21 November 2014

Saving even the species we hate

Sure, we’ll save this species:

Or this:

But this?

Not only do we not try to save the latter, we’re actively trying to wipe it out.

A recent article notes that one of the effects of breeding endangered species in captivity is that organisms that live on them can suffer. The black footed ferret (top picture) had a louse species specific to it that is probably gone forever. The same holds true for the California condors (second picture from top) bred in captivity, then released into the wild. The captive-bred animals were, perhaps, too healthy... from a certain point of view. Lice that lived on the condor were removed systematically, and as far as we know, that species is now extinct. These do not appear to be the only examples.

Those cases might be unintended consequences. It is possible that the people involved did not know about the parasites that lived on those species, and may have though they were general parasites, rather than ones that specifically lived on those species.

But it raises an interesting ethical issue about how much we value living species.

The third picture in my series is Dracunculus medinensis, also known as the Guinea worm. The Carter Center, founded by former American president Jimmy Carter, is spearheading a campaign to eradicate this species. Admittedly, Guinea worm is a human parasite that has caused a lot of misery to a mot of people over the millennia. Nevertheless, it is as irreplaceable a life form as much as a ferret or a condor. 

I have never heard anyone suggesting that we might want to consider saving this species.

I can see the case for wiping out this species if it was an obligate human parasite, and there was no other way for this thing to live than infect human beings. But Muller (1972) showed decades ago that this species can be reared in captivity, in a non-human host. Some sources suggest it has a fairly wide host range (but haven’t been able to confirm that with peer-reviewed journal article yet).

If you think that conservation of biodiversity is a good thing, should someone start a Guinea worm captive breeding program? The goal might not be to reintroduce the species into the wild, given the harm it causes. Instead, the goal could to preserve it in perpetuity, both for scientific research and because of its intrinsic worth as part of the life on our planet.

Maybe we should have a parasite bank to go next to our seed banks.

Additional: Parasitologist Mark Siddall calls the expected loss of the Guinea worm something to celebrate in this New Yorker article. Mark and I tweeted back and forth on this quite a bit, and I am glad to have his article, with a personal touch, as a counterpoint to my little armchair essay.


Jørgensen D. Conservation implications of parasite co-reintroduction. Conservation Biology: in press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12421

Muller R. 1972. Maintenance of Dracunculus medinensis (L.) in the laboratory and observations on experimental infections. Parasitology 64(1): 107-116. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182000044681

External links

Save the parasites!
Conservation biology of parasites (Surprisingly thorough Wikipedia entry)
Carter Center Guinea worm eradication program
Which endangered species would you save?
More harm than good intentions

Ferret picture by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr; condor picture by Pacific Southwest Region on Flickr; both used under a Creative Commons license. Guinea worm picture from Wikipedia.

18 November 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Back of the line!

The segment above (from the BBC series Life Story) shows hermit crabs exchanging shells in a rather remarkable way. I wondered if this had been documented in scientific literature. I’ve read a fair number of papers on hermit crab shell choice, but not this queuing behaviour. And with a little searching in Google Scholar, voila!

Lewis SM, Rotjan RD. 2009. Vacancy chains provide aggregate benefits to Coenobita clypeatus hermit crabs. Ethology 115(4): 356-365. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0310.2009.01626.x

Rotjan RD, Chabot JR, Lewis SM. 2010. Social context of shell acquisition in Coenobita clypeatus hermit crabs. Behavioral Ecology 21(3): 639-646. http://beheco.oxfordjournals.org/content/21/3/639.abstract

Hat tip to Emily Anthes and io9.

16 November 2014

Comments for first half of November 2014

The Vaquero controversy and what this means for UTRGV women’s teams. (They won’t be “Lady Vaqueros.”)

Jon Tennant, Mike Taylor, and Jacquelyn Gill all look at conference tweeting.

14 November 2014

“If you’re in your house, why are there elevators there?”

I’m fascinated by how we make and hold beliefs, often in the light on contrary evidence. You see how easy it is for us to have false belief in many patients with brain injury. Many have false beliefs and explain away contradictory evidence effortlessly, which is called confabulation.

This is one of my favourite examples of confabulation, heard by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (from Gazzaniga 2000):

In one patient I had, the patient was a woman who, although she was being examined in my office at New York Hospital, claimed we were in her home in Freeport, Maine. The standard interpretation of this syndrome is that she made a duplicate copy of a place (or person) and insisted that there are two.

This woman was intelligent; before the interview she was biding her time reading the New York Times. I started with the ‘So, where are you?’ question. ‘I am in Freeport, Maine. I know you don’t believe it. Dr Posner told me this morning when he came to see me that I was in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital and that when the residents come on rounds to say that to them. Well, that is fine, but I know I am in my house on Main Street in Freeport, Maine!’ I asked, ‘Well, if you are in Freeport and in your house, how come there are elevators outside the door here?’ The grand lady peered at me and calmly responded,

‘Doctor, do you know how much it cost me to have those put in?

Gazzaniga goes on to explain the reason for this woman’s false belief, due in part to a lesion in her brain:

Because of her lesion the part of the brain that represents locality is overactive and sending out an erroneous message about her location. The interpreter is only as good as the information it receives, and in this instance it is getting a wacky piece of information.

It’s easy to think of this as just an amusing story of someone with brain injury. I think we all have the same mechanisms in our brain that are making sense of the world as best they can. We can all have beliefs that make perfect sense to us, but seem bizarre to outside observers.


Gazzaniga MS. 2000. Cerebral specialization and interhemispheric communication: Does the corpus callosum enable the human condition? Brain 123(7): 1293-1326. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/123.7.1293

Photo by Boston Public Library on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

13 November 2014

“Stop flirting, I’ve still got a job to do here,” heard at comet landing

A lot has been written about Matt Taylor’s shirt that he wore during the livestream of the Philae touchdown (links at bottom). I’d like to point out another moment from the P67 comet landing, starting at 6:15:14 in this YouTube video (click text link to go straight to the bit I’m talking about):

The speaker of the moment, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, chairman of the board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), reveals a P67 polo shirt on stage after the landing.

The presenter, Monika Jones, says, “I want that polo shirt!” Something happens off screen that catches her attention, and she continues, apparently addressing Wörner offscreen, “Not now, we’ve got a few minutes. Change? Stop flirting, I’ve still got a job to do here.”

Now, she said it with a smile, so it’s hard to tell if the presenter was actually offended, or taking it in a spirit of fun. But I had a moment of, “Did she just have to say that?”

Maybe it would have slipped by me if I hadn’t been aware of the shirt issue. But after the shirt issue, and Matt Taylor also talking about Philae coming down for “the kiss,” (also not reported much) I cringed a bit.

Given that I’d seen a bunch of stuff about Matt Taylor’s shirt, I was also saddened when I saw the composition of the audience at the livestream.

I count about five women out of about 35 faces in this one screen grab.When it panned around, the proportion of women in the audience seemed even lower.

Such a stark contrast to the famous pictures of the Indian Mars mission not so long ago:

Update, 14 November 2014: Matt Taylor apologizes for the shirt. This is positive. I do wish he’d also have acknowledged that some of his comments were a bit cringe-worthy, too.

External links

New requirement for scientists: You cannot be a sexist pigdog
Sometimes, a shirt is not just a shirt
Confessions of a teenage dirtbag: Thoughts on shirtstorm
That shirt
Why women in science are annoyed at Rosetta mission scientist's clothing 
Shirtstorm reaction bingo card
Shirts, science communication, and why appearances can be important

11 November 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Sponge-worthy

Periclimenaeus echinimanus is a small sponge-dwelling shrimp from the Red Sea that was only described a few years ago. The species name means “sea urchin hand,” because it has spines on its claws that some of its relatives don’t have.

06 November 2014

Monday morning quarterbacking the UTRGV “Vaquero” decision

The University of Texas System is confirming that the mascot for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will be the Vaquero.

I feel sorry for UTRGV president Guy Bailey (third from left; pic from here).

There was just no decision that was going to make people happy. There were a lot of people in Edinburg and McAllen who wanted to keep the University of Texas Pan American’s mascot, Bucky the Bronc. But that choice would have ostracized everyone who had ties to University of Texas at Brownsville.

One of the last surveys showed a lot of people wanted some sort of compromise. That came though in the colour recommendations: UT system orange, plus green from UTPA, plus blue from UTB.

I think Bailey was hoping that “Vaquero” would be that compromise. The word “vaquero” is thought to have morphed into “buckaroo.” Bucky, buckaroo, and there’s a whole horse motif going on... I bet Bailey thought this would be the way to assuage the “Save Bucky” brigade. “There’s still a horse!”

From his opening comments, it was clear that Bailey saw “Vaquero” as Americana that nobody could object to. “Nothing more iconic than a cowboy” is pretty close to what he said in his comments.

While Bailey might have expected that nothing would keep the Bucky fans happy except Bucky, I don’t know if anyone could have anticipated the flames that started pretty much the instant he announced the recommendation.

Having watched this process from the very first meeting at UTPA,“Vaquero” was a name that people suggested. It did not come out of the blue. It was not a random choice from Bailey, or the Board of Regents.

But when it was mentioned as a possibility, I never got, from any of the discussion, a hint of the fury that emerged over the decision. It wasn’t just that people were mad about losing Bucky (which I expected), but the charges erupted almost immediately that the name was racist – and, to a lesser degree, sexist.

I was disappointed to see how fast people trotted out negative Hispanic and Mexican stereotypes on Twitter. Out came the taco and sombrero jokes. I documented a lot of them in my Storify. For me, this was a low point:

Really? I get being upset with the decision. But that? That art’s not okay.

I was also upset by the number of people who said they either would not come to, or wanted to leave, UTRGV because of the mascot. As a faculty member, it bothers me that a foam rubber suit means more to students than the work my colleagues and I do in trying to perform the best possible research and do the best possible jobs of giving students a top notch education.

If the mascot means more to you than the quality of the faculty and staff, I invite you to re-examine your priorities.

I have problems with this choice of mascot. I deeply dislike that it’s “cowboy,” which overlooks that about 60% of UTPA students (and, I’m guessing, UTB students) are female.

There’s already been complaints that people (including Bailey) don’t pronounce it right. Wiki says it’s “baˈkeɾo,” with a B, which makes the connection to “buckaroo” make more sense.

Finally, I think it’s just too obscure a name. I spent years explaining to people where UTPA was. Now I have to look forward to years of explaining what a “Vaquero” is.

It’s interesting to contrast to the decision to name of the institution, where UTRGV bubbled up pretty quickly and had wide community support.

 “Vaqueros” made nobody happy, judging from polls in local media, which show even more rejection of the name than my own. Here’s radio station KURV:

The local newspaper, the McAllen Monitor:

Bailey admitted there was no consensus on the mascot, which must have made his job tough. (Results of one of the last surveys is here. 45% said “none of the above” to the suggested names.) But now, I worry that Guy Bailey has just burned up any support or trust that he might have had from the community.

I wish there had been images like this to go with the announcement. Because, damn, that’s a cool image, and a reminder to me that maybe, just maybe, this name could work.

Update: The UT System has just put out a press release that is, frankly, a little more honest about the pushback than I would have expected.

While the selection drew support from many... it also spurred a backlash on social media, primarily from those who wanted to keep UT Pan American’s nickname, the Broncs.

It then goes on to the “Rah rah rah!” tone more typical of press releases.

Update, 7 November 2014: As I suspected, Bailey argued in the video below that “Vaquero” honors the legacy of the “Bucky” nickname:

External links

Vaquero chosen as UTRGV mascot
The UT-RGV Mascot Saga Ends with The Vaqueros and Apparently Nobody Is Happy 
It’s official: Vaqueros approved as UT-RGV mascot
Opinion: Former school changing mascot, and I’m disgusted