29 March 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson talk

Last night, Neil deGrasse Tyson came to our campus as part of our “Distinguished speakers” series.

There wasn’t enough room in the theatre to hold everyone who wanted to hear him talk. The only speakers before Tyson who had ever got that sort of turn out were former American presidents.

What a fantastic presenter. People, if you are ever in doubt as to how to do science communication, look no further.

His talk was about how scientists see the world. And wonderfully, he didn’t just use his own field, but talked about almost every discipline, talking about the “chemist’s lens,” the “engineer’s lens,” the “skeptic’s lens,” the“mathematician’s lens,” the “exobiologist’s lens,” and so on. It was a nice demonstration of the common elements of science.

Tyson almost immediately set the tone by... removing his shoes. He delivered his entire talk in his socks. Immediately, it showed what probably most of the audience already knew: this was not a guy who took himself too seriously.

And the playful tone continued throughout. He had a bit of fun when the audio-visual guys a sort of “picture in picture” of him on his own slides, noting that it was a little odd to see a small version of himself on the screen. The sense of play was never far from the surface, and Tyson had a lot of good jokes.

But Tyson was not just fun and games.

He talked about being in New York when the World Trade Center was destroyed. He showed pictures of the street outside his building, covered with ash.

He was a little angry when he said that the tragedy of New Orleans was not because of Katrina, but because of failed engineering, and that had not been said enough. (Spontaneous applause followed.)

He was exasperated when he talked about the recent goofiness over the “supermoon.”

He was worried about the future of American science, which he returned to over and over again. He gave plenty of examples of how nations that were great in science were usually among the most influential in the world. Those that gave up on science never regained their stature.

And at every turn, he was always engaged and engaging.

Most speakers want to negotiate to allow the audience to questions; Tyson actually went longer with questions than the organizers originally wanted. Originally, the organizers were going to limit it to four questions, and I got to ask question #4.

I congratulated Tyson for being placed on Time magazine’s list of top 140 Twitterers (which Tyson, naturally, had tweeted earlier that day), and asked if, given how busy he was with being a science advocate and science educator, if he had any time to do any original research of his own.

Tyson said he like the question (flatterer), and that he currently spent about 5% of his time on his own research. He hoped, though, that once he got some books and radio projects he was working on out of his system, that he would be able to go back and do more of his own original science.

Another question that surprised me, given that our university doesn’t have doctoral programs in the basic sciences, was that someone asked if there were too many doctorates being produced. Tyson took the point of view of a true academic, saying that he simply wanted people to be engaged and making discoveries. He acknowledged that it is important to pay the rent, but saying that economic reasons aren’t the main reason one should do a Ph.D.

Most speakers’ talks probably go for about an hour. From the start to the time all the questions ended, Tyson was on stage for two and a half hours. Nobody could accuse Tyson of taking it easy. It was a rich, deep, totally enjoyable evening, and not just for scientists.

If you ever have a chance to see this man present, do not miss him.

Picture from here. Because I am a loser who cannot be bothered to check whether the battery in his camera has any power.

Tuesday Crustie: Caught!

Aratus pisonii is commonly known as the Mangrove tree crab.

Personally, I don’t think it looks like a mangrove tree at all...

I love the brilliant red in its claws. It makes it look like it was just involved in scene from a horror movie. But this crab is probably no significant threat to a person:

Photos by Anita363 on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

26 March 2011

Encephalon #85: Bottom up!

Welcome to the latest edition of the brain and behaviour blog carnival, Encephalon! The study of brain and behaviour is one of the most widely varying disciplines, ranging all the way from the very, very small to the classic “big picture” questions. In this edition of Encephalon, we’ll take a bottom-up approach.


Bacteria have no nervous systems, so they don’t appear on Encephalon all that often. But we have far more bacterial cells in our body than brain cells. Might all those bacteria have an influence on your behaviour? Mo investigates a story of germ-free mice at Neurophilosophy.

The always prolific Scicurious looks at those itty-bitty antidepressant drug molecules, and wonders where they are working in your brain. She notes, “Sci is funded by nothing, but motivated by chocolate cupcakes and coffee.”

Speaking of cupcakes, Sci also blogged about weight gain. She still has antidepressants on the mind, examining the complex dance between weight, stress, and antidepressants.


But if you want to keep your girlish figure by exercising, you might be relieved to learn from Scicurious (told ya she was prolific!) that exercise improves both the size of your hippocampus and your spatial memory.

Athletes are no stranger to exercises, but athletes in contact sports might do their brains more harm than good. Sabrina DeRiso looks at a new test designed to assess whether an athelete has a concussion. This is not trivial, as Sabrina notes:

I spoke with 5 accomplished athletes in my high school from the ages of 15-18. I gave them an scenario where if they were going to cost the game by notifying a coach about a head injury and asked them what they would do, or have done in the past. All their responses portrayed the fact that they would continue playing, and that it was their “responsibility” or “duty”.

Exercise and athletics are all about coordination. And one of the most challenging problems you can imagine a brain facing is coordinating a limb with visual input... especially when that limb is one of eight and has no bones. I look at visual-tactile learning in octopuses here at NeuroDojo.

How brain size is related to behaviour is always a trick, contentious subject. The webs of some very small spiders might give some insight into how much small brains limit the behaviour complexity of animals.


Are brain and behaviour sciences unique in the funding race? Taylor Burns at Cognoculture says they are in “A more perfect science: Jon Haidt and our Tribal Moral Community” because it is “one of the only sciences where a proposal can spur an instinctual, cultural reaction...in funding bodies, faculties or the public at large.”

What is the role of metaphors in solving problems? David Deriso at The Artful Brain argues that it’s more important than you probably would think at first, because “our senses are often too blunt for nature's finer points.”

Can you imagine a smell? Not just recognize one, but imagine it? Most people can’t, according to Janet Kwaniak. But, like many things, imagining smells is a skill that can be learned - which has interesting implications for conscious experience more generally.

Songs from the Woods examines the simple act of pointing. Except, of course, it’s not that simple, or you wouldn’t get such a rich blog post out of it. Pointing is loaded with implications about our development, our culture, and our conscious experiences.

Next time...

Thank you for reading this edition of Encephalon! Encephalon #86 will be hosted at In the News.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Encephalon home page. We are looking for volunteers to host upcoming editions of the carnival!

Photo by Xenocryst @ Antares Scorpii on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

25 March 2011

Protect intelligent design? Let’s protect all unpopular research

I am about to do something I rarely do: Agree with a politician. I agree with Texas representative Bill Zedler.

Zedler, you may recall, authored a bill that would prohibit higher education institutions from discrimination of people conducting research on intelligent design.

The problem with Zedler’s bill is that it doesn’t go far enough. We should have a system in higher education that protects all faculty from being summarily removed from their job because administrators don’t like their research.

Now, I know there are issues with that. I mean, how can we have a system that wouldn’t just encourage people to do nothing?

Since past performance is usually a good indicator of future performance, what we should do is to have probationary period. Give faculty a chance to show that they are going to make ongoing contributions to research, that they are excellent teachers, and that they are committed to serving their profession and their community.

Let’s give them say, six years or so to prove that they have what it takes.They’ll have annual reviews from more senior faculty to give them feedback on their performance.

Now, in those six years, it may well be that people are going to be too scared to speak their minds. But in the great scheme of things, that’s a pretty short period of time in the career of an academic.

After that first major evaluation point where we decide to give faculty some enhanced job security, let’s have a regular, but less-frequent review, to ensure people are continuing to be effective at their jobs.

And we need a short, snappy name for this system to protect academic. We could call it...


I want you to remember that, just in case someone in Mr. Zedler or anyone in his political party were ever to happen to suggest that tenure is useless and should be abolished. Mr. Zedler’s bill reeks of scientific ignorance, but reminds us that there needs to be a system to protect unpopular research by university faculty.

The trick is to remember that we don’t get to have protection just for the stuff we like.

There are probably more cases where the tenure system has protected faculty members working on intelligent design than tenure failing to protect them. For instance, Michael Behe still works at Lehigh University, even though his department has a statement (perhaps better called a “disclaimer”) about “intelligent design” on its homepage. We can argue about the appropriateness of that statement some other time, but the fact remains: Behe is still a tenure faculty member who is able to pursue his research interests there.

Despite Zedler saying in an interview that people conducting research on intelligent design “lose their tenure,” I am still waiting Zedler to provide one clear example of where a tenured faculty member has lost tenure over intelligent design research.

I suspect I’ll have a long wait.

The College Guide blog also comments on Zedler’s bill.

Really? Because the United States is one of the few places on earth that will even pretend to consider alternative theories to evolution a legitimate subject for discussion.

Picture from here.

Update, 15 April 2013: Representative Zedler is at it again.

Update, 7 May 2013: And his bill has died in committee again.

24 March 2011

Do you fear the device you are reading this on?

Natasha Mitchell, host of ABC Radio National’s sublime radio show All in the Mind, recently wrote:

Whole airport terminal of commuters glancing at mobile phones, flicking & swiping away. Few books & newspapers. The world has changed.

This morning, I thought about something Isaac Asimov is reputed to have said:

I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them.

And it struck me: We used to be scared of computers.

Let me say that again:

We used to be scared of computers.

Look at the science fiction of the 1960s or so. Writers write about what worries them, as Margaret Atwood says. Asimov’s embracing of computers was unusual. More common to find books and films and television series that warned of the threat posted by computers, and that we had better keep them on a tight leash.

Today, about the only touchstone for computer paranoia remaining in popular culture is Skynet, from The Terminator movies. It’s important even there to remember that the first Terminator movie was made in 1984. Email barely even existed them. (And the plot of The Terminator was largely lifted from some of Harlan Ellison’s old episodes from The Outer Limits in the 1960s.)

And it sometimes is worth thinking how far we’ve come, culturally, that there is almost nobody who does not use computers in some form. Sure, there are occasionally individuals who won’t set up a Facebook account, but many of them will own a smartphone with more computing power than entire universities used to have.

If Isaac Asimov were alive today, he would so have an iPhone.

Today, I’m scheduled to moderate a panel discussion at the PACE biomedical ethics conference titled, “Robotic Surgeons and other challenges with emerging technology in healthcare.” Interesting that robotic surgery is being posed as “challenges,” not “opportunities.”

What are we worried about today that will become pervasive tomorrow?

Asimov photo from here; film poster from here.

23 March 2011

What have you done lately that needed tenure?

Not having tenure can turn many academics into cowards. They are actively advised to keep their heads down, not make waves... until they get tenure.

Which raises the question:

Once you get tenure, do you make waves?

There are a lot of people who would abolish tenure in a heartbeat. It would be easier to get rid of ineffective teachers and researchers, the argument goes.

If you are an academic who thinks that tenure is important in protecting against capricious firings and retributions, and that tenure is important in allowing faculty to make long-term plans... have you used your tenure lately?

Have you taken an unpopular position? Took the lead on a cause to make something better?

Have you started a project that needs more security that recurring one-year contracts?

Use it or lose it, as the saying goes.

22 March 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Indiscriminate?

Male fiddler crabs spend a lot of time doing this sort of thing:

This is Uca mjoebergi, a colourful crab from south Pacific shores. They're signalling to someone - but to whom?. To their own species? Their own sex? To predators?

I had fun recently giving a talk about fiddler crab signalling at a local nature center. I had seen a decent amount of research on fiddler crabs, but had never had the opportunity to review it and try to pull it into a story before. And while I was doing that, a new paper appeared about fiddler crabs.

ResearchBlogging.orgWhile you're preparing talk on something, new research gets published. It's a variation of the law of maximum inconvenience.

One of the problems with signalling is that it implies that there is some sort of intended audience. Spending your time and energy waving a lot can be worth it if your intended audience is always nearby.

In this case, this nicely coloured species, Uca mjoebergi, the males' audience is mainly females of the same species. In most of the range of this species, it's the only fiddler crab in the environment. But in some locations, there are a couple of other fiddler crab species. Some of them look distinctly different to us, but fiddler crabs' eyes don't have the same power as us.

Could the males of this species tell the females apart? Or would they be all, like, "Hey baby... hey baby... hey baby..." to any vaguely crab-like shape that was nearby?

The answer was... it depends.

When single females were released into a colony of U. mjoebergi males, the males waved regardless of whether it was a U. mjoebergi female (smooth moves!) or U. signata female (sorry, but you're not really my type).

Femalesof both species were also presented simultaneously, but in a slightly less natural scenario. Instead of females walking of their own volition through the colony, they were tethered so they wouldn't move out of range of a male's burrow. Booksmyth and colleagues also put up barriers so that males wouldn't be able to see other distractions.

Under these conditions, the males would often wave at both females... but they would wave longer and faster to the females of the same species, and were much more likely to try to mate with the female of the right species. But the match wasn't perfect; some males still tried to mate with the wrong species. Interspecies harassment, if you will.

This suggests that the guys can tell if the girl is the right species. So why don't they, especially if waving is costly?

One possibility is that by having the males generally waving regardless of species, a male colony might become almost like a lek or mating "hotspot" that attracts more females of the right species.

Another interesting one is that the females can tell the males apart better then the males recognize females. The females might "reject" inappropriate males so quickly that the cost to the male is minimized.

Finally, the mix of "right species" to "wrong species" might matter. The "right species" was far more prominent in this area. An interesting follow-up would be to repeat these experiments in a place where the "right species" was in the minority, and males might waste a lot more time and energy courting indiscriminately.


Booksmythe I, Jennions M, & Backwell P. 2011. Male fiddler crabs prefer conspecific females during simultaneous, but not sequential, mate choice. Animal Behaviour: In press. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.01.009

Photo from here.

21 March 2011

Why do intelligent designer researchers need a law to protect them?

This Mother Jones interview with Texas representative Bill Zedler is interesting. Zedler is the author of a bill that would prohibit discrimination of academics conducting research on intelligent design.

MJ: The bill basically deals with the treatment of creationists as a matter of workplace discrimination. It got me thinking about other efforts to deal with that issue, such as legislation that prohibits workplace discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status. A lot of states have laws outlawing that type of discrimination, but Texas doesn’t. Do you think that it should?

BZ: Gender identity? You know, yeah, before I authored the bill I would have to think about it a little bit.

MJ: Do you see a reason to protect creationists but not...

BZ: Here’s the deal: We have college professors that will defend Hugo Chavez, ok? You have college professors that will espouse communism despite all the evidence of its overwhelming failure. And yet they are tolerated, but someone who even dares to mention intelligent design or who questions the idea that life could begin by chance, they are kicked out, lose their tenure, all kinds of discrimination working against them. I think that flies in the face of academic freedom.


MJ: Is banning discrimination “political correctness”?

BZ: Not at all.

MJ: So banning discrimination against gay people, in your view, is not a reflection of political correctness?

BZ: Well, here’s the deal, all we are saying is that you should be able to debate it. There is a difference between having a law to do something and a law where we ought to be able to at least discuss it.

Zedler consistently dodges the question about why this form of workplace discrimination is so much worse than other kinds of workplace discrimination that affect so many more people that it needs a law and the others don’t.

Zedler also provides no public cases where anyone has been discriminated against.

BZ: Let me tell ya, I have had people already contacting me as far as they would be willing to get lots of people to come down and testify when the bill goes before committee regarding the discrimination and persecution that they have already faced. So there won’t be any problem there...

“The lurkers support me in emails!”

I still cannot see this bill getting any traction. It’s nothing but lawsuits waiting to happen.

Additional: Zedler’s bill is atrracting national attention, judging by stories in the Miami Herald and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Christian Post cites a case from Baylor University (which is an avowedly Christian university), which claims “shut down a lab” in one sentence, before describing it more accurately in a later sentence. No lab was shut, nobody lost their job, and nobody was told they couldn’t conduct or publish research.

A web page moved off the Baylor University server.

This is discussed here. Professor Marks provides clear evidence that intelligent design is, for him, about God, in this interview.

Update, 15 April 2013: Representative Zedler has at it again and has revived the bill.

Open Lab 2010 is here!

Now available at Lulu!

Contains my Marmorkrebs essay that originally appeared in the Scientific American guest blog, which is specifically mentioned in these comments.

Neuroethology newsletter article on Twitter

The newest International Society for Neuroethology newsletter is now available here. I bring this up because I have an article about Twitter within it that I’m rather happy about. Coincidentally, Twitter is just turning five years old.

Additionally, Bjorn Brembs discusses blogging and Jason Gallant talks about the Society’s Facebook page.

Additionally, it also has a strong biography of neuroethologist Don Wilson. Wilson’s life was cut short by a rafting accident. As usual, the degree of separation is small; he was on the committee of Dorothy Paul, my Ph.D. supervisor. Unfortunately, he died before her defense.

Hand-hand-hand-hand-hand-hand-hand-hand-eye coordination

ResearchBlogging.orgThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgWe’re smart. Octopuses are smart. But we have different kinds of smart.

Octopuses don’t process information like us. An octopus can tell -[ from ]-, but has a very difficult time telling < from >. There are plenty of task that we find trivial that are very, very hard for octopuses to do. (Many are shown in Wells 1978).

Gutnick and colleagues were interested in whether octopuses could integrate sight and touch. We do this all the time. Almost the entire video game industry depends upon us being able to do this. But octopuses? They’d probably suck at video games. They can learn to attack a particular object they can see. They can distinguish objects based on touch. Nobody had been able to get them to learn a task that needed both.

These sorts of behavioural puzzles are what led Gutnick and colleagues to build this maze.

To get a food prize, the octopus has to reach up into a tube and grab the food. The octopus can’t use any chemical cues to locate the food, because the food is not in water; the octopus has to lift its arm outside the water to get it. The octopus has to figure out which of three possible locations the food is in by seeing it.

Gutnick and colleagues confirmed that vision is the main cue the octopuses are using by blacking out the arms of the maze and letting the trained octopuses try to find the food. As soon as they do that, octopuses fail, doing no better than blind luck.

This task sounds easy... for a human, it is. But the octopuses in this study had to work a long time to get this down. None learned it in fewer than 60 trials. And one of the seven octopuses never learned the task. (I had similar experiences training octopuses; some never learned.) And they never got faster at it.

But the point is not that the animals are slow to learn; the point is that they can learn to do this at all. Several previous studies had not been able to get octopuses to integrate their sight and touch in this way. And at the neural level, there is little evidence for the brain of octopuses being arranged in sensory or motor maps like they are in many vertebrates.

The authors speculate a bit on the way that the visual and touch systems might be coordinated. Some octopus arm movements are purely “top down” affairs: the brain sends a command and the arm follows through, and sensory input from the arm doesn’t alter the movement very much.

The authors suggest that the behaviour they are seeing might be too complicated for that, and think that there is an interplay between the sense of sight and the sense of touch. They don't have any strong evidence for that yet, however. This might be testable by modifying the task so that the octopus was only able to see the food for a limited time, or to change the position of the food after the octopus had started to reach into the tube.

So maybe there’s hope that one day, this will be a reality:


Gutnick T, Byrne R, Hochner B, Kuba M. 2011. Octopus vulgaris uses visual information to determine the location of its arm. Current Biology: In press. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.01.052
Note: The article has a nice 4 minute video that appears to be freely available!

Wells MJ. 1978. Octopus: physiology and behaviour of an advanced invertebrate. Chapman and Hall: London.

Dumbo octopus photo by Anomolous4 on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

18 March 2011

Arsenic life, four months (and a bit) later: Reviewers with shovels

Recently, I wrote about a new review of the arsenic life story. I criticised the authors for mischaracterising online commentary, and alerted a few folks about this on Twitter, including Rosie Redfield. Rosie went over and commented on the journal website, and Rosen and colleagues, the authors of that review, have now replied to her.

They grab their shovels and dig themselves in.

And they’re not particularly careful about where they throw the mud.

Fundamentally, the Internet discussions we encountered contained comments that did not require citation for at least two reasons: i) they reflected general knowledge that in our opinion was not necessary to cite, not even as a personal communication because they were not specifically directed to any of the authors via telephone, email or in person; and more importantly ii) at present, Internet communications/contributions of the sort being discussed here are not components of the peer-reviewed literature and thus are not placed on record as part of the official scientific discourse.

Wow. Just... wow. A blanket statement of “Internet doesn’t count” is astonishing in an age when many journals have recommended ways to format references to web sites. Not online journals, mind you, but web sites. I have seen many papers that reference Internet materials. I’ve published some, and never heard “boo” about it from reviewers.

Heck, I have even seen Wikipedia - yes, Wikipedia! - cited as a reference in a original, peer-reviewed, technical paper published in a long-established journal. I have reservations about that, but it points out that what peers consider to be acceptable references changes all the time.

Worryingly, a logical extrapolation of this view would be that because you don’t have to credit anything on the Internet, you could plagiarise anything you wanted.

We are not sure what a “Twitter hashtag” actually is, but since they presumably are not actual references, we will continue to ignore this type of commentary for purposes of formal citations until it becomes clear that the scientific journals and community have adopted new criteria, standards, and procedures. For example, BioEssays currently does not allow authors formally to cite Internet commentary of the sort referred to by Dr. Redfield.

Then BioEssays needs to get with the program. The editor needs to expand the reference format to allow citations of more kinds of materials.

Journals have generally had an inclusive policy concerning “gray literature”, and Internet commentary isn’t fundamentally different from, say, conference abstracts. But people often cite conference abstracts. It’s generally not a problem.

And while admitting that some Internet commentary about the arsenic life paper was not anonymous, they go on to say that it’s still bad.

Signed comments should be applauded and indeed offer a measure of authenticity, but nevertheless these “chat room” environments are not constrained or screened and at times become ad hominem attacks, which have no place in the scientific literature.

“Oh my goodness! People are talking about non-peer-reviewed data in environments unscreened by selected moderators! However will science survive this chaos!”

This might well be Rosen and company’s response to the Internet, but I was actually thinking that might be something that could be said almost every scientific conference ever.

We are all aware of the massive misinformation that pervades the Internet and that is why so many simply choose to ignore it rather than track it as part of their efforts to stay informed of the scientific literature pertinent to their research. Because of such accuracy issues, at present and in its current structure, organization and process, the term “authoritative blogs” far too often represents an oxymoron.

Yes, that’s why we never see blogs by people who are the presidents of major scientific societies... Oh, wait. We do.

Well, that’s why we never see scientific societies asking people to blog at their conferences... Oh, wait. We do.

Well, that’s why major scientific journals of note would never write articles about online science blogging, Twittering... Oh, wait. They do.

Rosen and company forget that nobody ever gets to declare their own authority. Authoritative is something that other people say about you. And guess what? Other people see bloggers - even those using pseudonyms - as authoritative. Nature quoted Biochem Belle. The New York Times quoted Dr. Isis about arsenic life.

Rosen and colleagues have, perhaps unwittingly, provided a wonderfully unfiltered and honest view of how conservative some researchers are, and how tall and white is their ivory tower.

The past needs to die for the future to be born.


Rosen BP, Ajees AA, McDermott TR. 2011. Life and death with arsenic. BioEssays: in press. DOI: 10.1002/bies.201100012 (DOI link may not be working yet; try http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bies.201100012/abstract if it isn’t.)

Wolfe-Simon F, Blum J, Kulp T, Gordon G, Hoeft S, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz J, Webb S, Weber P, Davies P, Anbar A, & Oremland R. 2010. A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258

Photo by Jeff_Werner on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

The Benshi, southern edition

He’s the man behind A Flock of Dodos, Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, and my personal favourite, “The Consequences of Short-Distance Larval Dispersal in a Sessile Marine Invertebrate.” *

I’ve blogged about scientist / filmmaker / author Randy Olson quite a bit (see related links, below). Now, I'm pleased to say that Randy Olson, formerly known as Doctor Richard Randolph Olson, will be visiting The University of Texas-Pan American in April.

(I think the image here is supposed to tie into his film Sizzle. You know... hot.)

In addition to screening both his films and doing several workshops, he will be judging a video contest.

P.S.—Randy has a Bacon number of 2. I’ll get back to you on his Erdős–Bacon number.

Related posts

Promises versus trust
This blog don't have a video
Captain Green Mom Saves The Day!
Science Cheerleaders
Do you like me? Or any scientist?
Review: Don't Be Such a Scientist
Turning up the heat
SICB, day 2

* Although I also like, “Potential vs. realized larval dispersal: fish predation on larvae of the ascidian Lissoclinum patella (Gottschaldt)”.

17 March 2011

Undergrad teaching: When you don’t tell me your wheel is round, I have to reinvent it

Progress happens when people communicate. Otherwise, people waste time re-doing something that has already been done.

Many people are not happy with the state of the teaching of science in universities, particularly the first couple of years of classes. They are often large and can feel impersonal. They are often a mix of people who intend to major in the discipline and those who are taking breadth requirements. And it’s fair to say that they are not always viewed as plum tasks by many faculty members.

This paper not only assesses the effectiveness of many different kinds of different strategies for teaching undergraduate classes, but provides great examples of what not to do in reporting your science.

First, the actual teaching stuff. They found positive effects for all manner of innovations, like collaborative learning, conceptually oriented tasks, and used of various kinds of technologies, and all manner of permutations and combinations therein.

The problem is that there is so much smear in the data that it’s hard to zero in on which are the most effective techniques. And they note that the better designed the experiment, the smaller the measured effect was. If you randomly assign subjects (i.e., students got into one of two classes at random), a standard technique in experiments biology, psychology, and elsewhere, the effect size was 0.26. If students were not randomly assigned - students self-registered for classes - the reported effect size was bigger, 0.50. But we should maybe have a little more confidence in the actual experiments. After all, this is the level we consider to be appropriate for things like clinical drug testing.

As for the “don’t do this” aspect of the paper, the authors say that almost half the studies they looked at couldn’t be included in their analysis because of some reporting flaw.

And it’s not hard stuff.

For instance, Ruiz-Primo and colleagues note that many papers show p values, but not basic statistical information like sample size. Or the actual means and standard deviation. These are not complicated things to calculate or include.

The authors also slap the journals publishing these papers a little, noting that people have complained about the poor level of science around teaching and education before. Yet, “journals continue publishing these types of papers.”

And the moral of the story? Scientists who are interested in teaching need to start bringing the same level of attention to detail to educational experiments that we bring to our other research subjects.


Ruiz-Primo M, Briggs D, Iverson H, Talbot R, Shepard L. 2011. Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science 331(6022): 1269-1270. DOI: 10.1126/science.1198976

Photo by Thomas Guest on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

16 March 2011

Role model (kits)

"Only the prematurely adult are not hopelessly goofy about dinosaurs."
- Harlan Ellison

Brian Switek asked for examples of people who had been inspired by dinosaurs. He was thinking about more actual skeletons in museums. I've written before that I collected fossils as a kid. But what his question brought reminded me of were not the full-sized mounts, but of things that fit on my desktop.

Not only did I like dinosaurs, I liked building models. I did various sorts; I did a fair number of World War II aircraft. Oh yes, and spaceships. Lots of spaceships. And there were a lot of dinosaurs, too.

I started looking for images of those models, and got myself one nasty case of memory whiplash. In particular, I rediscovered Aurora Prehistoric Scenes. I remembered the Styracosaurus (or "spiked dinosaur" as it was billed on the box) vividly, and how much I loved it. But I had forgotten just how big the series was. The Allosaurus. The cave bear. The tar pit. The giant bird. It all came rushing back.

But my first models were, I think, Lindberg dinosaur kits. Again, I only remembered most of them by looking through Google images, and there were again several more that I'd forgotten. But I never forgot the Ankylosaurus, which I'm pretty sure was the first I had. I remember it was this one, because I recognize the skinny, oval scutes on the back armor and the shape of the side spikes.

And today, you can still buy that very same Lindberg Ankylosaur model kit that I had on my desk. From a modern perspective, those models, particularly the Lindberg models, represent old ideas about dinosaurs. The poses are outdated and wrong.

But you know what? When you're talking about inspiring and generating curiosity, the details don't matter all that much.

I don't think it's any accident that the first dinosaur model I can remember having was an ankylosaur, which remains perhaps my favourite dinosaur.

And Dan Telfer agrees.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'm a biologist today because of those models. But all those little things add up. While those massive, skeleton mounts or full-size reconstructions are wonderful, a kid's imagination can run wild with much more modest materials.

Additional: “Hello, I’m Scicurious, I’m a Brontophile.”

Photo from here.

Comments for first half of March 2011

I made Dr. Becca a perfectly good banner. Then, kabloowie, she needs a new one.

Later, Becca asks for feedback on how to deal with a rejected manuscript. This issue of giving people advice is carried on by DrugMonkey.

Speaking of DrugMonkey, “What could you take out in hand to hand combat?” he asks.

Olivia Mitchell has a fast way to make an Ignite! talk. I shared it with my students and they said it was very useful.

Prof-Like Substance wants to know if Twitter is worth it.

Gerty Z at Balanced Instability goes through her first faculty search from the point of view of the ones doing the hiring. And it ain’t pretty.

Dr. Girlfriend discusses why so much of the scientific process is hidden from view.

Namnezia asks, “How old you were when you got on to tenure-track?

Brian Switek wants to know what dinosaurs inspired people.

15 March 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Fresh

This colourful little shrimp (Caridina cantonensis) is a member of a larger genus of freshwater shrimp. The combination of bright colours and freshwater habitat make them popular in some aquaria.

Photo by lepoSs on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

14 March 2011

Potential invasions and new horizons

“What’s the geekiest thing about you?”

This is a favourite question for me to ask people I’ve recently met, which I stole it from the game show Beat the Geeks. It almost always generates an interesting answer (sometimes delivered with a slightly embarrassed look on the face).

When Paty Feria was interviewing for a landscape ecology job in our department, I asked her that question. She told me she liked superhero movies.

It would be unprofessional for me to admit that my heart melted just a bit then, or to tell you that I thought, “Oh, I hope she gets this job.” But get the job she did.

Because her office is on the same floor as mine, we see each other routinely. And I can’t remember just when she said, “Yes, we can do that” in response to some idle comment about trying to figure out where Marmorkrebs might be able to survive if they got loose.

I had already been messing around with geographic data as part of my efforts to create maps of where pet owners in North America were. Because Paty is always making maps as part of her research, I think I had been asking her about help in making maps. I think some of those conversations went back to 2009, when my student Stef took a poster to the ESA meeting that summer.

I just can’t remember the transition point from us sort of “idly talking about mapmaking” to deciding this would be as an actual project that we’re going to try to publish.

I have some spreadsheets of distribution data that go back to about last June. And I do recall talking to astacologist Chris Taylor at the International Association of Astacology meeting last July, trying to figure out where I might be able to get data on the distribution of Procambarus fallax, the species most closely related to Marmorkrebs. He said, “Horton Hobbs was our finest taxonomist, and he cut his teeth in Florida.” Chris reckoned that Hobbs might have river by river accounts of where P. fallax lived. Not quite, but I found there were records for every county in Florida, which was still pretty good.

By last August, we were seriously working on the models. We had it written up and ready to submit around mid-October.

In general, I like to publish in different journals. But this is the second paper I’ve published in Aquatic Invasions, separated by only a few months. Why go back to that journal?

We actually did submit the manuscript to a different journal, which rejected it as not fitting the editorial thrust of the journal. Fair enough.

When we were thinking about where to resubmit, there were two factors.

First, when I’d published the earlier paper, I’d liked the editorial process.

Second, at the time we were finishing this, not only did I have another Marmorkrebs paper in press in Aquatic Invasions, there were two more Marmorkrebs papers in press in the same issue. I thought that maybe we could get this paper in that same issue, making it four Marmorkrebs papers, almost like a special issue! There are advantages to putting everything in one place. My co-author thought those were good reason, too, so off it went.

The reviews, alas, were not quick enough for this paper to make the issue with the other three. But that had always been a bit of a long-shot.

Paty presented some of the data from this paper at the recent Texas Academy of Science meeting (she’s dead center in red blouse and black coat in this massive UTPA group photo). I was very happy with how the poster came out, and discuss it at the Better Posters blog.

There are a couple of things that please me to no end about this paper.

First, I am nominally a brain and behaviour guy. I never expected to be co-authoring an ecological modelling paper. One moral of this story is that you can never quite predict where a research trail will lead you. Go academic freedom!

Second, I was able to co-author an ecological modelling paper because of the great collaboration with Paty. My previous collaborations have been with people with skills similar to my own. But Paty and I have very different knowledge bases. She understands modelling, while I brought in information about crayfish biology. This paper was something that neither one of us could have done on our own.

And that feels pretty freakin’ awesome.

P.S.—I’ve started a new tag, “stories behind the papers”, for these “bonus features.” I’ve done this for my last four papers. I will probably start going back and doing some of my older ones, too.


Feria TP, Faulkes Z. 2011. Forecasting the distribution of Marmorkrebs, a parthenogenetic crayfish with high invasive potential, in Madagascar, Europe, and North America. Aquatic Invasions 6(1): 55-67. DOI: 10.3391/ai.2011.6.1.07

Supplement: Google Spreadsheet of locations used to train models.

Carnivals for March 2011

The Carnival of Evolution #33 is hosted this month at Genome Engineering. And it’s one of the most massive entries to date!

Encephalon #84, a neuroscience and neurobiology carnival, is hosted at Thoughts on Thoughts.

Circus of the Spineless hits #60 over with Bug Girl!

And by the way... the next editions of both Encephalon and Circus of the Spineless will be hosted right here! Submit all your spineless (but nor brainless!) posts to me!

Additional: And now Carnival of the Blue is up at Oceanographer’s Choice!

When two small worlds collide

After she won the Oscar for Black Swan, a popular New York Times article about Portman discussed that she is a published scientific author. Other entertainers have had academic success, too.

Some of the discussion on Twitter pointed out that as an actor and published scientific author, Portman was one of the few people to have a finite Erdős–Bacon number.

The Bacon number is easier to explain: it derives from the movie trivia game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon.” You can connect Kevin Bacon to a large number of other actors in a surprisingly small number of steps.

For instance, take silent film star Lon Chaney, Senior. Even though Lon Chaney died in 1930, about 28 years before Bacon was born, the film world is so interconnected that it only takes three steps to link the two.

Lon Chaney was in While the City Sleeps (1928) with William H. O'Brien, who was in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) with Maximilian Schell, who was in Telling Lies in America (1997) with Kevin Bacon.

The Erdős number is named after itinerant mathematician Paul Erdős. This number represents the close connections of the mathematical research community, and Erdős’s... unique approach to collaborations. He basically lived out of a suitcase much of his adult life.

I was fairly certain that, like Portman, I could claim to have a finite Erdős–Bacon number. I had previously calculated by Bacon number (three, the same as Lon Chaney!), but couldn’t figure out my Erdős number. I’d never collaborated with a mathematician!

I was finally able to crack my Erdős number, with the help of the American Mathematical Society’s Collaboration Distance tool. By randomly entering people I’d worked with, I discovered a link through my Ph.D. supervisor, Dorothy Paul! Dorothy co-authored a mathematical paper that arose from my doctoral work, modelling how digging might be coordinated.

D. H. Paul coauthored with Pauline van den Driessche, who coauthored with Donovan R. Hare, who coauthored with Noga Alon, who was a coauthored with... (wait for it!)

Paul Erdős!

Now knowing that my Erdős number is five, I can say that my Erdős–Bacon number is no more than eight.

Portman’s Erdős–Bacon number is six. Curse you, Portman! You win again!


Hodge A, Edwards R, Paul DH, van den Driessche P. 2006. Neuronal network models of phase separation between limb CPGs of digging sand crabs. Biological Cybernetics 95(1): 55–68. DOI: 10.1007/s00422-006-0065-9

11 March 2011

Grad school recruitment can be alarming

Last night, we held our now annual Graduate School Fair. The idea is to have a showcase for all the university’s programs, and by doing it all at once, we can generate a bit more publicity on campus and in the general community.

I was scheduled to give one of the presentations. One of the grad school staff has just asked me if I wanted to set up my presentation, and I’d said, “I am the presentation!”

When the fire alarm started ringing. And it kept going. And we all left the building. You know, normal stuff when a fire alarm goes off.

But I wasn’t expecting a fire truck to show up.

I never did quite figure out what the problem was, but it wasn’t just a false alarm - there was apparently some smoke from somewhere.

They let everyone back in the building after half a hour - which was, coincidentally enough, exactly the allocated time for my talk.

That's right, my talk would've been so hot it set off the fire alarm.

Oh, by the way, the picture within the picture above:

“This isn't for anyone who doesn’t have tiger blood,” strikes me as a fair assessment of grad school. It was originally from the Pittsburgh Zoo blog, which since has taken it down.

Additional: Heh. The university’s coverage of the event neglects to mention the excitement of the fire truck coming to visit.

09 March 2011

Texas bill tries to protect intelligent design

Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education are reporting on a house bill in Texas that would prohibit universities and colleges from discriminating against someone doing research in intelligent design.

I predict it will not become law.

For one thing, it doesn’t save any money. And right now, trying to cope with the state budget shortfall is far more on the minds of legislators. Or at least, it should be.

The bill is also poorly worded in some ways. It refers to the “development of organisms,” which I think is supposed to mean evolution, but more correctly means growth (ontogeny).

It is disturbing, however, in that it continues the trend of the Texas legislature (which cries “limited government” at nearly every turn) attempting to micro-manage universities. That is more worrying that this specific bill, because it is more likely to become reality.

08 March 2011

Arsenic life, four months later: pay no attention to the internet

ResearchBlogging.orgTo recap: In early December, NASA holds a press conference relevant to astrobiology, wherein Felisa Wolfe-Simon announces a paper on a very interesting bacteria. The bacteria is indisputably arsenic tolerant, but Wolf-Simon and her eleven co-authors claim that the bacteria is not just tolerating arsenic, but using it in place of phosphorus. Before the weekend is out, strong criticisms of the paper appear on blogs. Wolfe-Simon initially refuses to respond to anything that isn’t in a peer-reviewed journal, but later relents and put up a FAQ on her website.

Now, criticisms are appearing in the peer-reviewed literature, like this one by Rosen and colleagues. The analysis is quite a helpful one in many ways, providing good background information on things like how cells can use arsenate (arsenolipids instead of phospholipids, for instance).

Their summary is that there is no “fatal flaw” in the paper that rules out the possibility of bacteria using arsenic (“no positive data” is how they put it) and that there needs to be more research.

Unfortunately, if you’re hoping to see how they accommodate criticisms from other researchers that some argued disproved the notion of arsenic being used in DNA, you’ll be disappointed. This paper not only tries its best to ignore the widespread commentary about the original paper on the blogosphere, it dismisses it. Here’s all they say:

This study has generated significant commentary, often as anonymous electronic communications.

This conflicts with my impression, which was that almost all of the commentary was signed. There was Rosie Redfield and Alex Bradley. Carl Zimmer got a dozen researchers to comment, all with their names in place. There was so much written in the blogosphere about arsenic life, that some of the commentary was pseudonymous (which, as many emphatically point out, is different than being anonymous). But the most prominent critics of the Wolfe-Simon and company paper were certainly not anonymous.

Writing an entire article evaluating the arsenic life paper without any references to what happened on blogs is both disingenuous and bad scholarship. To compress all that online commentary into a single one-liner borders on the unethical, because it so profoundly distorts the events following the release of the paper.

If there had not been such a public thrashing of ideas about this paper online, I doubt a journal have even considered publishing this review of the arsenic life paper (which still hasn’t been officially published yet). So the authors and editor take advantage of the controversy to publish a review, all the while tut-tutting and wagging their fingers at those nasty anonymous bloggers and refusing to do anything but give the most oblique acknowledgment of their role.

I imagine that Wolfe-Simon and some press people at NASA might be happy, though, since this article reinforces the rigid conventions that they promoted in the early days following the release of the paper. But it’s long past time those conventions change.

Additional: Only a few hours after I wrote this, I learned of another short paper commenting on arsenic life that appeared in January. Silver and Phung do not look upon the internet all favourably, referring to “the magic and nonsense that floods cyberspace.” But they do note the online criticisms and provide multiple links to them, mainly, but not exclusively, from new gathering organizations.

More additional: The authors have responded. This has generated my own follow-up post.


Rosen BP, Ajees AA, McDermott TR. 2011. Life and death with arsenic. BioEssays: in press. 10.1002/bies.201100012. (DOI link may not be working yet; try http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bies.201100012/abstract if it isn’t.)

Silver S, Phung L. 2011. Novel expansion of living chemistry or just a serious mistake? FEMS Microbiology Letters 315(2): 79-80. DOI: 10.1111/j.1574-6968.2010.02202.x

Wolfe-Simon F, Blum J, Kulp T, Gordon G, Hoeft S, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz J, Webb S, Weber P, Davies P, Anbar A, & Oremland R. 2010. A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258

Hat tip to Jonathan Eisen for the Silver and Phung paper.

Tuesday Crustie: Zarigani

I’m not sure if “zarigani” is Japanese for “crayfish” in general, or just the one species shown above: Cambaroides japonicus. It is the only crayfish native to Japan, living mainly on the northern island of Hokkaido. It is endangered, in part because other crayfish from North America were introduced into Japan, and now appear to be out-competing the natives.

While this is neither the prettiest nor most impressive crayfish, it has character. I like it.

Picture from here.

07 March 2011

Peak science

We’re familiar with the idea of peak oil, peak fish, and other resource peaks. Some large, but finite resource, gets exploited to a point where either it gets too difficult to extract, or is drained faster than it can be renewed.

Could there be peak science?

Might there be a point where we can’t keep doing more science?

And could we already be past the peak?

• • • • •

At first glance, the notion that we’ve topped out our research, or that we could, seems completely absurd, particularly coming from a biologist. Biology has more interesting and worthwhile questions that are now potentially solvable than probably every before in history.

Researchers know that the results of one experiment often raise more questions than they answered. This makes the well seem boundless.

But perceptions can be dangerous. People used to say, “There’s plenty of fish in the sea” before fishery after fishery collapsed.

• • • • •

There are a lot of worrying signs.

  1. Declining support for public funding of science. Obviously, science isn’t alone in this regard. Budgets are poor for a lot of worthwhile endeavours.
  2. Administrative burdens. You need to go through a fairly complex approval process before you can even run some experiments. And once you have any sort of external funding, the accounting and effort certification is widely considered to be much more onerous than it used to be.
  3. Disenfranchised junior researchers. People who want to be scientists are facing long training at low pay and little stability. It’s not a healthy situation where senior scientists get compared to plantation owners and sweatshop operators. (Jenny Rohn published an opinion piece in Nature last week discussing this problem at the post-doc level.)
  4. Bigger questions means bigger equipment. Answering bigger questions often requires bigger infrastructure. For basic physics, can we get much larger than the Large Hadron Collider? Not for the near future, certainly.
  5. Energy constriction. And peak research might be more tied to peak oil than people like to think. Research doesn’t take just human energy, it takes physical energy. How many pipette tips and other plastics (which is often petroleum-based, remember) does an active biomedical lab go through in a week? Has anyone calculated the carbon footprint of active biological research labs?

Each one alone is a formidable problem. But combined, they might start to squeeze and constrict scientific output.

I am not convinced that research is a speculative bubble waiting to pop, like tulips or comics or housing paid for with sub-prime mortgages. I can more easily envision a slow, painful decline, as we’ve seen with other resource peaks.

• • • • •

If there is a peak, it will not be evenly distributed. Some research fields will buck these trends. For instance, I see a bright future for any research involving the internet and phones.

The internet and widespread mobile phone ownership means you can get huge, detailed data sets easily. And this is one area where these seems to be a healthy interest in research in the private sector. Just look at OK Trends. More than a few people have looked at their blog and said, “That could easily have been published in a proper peer-reviewed scientific journal.”

Citizen science and crowd sourced science is another place where I see lots of growth. If you can create research projects where people can contribute easily (and maybe have a bit of fun doing it), people are willing to help.

But many kinds of basic science don’t lend themselves to either that kind of automation or the distribution of workload. You can do studies, but it’s a lot harder to do experiments in these ways.

• • • • •

In some ways, I don’t believe my own arguments. Scientists often criticize business and governments about pursuing “business as usual” policies regarding energy despite overwhelming evidence that they are not sustainable.

Yet in reading commentary from researchers about these problem, particularly in the United States, the discussion almost always seems to center around grants from government agencies: business as usual. I’m struck by how few people have are proposing anything but “business as usual” policies: make sure the federal grants keep coming.

As scientists, it’s our job to come up with better ideas.

Photo by  Hamed Saber on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

04 March 2011

“Honey? Are you awake?” and alpha waves

Pity poor Hans Berger.

The man changed our understanding of human experience and human consciousness, but didn’t know how he did it, was largely ignored in his life, and committed suicide.

In the mid 1920s, Berger invented the electroencephalagraph (EEG), a technique for measuring the electrical activity of brains. Unfortunately, Berger didn’t understand electricity very well, so didn’t have a clear understanding of what his recordings might mean. But he revolutionized the study of human brains.

Perhaps nowhere was Berger’s invention put to greater use than in the study of sleep. Before that, what did we know of brains while we slept? For all we knew, the brain activity dialed down to almost nothing each night. With the use of EEGs, we discovered the very distinct stages of sleep.

ResearchBlogging.orgBerger’s invention continues to deepen our understanding of sleep, nearly a century after its invention, as shown by a new paper by KcKinney and colleagues.

McKinney and colleagues claim to have an indicator of how deep asleep you are on a much finer time scale than previously possible.

An EEG signal is a complicated, wavy line. But because it is a wave, you can describe it as a combination of other, simpler waves through a mathematical technique called Fourier analysis or power analysis. McKinney and colleagues say that the waves of one particular frequency, about 8-13 times a second, correlates very closely with how loud a sound has to be for someone to be roused from sleep.

Now, if you could make one of those devices portable so that one person could wear it and broadcast it locally, their partners staying up late would be able to pick the time they were least likely to wake up their snoozing partners.


McKinney S, Dang-Vu T, Buxton O, Solet J, & Ellenbogen J. 2011. Covert waking brain activity reveals instantaneous sleep depth. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17351. 10.1371/journal.pone.0017351

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave”... because of small brains?

ResearchBlogging.orgWe have a burning need to explain what big brains do, because humans have such large brains. “Big brains smart!” is a common idea for why species vary in brain size. But testing this is a fiendish problem. How do you compare widely different species with different ecologies?

Is an osprey smarter than a hummingbird, for example? The osprey is smarter at catching fish than a hummingbird could ever be... but a hummingbird would kick the osprey’s tailfeathers at analyzing flower patches.

One approach is to look not at any one behaviour, but some overall suite of behaviours, and see how different species vary in how many behaviours they produce. This might give a sense of how complex the behaviour of one species is versus another.

William Eberhard has been tackling this problem for a few years now, studying orb-weaver spiders. The advantage of using spiders to study behavioural complexity is that you can use the web as a proxy for the behaviour. The web is long lasting structure, so you don’t have to watch and notate the entire sequence of behaviour. And the spiders vary in size by about a factor of 1,000. Although he didn’t measure brain size directly, I think it’s reasonable to expect that one thousand times bigger body size should be reflected in brain size.

Eberhard used Anapisona simoni (pictured) as his key “small species.” This species weighs about one milligram, compared to other, larger orb-weavers that ranged from 30-40 milligrams as adults. But he did some experiments with A. simoni babies, which register at a barely detectable 5 micrograms!

Eberhard looked for variations in the web structure, working on the hypothesis that small brains might leave the smallest spiders less able to vary their webs in response to different conditions.

A picture might help here. If, when a spider is making a web, it “accidentally” lays down a particularly large space (such as those in the right side marked by the arrow and white rectangles), can it then adjust the other spaces around it to try to even out the spacing?

As it happened, larger spiders made these sorts of compensations more often than the small ones. This is consistent with the notion that small spiders are suffering from behavioural limitations because of their small nervous systems (which Eberhard calls the “limitation hypothesis”).

But in fairness to the small spiders, this is only one of several experiments and studies Eberhard reports on. The majority of studies suggest that small spider species are limited in their behavioural repertoire, but other experiments suggest small spiders are not limited in the behaviour.

This makes for an interesting discussion section in this paper. Eberhard interprets the balance of evidence as rejecting the limitation hypothesis. You can almost feel Eberhard arguing with imaginary reviewers and critics and readers as he points out that you can’t just total up “Experiments with results consistent with the limitation hypothesis” versus “Experiments with results not consistent with the limitation hypothesis” and call it a day. Each experiment provides different information.

For instance, Eberhard points to the alternate web forms that his tiny A. simoni spiders make. They are not common, but Eberhard never saw the larger species make them. And there is certainly an appeal to the argument that something that can make two kinds of structures has a more complex behaviour than something that can only make one.

The discussion is long and nuanced. But what is missing in this discussion of these ideas is one critical data set.

Brain size.

I buy that big differences in body size are reflected in brain size in spiders. But we don’t know just how body size and brain size scales in invertebrates, either during growth or across different species, because there are few good measures or databases of invertebrate brain sizes.

And to make matters even worse, we don’t have information about what regions of nervous systems in spiders are involved in making webs. We know that in vertebrates, some regions of the brain may be bigger than predicted by body size or other regions of the brain if those brain regions are important to the animal.

It might be that when we look at the brains of these tiny spiders, some huge proportion of it is devoted to web-building. And it may be that when we look at the brains of big spiders, a small proportion of it is devoted to web-building, making the differences in body size slightly misleading.

In fairness, Eberhard recognizes this limitation. It seemed worth emphasizing here. Any neuroethologist who wanted to start tackling the neural basis of web-building behaviour would no doubt have more than enough challenges for a long and productive career!


Eberhard W. 2011. Are smaller animals behaviourally limited? Lack of clear constraints in miniature spiders. Animal Behaviour. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.01.016

Spider photo from here; web photo from Eberhard’s Figure 2.