04 August 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Long lost cousin

Of course today’s animal is going to be a crayfish! I’ll tell you why in a second...

This is Astacoides betsileoensis, one of seven species from Madagascar. Madagascar is the only place in Africa that you will find any native crayfish.

One of the weird things about the Madagascar crayfish species is that their closest relatives are not the closest geographically. You might expect them to be related to crayfish in Europe. No, the closest relatives of Madagascar crayfish are those in... Australia. Madagascar and Australia are about as close to “other side of the world” as you can get.

Nobody has a good explanation for how that happened. Nobody knows how crayfish got to Madagascar.

You can learn this and much, much more in this new book, which is releasing today!

I’ll be writing more about this book in days to come. Meanwhile, I’ve started posting excerpts from the Marmorkrebs related chapters on the Marmorkrebs blog. (I normally post abstracts there, but this book doesn’t have abstracts.) There will be one a week for a couple of months.

To celebrate the release of this book, I’ll be having some with on Twitter with the hashtag #CrayfishFacts (and maybe a few #FakeCrayfishFacts thrown in for fun). And I’ll also be dipping into my stash of Canadian chocolate today. Yum.

Picture from here.

03 August 2015

Into the vault: oxidative stress and ascidian embryogenesis

I’ve talked before about the long waits in getting projects published. But sometimes, despite waiting, projects never make it past the conference poster stage. I’ve also talked about developing a gut instinct for whether something is publishable.

It’s nice that now, there are ways to turn ephemera into an archival, potentially usable and citable, document. For a while, I’ve been meaning to start putting up some of my posters into FigShare, which I’ve been of fan of from early on. I first used it when I published a paper here on my blog. Since then, I’ve used it to archive the raw data for several of my papers as unofficial supplemental information.

The first one to go up is a poster I presented at the third International Tunicate Conference in 2005 at the University of California Santa Barbara.

This one is one of the relatively few projects that we were never able to push out into a paper. I still think it makes for a pretty good poster, though.

Archiving this poster got me thinking. I see clear value in archiving old posters that can document projects that never made it into the scientific literature. But is there value in archiving posters that were the early versions of projects that did make it into the regular scientific literature? I can see old posters have some interest as examples of design (see the Better Posters blog). They might eventually have some historical interest.

But is there any scientific interest in archiving old posters? Posters are generally works in progress, so tend to be incomplete and preliminary. Might they actually confuse matters by including dead end ideas that were abandoned by the authors?


Stwora A, Scofield VL, Faulkes Z. 2015. Effects of oxidative stress on Ascidia interrupta embryogenesis. figshare. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1499282

02 August 2015

Happy anniversary, L5R!

You may know me as Doctor Zen, but there was a time when I was known online as the Crab Clan Scholar.

This weekend was tinged with a little sadness for me, because it celebrates the twentieth anniversary of something pretty important in my life: the card game Legend of the Five Rings – or L5R, as fans know it. There was a big twentieth birthday party at GenCon over the weekend, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t go.

I was not there when the game debuted in demo form in summer of 1995, but I started playing in December of that year. And I got in deep. That there was an entire faction of the game called the Crab Clan helped a lot. I was a die hard Crab player, and took to tagging my sig as “Crab Clan Scholar” in mu posts on Usenet. (Yeah, I’m old.)

I was intensely involved in L5R for well over a decade, first as a player, then eventually as a part of the Rules Team and freelance writer. I can’t even begin to summarize how much stuff I did with L5R. I can’t begin to tell you how important it has been to my life. This game is, as co-creator Ryan Dancy put it, welded to my DNA.

I haven’t played in a while, and I miss that badly.

But in the spirit of celebration, I wanted to draw attention to a couple of projects that chronicle the game’s early days.

I make a cameo appearance in the book 40 Years of GenCon. This book has a few pages about key events in L5R history when L5R was but a wee game of two and three years old (GenCon 1997 and 1998, to be precise).

The Legend of the Five Rings Gold Edition Encyclopedia is mostly a list of cards from that particular arc of the game. but I had the supreme pleasure of writing an introduction. The book opens with an 8 page section called, “L5R: Its founding and history,” which is one of my favourite things I’ve ever written. I got to interview a lot of people who were involved in the creation of the game, and tell the story of the creative process of making something as big and complex as a trading card game.

I had so much fun writing it, I turned in something that was substantially longer than what I had been asked to write. Now, I always try to be a professional, and write to requested length. I made sure that the extra stuff could be cleanly severed if they wanted to keep the length to what was originally planned, since I’d done it purely “on spec.” But I guess they liked it, because they kept it in.

For anyone who wants to see how L5R started twenty years ago, the intro to that book is the thing to read.

It is a wonderful thing to see something you love be a success. I couldn’t be happier than Legend of the Five Rings has been in pretty much continuous production for two decades.

Come hell or high water, I’ll make it to the twenty-fifth anniversary party, damn it.

Utz! BANZAI!!!

External links

Legend of the Five Rings Gold Edition Encyclopedia
40 Years of GenCon

Picture by AEG head honcho John Zinser on his Facebook page.

01 August 2015

Comments for second half of July 2015

Dr. Becca talks about how to get yourself noticed as a scientist, in a good way.

Richard Poynder has a piece looking at one scientific publisher’s policies on embargoes, which concludes with a sour analysis of the effect of the open access movement: pretty much none, he reckons.

Small Pond Science looks at that “Facebook for scientists” site, ResearchGate. Funny how showing that people read your papers makes you pay attention.

31 July 2015

Connections in my scientific career

If you’ve never seen the television series Connections by James Burke, you are missing out. Whereas most histories of science emphasize a “march of progress,” Burke’s series emphasized contingencies: you couldn’t have this if there hadn’t been that, and how those this and that were related were not obvious or predictable. In episode 9, “Countdown,” for instance, Burke connects the divorce of Henry VIII to the invention of television.

I got thinking about this with the publication of my most recent paper, which was nexus point between a couple of different research projects. I’ve joked with people that I have “science ADD,” but there are relationships between my projects. They just might not be obvious to people who are not me.

As an undergraduate, I worked on a project about walking by octopuses. This got me interested in locomotion, and I looked for a related project for graduate school. This led me to do a doctoral project on sand crab digging.

Sand crabs dig with their legs, so this led me into looking at the leg motor neurons of crustaceans. I’d found a discrepancy between the description of leg motor neurons in spiny lobsters and everything else that had been looked at. I wrote a post-doctoral fellowship proposal to study that, and got it. I went to work with David Macmillan in Australia for a post-doc.

David’s students had some projects on crayfish escape responses going on while I was there. Meanwhile, spiny lobsters were hard to get and hard to work with, I moved to working with slipper lobsters. I remember standing in David’s office, chatting about trying to get as much use out of the slipper lobsters as possible (they weren’t super cheap), and saying something like, “We’ll do some sections of the abdominal nerve cord, just to look at the giant interneurons and see that they’re there.”

Except they weren’t there.

Discovering that some species were missing a major set of very well-studied neurons was a completely unplanned observation.

That led me to working on the escape response in crustaceans. Because I was seeing substantial differences between species, I thought I needed to see how those neurons developed; take an “evo devo” approach to the problem.

I got very interested in marbled crayfish as a developmental model for the escape neurons from chatting Steffen Harzsch at the Neuroethology congress. I got some marbled crayfish for my lab, fully intending to start working them up as an experimental model. I started the Marmorkrebs.org website.

While I was thing about things to post on the Marmorkrebs blog, it became obvious that there were quite a few Marmorkrebs in the pet trade in the U.S.. Those crayfish were a potential problem if they got loose. This led me to doing research on the pet trade, and about the same time started doing species distribution models. All of this led me to be co-author on a forthcoming book on crayfish (out next week!).

I was also looking for a way to get the relatives of marbled crayfish in my lab. That led me to participate in the #SciFund Challenge, which became a scientific experiment in its own right.

Meanwhile, I was still plugging away on the escape response. I’d studied slipper lobsters, spiny lobsters, and had moved on to shrimp. While I was looking at the backfills of the shrimp, I saw things moving in the nervous system. And those moving things were parasites.

Finding parasites in the nervous system of shrimp was another completely unplanned observation. And before you know it, I’m helping Kelly Weinersmith co-organize a whole symposium on the subject at an international conference.

And the sand crabs? I still liked those guys, and recognized that we knew almost zero about most species. So with the incentive of finding a field project for an undergraduate student, I started collecting very basic natural history data for the ecology of the local sand crab species.

So you see, it all makes perfect sense. (Well, most of it does: there are a few papers that don’t fit neatly into that narrative.) But you are not likely to recognize the “this happened because of that” connections by skimming the titles of the papers.

The moral of the story? One is that it’s absolutely worth doing exploratory experiments and keeping your eyes open. I’ve had two findings (interneurons missing in slipper lobsters, parasites in shrimp) that came about not because there were hypothesis driven experiments, but that I got by happenstance, and those opened up whole new lines of research and resulted in multiple papers for me.

What a strange trip it’s been.

28 July 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Hasta be Shasta

Not this kind of Shasta...

This kind of Shasta:

Chris Lukhaup posted this on his Facebook page earlier today, describing it as the rarest crayfish in North America. It’s the Shasta crayfish, Pacifastacus fortis. This is a critically endangered species. It’s got a tiny range of only a few square kilometers. It’s been under pressure from introduced cousin, the signal crayfish (P. leniusculus) and damns (Light et al. 1995). It needs really pristine water. It’s not doing well, but I hope that with people like Chris making the effort to show how beautiful these animals are in their natural habitat, we can make things better for this beastie.


Light T, Erman DC, Myrick C, Clarke J. 1995. Decline of the Shasta crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis Faxon) of Northeastern California. Conservation Biology 9: 1567-1577. http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.1995.09061567.x

24 July 2015

This calls for a celebration

This is the remains of my treat to myself after a paper I co-authored was published in spring.

Back in February, when I went back to Canada for the first time in years for a training workshop, I picked up a stash of Canadian chocolate bars at the airport. Extra large sizes when possible. There are a lot of these things that are just about impossible to get in the U.S., so these are precious things to me. I didn’t want to just snarf through them. No, these are something to savour. I wanted to keep them for special occasions. I decided that I would only eat one what a new paper was published. Not just accepted – published, with the final thing out there in the world available for people to read.

This is the aftermath of the celebration of the publication of my new paper in PeerJ this week:

I think I have enough to celebrate the publication of four more papers, and I’m already trying to decide which I’ll have when my next paper comes out. But I’ll probably be saving the Crispy Crunch for last.

What do you do to celebrate success in your lab?