30 June 2009

Glimmer of hope for getting ourselves a doctoral program

When I interviewed for this job 8 years ago, people estimated that we would have a Ph.D. program in our department in about five years.

Still just a Master’s program here.

This article in the Rio Grande Guardian is actually one of the first things to give me hope in a while, because it shows that people are noticing the situation here. The article notes that the Texas panhandle is half the size of South Texas, but one university alone in the panhandle (Texas Tech) has twice as many doctoral and professional programs as all of South Texas.

Tuesday Crustie: See through

Palaemonetes sp., a small grass shrimp sold in pet stores.

Photo by Karen Faulkes. Thanks, Mom.

When did central nervous systems evolve?

ResearchBlogging.org“It has the most primitive form of nervous system of any bilateral animal,” intones the voiceover for the National Geographic video.

The “it” being referred to is an acorn worm, a little known kind of invertebrate that is actually relatively closely related to the vertebrates. Vertebrates belong to the chordate phylum, and acorn worms are hemichordates – literally, “half chordates.” Hemichordates are interesting in studies of chordate evolution (and thus, in a roundabout way, human evolution) because they hint at what features that very early chordates might have had. If a feature is shared by both hemichordates and chordates, that probably means it was present in the common ancestor of both.

One of the most unusual features of chordates is their dorsal nervous system. In most animals, the majority of the nervous system runs along the underside of the animal, but in chordates, it runs along the back. Hemichordates have a proverbial foot in both camps, with some neurons running dorsally and some ventrally. With such a strange organization, you might expect that the nervous system of hemichordates has been studied to death. But surprisingly, you’d be wrong.

This new paper by Nomaksteinsky and colleagues tries to answer a very basic question: do hemichordates have a central nervous system? While older studies agree that there are cords of neurons, they disagree over whether there are neuronal cell bodies in them, which most central nervous systems have.

Ptychodera flavaThe authors looked at Ptychodera flava (pictured). A big advantage that anatomists have now that classical anatomists didn’t is the ability to look for particular molecules using antibody labeling. Nomaksteinsky and colleagues were able to use a suite of labels that bind to molecules are found fairly specifically in particular kinds of neurons.

For instance, they found neuronal cell bodies with the neurochemical serotonin in the periphery, but not in a region called the collar. Taking the results for several different labels together, the overall pattern was not one of neurons sorted around higgledy-piggledy; rather, particular kinds of neurons were found in fairly specific locations, which is consistent with the sort of organization expected in a true central nervous system.

The authors do not venture an opinion as to whether the dorsal or ventral nerve cord in acorn worms is the evolutionary equivalent to the chordate dorsal cord, but clearly detailed anatomical work over development might help sort this out in future. One key point is that a central nervous system is a very old feature in the evolution leading to humans. Another key point is that, as with jellyfish, not to underestimate the complexity of nervous systems among the spineless.

Maybe that National Geographic video should get a new voiceover.


Nomaksteinsky, M., Röttinger, E., Dufour, H., Chettouh, Z., Lowe, C., Martindale, M., & Brunet, J. (2009). Centralization of the Deuterostome Nervous System Predates Chordates Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.063

29 June 2009

Boogie fever in non-humans

I was not surprised to see Oliver Sacks on The Daily Show tonight. He’s written a lot of fine books, and The Daily Show showcases many fine authors and makes fun of them.

What I was surprised about was that he made a mistake. Now, I can see why he made it, considering that it’s a recent finding, and I imagine book tours are not the best environment to keep up with the peer-reviewed literature. Still, considering that he’s got this big book on music, I might have thought somebody somewhere would have said to him, “Have you heard about this...?”

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Oliver Sacks
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

Dr. Sacks claimed that only humans were musical. A few months ago, he would have been right. But then two papers came out that showed parrots can dance.

Normally, I would describe the research, but I’ve been way beaten to it by Quirks & Quarks, Not Exactly Rocket Science, Why Evolution is True, Oh, For the Love of Science and Ego Sum Daniel.

Still, as far as we know, Dr. Sacks was right about one thing: Trying to teach your dog to dance is a waste of time. I don’t care how smart you think your pooch is, they don’t have the funky flow.

Comments for second half of June 2009

Didn’t do a whole lot of commenting on other blogs the last couple of weeks. I stuck my nose in briefly on a very good thread about how blogging impacts scientific careers.

A couple of my posts showed up on the Circus of the Spineless and Evolution blog carnival. Lots of other good stuff there, so check them out!

Does red mean, “I win”?

ResearchBlogging.orgBright red is a bold fashion statement. Could it be because it’s a built in signal of dominance?

If you think about it, bright red often seems to be associated with dominance, ferocity, and so on in both humans and animals. A few years ago, Hill and Barton suggested that all other things being equal, red uniforms in sports gave a competitor an edge.

Assuming that there is a behavioural effect of bright red colouration, is it something that is learned, or is is something that animals innately respond to? Sarah Pryke tackles this question with Gouldian finches, beautiful birds living in Australia that have several different colour morphs as adults. These colours are controlled genetically.

Gouldian finchesRed heads in Gouldian finches does indeed signal dominance status in adults. These birds are not born with this distinctive colouration, however; they gain it as juveniles.

Pryke bred finches, and either reared the young with their parents of their own colour (e.g., offspring that will be red reared with red headed parents), or with the opposite colour (e.g., offspring that will be red reared with black headed parents). Thus, although the juveniles are not entirely socially naive, the colour of the parents around them is accounted for.

To test the birds’ aggressive behaviours, Pryke observed their behaviours around the feeders. Not surprisingly, birds will contest for the food.

Birds that will gain red later in life do not have easier time of it as young birds. They win and lose as many fights as birds that will have black heads later in life. Thus, the underlying genetics that are responsible for head colour are not tied in to early competitive success.

Pryke then took the juveniles and continued rearing them, either alone (where they would have no chance to learn social behaviours from other adults other than their parents), or in a small group with both red and black headed males. After this rearing condition, she put animals together again to study how they interacted with each other. These are still young birds that don’t have adult plumage yet, but Pryke artificially dyed the birds’ heads to either red, black, or blue. Blue is not a natural colour for these finches, so no it is a nice control.

Animals with red heads won more contests. Rearing condition, genetics, and all the rest didn’t make a difference. How the experimentally reddened finches won contests was interesting: the other birds just got out of their way. It was not the case that the reddened birds were suddenly acting more aggro than they were before.

All of this suggests that Gouldian finches are hatched “knowing,” as it were, that the bird with lots of red is bad news and should be avoided. This study alone does not mean that all animals will react this way; just because Gouldian finches have an innate response to red does not mean every other animal will also react the same way.

St. Kilda Vs. GeelongEven so, I may be tipping St. Kilda over Geelong this week.


Hill RA, Barton RA. 2005. Red enhances human performance in contests. Nature 435: 293.

Pryke, S. (2009). Is red an innate or learned signal of aggression and intimidation? Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.05.013

27 June 2009

Oh no it isn’t: Evolution is not intelligent design

ResearchBlogging.orgOver in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, there’s a short article where Robert Costanza argues that organisms show ‘design’ (the use of scare quotes is his, not mine), as meaning “that functions well and survives.” He then claims evolutionary processes are “intelligent” – though not conscious – because “it can learn from experience and improve.”

This is a strange and confusing claim. Evolution is a process, not a thing, and I cannot think of a case where we talk about processes “learning.” Learning is usually associated with an entity with some sort of mental activity or consciousness, making this an unusual meaning of “learning” at best. It’s a weird word game.

Costanza ends with:

(I)f school boards were to require the teaching of ‘intelligent design,’ they would, in fact, just be calling for the teaching of standard evolution.

If anyone thinks that a directive to teach intelligent design from, say, a state Board of Education, would be so easily circumvented by wordplay would be in for a nasty surprise. State science standards are spelled out and fought over in agonizing detail, as we recently saw in Texas. They wouldn’t just say, “Teach intelligent design,” the standards would probably spell out in detail a mess of invalid criticisms of evolution, like, “too complex to have evolved.”

Like New Scientist’s infamous “Darwin was wrong” cover earlier this year, Costanza’s piece stands a very good chance of getting misinterpreted by creationists.


Costanza, R. (2009). Evolution is intelligent design Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.05.001

Monster Zero Two

You Scored as Rodan

You are Rodan. You can fly at at the speed of sound. Godzilla is your pal.

King Ghidorah

Which Godzilla movie monster are you?

24 June 2009

Crickets fly away from bats, but do they run away, too?

ResearchBlogging.orgTo get a sense of how crickets might feel about bats, you’d probably have to sit next to a lion cage at the zoo while the lions are roaring. You’re faced with an animal hugely larger than you that can kill you in a flash.

Not surprisingly, crickets try to escape from that situation. Escape responses are a favourite behaviour for neuroethologists to tackle, because the behaviour is usually simple and the neurons are usually large. In brief, a series of paper from several labs have shown that flying crickets will turn away from ultrasound, which is the sort of sound that bats use to echolocate and pick off prey.

Although the nature shows usually depict bats catching insects while both are in flight, some bats specialize in picking insects off while they’re on a stationary surface. This is called gleaning. Gleaning bats also use ultrasound when they’re feeding, which we know crickets can detect.

But does an escape response to ultrasound when crickets are flying imply that they also have an escape response triggered by ultrasound when they are sitting?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be no.

Nictophilus geoffroyiter Hofstede and colleagues tested male and female crickets’ (Teleogryllus oceanicus) responses separately. The males sing, so the authors presented ultrasound from a bat species (Nictophilus geoffroyi, pictured) found in the cricket’s home range, while males were singing. As I’ve written about recently, singing for male crickets is great for attracting mates, but it can also be used by bats and parasitoids to find crickets. So it would be logical to think that if you hear sounds made by an approaching predator, you’d have a nice tall glass of, “Shut the heck up.”

None of the males stopped singing, even when the sound was quite loud (82 decibels sound pressure level; roughly alarm clock or busy city street loud). The males did stop singing to a loud ultrasound dog whistle, however.

The authors also tested to see if the females would stop walking when they were presented with a bat sound. The analysis here is tricky, because females tend to pause when walking anyway, but the females didn’t seem to stop more when bat sounds were presented.

After they tested each cricket for behaviour, they also recorded from one of the key neurons that responds to bat ultrasound, with the undramatic name of ascending neuron 2 (AN2). They found that the AN2 neuron would indeed generate action potentials in response to the bat ultrasound.

So if the crickets can detect the sound of a predator, and take evasive action when flying why do they bumble along doing whatever they’re doing on the ground? The authors suggest that gleaning bats may not be a significant enough predator to have caused escape responses to be selected in the wild.

Another possibility, however, is that AN2 is multi-functional. Although it fires in response to ultrasound, it also spikes in response to lower frequencies, like cricket calling song. The authors raise the possibility that when crickets are on the ground, AN2 is “preoccupied” by listening for other crickets, and can’t trigger any sort of evasive response. To test this hypothesis, someone will have to go back and do some experiments where AN2 is recorded an actively behaving animal (which can be done), rather than in recording when the animal is restrained and partially dissected.


ter Hofstede H, Killow J, Fullard J. 2009. Gleaning bat echolocation calls do not elicit antipredator behaviour in the Pacific field cricket, Teleogryllus oceanicus (Orthoptera: Gryllidae). Journal of Comparative Physiology A. DOI: 10.1007/s00359-009-0454-3

23 June 2009

Tuesday Crustie: Crab-like

Allopetrolisthes punctatus looks like a crab, but belongs to a different group (Anomura) than the crabs that most people think of (Brachyura). Count the legs; this one has 10, but the last two are very small and tucked away, which is characteristic of anomuran crabs but not brachyuran crabs.

From Ivan Hinojosa on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

22 June 2009

Blowing up the Earth

Expanding EarthAs a skeptic and a scientist, I’ve been interested in fringe scientific claims for a long time, what makes people believe them, and so on.

I thought I had heard of most of them.

But this weekend, I came across one I had never heard before: the expanding Earth. The idea is that the continents are moving apart from each other because the Earth is getting bigger, like images printed on an expanding balloon. The amount of land has always been about the same, and that in ancient times, there were no real oceans, just shallow inland seas.

It is all quite odd.

I am no geologist, so I leave a detailed refutation to the Highly Allochthonous blog here and here. Though I will say that there seem to be way to many marine fossils for my taste to support the idea that at one point in the past there were only shallow inland seas.

Bonus skeptic article! New Scientist has a piece out today on AIDS denial. Next to the damage caused there, the expanding Earth idea has the advantage of being mostly harmless.

21 June 2009

Feral cat management fail

Our university has a lot of feral cats.

Cat food

The “Do not feed the cats” signs do not seem to be working. Sigh.

20 June 2009

Unlocking new levels

The following video is probably work safe if you keep the volume low.

I think too often university classes, and the entire curriculum, are too much Kingdom Hearts and not enough Resident Evil.

We make our students sit through semesters of “introductory” classes, teasing them with the promise of really cool stuff, if they just hang on and earn enough experience points to unlock the cool levels.

“Sure, we’ll tell you about all that hot new stem cell research that everyone is talking about after you master the glycolysis pathway that was cutting edge science half a century ago.”

“Sure, you can start a research project in the lab after you wash enough glassware.”

Hat tip to Wicked Thought, who writes about games but inspires me to think about teaching.

17 June 2009

Hands on

On the lab whiteboardI’ve been in the lab the last few weeks, working on a couple of my own little projects as well as supervising my students. In the course of talking to others and reading blogs, there’s occasionally discussion about whether senior researcher running their own labs (“PIs,” if you must &ndash hate that term) should be at the bench, gathering their own data.

At big research institutions, the answer to that is often, “No,” and an emphatic “No” at that. It’s the researchers job to generate dollars, not data. Often, other people’s jobs, their food on the table, literally depends on it.

At an institution with more modest research aspiration, like here, I actually have the luxury to spend some time in the lab. I often try to have one or two projects that are all my own, rather than farming them out to students. I don’t get a chance to be in the lab a lot, but it feels nice when I do.

So when you’re thinking about careers and where you can do the most research, ask if it’s important to you to do any yourself.

16 June 2009

Tuesday Crustie: What young Darwin would have seen

Grapsus grapsus, better known as the Sally Lightfoot crab, taken on Floreana island, Galápagos.

Charles Darwin collected this species on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.

Photo by Max xx on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Pharygula has the Friday Cephalopod, Why Evolution Is True has the Caturday Felid. There are more crustaceans than either of those, so I can keep this going longer than they can. ;)

15 June 2009

Comments for first half of June 2009

Since part of blogging is commenting, I’m going to start trying to keep track of posts at other people’s blogs where I’ve left comments, rather than reposting what I’ve written here.

Over at The Intersection, I ask a question Chris Mooney what the strategy is for talking to Biblical literalists about evolution.

On The Oyster's Garter, I ask where the rock stars have gone, and whether scientists could be famous.

14 June 2009

McLeroy still distorting science

Even though Don McLeroy is no longer Chair of the Texas State Board of Education, he still continues to pontificate on science generally and biology specifically and still does not get it correct.

Member of the Texas State Board of Education Don McLeory wrote an op-ed in the Bryan-College Station Eagle on the new science standards he helped create at the end of March. It’s one of McLeroy’s least inflammatory articles. Most of this piece is very straightforward and uncontroversial. But McLeroy lets his real interests show, as he always does:

The sequential pattern of fossils can be considered evidence for evolution, but the other patterns – sudden appearance and stasis (staying the same) – can be used to question evolution.

Only if one doesn’t understand that sudden appearance and stasis in the fossil record were predicted by applying the dominant model of how new species form (allopatric speciation) that came from studying ecology. McLeroy follows a long line of creationists who have misappropriated the concept of punctuated equilibrium of Stephen Jay Gould and Nile Eldridge. Gould devotes five pages to debunking the idea that punctuated equilibrium disproves evolution in his book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (starting on 986 under the heading, “Creationist misappropriation of punctuated equilibrium”).

McLeroy should also get a spot on the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks for sentences like this:

Texas students also will get to examine “how” evolutionary processes “created” the amazing complex assemblies that are found in the cell.

McLeroy consistently such comments on evolution, fossils, and the origin of life, singling evolution out for special treatment of the sciences, because he is all about attacking evolution.

But perhaps the most subtle misinformation is this one:

Science demands that experiments, not just observations, demonstrate the hypothesis.

This almost slipped by me, especially since the sentences right before it discuss hypothesis testing, which is much closer to the mark.

Experiments are not the be all and end all of science, as McLeroy suggests. Astronomy is not an experimental science. Many aspects of geology are not experimental sciences. Some branches of biology are not experimental sciences. But of course, trying to recast experiments as necessary to science plays into the hands of creationists, who would love to be able to say, “You can’t turn a dinosaur into a bird in the lab, so it’s not science.”

Science has never been limited to testing hypotheses through experiments. For instance, one famous test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity – involving the transit of Mercury (pictured) – was not an experiment. You can’t experimentally manipulate Mercury or the Sun. There is no control group. And yet it is still science, contrary to McLeroy’s claim.

Since McLeroy misappropriates punctuated equilibrium, it feels appropriate to pull a quote from Gould on creationists who do so:

Shabby and dishonest argument can win a fragile and transient advantage, but so long as we fight back, we will win.

Additional: More analysis at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

13 June 2009

Being accomodating

I hate it when friends fight.

There has been a series of posts on multiple science blogs I read, which Jerry Coyne, on his Why Evolution is True blog, has compiled here. They include Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True), Chris Mooney (co-author of the upcoming Unscientific American), Ken Miller (author of one of the most widely used high school biology textbooks in the country and expert witness at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial), PZ Myer (author of one of the most active science blogs, Pharyngula), just to name a few. I admire a lot of their work.

The questions are first, whether certain science agencies promote a particular theological view – that there is no conflict between evolution and faith – to make teaching of evolution more palatable to the general public. Second, if they are advancing that view, is it good for them to do so?

This has been frustrating to watch, because it’s obvious that the major authors agree on so much. As the saying goes, the fight is fierce because the stakes are so small.

The phrase, “[Name] is wrong,” is getting used a lot, putting the emphasis on the person and not the idea. Making something personal is a real fast way to make someone defensive.

There are a lot of very subtle shades of gray being discussed, and there seems to be a lot of people are quick to do some contrast enhancement.

For instance, does saying, “There are people who reconcile faith and evolution” mean that particular point of view is being promoted? Maybe, maybe not. On one hand, it is an empirical fact that there are such people, and there are such religious doctrines. On the other hand, if there is never any acknowledgment that some people and some religious doctrines cannot make those two things fit together, and there is never any acknowledgment that some people who support evolution are atheists... it starts to give the impression that one particular point of view is being promoted as correct.

As another for instance, does saying, “It is a tactical mistake to remove conciliatory messages to religious moderates,” mean, “Shut up, atheists”? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Calling someone’s arguments “mistakes” could just be someone expressing an opinion. But expressed with the right tone and force, it certainly can be a way of trying to get someone to shut up.

So much in these posts depends on tone and emphasis that both sides might have a case.

Finally, the question this all revolves around. Does this proverbial olive branch of reconciliation change the opinions of a large number of Americans who consistently say they doubt, disagree with, or deny evolution?

I have about as much idea of the answer to that question as I do of how to fly the space shuttle with all the controls labeled in Chinese.

But I don’t think anyone else knows either. At least if they do, they’re not telling. Not one of these practicing empiricists has pulled out any research or evidence that supports whether telling people, “If you believe evolution happened, you can still be a Christian – just not one who interprets scripture literally,” actually wins hearts and minds for science. Instead, there are mostly anecdotes and impressions and hunches.

Disagreements over philosophy and political tactics shouldn’t detract from the main event. Evolution is beautiful, glorious science that has taken on all comers and won over and over again in the scientific arena.

11 June 2009

Eating your own offspring

ResearchBlogging.org“Eating your own young” is usually used figuratively, referring to giving up on an idea or some such. But some animals literally do this. Many people find this idea counter intuitive – indeed, repugnant. Why animals would do this is a fairly frequently asked question for behavioural biologists.

So a paper with the title, “Should you eat your offspring before someone else does?” by Chin-Baarstad and colleagues is nigh irresistible.

From a biological point of view, there are several reasons why a parent might eat its own eggs or young, and this new paper does an good job of summarizing the various theories behind cannibalism. In short, it takes time and energy to look after offspring, and sometimes, it may be better for an animal to cut its losses and try to breed again rather than continuing to pour “money down the drain,” so to speak. Eating offspring that are liable to fail provides a way of partly recouping the energy investment.

The authors studied sand gobies, where males care for eggs. They wanted to test if the mere threat of having a clutch preyed upon by another species would increase the likelihood of a male eating its offspring. They lay out the experiment concisely:

We exposed parental males to three levels of simulated threat from a known sand goby egg predator (the brown shrimp Crangon crangon): (1) no egg predator, (2) only visual cues from an egg predator and (3) visual and chemical cues from an egg predator. We hypothesized that filial cannibalism would increase when the shrimp was present, particularly when both chemical and visual cues from the shrimp were present, as these cues probably represent a greater threat of egg predation.

They placed two female gobies in with one male, and allowed them to spawn. the authors note that females usually depart after laying eggs in the wild, so the females were removed from the tank after spawning.

The shrimp predator could not actually eat the eggs. It was held either in a solid bottle or a bottle with holes, which allowed the goby to both see and smell the shrimp.

They find that there is always a risk of the goby eating the entire clutch (about 30% of the time), even if there are no shrimp predators or cues from them. A visual cue alone is no different from no predator (still about 30%), but the actual presence of the shrimp predator significantly raises the chance of whole clutch cannibalism (to about 50%). Partial clutch cannibalism wasn’t affected by the presence of the shrimp predator at all, which suggests that eating all of your young is a different proposition than eating just some of your young.

There are also various correlations between the size of the gobies and the likelihood of cannibalism. Small males are more likely to cannibalize the entire clutch. Males were more likely to eat some eggs when females that laid them were in good condition, which is again initially paradoxical, as you might expect those to be high quality eggs that you would want to survive. The authors do say that “egg survival is density dependent,” so this may be a factor: the males may be lowering the density to have a high proportion of successful eggs.

For me, a major unanswered question which is why does there seem to be a certain baseline probability of cannibalism, even with no predators? The fish are apparently not long lived, so a one in three chance of the male chucking it and eating an entire clutch seems rather high.

Before I go, one major rant against this paper. Nowhere in this paper is a species name given for the sand goby being studied. This is not cool. I will guess, based on a Google Search, that it is Pomatoschistus minutus (pictured, from this site), but Wolfram Alpha gives an estimate of 200 species in the Gobiidae family. How many of them might qualify as a “sand goby”?


Chin-Baarstad, A., Klug, H., & Lindström, K. (2009). Should you eat your offspring before someone else does? Effect of an egg predator on filial cannibalism in the sand goby Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.04.022

09 June 2009

Nobody knows what behaviour is

The question seems easy. “What is behaviour?”

A new paper suggests that this question is fiendishly difficult.

I often tell people, “Behaviour is movement.” I actually don’t think that is an all encompassing definition, but it turns out to be a simple one that gives you a lot of mileage. So I freely admit my definition is quick and dirty and incomplete, but Levitas and colleagues crave something more... well, definitive.

Levitas and colleagues took a straightforward approach. First, they looked in the scientific literature: textbooks, articles, and so on. They claim that there is no consensus. Nevertheless, there are a few key words that crop up in their representative definitions, including “movement,” “response,” and “activity.” Admittedly, each of these words, and the definitions they are in, have different shadings. “Response” suggests something that follows an external event, apparently leaving little room for spontaneity. Still, things may not be quite as dire as the authors suggest.

Second, Levitas and colleagues surveyed members of three professional scientific societies. They had a series of examples that they asked questions designed to get at what people thought were the key elements of behaviour. For instance, people were asked whether or not they agreed with, “Behavior always involves movement” (cutting right to the heart of my definition!).

Then, they asked people to decide on whether certain examples were behaviour. For example, is “A rat has a dislike for salty food” a behaviour? Some of the questions have a strong teleological bent, saying what the behaviour is for. “A sponge pumps water to gather food” is one example.

The authors found no strong consensus in their survey results on either of these sets of questions. Nothing got 100% agreement, and nothing got 100% disagreement. Though I’m not sure how I feel that the statement, “behavior always involves movement” got the lowest approval, with just 7.6% agreeing.

Flying geeseThe example that had the highest agreement – 99.1% – on whether it was behaviour or not was, “flocks of geese fly in V formations.” But even here, the authors note a potential problem: 31% of those surveyed said only individuals can behave! So about 30% of the survey respondents must have contradicted their own definition.

And this is far from the only consistence problem in the survey results.

23 respondents that agreed with the idea that organisms other than animals do not behave also agreed that algae (non-animals) swimming up a nutrient gradient was an example of behaviour.

Of course, having gone through all this, the authors can’t resist a crack at the task that nobody else seems up to: coming up with a working definition of behaviour. Theirs is:

Behaviour is: the internally coordinated responses (actions or inactions) of whole living organisms (individuals or groups) to internal and/or external stimuli, excluding responses more easily understood as developmental changes.

I am not sure I like the emphasis on responses to stimuli, but I’ll leave it to others to pick apart this definition for now. The comments section is open!

And, if nothing else, I learned that there is a Society of Plant Neurobiology, which was one of the groups surveyed. That plants do not have neurons does not phase these people. And good on them.


Levitis, D., Lidicker Jr, W., & Freund, G. (2009). Behavioural biologists do not agree on what constitutes behaviour Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.03.018

Jockeying for Texas State Board of Education

What do the next elections for the Texas State Board of Education have in common with Toy Story 3? They’re both a year away, but people want you to start taking notice now.

The Daily Texan reports on a meeting designed to get people to care about the Board. This is not easy, as relatively few people know what the Board is about, who their representative is, and it’s generally pretty far down the ballot.

(Ronald) Wetherington (Southern Methodist University professor of anthropology) said the science-versus-religion debate is related to the lack of cohesion in the board.

“The disagreement has absolutely nothing to do with ignorance of science on the part of the far-right board members,” he said.

Next year, 8 positions will be up for election. On a 15 member board which has been repeatedly split, it will only take one or two positions to change hands for the tenor of the board to change dramatically either way.

08 June 2009

Death throes of universities

This article by Dan Tapscott in Edge, titled, “The Demise of the University” is weird.

Tapscott, despite the title, apparently doesn’t think all universities are dying. He suggests that small liberal arts universities are poised to take down institutions like Harvard. They will do this, he claims, because such universities are so invested in doing research that they only teach by lecturing.

Lectures are Tapscott’s bugbear. Tapscott asserts:

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It's a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers.

Really? Has the psychology of learning changed that much? Has anyone really shown that effective learning techniques have really changed? I think it’s more likely that lectures have always been a flawed means of teaching, and that only now are there beginning to be alternatives that will scale to handle the sort of numbers needed.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the much-vaunted online skills incoming students are supposed to have are often perilously thin. Sure, they can find a YouTube video, but do they have serious strategies for researching complex technical questions and sorting woo from science?

Similarly, Tapscott says of contemporary students:

They’re used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload.

That students are used to multi-tasking is no more a good thing than people using their phones when they drive. There is an abundance of research that shows multi-tasking is something to be discouraged, not embraced. Multi-tasking impairs performance. Universities should be set to encourage focus and reflection, not multi-tasking. And there seems to be good reasons to get people to read books.

Strangely, after disparaging lectures, Tapscott writes:

Some are taking bold steps to reinvent themselves, with help from the Internet. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, is offering free lecture notes, exams and videotaped lectures by MIT professors to the online world.

Anyone in the world can watch the entire series of lectures for some 30 courses, such as Walter Lewin's ever-popular introductory physics course, which gets viewed by over 40,000 people a month on OpenCourseWare, MIT's version of intellectual philanthropy.

So... lecture in an actual classroom with an actual human being able to answer questions is bad, but a recorded lecture on the internet is somehow better? In fairness, he writes elsewhere, “real value of what they offer is not the lecture per se”, but I can’t help seeing online lectures being painted more positively than lectures in a class.

I do agree that North American universities are going to face some hard time. I would be more worried about declining numbers of university age people as the “echo” of the Baby Boom fades than the inadequacies of teaching models that Tapscott is concerned with.

It’s frustrating, because I agree with much of Tapscott says. But he certainly does not show what the title claims, that universities are dying.

07 June 2009

Out of alignment

Zen completed the quiz "Which alignment are you?" with the result Chaotic Neutral.

Jack Sparrow: Chaotic Neutral
Chaotic neutral is called the “Anarchist” or “Free Spirit” alignment. A character of this alignment is an individualist who follows his or her own heart, shirks rules and traditions. They typically act out of self-interest, but do not specifically enjoy seeing others suffer. Many adventurers are of this alignment. An unusual subset of chaotic neutral is “strongly chaotic neutral,” describing a character who behaves chaotically to the point of appearing insane. Characters of this type may regularly change their appearance and attitudes for the sake of change, and intentionally disrupt organizations for the sole reason of disrupting a lawful construct. Captain Jack Sparrow is of the Chaotic Neutral alignment.

06 June 2009

Self indexing

My h-index is currently 6.

Here’s an article that describes what an h-index is, and why I would bother to calculate it. This post describes how to calculate it using the Web of Science service. If you don’t have Web of Science, there’s a program you can download – depressingly named, “Publish or Perish.”

05 June 2009

Lake monsters

It used to be much more reasonable to think that there might be undiscovered large vertebrates in lakes and seas and the mountains – that is to say, monsters. Nessie. Cadborosaurus, a.k.a. Caddy. And my personal favourite, Ogopogo.

But in an age where cameras are damn near ubiquitous and something like 20 hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube every 5 minutes, if there were such monsters, I’m pretty sure that we would have something better than this by now:

This is video from Lake Champlain, which is purported to be the home of a lake monster named “Champ.” What I think is notable about this, and most similar videos, is how poor they are. This is not to say that the person who took it did a bad job, but that you have something happening at a distance so that whatever is out there can only be seen at low resolution. You’ve got a couple of indistinct shapes and some waves.

In other words, you only get the possibility of a lake monster raised when the video is crappy and ambiguous.

If there were lake monsters, it seems highly likely that by now there would be video of something that recognizable as an animal. Heck, look for the animal that has probably been the source of inspiration for sea serpent stories, the oarfish, and you can find better videos of this unusual fish that normally inhabits the deep sea:

Hat tip to Tetrapod Zoology blog.

03 June 2009

Review on Top 10 articles list

My most recent published article, a review on the evolution of crustacean escape responses, was the #2 article in Brain, Behavior and Evolution last month.

Happy dance!

That's Faulkes, Z. 2008. Turning loss into opportunity: The key deletion of an escape circuit in decapod crustaceans. Brain Behav Evol 72: 251-261. DOI:10.1159/000171488.

Accept no substitutes! Tell your friends!

02 June 2009

The pause that refreshes

My favourite time of year now is almost over.

There are a few weeks after the spring semester closes and the summer classes start where there are precious few people around.

It’s glorious. Peace and quiet.

It’s no accident that I got two manuscripts off to editors last week. One, a review article, came back with positive comments, but with a request to for more. A lot more. The editors asked me expand the subject covered, which will take several weeks of more writing.

Even though I’m not teaching any summer classes, things will pick up next week when summer classes start.

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 34

According to the National Center for Science Education, a couple of bills that were introduced to allow the Institute for Creation Research to operate more freely in Texas, have died with the close of the legislative session for the year.

Previous posts on this here and here.

What we have going for us

In an article in Science on Darwinius (Ida), paleontologist Christopher Beard (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) provides something scientists like myself should remember:

The only thing we have going for us that Hollywood and politicians don't is objectivity.

01 June 2009

A little appreciation would be nice

Not everyone is instantly drawn to or thrilled by classical music. It’s hard to get the technical proficiency to play that kind of music yourself. And the vocabulary! What is a “cantata” or a “fugue,” for crying out loud? The high level of specialized techniques and vocabulary often puts up a wall between the art and the audience, even though art is supposed to be universal.

In many universities, there are often classes to address this.

“Art Appreciation.” “Music Appreciation.”

These seem to be largely restricted to the fine arts. I personally have never taken one of these kinds of classes, but the idea seems to be that it may not be reasonable to expect everyone to be able to cast a bronze or play an instrument. So you try to provide people with the knowledge of what it takes to do those things, and some of the underlying principles that unravel some of the aesthetic qualities.

Why are there no “Science Appreciation” classes?

They could be classes that would talk about the beauty of research, and that would unravel what separates studies that professional scientists would call “elegant” from those that they call “adequate.” It might be nice to have something that at least acknowledges that there’s an entry barrier to understanding science.

Like the arts, science should be approachable by everyone.