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Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category


This true-color image shows southwestern Australia as it appeared on 18 August 2002. A significant chunk of the coastal region is green, a sign that ample seasonal rainfall has done its job. However, to the north and east, hot and dry conditions persist, as a reminder that much of the Australian landscape is dominated by the arid and semi-arid “Outback.”

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, and it is getting drier. The patches of temperate and sub-tropical areas along the coast (including the pictured bit of southwestern Australia) are getting warmer, but receiving less rainfall. Much of southeast Australia (including most of the major urban centers) has been wracked by a decades-long drought. The Murray-Darling river system in the southeast, the only major river system on the continent, is drying up quickly, depriving the country’s limited agricultural land of much-needed irrigation. Cities like Western Australia’s Perth (with a 2009 population of 1,659,000) have seen water demand spike as reservoirs drop. Already, the country has three desalination plants operating to provide water for coastal cities, with three more under construction and at least one more planned. These desalination plants will likely increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, already the highest per capita in the world.
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NASA’s Living With a Star Program is returning its first chunk of data. The Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft has beamed back its first breathtaking images of the sun as it begins its five year mission to study our closest star, a mere 93 million miles away.
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One of the fascinating puzzles of evolutionary biology is how old structures change over time to acquire new functions or features. We can ask the “how” on multiple levels:

  • What genetic changes occurred?
  • What physiological changes occurred?
  • Did ecological factors contribute?
  • How quickly did the new function or feature arise?

The list of questions can go on and on.  However, scientists don’t always have tools at their disposal to answer everything.  For extinct organisms, we have only the fossil record.  Molecular biologists like me don’t get DNA to play with in those cases (usually). Physiologists don’t get muscle and bone samples. Thus, we can’t fully answer how whale fins developed from an ancestor who walked on solid ground. Though we have whales here today, all those walking ancestors died millions of years ago.

But, even with these limitations, we can still learn something about how older structures can change to acquire new functions. Recently, two biologists published an account of a “new” feature derived from an “old” structure: the cobra’s hood. In cobras and several other groups of snakes, the ribs, muscles, and skin near the head and neck (as much as snakes have a neck) can spread out away from the body’s core, forming an elaborate display hood when the animal is startled or threatened.
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The New York Times Magazine has a wonderful article out on the phenomenon of homosexuality among animals. Ignored by many biologists for over a century thanks to human taboos on the subject, same-sex pairing is now acknowledged among many different types of animals, including birds, mammals, and even insects. Now, peer-reviewed literature cites instances of homosexuality in nearly 500 different species, including the fish I study, the stickleback.

Not all of these published accounts include lifelong same-sex pairing, or even sex between two members of the same sex. Homosexual behavior in different animal species is very dependent on the typical sexual and breeding behaviors of that species. For example, among stickleback fishes, males mate with multiple females during the breeding season, and vice versa. Typically, breeding males establish and defend a territory against other fish, and build a nest. When the nest is ready, they court passing females in a complex courtship display that has been studied by ethologists for a century. An enamored female will enter the nest just long enough to lay her eggs, then the male will quickly fertilize the eggs and chase the female away. He cares for the fertilized eggs and newly-hatched larvae, until the larvae grow large enough to swim away on their own. In a species like the stickleback, the sexes already have a minimal interaction with one another: court and breed. There is no sex for pleasure, and there is no lifelong bonding. Thus, reports of homosexual behavior among the sticklebacks is similarly limited: accounts of one male attempting to court another male to enter his nest. No homosexual sex, and no homosexual parenting.

The New York Times Magazine article takes similar care to parse the accounts of homosexuality in the animal kingdom: each instance must be viewed through the lens of the animal’s unique life history. But, with these mounting accounts of homosexuality among animals, how do we now view human homosexuality? One interpretation would simply see same-sex attraction in humans as just another natural occurrence of homosexuality among animals (after all, humans are animals). Given the universal observation of homosexuality among all known human cultures and societies, this would seem to fit that model: among all humans everywhere, homosexuality occurs at a small rate (3-5%). Our rate is lower than homosexuality other animals, and perhaps larger than others. But, homosexuality remains most controversial in us.

I could go on and on. The first paper I wrote in college defended the theory that homosexuality in human males is biological in nature: gay men have no more control over their sexuality than their straight or bisexual counterparts. However, lucky for you, I am meeting with my thesis committee today. Thus, I have to stop here, and let the New York Times Magazine take over.

Regardless of your views, the New York Times Magazine article is definitely worth a read:
“Can Animals Be Gay?”

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This must be earthquake awareness week. Yesterday, I was browsing science news reports, and found a nice summary from the BBC News on an interesting and entirely unintended collision between herpetology and seismology.

Last year, a powerful 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck L’Aquila, Italy, killing over 300 and devastating local towns. As it just so happened, British ecologists about 50 miles from the quake’s epicenter were studying mating behavior of the common toad (Bufo bufo). Five days before the earthquake, the toads fled their colony for no apparent reason. The earthquake struck, and then several days later the toads returned and resumed their normal lives. Did the toads somehow sense the approaching disaster, days before it struck? Did they flee to more secure ground? Was their departure a simple coincidence? The ecology team has now published their data and findings in the Journal of Zoology. They conclude that the toads did specifically flee their breeding site due to the approaching earthquake, and only came back after the cessation of major seismic activity.
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Late last year, I read an article in Nature that brought together two of my favorite subjects: sex determination and fossils. I study sex determination in a group of fish for my thesis research. But, before I was a graduate student, I was one of those nerdy “momma’s boy” types who loved reading about fossils. Paleontology was such an interesting subject to me that, thanks to the advice of a very wise biology professor, I earned a minor in geology in college. But enough about me.
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NPR had a fascinating story this morning on a new comprehensive study launched by the National Academy of Sciences. While the title of this post might make you think that the project is trying to predict how future climate change may influence human evolution, this project is peering instead into humankind’s past.

Did Climate Change Drive Human Evolution?
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Here’s a headline that caught my eye. Take a gander!

“Glowing Fruit Fly Sperm Yields Real Time Results.”

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The New York Times has an excellent overview of the latest findings on the domestication of Man’s Best Friend. The ongoing issues:

  1. When did mankind domesticate the dog?
  2. Where did mankind domesticate the dog?
  3. How quickly did the newly-domesticated animals begin to “look” like Man’s Best Friend?

Question number 3 may be a bit puzzling for anyone who doesn’t think a lot about dog domestication.  Some background: long ago humans domesticated the dog.  From what, you ask?  The grey wolf, Canis lupus. All domestic dogs are usually classified as a sub-species in the grey wolf, Canis lupus familiaris1, a fact that always floors me whenever I watch the toy dog section of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
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I spit my coffee out this morning1 when I heard this delightful story on NPR. Since I study sex determination, I’m a bit biased here. But, it’s great to see such an amazing field of biology get such great news coverage. On a side note, Blanche Capel, the Duke University researcher they consult for this story, is a refreshing blend of gifted scientist and gifted communicator. Enjoy her comments near the end of the segment.

Here’s a link to hear the story. It’s definitely worth your time!

“Half-Rooster/Half-Hen Helps Unlock Sex Mystery”

1I spit my coffee out because a story on vertebrate sex determination was the last thing I ever expected to hear on NPR, not because I was disgusted or anything.

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