Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Killer Fungus!

While searching the internet for cool science stuff (something I do more often then you would think), I remembered one of my favorite segments of Planet Earth. Little known fact, I love the series and have seen most episodes many times. Anyways, this segment is about a fungus called Cordyceps. Remember yet? Well this fungus is parasitic among insects and has very unusual consequences. One group of insects that is majorly affected by this fungus is ants. Cool fact: infected ants that are found by other members of the colony are carried away to prevent spreading of the fungus spores.
Once ingested, the fungus causes insects to become delirious and disoriented, and some species of Cordyceps can even cause the insect to climb a plant and attach to a branch. The rest of the process...well its better if you see it yourself.

The Three Musketeers

Everyone has a hero.... a person that you look up to, admire, and want to be like. Scientists of course are no different, we've got heroes too.... you just might not recognize their names.

To those of you who read our very first blog post way back in January, the names Tinbergen, Frisch, and Lorenz might ring a bell. These three guys were geniuses in the world of animal behavior. I'd like to let the readers know a bit about the three fathers of ethology. These guys founded ideas and made discoveries that I guarantee almost everyone knows about, but most people don't know where those ideas came from.

Dear reader, I would like to introduce you to Nikolaas Tinbergen. He is the one who cemented the four main questions a person should ask when studying animal behavior. Let's say, for example, you are watching your dog chase his own tail. Let's also say you are really bored and want to delve deeper into this behavior. You ask yourself these questions: What caused my dog to chase his tail? Has my dog chased his tail since he was a puppy, and will he stop as he gets older? Do other animals chase their tails? Does this affect my dog's chances of survival? Voila! You have just become an ethologist. That's right, if you have ever questioned the behavior of an animal and considered the answers to those questions, you thought scientifically. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone, I know you have a reputation to protect.

Have you ever wondered why bees are so crazy? Well so did Karl von Frisch. Frisch worked with honeybees and carried out research on bee behavior. I'd be willing to bet that you know that bees often perform little dances in order to communicate. (If you didn't, well now you know. And knowing is half the battle...) We have Frisch to thank for our knowledge on bees and for the studies on other social insects that stemmed from his research. And yes, he is wearing lederhosen in this picture. He was Austrian, therefore that choice in clothing is acceptable.

And last, but certainly not least, I'd like to introduce you to Konrad Lorenz. I'm going to go ahead and assume that most people have heard of imprinting. (Thanks, Twilight books) The idea that types of learning, such as identifying a parent, can be automatic at a young age can be attributed to Lorenz. He even experimented by having baby geese imprint on him as their mother figure. As a result, the geese followed him around as though he were their mother, despite the fact that he was of a completely different species. His research and his books are truly fascinating.

Forms of science are every where in daily life. We have people like Tinbergen, Frisch, and Lorenz to thank for information we have come to take for granted. It just goes to show that people do not need to be superheroes to make a difference. You don't need to be a musketeer to fight for the King of France. Is that inspiring enough for you?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Light the Bat Signal!

I apologize if the title to this is misleading... I will not be blogging about the elusive Batman today, or even about bats. I will however, regale you with the tale of the bat-eared fox, a mammal many of you probably have never heard about. In case you didn't know, I'm a wannabee vet and cute animals are my weakness. The first time I saw a picture of a bat-eared fox, I smiled and giggled like a little school girl at the adorable absurdity of its huge ears and tiny head. Now, I would like to spread that laughter to you, as well as some basic information on this animal.

The bat-eared fox species is an endangered species of canid that lives in the African savanna. These foxes are nocturnal and monogamous, with a diet of mostly insects. They may also eat small rodents, birds, eggs, and even fruit. But enough of the boring facts! You want to see these little guys in action? Check out the behavior of the bat-eared fox in this video from National Geographic.

It is interesting to note that unlike many animals, male bat-eared foxes are very invested in the rearing of their young. As you can see in the video, males are very protective of their female young and will not let the females mate unless the young courting male asks him first. One more interesting fact to leave you with is that these canids are extremely important in termite control in Africa. One bat-eared fox can eat over one million termites a year!

If you want to know more about engdangered animals or what you can do to help, visit the website for the Wildlife Action Group.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The First Stage of Grieving

Let's talk about denialism. Denialism is something we are all familiar with, even if we don't recognize the term. (I didn't know the term until this past week, turns out you actually learn things in college classes). Is this term new to you too? Well then join me, and together we will take a ride through definitions of denialism.

What is denialism? It is defined as "the practice of creating the illusion of debate when there is none." A better way to say it is- when someone tries to argue against something that is supported by facts and/or other evidence. This train of thinking can hinder any debate over any topic. It is kind of like a disease...

You may think that the comparison of denialism to a disease is a little harsh, especially since we all are capable of falling victim to it. I know I've given in to denialism at some point. For example, I am a Miami Dolphin's fan (and I can hear all you football minded people reading this and chuckling- don't judge). So what if I yell at the referee sometimes when I think he is throwing too many yellow flags against my team? Most sports fans are guilty of this. But it is harmless, right?

Wrong. Well, it can be harmless when applied to sports, but what about bigger issues? What happens when someone has such a firm belief in one side of an argument that no scientific fact will ever sway them? It can turn dangerous. Global warming, evolution, AIDS, tobacco causing cancer- these are all big issues in which denialism can take root. What if you grew up in a house with parents who told you tobacco had no negative effects? What if, because of this, they were both chain smokers? What if they got lung cancer? This is simple correlation and causation. However, if you were a denialist, nothing that you just read would matter. If you truly believed that tobacco could not cause cancer, then not even the most well founded evidence would convince you that you are wrong. This is what makes denialism dangerous.

Not only do denialists discredit evidence, they will fight back. Here's how...
  • Conspiracy- this is when a person will suggest that the known evidence came from scientists or politicians with ulterior motives.
  • Selectivity- when denialists will use facts from the other side that have since been discredited. Denialists will find a flaw in the opposing argument and blow it out of proportion.
  • Using another "expert"- an expert (most likely a doctor of another field) will join in and say that opposing data is flawed and lacking substantial proof or significance
  • High expectations- denialists often dare others to provide absolute proof that would be, in a word, undeniable
Denialism is everywhere in today's society, and there is no quick fix. However, we can hope that as awareness of denialism rises, perhaps the number of denialists will decline. Next time you come across a denialist, be patient with them. They say ignorance is bliss and perhaps denialism is a form of bliss too.

Want to read more about denialism? Check out denialism.com.

The Everlasting Debate

So, in light of all this talk about denialism and "anti-science" (really?), I should explain my views on the anti-science movement. It's quite unfortunate that there is a fairly large population of people in this country that don't really believe in science. On this campus, they're called philosophy majors (just kidding, don't hate me), but overall they are everywhere in the population. It seems that there are many different (and easy) ways to turn people away from science, but it's difficult to get them on our side again. As one of my classmates mentions on her blog, a lot of the anti-science movement is stemming from propaganda. Whether its on the radio or on TV, there are many advertisements for homeopathy, or alternative medicine, and other enhancements for the human body. Now, why do people trust the creepy "doctor" selling drugs via television? I'm not sure. But they do.

Another way the general public can be turned away from science is through scientists themselves. Now, as a science major who is friends with other science majors, I know we like to blame everyone but ourselves. Unfortunately, some scientists can do wrong (no way!) and mislead the public. As Michael Specter discussed on his podcast on Science Friday, scientists sometimes tend to romanticize science and give unrealistic expectations on developments. When science "fails" to deliver those promises, the public gets disappointed and rejects science.

The public is generally going to believe what they want when it comes to moral issues, void of scientific merit. The first caller on the Specter podcast was a perfect example of that. We, as scientists, can only hope that we can have a positive influence on the general public and try to hold their attention long enough to educate them about certain concepts. At least the ones that could prevent illnesses or may be beneficial to their health.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nice Guys Finish First

Are you ever confused when you see a hot girl (in real life, or in a movie) pass over the nerdy sensitive best friend for the better looking jerk? Maybe you are like me and were rooting for the nerd the whole time. Maybe you let loose a tear or two when this happens in a movie, and you continue to wonder for the rest of your life if the nerd found a new love that was actually worthy of him (see: Duckie in Pretty in Pink).

Anyway, those of us with a scientific brain may also look at the situation and think that this phenomenon is easily explained by survival of the fittest. Jerk looks better than nerd. Jerk can beat up the nerd. Jerk gets the girl. Problem solved. This may be common in nature, but it is not universal. We see the opposite in humans often enough. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most females actually prefer a male that is sensitive to her needs. Amazingly, humans are not the only species that show this preference. While many female organisms tend to show preference towards the more fit and aggressive males, female water striders prefer the more laid back and sensitive males.

Water striders are insects; you have probably seen one resting on top of water in a stream or pond. A recent study found that female water striders tend to reject the more aggressive and persistent males. Females will leave areas where they are hounded by extremely aggressive males and move to areas with males that are less aggressive.

The result of this preference? Both the aggressive males and non-aggressive males are able to reproduce. The hyper-aggressive males still reproduce due to the monopolizing of females. However, it is the less aggressive males that are reproducing more overall.

This study shows that more cooperative males have a better chance of reproducing than selfish males- at least when it comes to water striders. It's good to see an example in nature that you do not have to be the biggest, best-looking, or meanest male to get the ladies (or vice versa for you females). Pardon my stereotype- but that's good news for us scientists.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What the Frisch?

Okay, so I really just wanted to use that title. Anyone who has taken an Ethology class, especially if you have taken it here at AU with the Stoffinator (Dr. Stoffer), should know the name Karl von Frisch. As stated in our introductory post, Karl von Frisch was a nobel laureate along with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen in 1973. If you aren't familiar with him, he is known for his work on the honeybee and set a lot of the ground work on what is known in the communication between bees today. So, why am I bringing him up? Well, besides for an excuse to use that awesome title, I came across an article on Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata), more commonly referred to as killer bees. Killer bees are actually hybrid insects. They are the result of crossing European honeybees with honeybees from southern Africa.

And apparently, they're not so intelligent.

A recent study was done to attempt and condition the Africanized honey bees. In the experiment, researchers would administer a puff of jasmine odor and follow that immediately with sugar water on the antennae. Another puff of jasmine was administered, and if the conditioning succeeded, the bees would react by immediately protruding their proboscis (tongue-like structure) out to receive the reward. This was also done with the european honeybees to compare results. About 50% of the European bees responded during the first trial, where about 25% of the Africanized honeybees responded. After three trials, the European honeybees were up to about a 75% response and the Africanized were at about 50%.

So, what the Frisch? (it doesn't get old), why don't they learn as rapidly? Well, there's a couple of ideas. One researcher suggests that its simply too costly for the hybrids to "get smarter" and these bees use that energy for their competitive abilities instead (killer bees are invasive). Another idea is that since they are a hybrid species, maybe its a reflection of the two separate backgrounds. The support behind this idea is that African bees come from an area where flowering is triggered by the rainy season, and not so much olfactory and sight.

Whatever the correct reasoning is, it's pretty clear that more work can be done on these insects. If you want to read more, here is the full article.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Feline Angel of Death

In Providence, Rhode Island, there is a cat named Oscar who knows when someone is about to die.

Meet Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician and professor who works with patients with dementia in a nursing home called Steere House. Meet Oscar, an antisocial cat who cuddles up with patients who are about to pass away. Understandably, Dosa was very skeptical about Oscar's talent when he first heard about it. However, 5 years later, Dosa and colleagues have totaled about 50 cases when Oscar joined a patient in bed only a few hours before the death of that patient.

When a patient is dying, Oscar is so intent on being present that if he is locked outside of a room, he will sit outside the door and meow until he is let in. Families of patients in Steere House find Oscar's behavior comforting rather than upsetting. In several cases, Oscar has been mentioned in eulogies and obituaries.

But how does Oscar predict death? There are several theories. Most believe it has to do with the smells of certain chemicals that are emitted when a person is dying. Animals have a much more keen sense of smell than humans and can distinguish this. Other theories include that animals may be able to sense sickness or even the shutting down of organs.

Steere House has several other cats in residence, yet none of them exhibit the same talent as Oscar. So why does Oscar find it necessary to be present with patients in their final hours? One theory is that Oscar is simply mimicking the behavior of the nurses. Another suggests it may be as simple as the fact that Oscar enjoys the heated blankets that are placed on dying patients. I personally disagree with the latter opinion. One story is that the nurses tried to place Oscar with a patient whom they believed was within hours of death only to have Oscar run away. If he simply wanted to lie on a heated blanket, he would have stayed. To finish the story, Oscar returned on his own to the still alive patient two days later. As the story goes, the patient did pass away a few hours after Oscar's return.

Despite whatever any one theorizes, we will never know why Oscar likes to be present with dying patients. Many people have labeled Oscar the "furry angel of death". Personally, I don't view Oscar's actions in so morbid a way. Oscar is providing comfort to these people in a time and place where they might otherwise have none. He is a gift to those at Steere House. I wish we could all be so lucky to have something as cute and cuddly as Oscar with us in our final moments. An angel of death? I think not. Maybe just an angel.

Want to know more about Oscar and his amazing talent? Check out the book by Dr. Dosa- Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.