Tuesday, March 30, 2010
All three of these I found while camping in the Catskills last summer. They are also three of my favorite photos I have taken of organisms, especially the middle one. I'm fairly certain the top one is a Hygrocybe genus. Anyone able to point me to the right genera for the others?
Monday, March 29, 2010
As spring gears up I’ve been thinking a lot about gardening. We’re going to try growing more food this year and I’ve been researching vegetables that are easy to grow in
Some of you know this but a really great fact is that the simple act of putting one’s hands in soil releases endorphins in the brain. I haven’t been able to track down a primary source for this fact so if you know of one please leave me a comment. I’m quite confident it is true, though, from secondary sources and, more importantly, personal experience. Working in the garden just makes me feel good. And that’s directly related to the fact that this is a behavior that we should engage in, from a natural history perspective. We should garden and we should engage with the natural world because these things are part of who we are as a species. We are not primates designed to hunch over a keyboard as I am presently doing but primates who evolved in a natural world and used our intelligence to remove some of the uncertainty from procuring proper nutrition.
But I digress. One variety of vegetables we are going to try to grow this year is Brussels sprouts (and I just learned that it is Brussels sprouts and not Brussel sprouts). They are actually a variety of
PTC played a major role in the development of our understanding of the biochemistry and genetics of bitter taste detection. Ability in all animals to taste bitterness has evolved as a way to avoid toxic compounds. It is the only one of the five tastes (yes, five) that is activated by more than one family of molecules. It was little understood just how this worked until the 1930s when a scientist was experimenting on PTC and accidentally blew some of the substance into the air. His colleague began to complain of a bitter taste in his throat that the lead researcher could not detect. This lead to a line of research that now accounts for the genetic difference between humans who can and cannot taste this bitter molecule.
It is still somewhat unclear why some can and some cannot taste PTC. It is often found in toxic plants and PTC itself is toxic in very high quantities. We should, at least in theory, have all developed an aversion to the molecule as it is a sign of toxicity. Perhaps the molecule’s presence in vegetables we’ve been eating since antiquity accounts for some of our inability to taste PTC (or as I like to think of it, an ability not to taste PTC). What plants (either edible or not) are you looking forward to seeing in your garden this year?
Parington, Charles Frederick (1835) British cyclopaedia of natural history. Accessed via Google Books
Sunday, March 28, 2010
I took these photos last summer in the woods in the town where I grew up,
I used to think jack-in-the-pulpit was carnivorous. The tube-shaped structure reminded me of pitcher plants. They aren’t carnivorous and the jack-in-the-pulpit has a modified flower while the tube-shaped trap on a pitcher plant is made of modified leaves. However, I recently found out that they aren’t quite that far off.
A. triphyllum is a member of the family Araceae, an entomophilous group of flowering plants (that is they are pollinated by insects: ento = insect phil = attraction). Most of these plants are pollinated by dipterans (flies) but can either form mutualistic or antagonistic relationships with them. They all lure the flies in with the smell of their flower and some provide the flies with sites for mating and ovipositing (egg laying) while others fake it and simply take advantage of the little insects’ desire to reproduce in a safe place. This one, A. triphyllum, is a deceptive species.
The males of the species, which are slightly smaller than the females, lure the insects into the flower. The insects are then released through a small opening at the bottom after getting covered in pollen. They are then free to either find another male, picking up a different individual’s pollen, or to eventually find a female. But here’s the commonality with the pitcher: the females lack that little opening which allows the flies egress to their freedom. Usually the dipteran pollinators simply die after pollination is complete. It is unclear why exactly this is the case. It may be a step towards evolving into a carnivorous plant but this tends only to evolve in places like bogs and other areas of very poor soil nutrition. Probably it is just a random mutation that may never be utilized for any kind of real increase in the plant's fitness.
Oh yes and the best part is that jack-in-the-pulpit flowers grow from corms. You can read more about corms in my post below about crocuses.
Read the article here.
Friday, March 26, 2010
It’s a little odd writing this now because I awoke this morning to falling snow here in
In any event I’ve been reading and learning a bit more about plants. The one pictured is a moss. I find mosses delightful. They’re also pretty interesting from a natural history standpoint.
Mosses are the most specious (that is their group has the most species) group of bryophytes. Bryophytes are primitive land plants that are made up of the mosses, liverworts and hornworts. They lack roots, leaves, xylem, phloem and nearly every structure we typically associate with plants. They absorb water directly and usually very quickly which is why they will become instantly verdant during rain.
Some mosses are extremely specialized. A few species are found living only on the bones and antlers of dead reindeer. A few tropical species are found living only on the wing coverings of beetles.
Many similar organisms that are not mosses have been historically called mosses. Lichens (reindeer moss), seaweed (Irish moss), flowering plants (Spanish moss) and vascular planets (club moss) have all been mistakenly associated with bryophytes.
As I mentioned in a previous post I was able to attend the first in the spring series of lectures at the NEAq (which, by the way, are free and open to the public thanks to the Lowell Institute. A list of upcoming lectures can be found here). The title of the lecture was “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Humans” and was given by Kathleen Frith of
The first thing she did was show a short film they have developed called “Once Upon a Tide” which is intended for museums, zoos, aquariums as well as classrooms. There’s a curriculum package that goes along with the film as well. You can view the film in its entirety on the website: www.healthyoceans.org.
Most of the lecture afterwards and the short Q+A session dealt with familiar themes of the un-sustainability of current fishing practices, climate change and its role in the decline of ocean health and, luckily, what we can do in our daily lives and what others around the world are already doing to mitigate the (excuse my alarmism) unbridled disaster we currently find ourselves in.
Frith puts human health’s relationship to the ocean into three categories, which when she first announced I found vague and too similar. They are that the ocean 1) nourishes, 2) heals and 3) sustains. When she went into further detail about the differences they started to make more sense as clear categories. The nourishing aspect is all about food we get from the ocean. She spoke about how great seafood is, how it’s a great source of healthy protein and omega-3 fatty acids. But the obvious flip side is that most of our fishing practices are woefully abusive to the ocean ecosystems, the food is often filled with toxic mercury and other chemicals and that even the outlets which we perceive to be doing the “right” thing, e.g. Whole Foods, have mostly un-sustainable seafood available. She spoke here about diet in more general terms as well, providing another Harvard Medical School resource, www.thenutritionsource.org and repeated the mantra of Michael Pollan, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Making our diet mostly vegetarian will ideally help efforts of sustainable seafood consumption. The less we eat individually the more we will have to share with others. You can also learn about making good seafood choices on the NEAq’s website.
The second category, how the ocean heals us, was all about medicine. Specifically she talked about cone snails. These amazing mollusks are capable hunters of fish. They crawl up towards the unsuspecting prey and fire a toxic dart, instantly paralyzing the animal. They are then free to devour their food at the slow snail pace. They are so toxic that they have even been, on occasion, known to be fatal to humans. Each species of cone snails has its own cocktail of toxins, known as conotoxins, which are extremely biologically active compounds. Researchers are now fully engaged in how they might utilize the 70,000 or so known conotoxins. The first success is a new medicine called prialt which is a treatment for chronic pain. Unlike opiates it does not have a problem with tolerance or addictive properties. Also those folks who may be allergic to opiates finally have more options for pain relief. The problem is that if we continue to change our oceans at the rate we are we could lose a large number of species before researchers have a chance to find out if their conotoxins can be used for new breakthrough medicines.
The category of how the ocean sustains has to do with the water cycle and the carbon cycle. This is the big picture stuff. Frith spoke again about mercury and other toxins, plastic, the Pacific garbage patch (and apparently there’s a recently discovered Atlantic garbage patch), ocean acidification, etc.
To conclude she was able to provide some hopeful stuff. There are a lot of smart people working on many of these problems and efforts to educate the public about what a mess we are really in. Scientists, doctors, environmentalists, city planners, educators and many more are all working towards helping the public understand just what our situation is on planet Earth. The curriculum which goes with their film is intended to spread appreciation of the ocean in young people so that they will care enough to go out and do something now and through their lives. Frith talked about the growing sustainable vegetarian barramundi fisheries which are able to provide fish on a closed loop system. The vegetarian diet also means there’s no mercury present. She also mentioned the film “The Story of Stuff” and the new “The Story of Bottled Water” which if you haven’t seen you can view online here. And it’s really never too late to mention: turn off lights when you’re not using them, bike instead of driving, reduce, reuse, and recycle. Please.
This post is getting a little long but I really wanted to mention two great moments from the Q+A. One man brought up the question of population. She simply responded (and I’m paraphrasing: “Yes. We have no idea how to talk about population. Some people are working on it, but for now we really don’t know how to talk about it.” I think about population a lot. I guess that’s all I can say.
Finally: I can’t remember exactly the context but she likened eating tuna with eating a tiger. This really resonated with me because the moment I decided I would cut tuna out of my diet all together didn’t have anything to do with mercury but with the fact that I had a vivid realization of the fact that I was eating a top predator, a “key stone” species, if you will, in the food web. I was at the Harvard Museum of Natural History standing in front of a stuffed tuna and the size and power of the animal was just overwhelming. It really isn’t like a cow at all. It’s much more like a tiger. I’m really glad she stuck with her analogy.
OK, I realize that was a lot but I think it’s all important. Please let me know if there’s something you think I should go into more detail about or you have any questions. Follow those links, arm yourself with knowledge and go out and interpret the dickens out of ocean change.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
A few nights ago I was able to attend the first in the spring series of lectures at the New England Aquarium where I am now employed. I’ll give a rundown of some of the highlights from the lecture, titled “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Humans,” in the next post but I also attended a workshop beforehand on how to communicate ocean change and I wanted to write a little about how that went.
The word “interpret” or “interpreter” or “interpretation” gets thrown around a lot in the museum/zoo/aquarium/park world. It’s kind of a catch-all term to describe the actions we take to give visitors a better experience and hopefully help them come away with some of the core messages our exhibits are trying to convey. So we talked about how we interpret our exhibits (which are mostly made up of tanks full of animals) in a way that conveys and impresses ideas related to ocean change and climate change. A lot of visitors to aquariums, zoos, museums and science centers are coming purely for recreation and it can be tricky to slip these ideas in without seeming preachy.
The main concept we discussed was the idea of “framing.” Framing deals with being very decisive about how we talk to someone such that the topic does not seem overwhelming or confusing. There’s a lot of information about climate change and there are unfortunately a lot of politics involved which may or may not alter how people view these ideas. The idea of framing is to make the message clear and relatable. There are three main points about framing I came away with from our discussion.
The first is that different perspectives can tell a very different story about the same event. Likewise, the way you say something or “frame” something, can have a very different effect on the listener. A scholarly article I found on the topic (which you can read online here) makes the point that the response to the question “would you favor or oppose allowing a hate group to hold a political rally?” varies greatly depending on whether you preface it with either “given the importance of free speech” or “given the risk of violence.” That illustrates the idea that the way we phrase something or the perspective we have on something can greatly alter what our audience comes away thinking.
The second main point was that it helps not to start with the issue (in this case, ocean change) but rather to start with a shared, large-scale ideal that one probably has in common with the listener. Most of us in
Finally framing involves the idea of making very clear connections. The example we talked about was the following: burning fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which increases the pH of the oceans which causes damage to calcium carbonate which is primarily what hard corals are made from therefore burning lots of fossil fuels damages corals and puts reefs in danger. All of those points are facts and they all follow one to the next. Anyone who argues against that kind of logic is going to be incredibly hard to get through to. So to finally get back to all those exhibits which are mostly animals the suggestion is that we use the idea that most people who come through our doors whether for recreation or to learn or for whatever other reason want to be able to continue appreciating the animals and that without some change we may very well lose many of the species represented there.
The last thing I would like to suggest is that it is not just us who work in places like zoos, parks and aquariums who can interpret ocean and climate change. Anyone can do this in their daily lives. The next time a friend orders a tuna steak out at a restaurant, shrugs at the suggestion that he or she should try keeping lights off when they’re not in use or throws a recyclable commodity in the trash, use it as an opportunity. I encourage you to test your comfort levels but all you need to do is start a conversation. Explain why it matters to you. Explain the connections. Be informed. There really isn’t much else you can do.
What successes or failures have you had communicating difficult environmental concepts? What best practices do you use?
Monday, March 22, 2010
Not long ago I was tasked with visiting a conservative religious school along with a colleague and our stalwart tide pool animals. We were told explicitly that we were not allowed to mention evolution. A lot of thoughts went through my head because one of the primary reasons I am a science educator is to do my part to improve evolution literacy in this country. When I met my coworker that day we discussed what we could and could not mention. We decided to verge on the side of caution and not talk about adaptation, animal relationships or anything that could remotely be mistaken for Darwinism. Both of us were a little nervous.
On that day we decided to bring along a box full of shark jaws as well. A little while into our stay I was approached by an older man, probably a parent or a teacher or both, and he immediately launched into a series of questions. “So they have no molars? How do they chew? Oh, so they just tear off chunks and swallow them whole? I see the replacement teeth, is that all they get? Oh, so they just keep re-growing them? What if they lose just one and not a whole set?” We talked for maybe ten minutes. It made me really happy because it defeated the stereotype in my mind that conservative religious people aren’t curious about science. This person at least was intensely curious about mako sharks and their teeth and jaws. He came back about half an hour later and asked me a few more questions that had boiled to the surface.
This got me thinking about a few things, especially in light of my attempted “discussion” about how people got interested in natural history/biology. I thought about the power of natural artifacts and live animals to inspire a kind of curiosity that may lay dormant in most people. I find myself with a more or less insatiable thirst for information. It kind of defines what I do on a day to day basis. But for most people the inclination to go searching through textbooks and other sources of information to the answers to questions about shark teeth doesn’t pop out of nowhere. But as soon as they come face to face with a shark jaw questions start coming up. Even better when there’s a guy like me standing behind said shark jaw to field those questions.
If you are an educator how do you use natural artifacts or live animals/plants/other organisms to inspire curiosity? Even if you don’t have access to the collection of some established institution can you find ways to use nature as a direct teaching tool? Since spring is here I’ve been thinking about plants and gardening a lot. What about using a vegetable garden as a tool for learning about natural history? I wonder if anyone has tried this and what it looks like. Or even simply tromping out and seeing what you can find (like crocuses) and trying to use that as a teaching tool?
I can’t resist ending on this amazing natural history fact about sharks: I found out recently that their teeth are actually modified from their scales. If you look at a shark scale under a microscope you will see the resemblance of these two structures. The scales developed in a tooth-like shape, the broad side facing towards the shark’s face and the point facing away, to decrease drag while the animal swims. In very primitive sharks it was some of these scales that eventually became teeth.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
In response to some of the comments on my first post I’ve been thinking about a few related things. Some of the comments were about what drew people (or not, as the case may be) to biology or an appreciation of nature/natural history. I’ve been thinking about my own story which is a little bit convoluted. I, like some of the commenters, was pushed away from biology in high school. As I was deciding what science class to take my freshman year I started hearing a lot of rumors about how hard and boring freshman biology was. Looking back on it now it seems a little silly. I was fairly comfortable with difficult but difficult and boring did not seem to go very well together. So I opted to take what my school called “physical science” which was basically a remedial class that mixed earth sciences and physics. The teacher was one of the best I had in high school and I actually ended up having a really great time there. In high school I stayed with chemistry and physics and dodged biology entirely.
In college I had a similar inclination to dodge the boring and difficult and had no desire to be involved in four hour lab sessions, molecular biology or the dreaded organic chemistry. I really didn’t even slow down to consider biology. I ended up in my college’s second most popular major: psychology. But I found that I was most interested in neuroscience and finished having taken every course offered in that field. Somewhere around my senior year I become very interested in learning more about evolution, sort of by way of evolutionary psychology (which seems very backwards now that I think about it). This eventually brought me into contact with two books by one of my heroes, Carl Zimmer, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea which is a primer on the subject and At the Water’s Edge, an amazing book that discusses the evolution of fish onto land and whales back into the water. This was also the time in my life that I started becoming more interested in hiking, camping and shooting (with my camera) plants, animals and fungi.
There’s a little more to it than that but I decided that I wanted to be a science educator around this time too. I started taking some more science courses, eventually went to grad school, started introducing myself as a science educator in cover letters and eventually I got to be just that.
If I had to say a moment or a time that really inspired my interested in biology and natural history it would be reading At the Water’s Edge. Zimmer isn’t a biologist or a teacher, he’s a writer, so maybe that’s why I continue to try to reach people through this medium as well.
So what drew you to biology or an appreciation for nature/natural history? Or what had the opposite effects? Were you like me and some of the commenters, rejecting or getting turned away from the field because of the way it’s approached in public schools? What changed that? Or if you’re still not particularly enthusiastic about biology or natural history why not?
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
I’m really glad I had a chance to read and write about silverfish for a few reasons. First, silverfish are probably my only truly hated animal. As I was writing about how great it was for me to find spiders in my house I was feeling a little conflicted because of my feelings of dread at finding silverfish anywhere. And I was intrigued by the question “Why do they have to be so creepy?” Why is it that we think certain things are creepy? Probably a lot of land-dwelling arthropods (insects, spiders, millipedes, centipedes) are icky seeming because of our tendency to have associated maggots and other critters that like to live in rotten stuff with spoiled food. I feel confident saying that this has a lot to do with the fact that we sometimes become genuinely nauseous when confronted by a bunch of squirming “bugs.”
I also found a great new resource which is an entomology field guide on the Texas A&M website. It’s specific to
The silverfish (about 450 species described) are members of the order Thysanura, the only order under the subclass of insects Zygentoma. They share a common ancestor with winged insects which are pretty much every insect we’re really familiar with. Dragonflies, ants, butterflies, cockroaches, mantises, etc. etc. are all in this major group. This is the really huge family of animals we’re generally accustomed to thinking of as “insects.” The Zygentoma are a primitive, wingless kind of insect (which is weird, and by weird I simply mean unusual and not something we’re used to seeing) that moves quickly (also fairly weird). I might also argue that their flat bodies which in the wild they would be using to plough under the leaf litter freak us out (‘cause, yikes, where can’t that thing go? It could be anywhere in a few seconds. Creepy.)
According to the field guide these animals like to eat flour, dried meat, oats, paper as well as glue which are all things you can find inside. They also require a very high humidity and temperature. So that’s why you find them in your bathtub. Oh, and also: they’re active at night. Very creepy.
They remind me quite a bit of roaches. I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer as to where they majority of Zygentoma hail from originally but I’ll bet they're tropical animals considering their taste for high heat and humidity. I have to admit a less strong but still noticeable aversion towards roaches as well. I wonder if this information will make me any less squeamish the next time I see a silverfish.
What is your least favorite animal inside or out? Why do you think that is? Have you ever gotten over a strong animal phobia or aversion?