Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Microscope

Okay, so I may have posted that we were back a little too soon, but what can I say? Interviewing and preparing for vet school is difficult. Victory dances for these things take time and effort. Plus Jessica has been working like 70 hour weeks. (And I thought I was hard working.)

Anyway, I have decided my first post in the "Things Every Biologist Should Know" theme is going to be the microscope. Specifically, the compound microscope- one of the most important tools to a biologist... and one of the tools that biology students severely misunderstand. The ways of the microscope are not our ways. But with a little patience and understanding, we can smoothly assimilate into the culture of the compound microscope.

First, RESPECT THE MICROSCOPE. You can't finish your lab/project/research without it. Let's face it, microscopes and biologists are symbiotic. Plus, these things are expensive. Most people spend less buying a new cell phone than they would on a microscope. The lesson here is: treat compound microscopes as though they are your car or your laptop. When carrying one, use one hand to grip the arm and your other hand to support the base.

So, you all know which part is the arm and which is the base, right? I'm sure all our readers do... but in case you want to educate someone you know, here is a diagram. Familiarize yourselves. After all what is biology all about? The study of life and living organisms? NO. Biology is about memorization. Now get to it.

It is very important to understand magnification when using a microscope. Why? Because if you are in college you will be tested on it. Also because if you use one in research, you'll need to record which objective was used. You know what an objective is, right? Right, because you've studied the diagram. Typical objectives are 4x, 10x, 40x, and 100x. Eyepieces usually have a magnification of 10x. Total magnification of whatever you are looking at is the eyepiece magnification multiplied by the magnification of the objective. Even I can handle this math.

Now, let's talk about focusing. If you look through the microscope, and all you see are gray squigglies floating around.... then you are certainly not focused. Unless you are looking at some sort of gray squiggly living organism. Always begin focusing on the lowest objective. Use the coarse focus knob to find your subject. Focus as well as you can with the coarse focus, then fine tune the focus with the (wait for it) fine focus knob. Oh my gosh, these names make sense! If you need a higher objective, simply switch to that objective and use the fine focus. Basically, you should never need to use the coarse focus once you are finished with the lowest objective.

Oh, and always put the stage at the highest point and focus while the stage is moving downwards. This way you don't risk moving the stage too high up. If the stage hits the objective, both the objective lens and the slide might break. Kaching- that is going to cost you.

I could run on and on about the techniques, oil, and the best ways to use a compound microscope, but this sure is a lot to read. So I leave you, dear readers, with this: NEVER be afraid to ask questions! No one knows everything- not your professors, colleagues, not even Darwin (Sorry, Jessica, I know how much you love him). Biology is about learning... I mean memorization...alright fine, Biology is about a lot of things. The point is, use your resources and don't be afraid to keep learning.

And through learning, you can make the ways of the compound microscope your ways.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yea, we're liars

So, as some of you may recall, Nikki told you that we were back, oh about three months ago. We had every intention of starting our blog back up again, I promise, but some things ended up getting in our way.

First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Nikki for the first time in public (if you don't count facebook) for getting accepted into The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine. Woohoo! Go Nikki! If anyone knows Nikki, they know how much she wants to be a vet, and how hard she worked in school to achieve that goal. While some of us were practicing all the dance moves to an OK GO music video (Melissa and I), Nikki would sit at her desk and practice how to draw all of the steps in some process she had to know for Cell Bio. All of her hard work finally paid off, and now she gets to pursue her dream!

I was busy the past few months trying to find a job even remotely related to my degree. Unfortunately, I don't have the means to go do any unpaid work, so I had to do a more menial search. Until the middle of December, it looked like my future was in retail (ew). I finally landed a job at a pharmaceutical company in Bedford. The job isn't glamorous, but hey, I needed that degree that I spent so much money on to get in, so it will do.

Anyways, now that I am settled into a sort-of regular work schedule, I do plan on picking up the blogging. Honestly, I kind of missed it. You'll hear from me soon, in the mean time, everyone go congratulate Nikki!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Return of the Dorks

Hello dear readers!

Yes, we are posting again. And yes, we know you are surprised. (We’re surprised to find we have a blogging life again now that posts are no longer necessary for a class.) So, dear readers, breathe your sighs of relief at our return and get ready for a little something new. Yes, new. Prepare yourself for a backstory…

As we faced our last weeks of our senior year of undergrad we were faced with a list called “Things Every Biologist Should Know.” And of course, being the experienced seniors we were, we knew everything on it.

I could not even type that with a straight face.

We knew maybe half of the list. (We knew a lot more of the list if we put our minds together. But alas, life does not allow lab partners.) So we decided to review, learn, and relearn the topics on the list of things every biologist should know. And what better way to do this than blog about it? That was a rhetorical question. We know there are plenty of more exciting ways.

So join us, dear readers, as we travel through this list. We’ll cover topics like: Microscope use! Taxonomy! Plant stuff! This should be fun for everyone from new biologists to older biologists who did not pay enough attention in 201 (we’re a little guilty here) to people who know nothing about biology.

So why don't we buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

AU Science- Video Presentation

We now present. AU Science- The action movie trailer.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Conforming has its advantages

A lot of people I know pride themselves on being a "non-conformer." That is, they don't give into the social obligations that many of us tend to follow. Although that's fine and dandy for the human population, that's not always the best method for other animals. For many animals, particularly aquatic ones, conformity is used as a defense. The thinking is, if you stand out in a crowd, a predator has a better chance of picking you out, where if you are more inconspicuous, you blend in with your conspecifics, and your chance of being someone's meal is decreased.
Recently, there has been research on color change and its effects on predator avoidance and social interaction. Specifically, one study, Colour change and assortment in the western rainbow fish, written by Rodgers et. al., looked at this dynamic interaction. The authors used controlled experiments to assess the influence that body pigmentation has on shoaling.
This area of research is not very recent, many studies on color change, mimicry, and coloration anomalies have been done. So what makes this one special? Well, many papers that have been published regarding color change in respect to predator defenses and other interactions have used artificial coloration of the fish (or other study organism) and not natural color change. The authors of this paper argued that the artificial coloration gives less conclusive results because predators in the wild use natural coloration to choose their prey. The major goal of this study was to investigate the relationship between color pattern change and grouping decisions. They tested the relationship by exposing the individuals to different colored environments for two weeks and observing their subsequent grouping behavior.
The results of the experiment supported the hypothesis.

One example from their results is that the fish exposed to the dark aquaria showed a darkened body color patterns and preferred to associate with other dark colored fish. The figure above was taken from the paper, showing the coloration differences between the fish that were kept in the dark aquaria (left) and the fish that were kept in the pale aquaria (right). The take home message from reading the paper was that there is more to the coloration than what it seems. This paper in particular focused on the impact of color on shoaling preferences and anti-predator defenses, but it also provided information on other related concepts. The paper is a great resource for information about color change in the wild, the benefits of color change, and the mechanisms behind schooling and shoaling preferences.
Colour change and assortment in the western rainbowfish

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What does your laugh say about you?

Do you have a friend whose laugh can be heard from miles away? Are you able to pick one of your friends or family members out of a crowd based on their laughter? Recent research has shown that humans are not the only animal with a distinct laugh. That’s right, dear reader, a study from the University of California, Berkeley has shown that a hyena’s giggle can give clues about its age and social status. The giggles of one hyena can be extremely unique and distinct from another hyena’s giggles. In fact, many researchers say that someone familiar with the hyenas can actually tell you which hyena is giggling simply by listening.

Researchers Frederic Theunissen and Nicolas Mathevon have been studying the giggle calls of a group of spotted – also known as ‘laughing’- hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Theunissen defines giggles as “short staccato outbursts they make when they are not getting what they want.”

Hyenas live in clans that vary from ten to ninety individuals. They can hunt on their own or they can collaborate to bring down larger prey. However, both forms of hunting cause intense competition.

Hyenas have ten different types of vocalization, including the giggle call. Hyenas giggle in response to stressful situations or to conflict. For example, a hyena will giggle when being chased away from a carcass by a larger animal or when it is fighting with another hyena over a carcass. After all, the only thing worth fighting over is food, and who wants to hand over a fresh carcass?

UC Berkeley has a colony with 26 hyenas. There were 14 adult females, 10 adult males, and 2 sub-adult males. The two sub-adult males were less than two years old when the study was conducted. The vocalizations of the hyenas are recorded during feeding time at the colony. The pitch variations in the vocalizations are then analyzed. One result of the analysis of these vocalizations is that a giggle can give clues to the age of the hyena. As a hyena ages, the pitch of the giggle goes down.

In a clan of spotted hyenas, there is a complex social system with separate male and female dominance hierarchies. Interestingly enough, males are not always dominant over females. There are examples of “hypermasculinized” females that dominate over males in the clan. Analysis of these vocalizations has shown that the giggle is not linked directly to the sex of the hyena- but instead to the social status.

Theunissen and Mathevon believe that these calls in addition to other sensory forms of communication allow for many channels of communication that supports the complex hierarchy and social system. It is not unheard of that several types of cues are used for communication. Many animals rely on sound cues in addition to chemical and visual cues. These cues can lead to information about other animals such as sex and kinship. Hyenas are no exception to this, except that the acoustic cues of the vocal calls have become very important in the social hierarchy. Subordinate hyenas have a giggle that is very different from the giggles of dominant hyenas.

Dominant hyenas have a giggle that can be described as stable and confident. On the other hand, subordinate hyenas have a giggle that is extremely variable and erratic. Think of it this way- you are in lecture and you hear the professor make a joke. The students who understand the joke laugh like there’s no tomorrow (they would be the dominant hyenas). The students who have slept the entire semester laugh quietly to themselves because they are not sure how funny the joke actually is (these people are like the subordinate hyenas). Every student in the class is now able to tell who knows the topic and who could not care less. This is exactly how a hyena clan works.

As an example, Theunissin says that the more dominant hyenas have giggles similar to “he -- he -- he -- he”. The subordinate hyenas have giggles that sound more like “he hi -- ha – he.” If you want to hear the differences yourself, follow this link to the UC Berkley News.

By listening to the vocalizations a hyena makes, other hyenas can assess a situation. Hyenas that hear the giggle then decide whether or not they should join forces with the hyena producing the vocalizations. It also can be a sign of submissiveness. The erratic giggle of a subordinate hyena may show that the subordinate hyena will act compliantly with the dominant hyena. There are countless situations in which a hyena will make decisions based on the giggle that is heard. Think of it in playground terms: wimpy kids will stay away from the bullies and the bullies will pick on the wimpy kids. Not that I’m in any way supporting bullying, it’s just a good metaphor for this hierarchy. In this case a carcass is similar to lunch money- that’s not too far of a stretch is it?

Alright, I’ll cool it with the metaphors and analogies from here on out.

The point is that the giggle calls of the spotted hyena carry information about the sender such as dominance and age. They may also allow for individual identification. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure exactly why hyenas produce giggle calls, but researchers can still hypothesize. Theunissen and Mathevon bring up many advantages of giggling in their paper; for example, giggling can rally other hyenas to a carcass which might be taken over by a lion. In addition, it is important to note that this study was carried out in captivity and therefore some bias is present. Overall, hyenas are extremely complex and interesting animals- despite the bad name that the Lion King has given them. There is a lot more work that can be done with hyenas which could lead to many discoveries and a greater understanding of social relationships and animal communication.

- Mathevon, Nicolas, Aron Koralek, Mary Weldele, Steve Glickman, and Frederic Theunissen. "What the hyena's laugh tells: Sex, age, dominance and individual signature in the giggling call of Crocuta crocuta ." BMC Ecology. 10.9 (2010). doi:
- "Giggles give clues to hyenas social status." News Center.
US Berkely News. US Berkley, 2010. Web. 20 April, 2010.

Friday, April 9, 2010

No, I am not a vegetarian

Ah, dear reader, it is lovely to find you reading this post after my long absence. College life is filled with strenuous work, but I have not forgotten you! I see Jessica has recently blogged without needing to do so for our class. In keeping with my friendly but competitive nature, I feel compelled to do the same. What now Jessica?

I will not be blogging about ethology or a specific article today, but about animal treatment instead. Animals are important, ok? I would be willing to bet that almost everyone I regularly come into contact with has heard about unethical treatment of animals on factory farms. But I would also be willing to bet that almost no one I come into contact with regularly is too worried about the treatment of animals on factory farms.

No, I am not a vegetarian or vegan. No, I am not going to tell you to watch some gruesome PETA video. No, I'm not asking you to give up meat for good.

All I want to do is raise awareness a little. At most, I'm just asking you to think about how you can make a difference without changing your daily habits. Is that too much, dear reader?

Factory farming is a huge issue all over the world, and the United States is no exception. Factory farms not only make animals live in terrible conditions, but they also cause air pollution, are sources for antibiotic resistant bacteria, and decrease biodiversity.

The Meatrix is a site that provides informative but still entertaining videos (using the Matrix movies as a basis) about the secrets and harms of factory farming. The site lists the issues and how you can help without changing your way of life- and without asking you to become vegetarian. Check out the video below- the first in a three part set- that exposes factory farming. Then check out the website to see what you can do to help diminish the unethical treatment of animals in factory farms.