouse it only took 1 to 2 days for scabbing of the skin wound to occur with new cells forming on the outside of the wound to repair it. After just 10 days, the ear of the mouse was fully healed. In the ear punches, there were no signs of scarring that would have been expected in a rodent, and healthy cartilage had formed. By the 21st day of the experiment, African spiny mice had developed new hair follicles and healthy new hair covering the once wounded area. In total, Dr. Seifert discovered that African spiny mice were capable of regenerating their skin, hair follicles, and sweat glands.

Dr. Seifert suggested the skin of African spiny mice is fragile because it allows them to escape predators. This would require a quick healing time to reduce the chance of infection and ultimately death in the mouse after escaping. This is why they may have gained the ability to regenerate their skin, but how exactly does this happen? Dr. Seifert and his research team recently showed that, in these species, it occurs through a process known as epimorphic regeneration. This is when a blastema (a mass of immature, unspecialized cells) forms where the wound once was. These cells are capable of turning into whatever type of tissue was present in that area. This particular method of regeneration is how salamanders are capable of regenerating their limbs. Again, more research would need to be done in order to confirm or deny this. However, one thing is true, and that is that more research into this could prove to be useful in the future of medicine when it comes to healing critical and invasive injuries. By discovering the physiological process behind this, and then being able to replicate it in a lab, researchers may discover ways to heal injuries faster.

Works Cited

Seifert, Ashley W., Stephen G. Kiama, Megan G. Seifert, Jacob R. Goheen, Todd M. Palmer, and Malcolm Maden. "Skin Shedding and Tissue Regeneration in African Spiny Mice (Acomys)." Nature 489 (2012): 561-65. doi:10.1038/nature11499

Gawriluk, Thomas R., Jennifer Simkin, Katherine L. Thompson, Shishir K. Biswas, Zak Clare-Salzler, John M. Kimani, Stephen G. Kiama, Jeramiah J. Smith, Vanessa O. Ezenwa & Ashley W. Seifert. "Comparative analysis of ear-hole closure identifies epimorphic regeneration as a discrete trait in mammals" Nature Communications 7.11164 (2016). doi:10.1038/ncomms11164

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Does Social Status Change Brains?

A reposting of an original article in The Scorpion and the Frog.

Photo by The Grappling Source Inc.
at Wikimedia Commons
Being subordinated is stressful. The process of one individual lowering the social rank of another often involves physical aggression, aggressive displays, and exclusion. In addition to the obvious possible costs of being subordinated (like getting beat up), subordinated individuals often undergo physiological changes to their hormonal systems and brains. Sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it? But what if some of those changes are beneficial in some ways?

Dominance hierarchies are a fact of life across the animal kingdom. In a social group, everyone can’t be dominant (otherwise, life would always be like an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, and what could possibly be more stressful than that?). Living in a social group is more peaceful and nutritive when a clear dominance hierarchy is established.

Establishing that hierarchy often involves a relatively short aggressive phase of jostling for position, followed by a longer more stable phase once everyone knows where they fall in the social group. Established dominance hierarchies are not always stable (they can change over time or from moment to moment) and they are not always linear (for example, Ben can be dominant over Chris, who is dominant over David, who is dominant over Ben). But they do generally help reduce conflict and the risk of physical injury overall.

Nonetheless, it can be stressful to be on the subordinate end of a dominance hierarchy and these social interactions are known to cause physiological changes. Researchers Christina Sørensen and Göran Nilsson from the University of Oslo, Cliff Summers from the University of South Dakota and Øyvind Øverli from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences investigated some of these physiological differences among isolated, dominant, and subordinate rainbow trout.

A photo of a rainbow trout by Ken Hammond at the USDA.
Photo at Wikimedia Commons.
Like other salmonid fish, rainbow trout are aggressive, territorial and develop social hierarchies as juveniles. Dominant trout tend to initiate most of the aggressive acts, hog food resources, grow larger, and reproduce the most, whereas subordinate trout display less aggression, feeding, growth, and reproduction. The researchers recorded the behavior, feeding and growth rates in three groups of fish: trout housed alone, trout housed with a more subordinate trout, and trout housed with a more dominant trout. The researchers also measured cortisol (a hormone involved in stress responses), serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved in mood, the perception of food availability, and the perception of social rank, among other things) and the development of new neurons (called neurogenesis) in these same fish.

This video of two juvenile rainbow trout was taken by Dr. Erik Höglund. Here is Christina Sørensen’s description of the video: “What you see in the film is two juvenile rainbow trout who have been housed on each side of a dividing wall in a small aquarium. The dividing wall has been removed (for the first time) immediately before filming. You will see that the fish initially show interest for each other, followed by a typical display behaviour, where they circle each other. Finally one of the fish will initiate aggression by biting the other. First the aggression is bidirectional, as they fight for dominance, but after a while, one of the fish withdraws from further aggression and shows only submissive behaviour (escaping from the dominant and in the long run trying to hide... and as is described in the paper, depressed feed intake). The video has been cut to show in quick succession these four stages of development of the dominance hierarchy”.

The researchers found that as expected, the dominant trout were aggressive when a pair was first placed together, but the aggression subsided after about 3 days. Also as expected, the dominant and isolated trout were bold feeders with low cortisol levels and high growth rates, whereas the subordinate trout did not feed as well, had high cortisol levels and low growth rates. Additionally, the subordinate trout had higher serotonin activity levels and less neurogenesis than the dominant or isolated trout. These results suggest that the subordination experience causes significant changes to trout brain development (Although we can’t rule out the possibility that fish with more serotonin and less neurogenesis are predisposed to be subordinate). In either case, this sounds like bad news for subordinate brains, right? Maybe it is. Or maybe the decrease in neurogenesis just reflects the decrease in overall growth rates (smaller bodies need smaller brains). Or maybe something about the development of these subordinate brains improves the chances that these individuals will survive and reproduce in their subordination.

A crayfish raising its claws. Image by Duloup at Wikimedia.
Research on dominance in crayfish by Fadi Issa, Joanne Drummond, and Don Edwards at Georgia State University and Daniel Cattaert at the University of Bordeaux helps shed light on this third possibility. Crayfish (which are actually not fish at all, but are freshwater crustaceans that look like small lobsters) form long-lasting and stable social hierarchies. If you poke a crayfish in the side, an isolated or dominant crayfish will turn towards whatever poked it and raise its posture and claws to confront it; A subordinate crayfish will do one of two maneuvers that involves lowering the posture and backing away from whatever poked it. Furthermore, dominant and subordinate crayfish have different neuronal activity patterns in response to being poked, and part of this difference involves differences in the activity of serotonergic neurons.

It appears that the brains of dominant and subordinate individuals function differently and part of this difference involves serotonin. This may help dominant animals to continue to behave in a dominant fashion and subordinate individuals to continue to behave in a subordinate fashion, thereby preserving the peace for the whole social group.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Sørensen, C., Nilsson, G., Summers, C., & Øverli, �. (2012). Social stress reduces forebrain cell proliferation in rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) Behavioural Brain Research, 227 (2), 311-318 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2011.01.041

2. Issa, F., Drummond, J., Cattaert, D., & Edwards, D. (2012). Neural Circuit Reconfiguration by Social Status Journal of Neuroscience, 32 (16), 5638-5645 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5668-11.2012

3. Yeh, S., Fricke, R., & Edwards, D. (1996). The Effect of Social Experience on Serotonergic Modulation of the Escape Circuit of Crayfish Science, 271 (5247), 366-369 DOI: 10.1126/science.271.5247.366

4. Issa, F., & Edwards, D. (2006). Ritualized Submission and the Reduction of Aggression in an Invertebrate Current Biology, 16 (22), 2217-2221 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.08.065

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

What To Do If You Find Orphaned Wildlife

A repost of an original article from The Scorpion and the Frog.

A nest of baby cottontails waiting for sunset when their
mom will return. Image by Jhansonxi at Wikimedia.
Spring is finally in the air, and with Spring come babies! Finding baby animals in the wild is thrilling, but also concerning. Does this animal need your help? Where is its mom? What do you do?

Whenever possible, baby animals will do best when we leave them in the care of their mom. Even a well-meaning human is seen by a wild animal as a threat. Our interactions with them cause them extreme stress that can cause serious health problems and even death. Furthermore, if we take a baby animal home, it will not be able to learn its species-specific behaviors and skills and it can lose its natural and healthy fear of humans. It is also very hard to meet the specialized dietary needs of a wild animal in a captive setting. Taking a wild animal home can cause problems for us as well: many carry diseases that can be transmitted to our pets or even ourselves. And most wild animals are protected by state and federal laws that prohibit unlicensed citizens from possessing or raising them.

Luckily, most baby animals that seem alone actually have a mom that is not far away, either looking for food to feed herself and her babies or simply hiding from you. For example, rabbit mothers actively avoid their nests most of the time so as to not attract predators to the nest. Cottontail moms visit their babies only briefly at dawn and dusk for quick feedings. If you find a bunny nest, you can test to see if the mom is visiting by placing a few blades of grass or thin twigs in an X-shape over the babies. If you come back the next day and the pattern has been disturbed, then their mom is still caring for them and you should leave them be.

Many animal moms are prevented from taking care of their young when concerned people are hovering. Deer moms, for example, also actively avoid their babies (called fawns) so as to not attract predators to it. They generally return to nurse the fawns every few hours, but they won’t return to nurse if people or pets are around. If you find a fawn and it is not wandering and crying non-stop all day, then leave it alone so its mom will come back.

A red fox mom and baby. Photo by Nicke at Wikimedia.

Even if you find a baby all by itself in the open, the best course of action is often still to leave it alone. Many mammal moms, like squirrels, raccoons, mice, rats, foxes, and coyotes, will retrieve their young if they fall out of their nest or wander away from their den. Although it is a myth that most animal moms will abandon their babies if you get your smell on them, your odor can attract predators. It is best not to touch wildlife babies if you can avoid it.

Awww... as tempting as it is to pick up an adorable baby skunk, don't do it
unless you are a trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitator (like this woman is).
Image by AnimalPhotos at Wikimedia.

So when should you get involved? If an animal is in a dangerous location (like a busy street), then it may need to be moved. You can slowly, quietly and gently try to guide a mobile baby animal away from hazards and to a safer location. If the animal is not yet mobile, in most cases, you can use clean gloves to pick up the animal and move it to a safer location, placing it as close as possible to where you found it.

If you know that the mom is dead or has been relocated, then you are dealing with a truly orphaned baby animal. Likewise, if an animal has been attacked (or brought to you by your “helpful” cat), or is bleeding, injured, wet and emaciated, weak, infested with parasites, or has diarrhea, then it may need medical attention. In these cases, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Wildlife rehabilitators have been trained and have the necessary equipment to temporarily care for and treat injured, sick and orphaned wild animals so they can be released back into the wild. If you can’t find a wildlife rehabilitator, contact the Department of Natural Resources, a state wildlife agency, animal shelter, humane society, animal control agency, nature center, or veterinarian. Ideally, they will come to pick up the animal themselves. If they can’t, then they should give you detailed instructions for your situation on how to catch and transport the animal.

For more information, check here:

The Humane Society of the United States

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries