28 February 2010


I’d like to thank fellow blogger, invert biologist, man with name containing last letter of alphabet: Kevin Zelnio.

Were it not for his comments on Twitter a week ago...

I would not be enjoying today anywhere near as much as I am.

And, no, I will not let him forget this outcome. Ever.

27 February 2010

How much education do you want?

This morning, I found yet another editorial (this in the Forth Worth Star Telegram) claiming that we need more science graduates. This is the same week as Scientific American published a lengthy and detailed article arguing that we have an oversupply of professionally trained scientists who cannot get jobs.

Part of the disconnect seems to be the level of education being discussed. The editorial talks about K-12 and undergrad reading levels. It’s not at all clear to me how much education she thinks is needed for these STEM careers. I am not all that convinced that major innovations across the board are going to come about from people with undergraduate degrees. In some areas, sure. But many key breakthroughs are going to come from people with graduate level training, and the dread “overqualified” label haunts those who have those more advanced degrees and specialized skills.

The editorial also paints the imminent retirement of many baby boomers as creating a talent vacuum. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this tune before. I remember distinctly being told as a finishing undergraduate in the 1980s that there was going to be a large number of career opportunities in academia because so many professors would be retiring.

That never happened. The job market has been, and remains, horribly competitive. Apparently, people looked at the retirements but forgot the backlog: all the people that had been trained as academics in the meantime.

26 February 2010

The ant smelloscope

ResearchBlogging.orgBlast it, I hate it when the authors of a research article come up perhaps the best possible title.

“Do desert ants smell the scenery in stereo?”

I can’t top that title. All I can do is try to explain a little.

Cataglyphis fortis is a name that is not well-known to many, but to an ethologist like myself, they're kind of famous. This is a desert ant species that has taught us a phenomenal amount about how animals navigate in their environment. These ants, with their small brains, are doing sophisticated navigational things like memorizing landmarks, counting steps, and looking at the sky for polarized light cues.

Adding to that already impressive repertoire, Steck and colleagues are showing how these ants can use smell to find locations. Locating things by smell is tricky, because an odour molecule has no inherent directional information. You have to sample repeatedly, and follow rules of thumb like “more odour means closer to source.” And again, it’s more sophisticated in these ants than you might expect.

These ants, like many ants, have a nest. They run out from the nest great distances, relative to their body size, to find food and water. Remember, these are desert ants, so resources are thin on the ground. Then, they turn around and head back into the nest. If they don’t find the entrance where they think it should be (because some experimenter has moved things around, say), they perform a very regular searching behaviour trying to find it.

Steck and colleagues placed four fairly strong odour sources around the entrance to the ant’s nest, let the ants run away, then removed the entrance. The odour sources were 7 cm – reasonably far relative to the ant’s body, but still local cues that would be intermixing and intermingling. If the odour sources were the same as when the ant left the nest, the ant searched in a narrow range, as if it was thinking, “It’s got to be here somewhere...” But if the researchers messed with the odours while the ant was gone, the ant searched much more widely, as if it was thinking, “Where did I put that nest again? Am I having a senior moment?”

The interesting thing is that if they left all the four odours in place, but changed their position relative to each other (moving ones left of the entrance to the right of the entrance and vice versa), the ants searched much more widely, exhibiting less certainty about where the entrance was. It isn’t just the presence of the odours, but their positions on a very small scale, that the ant is noticing and remembering.

Interestingly, if you removed one of the ant’s two antennae, trained them to this four odour landmark, they also showed a lot less confidence in the entrance location, searching widely. But if you trained them to only one odour, the removal of the antennae didn’t make things worse.

The ant with one antennae is like a person who can’t see out of one eye at a 3-D movie. It seems that both are needed for the animal to sense and learn the smell of its surroundings, indicating that the ant is doing some fairly sophisticated comparisons between the signals coming in from each antennae.

Given the small size of the animal, trying to sort out the neural activity underlying all this sophisticated learning is a little tricky, but certainly not impossible. There’s also a huge background literature on insect olfaction generally, so working out some of the neurobiology could be a next logical step to take in the next half decade or so.


Steck, K., Knaden, M., & Hansson, B. (2010). Do desert ants smell the scenery in stereo? Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.01.011

25 February 2010

Research Blogging nomination

NeuroDojo has made the list of finalists in the Research Blogging Awards for “Best Neuroscience Blog.”

More about this later. Needless to say, I’m pleased.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should be writing some more neuro posts. Shouldn’t I?

Culture gap

Things Canadians take for granted that Americans find hysterically funny:
  • Curling.
  • Tuques.
  • Toonies.
  • Boxing Day.
  • The 55 yard line.
  • Block heaters.
  • Zambonis.
  • Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
You should help expand the list by leaving a comment!

23 February 2010

Tuesday Crustie: Millinery

Words fail me.

From here.

Open Lab is here!

Editor Scicurious has announced that The Open Laboratory 2009 anthology is finally here!As you may well know, one of my posts is featured in this, but there’s a lot of other fine reading. Available in a memorial physical object edition (book), or a more modern “bits not atoms” edition (PDF).

I’ve already bought one as a birthday present to myself!

Thanks to Sleestak for the “Oh-so inviting for photmanipulation” ad.

Democracy, Texas style

The Dallas Morning News is covering the Texas State Board of Education races. I’ve been blogging about these because science textbook adoption will be up for grabs after the election. The article notes (emphasis added):

The battle for control of the State Board of Education will largely be determined by Republican primary voters in four key races – and nowhere is the competition more fierce than for the seat that represents part of Collin County and much of East Texas. ... No Democrat filed, so the GOP winner is expected to cruise to election in November.

A society is only a democracy when there are choices.

Also, see this article in the Houston Chronicle about the recently adopted science standards. While certain subjects were weakened, some appear to be better than they were.

Additional: See this Houston Chronicle article about State Board of Education elections.

22 February 2010

Promising syllabus

Usually, a class syllabus is a boring legal document. So it was with great interest that I went to a workshop by Ken Bain last Friday. Ken is the author of What the Best College Teachers Do.

Not surprisingly, he had a very different view of what a syllabus should be, informed by his research. Very effective teachers started the class not with the usual “Reading of the rules,” but with a story that established what the class would be about. Ideally, it would be set up a topic so deep that you could spend the semester studying that one thing.

As an example, one fellow faculty at the workshop gave an example of starting his philosophy class with, “Could God make a rock so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?” This, he said, would let the students know they were in for a class that examined puzzles and paradoxes.

Bain called this the “promise” that the instructor makes to the class. That’s the heart of his idea of a syllabus. The other sections of this “promising” syllabus are more familiar, although they get a different emphasis and name than usual. For instance, having made the promise to the student, the instructor then has to tell the student what activities they will be undertaking to fulfill the promise, and how the instructor and student will recognize that the student is learning. Now, those latter two look a lot like “assignments” and “grades.”

I like the ideas a lot, although I don’t know that it helps to call it a “syllabus.” I think you could do the “promising syllabus” verbally at the start of the class, and keep the more traditional “policy” document confined to paper.

More at Best Teachers Summer Institute. I won’t be able to go, but if you do, tell ‘em Zen sent ya.

21 February 2010

Science on the island (South Padre Island, that is)

Yesterday, I gave a talk at this new wonderful new building, the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

I went in and chatted about something I hadn’t talked about in a good long while, which was mostly some of my doctoral work on sand crabs as examples of things that have been able to make a living on beaches. I also got in a little bit about mud shrimp and Donax. People seemed to enjoy it. They laughed at the right bits and tolerated a little bit of geekiness about motor coordination.

After the talk, it was a lovely day to walk around the walkways to see some of the vertebrates the area is famous for...

Even got to see some aquatic vertebrates...

And even a few more crustaceans: fiddler crabs out displaying to each other.

I’d like to thank the people who were willing to sit in a dark room for about an hour listening all the ways a sign can be wrong.

18 February 2010

The age of the earth and Texas State Board of Education

This article in the Dallas Observer looks at the races for the Texas State Board of Education. As readers of this blog may know, several of the current members who watered down the Texas science standards are up for re-election.

(T)wo of the hard-line gang of seven religious-right conservatives on the 15-member panel -- Ken Mercer of San Antonio and Don McLeroy of Bryan -- face stiff opposition in the March 2 GOP primary. Tim Tuggey, a lawyer from Austin, is facing Mercer in District 5; Legislative consultant Thomas Ratliff from Mount Pleasant will square off against McLeroy in District 9.

And the question for these candidates on science?

Mr. Ratliff, just how old do you think planet Earth is anyway?

Again, he laughs. "Millions and millions if not billions of years," he says. "I'm not an expert on carbon dating." But he does think the planet is significantly older than, say, 10,000 years, unlike his opponent.

The candidates for another seat are also illuminating:

In Dallas, where most friends of Unfair Park will be voting, the District 12 race is between GOP incumbent Geraldine “Tincy” Miller and educator George M. Clayton, who appears to be something of a mystery man according to several GOP folks we spoke with.

We’ve played phone tag with Clayton, but you can get some idea of where he stands here and by looking at the comments section of this Morning News item. (Sample quote from a comment posted by Clayton: “I have absolutely no objection to Creationism, Intelligent Design, and evolution being covered in public schools so long as they are covered simultaneously – in a parallel lesson. All must be discussed objectively, without bias or prejudice. Evolution is yet still a ‘theory.’” We're thinking that maybe that knocks him out of the moderate camp on science issues.)

As for Geraldine Miller, read this article for the treatment she received at the hands of fellow Republicans.

17 February 2010

Collegiality and tenure, revisited

Last week, I wrote about a brief presentation I gave to some of the tenure-track faculty at our institution. The major point I made was that tenure guidelines are instruments favouring the tenured in an asymmetric power relationship. But I expressed this as “collegiality” was often an unwritten factor in tenure decisions.

Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigilata has a long discussion thread going on around the question of whether collegiality should play any role in tenure decisions. From there, I learned that the American Associate of University Professors recommends against using collegiality at all as a factor in tenure decisions. It’s a short but thoughtful analysis. (Also, Dr. Free-Ride has more to say on this.) I think I agree with it, in fact.

That said, here is a possible problem. I have not experienced this first hand; this is just an impression I’ve gotten from talking to colleagues.

The way many departments “handle” behavioural problems (bullying, say) with their tenure-track faculty is not to address the behavioural problem itself. Instead, they’ll ride the person harder on the academic requirements for tenure, and use that as an excuse to get someone out of their department.

Academics should be much more willing to say, “You’re not playing nice. Knock it off,” instead of weaseling out with, “You met all our minimum criteria, but you didn’t publish in a journal with an impact factor greater than 1.7, and your grant was only $49,000, so you just haven’t done enough for us to warrant tenure.”

16 February 2010

Tuesday Crustie: Boxer without gloves

Michal Grabowski sent this picture to the CRUST-L list with a request that people help identify this animal.

It comes from the Great Barrier Reef, I think it belongs to family Goneplacidae, but would like someone to verify it and if possible assign any generic name to it.

Everyone who replied suggested it is Lybia tesselata. One person offering the tidbit that it often has anemones in its claws, and is sometimes called the “boxer crab” or “pom pom crab.” There are no anemones on this particular specimen, but it’s great to look at regardless. Love the banding.

Tenure is not a job for life

I’m tired of tenure being described as “a job for life.”

Tenured people can, and do, get fired or laid off . There is post tenure review. Universities can decide to eliminate entire academic programs. Or they can say, “financial exigencies.”

Is it rare that a tenured professor loses his or her job? Yes. Is it impossible? No. And I suspect it will be more likely to happen as the economy continues to sputter. Whether shots like this in the U.K. are opening salvos or individual snipes are hard to say.

15 February 2010

Alma maters

I’ve avoided writing anything about Friday’s shooting at University of Alabama Huntsville, because in such a terrible situation, it is so hard to write anything that doesn’t ring false. I only want to comment on this:

Every report that I have seen has stated that Amy Bishop was “Harvard trained” or “Harvard educated” or “had a degree from Harvard.” This is not a detail buried in the copy. It’s usually one of the first things mentioned, or is otherwise given fairly prominent mention.

I wonder why that particular detail is thought to be relevant, or why it matters to people.

Comments for first half of February 2010

I comment on Effect Measure about the alleged stem cell cabal. The same stem cell kerfuffle also prompts a discussion of the value of peer review on Laboratorytalk. For me, “It’s the anonymity, stupid.”

Dr. Becca ponders rejection letters. My experience is that most search committees are highly unresponsive things.

Professor in Training wonders if the bar for tenure should rise and fall with the economy.

At Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter wonders if citizen science ever leads to actual research publications, or if it’s just all “feel good” exercises. I’m not sure survey data is quite what she had in mind, but it can help nevertheless.

The authors of Successors of Solomon explain the name of their blog, to which I add another reference.

Dr. Isis raises a question about unresponsive contributors who, in essence, have the power to block publication through inaction. The only right way out is, alas, to get that contributor to respond. Dr. Free-Ride picks up the thread in her blog, and I join in there, too.

14 February 2010

I’ll miss you, Kathy

I just got this email from my department chair:

I am saddened to inform you that Ms. Kathryn Dodd, a lecturer in our Biology Department, after fighting with cancer for about five months, passed away this morning at 9:15 AM at her home at 2005 Pin Oak in Edinburg. Her sister Deva just called me a few minutes ago with this news. Ms. Dodd has been with the Biology Department for over a decade. She taught many courses in the department and has been an inspiration to our students. It is indeed a great loss for the Biology Department.

Kathy was the sort of person you wished more people knew. All of my colleagues and I thought the world of her. It’s hard to picture her without a smile on her face. When I think of her, I’ll think of Native dancing (she was part Cherokee, and often participated in pow wows), her love of chocolate (something we shared), and what she always told her students: “Study til it hurts.”

When she was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer, we knew the outcome was probably not good. But you’re never really prepared for the news.

13 February 2010

Update: Vaccines and dystonia

Back in December, I commented upon a video one of my neuro students asked me about. There has now been an update on this story. See particularly point 4 in my earlier post.

12 February 2010

How to make your prof ♥ you

I’ve been finding a lot of students have no idea how to go about finding out about research opportunities. So, here’s one for you students.

Clear out some time. If a prof’s door is open, knock and ask if you can come in. If you’re too intimidated by dropping in, email and ask for an appointment. Once you get in the office, ask this magic question:

“Could you tell me a bit about your research?”

Be ready for a loooooong conversation. Because the truth is, not very many people ask about our research, so to have anyone showing any sort of interest is something we enjoy. Heck, very often even our own colleagues don’t ask what we’re working on most of the time.

That conversation can totally change the tone of your dialogue with your professor – in a good way – for a long time. Think about it. Which conversation do you think a professor would rather have?

“Can you tell me about your research?”

versus some variation of:

“Can you sign this form?”
“Can you calculate my best possible grade for your class?”
“Can I take a make-up exam?”

Which conversation do you think a prof would rather have? And which conversation do you think a prof has more often?

10 February 2010

I have a big beak and a small tongue: Hornbill feeding

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the movie Roxanne, Steve Martin’s Cyrano-esque character has a scene where he’s supposed to drink from a small fluted wine glass, but his character’s large schnoz makes it impossible. That’s sort of the task faced by several birds species with large, lengthy bills.

Feeding is no small task for birds. Keep in mind that birds have no hands to manipulate their food, and a bird’s bill is completely inflexible. Imagine trying to eat without moving your lips.

Hornbills (like Aceros cassadix, pictured) have a world-class long beak. It seems likely that this dramatic elongation isn’t tied in with feeding, but may be related to some other kind of physiological or ecological demand. Indeed, to make matters more difficult for feeding, these animals have a very short tongue.

Here you can see a picture of the short tongue in Buceros hydrocorax, taken from a paper by Baussart and Bels. These researchers had previously examined feeding in toucans, also renown for their large beaks, and wanted to see if hornbills fed in a similar way. They recorded three individuals from three different hornbill species on high-speed video.

All the hornbills feed in roughly the same way. They position feed in their beaks, and use a head movement to get food down their throats. Feeding doesn't involve the tongue at all. A few other birds use similar kinds of mechanisms, but hornbills move their heads much more horizontally than other birds.

Buassert and Bels call this way of feeding “ballistic food transport.” Other birds also use some head movements in feeding, but these large beaked birds appear to have taken it a bit further. Indeed, this is probably the only way that they would be able to feed.

I wonder how they drink?


Baussart, S., & Bels, V. (2010). Tropical hornbills (Aceros cassidix,
Aceros undulatus, and Buceros hydrocorax) use ballistic transport to feed with their large beaks Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological Genetics and Physiology DOI: 10.1002/jez.590

Aceros cassadix photo on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

09 February 2010

Tuesday Crustie: King with a hermit’s past

An artistic rendition of the red king crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus. Many know them as being featured in a certain reality television show on Discovery Channel, but there are many scientifically interesting features about them, too. For instance, these massive “kings” are actually most closely related to hermit crabs.

Don’t like Alaska? You can find this poster promoting several Alaskan cities and places in the contiguous 48 states, too.

05 February 2010

Six days left to nominate blogs for Research Blogging award!

Check the current list of nominated blogs for the ResearchBlogging.org awards! See something good not on the list? The nomination form is right here for your clicking convenience.

Tenure guidelines usually leave something out

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak as a panel member to a new faculty workshop, about “common pitfalls and best practices” on the road to tenure. One of the interesting things about the other speakers was that several of them were very down on presentations, arguing that too many faculty go to conferences for the wrong reasons.

As it happened, I had been attending a meeting earlier that day in place of our department chair. I had an opportunity to review the tenure requirements of a lot of different departments, which you normally don’t have a chance to do. A few things stood out.

Many of the departments had long, very legalistic tenure requirements, often containing fairly trivial things. For example, “You have to give your a syllabus to classes, preferably on the first day” was the sort of thing that some had. (Given that a syllabus is a CYA document, it does make sense that it would be referred to in another CYA document.)

I told the faculty that it’s a mistake to think of those tenure requirements as a checklist. Tenure requirements are almost always written for the benefit of the tenured faculty, not the tenure-track faculty those requirements are ostensibly there for. Tenure requirement are often written in such a way as to give the tenured faculty the balance of power in making tenure decisions.

While the written guidelines cover minimum expectations for teaching, research, and service, there’s typically a big unwritten set of conditions: collegiality. If the tenured faculty don’t like you, the tenure guidelines are usually slippery enough, referring to intangibles (e.g., “publication quality”) that it will be hard to get past the gates.

04 February 2010

Can crayfish feel electricity?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe sensory abilities of vertebrates and invertebrates are generally more similar than they are different: both groups can detect light, sound, pressure, and so on. One of the few cases of a sensory ability that seemed to be the domain of vertebrates alone was the ability to detect electrical signals: electroreception. Several fish have it, and use electrical signals to communicate. Platypus have it. Electric signaling in fish is a classic examples of behaviour understood at the neural level.

For a long time, people argued that invertebrates don’t have electroreception, for reasons that were perhaps a bit idiosyncratic. One explanation I heard given was that something like a crayfish was too small. And I’ve seen crayfish much bigger than knifefish.

A few years ago, a couple of papers came out that started to pick apart that idea, and showed that crayfish could respond to electrical signals. This new paper by Patullo and Macmillan* pushes the state of the art forward in a couple of ways (And it does so with some rather graceful prose, I might add.)

First, it expands the number of species. The authors used Cherax destructor, which they’d used in a previous study, and also tested Cherax quadricarinatus (pictured). Both species decreased their activity in the presence of electric fields, at about the same intensity levels.

The intensity levels were the second way this paper pushed things forward: it showed that crayfish were responding to much lower levels of electricity than previous studies – about ten times lower. Because neurons run on electricity, if you give an intense enough signal, animals will respond, even if they have no specialized sensory apparatus for detecting electical fields. This paper goes further towards suggesting that crayfish can respond to a biologically relevant electrical signal. And, indeed, one of the key features is that the electrical signal played to the crayfish was derived from a swimming tadpole, which crayfish will prey upon.

These experiments seem rather tricky to pull off and calibrate. Behavioural analysis is complicated by there not be any particular behaviour identified (yet!) that is reliably and consistently evoked by an electrical signal. This is going to make the next stage of this research, locating the neurons responsible for crayfish electroreception, a challenge.

* Full disclosure: I have worked with both authors on this paper, so I think of them as Blair and David. And, as an example of how long it takes to get things out in science, I helped them start this project over ten years ago.

Crossposted at Marmorkrebs blog.


Patullo, B., & Macmillan, D. (2010). Making sense of electrical sense in crayfish Journal of Experimental Biology, 213 (4), 651-657 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.039073

03 February 2010

Times Online wants to know the best science blogs

The science blogosphere is chatting a lot about the release of the Times Online list of top 30 science blogs. There’s generally good stuff there.

Those quickly scanning the list to see if their favourite made it in might miss this request:

We’d like you to help us us to compile the definitive list, the Top 100 Science Blogs. Send the name and url of your favourites to eureka@thetimes.co.uk, with “Best blogs” in the subject line.

When the going gets tough, do the puffs get going?

ResearchBlogging.orgYou would think that having a dedicated set of neurons that triggered super-fast escape responses to get away from fast predator attacks and other sudden events in your area would be something that you’d want to keep around. This is usually so, but it turns out, not always. This is a problem I’ve been struggling with for some time now, and I’m thrilled to bits to find another example.

Fish have a group of neurons that trigger escape responses called C-starts, so called because the fish bends in a C shape away from the source of the stimulus. The largest of these neurons – large enough to be called giant neurons – are Mauthner cells, named after their discoverer. Bigger neurons send faster signals, so if Mauthner neurons are inactivated experimentally, fish can do C-starts, but they’re slower at it.

Anna Greenwood and colleagues have now found an interesting case of a natural experiment: two fairly similar fishes that differ dramatically in their responses to startling stimuli. They’re two different pufferfish: the green puffer (Tetraodon nigroviridis; below left) and the long-spine porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus; below right).

Give these two animals the same sudden sound, and both will respond... but the green puffer is much faster, performing a classic C-start (start of movement marked with asterisk in first row of silhouettes). The porcupinefish takes twice as long to react (second row of silhouettes), and doesn’t bend nearly as much.

The neural anatomy correlates with these differences in behaviour. Large Mauthner cells in green puffers, no large Mauthner cells in porcupinefish. The position of the Mauthner cells is consistent enough that Greenwood and colleagues were able to provide argue that the Mauthner cells are missing in porcupinefish, not just tiny.

Greenwood and company suggest two scenarios where the Mauthner cells might be lost. There might be relaxed selection on the trait, and it’s lost sort of by happenstance, a little like how cave dwelling organisms tend to lose pigments or eyes.

Alternately, there might be some active disadvantage to having the Mauthner cells. For the porcupinefish, that disadvantage might be that Mauthner cells and C-starts interfere with a dramatically different anti-predator behaviour: inflation. Greenwood and company don’t provide hard numbers, but report that porcupinefish are much more likely than green puffers to do the classic behaviour that gives puffers their names.

The result of all of this detailed behavioural analysis and anatomical work is... to send researchers back to the field. To understand what drove their neurobehavioural changes, we’ve got to get a better handle of the differing ecology of these species.


Greenwood, A., Peichel, C., & Zottoli, S. (2010). Distinct startle responses are associated with neuroanatomical differences in pufferfishes Journal of Experimental Biology, 213 (4), 613-620 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.037085

02 February 2010

Anonymity doesn’t make science better

A group of stem cell researchers are claiming that there is a group of scientists who are impeding publication on stem cell research. Maybe. Maybe not. I wanted to comment on this quote (emphasis added):

Commenting on the allegations, Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, another major journal, said: “Our current policy is to preserve the confidentiality of reviewers’ names and comments. Some journals have tried experiments to test the impact of open review on the quality of the feedback received through peer review.(”)

Anonymity is a problem; see previous post here. Keep peer review, but actually have people own up to what they write, so we can see if there’s a shadowy cabal of researchers controlling the discipline or not.

It’s ironic that one of the bigger fights in scientific publishing is about open access for the papers, open archiving of the data, but the actual review process remains out of view, not only of the public, but of the scientists themselves.

Additional: Here’s the letter from the scientists complaining about review practices.

Tuesday Crustie: Clawless

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested a sand crab identified as Blepharipoda occidentalis was probably Hippa. Here’s Hippa adactyla: a type specimen of Danish biologist J.C. Fabricius (from here). I love the antique look of this image.

Here’s a more modern image (from here).

01 February 2010

Octopus intelligence

My first supervisor, Jennifer Mather, is featured today on the world’s most popular site called Boing Boing. She discusses the recent description of octopuses using coconut shells, which I blogged about here.

How many species have you published on? Update!

Last year, I asked my fellow researchers how many different species they had published original data about.

My tally just increased by one.

  1. Spiny sand crabs, Blepharipoda occidentalis (Paper)
  2. Pearly sand crabs, Lepidopa californica (Paper; pictured, right)
  3. Mole crabs, Emerita analoga (Paper; pictured, left)
  4. Squat lobster, Munida quadrispina (Paper)
  5. Signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus (Paper)
  6. Yabby, Cherax destructor (Paper)
  7. Spiny lobster, Panulirus argus (Paper)
  8. Balmain bugs, Ibacus peronii (Paper)
  9. Slipper lobsters, Ibacus alticrenatus (Paper)
  10. Spanner crab, Ranina ranina (Paper)
  11. Cricket, Teleogryllus oceanicus (Paper)
  12. Sea squirt, Ascidia interrupta (Paper)
  13. Marmorkrebs, Procambarus sp. (Paper)

Looking forward to seeing how much further I push that number up before the year’s out.

Meet the new number two, same as the old number two

My last review article continues to hang around in the bridesmaid position at Brain, Behavior and Evolution for the fourth straight month, and has been in the top three for nine months now.

Now, if some citations would just start appearing...

Do you like me? Or any scientist?

Dr. Doyenne at Women in Wetlands has, like me, been reading Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist.

(A)re scientists likeable? Well, some of them are, but why? In the coming posts, I’ll try to delve into how scientists can be more effective at science communication.

I look forward to her takes! And her posts are a nudge to me that I had been meaning to write about this myself.

The first element to consider is something that is entirely out of any scientist’s hands: culture. I think it’s fair to say that there is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in the United States. In other countries, intellectuals are probably more valued (France and Israel may be a couple of examples, though I don’t pretend to have any hard data on this.) If the culture doesn’t value deep or abstract thinking, scientists are going to have a hard time being seen as likeable.

In her follow-up, Doyenne writes (emphasis added):

I’ve noticed in the blogosphere that some science bloggers gain notoriety by engaging in negative rants, heavily laden with cursing and rude attacks on anyone with a different opinion. You probably know which blogs I’m talking about. Some have huge followings, probably because readers mistakenly think that an angry voice is bound to be a truthful one. Instead of expending effort to develop an intelligent, interesting, or useful voice, these angry bloggers use their vitriol as an easy way to attract attention. Take a close look at some of these blogs, and you will see that very little real information or useful insight is conveyed.

Olson writes about this at some length. He argues that so many bloggers are amateur communicators that it’s no surprise they use anger. Anger’s easy to convey.


I have read many science bloggers whose writing is both angry and truthful; profane and insightful.

A lot of people will point at the former and use it as an excuse to ignore the latter. (I’m not saying Dr. Doyenne is doing so. She doesn’t name names, so I have no basis for comparison.)

That writers accomplish both demonstrate what I think is a much bigger advantage for scientists than likeability. Likeability for scientists is an uphill battle at best. (To be clear, I’m not saying that scientists should try to be unlikeable. Trying to improve would be a good thing.)

In his book, Randy Olson also writes about the emergence of unscripted entertainment; reality television and the like. On one of his commentaries for Doctor Who, writer Russell T Davies said of such unscripted shows, “That’s what drama is now,” using Susan Boyle’s run on Britain’s Got Talent as an example. Olson says people enjoy the spontaneity in such moment; I think it also has to do with seeing genuine reactions. I think people enjoy a lack of artifice, even though we are constantly advised to create fa├žades and hold things back.

Authenticity is something that scientists have in abundance. Something like ClimateGate is damaging not so much because scientists were seen being unlikeable, but because they were seen as not being straight-shooters.

I would hate for researchers to lose their authenticity in pursuit of likeability. As Danielle Laporte wrote elsewhere:

Authenticity is incredibly efficient. Consistency builds velocity. When you’re who you really are, people know what to expect of you, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Show me who you are, even if it’s a bit risky (risk = momentum.)

Additional: See also this post on authenticity in game promotion.

Comments for second half of January, 2010

Janet Stemwedel, a.k.a. Dr. Free-Ride, asks at Adventures in Ethics and Science about leniency for students caught cheating. I advocate consistency.

Professor in Training continues talking about what potential tenure-track faculty should look for after getting a job offer. I add three points.

Blue Lab Coats picks up from Professor in Training and on my post about lab personnel; I stress the variation across institutions.

At On the Market, Doctor Becca asks why other postdocs are not writing about their job search experiences. Perhaps because a couple of apparently pseudonymous descriptions were not as discreet as the author hoped?

Doctor Becca also asks for some input on some popular science writing she did. Remember, she asked, and I’m just trying to help.

At The Tree of Life, Jonathan Eisen doesn’t like “connectome.” What else you got?

Biochem Belle ponders what makes an undergrad institution create a doctoral program. Tough to say, but it seems ill-timed, to say the least.