Double X: Their chirpin’ cheatin’ hearts

May 15, 2009

My latest Double X post is up…and it’s all about tits. Blue tits, that is.

The hoary old evolutionary explanation for gender differences is that males are slutty and females are choosy. Males sleep around in order to fertilize as many eggs as possible, while females guard their virtue until Prince Charming comes along. But with the advent of genetic techniques (and in my opinion, female biologists), scientists have found that nature overflows with wanton females. Figuring out evolutionary reasons for looseness in ladies is harder—since each egg can only be fertilized once, having lots of sex won’t necessarily lead to more babies. A study on a European songbird, published in last month’s Current Biology, reveals one possible reason for female infidelity—bastard chicks are bigger and stronger than their legit half-siblings.

Check out the rest at the Oyster’s Garter outpost.

My Double X debut: dolphin smackdown!

May 13, 2009

My very first blog post at the new Slate spinoff Double X is up. As Double X’s resident marine biologist, I figured that I needed to get the dolphin issue out of the way post haste.

It never fails. Every single cocktail party, as soon as someone finds out that I’m a graduate student studying marine biology, they ask, “So, do you get to play with dolphins?” Since my heart is as black and cold as the oceanic abyss, I usually take this opportunity to disillusion yet another poor soul of their childhood fantasy of Mystical Dolphin Love.

Dolphins are not gentle or psychic. If they could talk they would not impart eco-wisdom or deep spiritual truth. Dolphins are violent predators with a predilection for baby killing and rape. I feel it’s my duty to warn you, despite the risk of insulting creatures made of hundreds of pounds of muscle and rows of sharp teeth. Throw out your rainbow dolphin painting, and check out dolphins’ low-down dirty secrets:

Head over to the shiny pretty Double X site for the rest.

Don’t believe my tales of dolphin deeds done dirt cheap? The original peer-reviewed research is listed below. Or check out the lads of Southern Fried Scientist on dolphin worship and the evils of dolphin-safe tuna.

Oh, and you know that whole thing about Double X syndicating the Oyster’s Garter? Well, somehow I got it totally wrong. Most weeks, I’ll be posting at the Double X outpost on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the time I’ll be comfortably ensconced right here.

The research behind the Scientific Dolphin Smackdown:

Connor, R., Richards, A., Smolker, R., & Mann, J. (1996). Patterns of Female Attractiveness in Indian Ocean Bottlenose Dolphins Behaviour, 133 (1), 37-69 DOI: 10.1163/156853996X00026

LYAMIN, O., MANGER, P., RIDGWAY, S., MUKHAMETOV, L., & SIEGEL, J. (2008). Cetacean sleep: An unusual form of mammalian sleep Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32 (8), 1451-1484 DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.05.023

Patterson, Reid, & Wilson (1998). Evidence for Infanticide in Bottlenose Dolphins: An Explanation for Violent Interactions with Harbour Porpoises? Proc Biol Sci., 265 (1402)

TGIF: Glowy jellyfish-puppies

April 24, 2009

Why make glowy transgenic jellyfish-puppies? Because…because…SCIENCE!

Subtle ways to tell your elephant seal that she’s not fat enough

April 22, 2009

Along with several other ocean bloggers, I recently received a email from plugging their Top 10 Ocean Rivalries piece. Though I generally think that bringing ocean love (or slime or violence) to new audiences is a Good Thing, some of the assholery at sets my feminist leg hairs on end. Then I realized that ocean love and mocking sexist bullshit are two great tastes that taste great together. So without further ado:

Subtle ways to tell your elephant seal that she’s not fat enough

Don’t you hate it when your special seal hauls up on the beach and you notice that she’s just not jiggling the way she used to? Blubber loss is a sensitive issue – after all, she’s spent weeks nursing a pup without eating. You can’t just bark “You’re losing weight and I find you less attractive!” You’ve got to make sure that’s she’s in the mood for love before she goes back to sea – as alpha male, it’s your job to get her pregnant before she goes back to sea for the year.

Don’t worry. We here at are here to give you the top subtle ways to tell your elephant seal that she’s not fat enough.

1) Dig her a comfy hole in the sand, but make it too big. When she tries to settle in but doesn’t fit, she’ll realize that she’s half the seal she used to be.

2) Couch it in terms of her health. What if she freezes in the deep sea or starves during molting season? Remind her that she’ll be going back to sea already pregnant, and that she needs her strength.

3) Playfully poke at her sides. She’ll feel self-conscious about her puny layer of fat and go back to sea early.

4) Pour sealant over her favorite section of the beach in order to glue the sand grains together. That way, when she hauls out, she’ll won’t even make a dent. Nothing plays on a seal’s self-esteem like undented sand.

5) If all else fails, “accidentally on purpose” squash her during mating. She’ll realize that if she was bigger, it wouldn’t be so unpleasant. That’ll show her!

TGIF: Parasite-themed klezmer

April 10, 2009

Please enjoy your klezmer with a side of toxoplasma. Happy Pesach! (Via Julie at Modern Mitzvot, whose seder I am very excited to be attending tonight.)

Walrus toots her own horn

March 27, 2009

TGIF, everyone!

Via Best Week Ever and Martini-Corona

Amazing stealth photos from camera traps

March 9, 2009

The World Wildlife Federation has a network of camera traps set up around the world. They’re triggered by infrared sensors that take a photo whenever something with heat moves. And the photos are so cool. Here’s a few selections from their Flickr group:

Devil panda:

AIEEE! Flash!

I wake up to this when I forget to feed the fat cat:

Thanks to @rmacpherson on Twitter. Ok, fine, I am hooked on Twitter.

Harsh winter kills Dutch wildlife

February 25, 2009

As a followup on my post on human intervention in the food web, our Dutch correspondent JP reports that the harsh winter has killed a third of the animals in the Netherlands’ Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. The Oostvaardersplassen is an interesting place – after the land was reclaimed from a lake (a “polder“) in 1968, managers introduced wild Heck cattle and Konik horses to prevent dense vegetation from taking over waterbird habitat. Now the Oostvaardersplassen “represents a wetland ecosystem that is not unlike those that would have existed on river banks and deltas previous to human disturbance.”

Twelve hundred of the estimated thirty-six hundred cattle, horses, and deer have perished from winter starvation. Scientists and managers have deemed the deaths normal. According to this poorly Google-translated article (which I quote directly since the translation is hilarious):

According to State, which administers the area, this is not to panic mortality of touch. “There are also many new animals born,” says forester Hans Breeveld. “The animals that no longer will make, we and we deliver them from their suffering.” The animals are ‘no additional winter food. With the support of the Cabinet and the Lower House is a few years ago agreed that nature are going to go in the Oostvaardersplassen.

Ecologist Frans Vera, at Wageningen University, supports this approach. He is a mortality of 30 percent not shockingly high. “Even though the 50 percent, then it’s good to do. Earlier that 25 percent is considered quite normal.”

However, according to JP and to the equally poorly translated comments, people are not very happy that the government is letting the animals die. They see the Oostvaardersplassen as more of a zoo than a wild space, since the terrestrial park of park is 1900 ha, or only 7.3 square miles. As one commenter says (again, poorly Google-translated):

Eight legal arguments and totally obsolete. There is no question of a chance to draw what is in nature or occurs. There is too little habitat that these animals in the harsh winter fully enclosed zitten.

So are these animals wild or are they in a zoo? And what then should be the human responsibility? Personally, I think the managers are doing the right thing to maintain a healthy population within the park’s carrying capacity. But similarly to the NJ dolphins, it’s hard to sit back and watch animals starving to death. I suspect issues like this will become more and more common as we enter…dum dum dum….THE MANAGED WORLD.

Thanks, JP!

The Managed World: A Tale of Two Trophic Troubles

February 18, 2009

Macquarie Island, before and after cat elimination. (From 80 Beats at Discovery Network)

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. The Managed World is an occasional series in the Oyster’s Garter that explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Most food webs look more like a tangled web than the Great Chain of Being – since predators eat each other and most animals eat more than one prey species, their relationships are complicated. But sometimes changing the population of a single predator can bring the entire ecosystem down like dominoes. It’s called a trophic cascade.

The New York Times has two examples of humans changing the populations of key species, and the consequences that result. The first took place on Macquarie Island, a small island between Australia and Antarctica. Like on many isolated islands, the native birds evolved without predators and live in burrows. Introduced cats were eating the birds and running amuck. So researchers embarked on an intensive cat-elimination program. Sounds good so far – kill the kittehs, save the birds.

Elk feeding. (NYT)

The only problem is that there are also introduced rabbits and introduced plants. With no more cats, the rabbits bred like rabbits and ate all the native plants. Introduced plants took over the bare slopes and prevented the native birds that this was all supposed to help in the first place from nesting in the best burrowing sites.

The second involves a lawsuit over feeding elk in Jackson, Wyoming. When elk were depleted and starving at the turn of the century, people started feeding them. Now Jackson has an elk overpopulation that eats all the native willows and breeds disease (that can then be passed on to cattle). But if the lawsuit wins, stopping the elk feeding would cause a kind of economic cascade – there’s an entire tourism economy built around the easy-to-find elks. And while unnaturally large populations of elk breed disease amongst themselves, starving elks stealing cattle feed would pass disease, too. So nobody knows what to do. (I don’t suppose anyone wants to introduce more wolves? They’re proven to control elk and I bet they’re good for tourism!)

The conclusion: it is  very, very hard to predict (as Donald Rumsfeld would say) the unknown unknowns. There’s a million stories like these – even Lyme disease in the Northeast is thought to be connected to a trophic cascade with wolves, deer, mice, and ticks. To end with a slight non sequiter, this is why I’m leery of geoengineering. If we can’t even properly manage the ecosystem of 21-mile-long Macquarie Island, I worry that the cure for global warming could be even worse than the disease.

TGIF: Interspecies Valentine

February 13, 2009

For never was a story of more woe, than this of Moosiet and her Octopo.

For more strange and well-designed V-Day cards, check out Dooce’s collection.

Thanks, Anna!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.