Archive for the ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ category

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: March Mammal Madness Edition

February 18, 2014

That time of the month again:  tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!

You can listen live or as a podcast later here.  If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life.  (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.

Hinde is just a treat of an interview — fast, funny, and with incredibly rich and interesting science to discuss.  Here’s what she’s about:

Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.

Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.

Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data.  Her trick?   Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows.  Now that’s some statistical power!


Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar.  She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk.  The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children.  You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]

We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world.    That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail.  We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist:  a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists.  Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media.  A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.

And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes.  Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines.  Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites).  But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters.  Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and  humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the  pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.

Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.

As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one.  Join in the conversation tomorrow.

Image:  Winslow Homer, Milking Time1875.


A Little Mud Slinging (Zoology Section) Whilst Working on the Next Burst of Outrage.

July 27, 2010

The soundtrack from my youth:

Much that was obscure about my personality defects is now explained, no doubt.

See y’all tomorrow.

Quick Blogroll Update: Jennifer Frazer/Biodiversity edition

July 14, 2009

I’d like to draw y’all’s (got to love any opportunity for two apostrophes in a single word) attention to two new listings on the blogroll, both from the same blogger, Jennifer Frazer.  Her science blog, centered on natural history in a modern biological frame, appears under this delightful name:  The Artful Amoeba.

Jennifer is a glutton for punishment, so just to make sure that she has enough to do she publishers her paeans to the satisfactions of the kitchen under this slightly clunkier moniker: Home Cooking Well.

Jennifer is one of those folks you brag about if you happen to be a teacher — and I wish I could claim a personal role in her success. I can’t, because she completed her master’s program in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing in 2004, just as I showed up as a part – timer.  Now I run the joint and I couldn’t be happier to be able to call Jennifer one of ours — and she is kind enough to credit me with goading her into starting …Amoeba…

She’s a fine writer — freelancing now in Boulder after starting her career as a small-town newspaper reporter at the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle — and a knowledgeable one, having completed graduate work in microbiology plant pathology/mycology at Cornell, her MIT degree, and a delightful thesis for that program singing the praises (not really) of mold.

Don’t just take my word for it.  You can simply read her blog(s) to judge for yourself, or if you favor external validation, consider this:  In 2007 Jennifer won one of the most serious prizes in science journalism, the AAAS Science Journalism Award for an investigation of a swarm of elk deaths in Wyoming.

For those of you keeping score — that’s less than three years after she completed the MIT program, which is, I believe a record for those hitting the real world after completing a science writing course.  Something to consider for anyone thinking about such programs, as I am constrained to say as head of this one….

So check her out. Hire her if you need some free-lance writing…you couldn’t do better.  And in the meantime, read what she has to say, and thus share her joy in the rigorous investigation of the natural world.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, “Combat of a Tiger and a Buffalo” 1908-9

The Bees of Brookline…Real Estate Schadenfreude Post

June 30, 2009

This is just a little gift to y’all, or at least any of you enmeshed in house-renovation hell.

My wife and I just completed the purchase of a house in the Boston-area city town of Brookline, noted for its truly first class public schools — a relevant fact for parents of an elementary school kid nudging up to the not-wonderful middle school in our current town.

It’s a nice place, or rather it will be after we deal with the consequences of the previous owners’ 2 + decades of more or less complete neglect.  As far as we can tell, they spent exactly nothing on making sure that a 1920s house did not rot, serve as lunch for social insects, or simply settle under the weight of 20 years or so of dust and grime that never, seemingly, suffered an encounter with a wet rag.

But even as we marvel at various decor details — the coffee cans in the lighting track above the stove are a particular favorite — and check and re-check to ensure that previous waves of termites are not in fact being followed by that last push over the top of the sort the Germans hoped would finally crack the fortress at Verdun, we were truly flumoxed by only one discovery.   Check out these photographs:

Hive in full

How would you like to find four feet or so of working honey bee hive inside the wall of your house?

What gets me is that there were several tens of thousands of bees that called my new address “home” up until last Saturday.  The hive was in the stairwell between the second and third floor, basically, next to and slightly above the previous owner’s bedroom.  Given that you don’t get a fine piece of modular hexagonal construction like you see there in ten minutes, don’t you think  he might have noticed just a bit of noise (not to mention a ton of six legged friends flying past his windows) at, say the four a.m. summer wake up call?  Just asking…

And if you were laboring under the misapprehension that the above was a disused or dead hive, check this one out:

live bees

This isn’t to say that it wasn’t kind of cool to think of our house as a shared domicile with our apian friends.  Honey bees are, after all, potent symbols, creatures of myth, generally associated with all kinds of good things — eloquence, well ordered social life and so on.  For a dwelling to be home to a writer and a family, that’s not so bad…

Als0 — I have to say that it was fascinating to take a look at the intricacy of a hive from such an intimate vantage.  For example — I never even knew that there was this to see:

Queen cells

Those protuberances on the side are queen cells, where potential successors to the sitting queen gestate.  The first one out massacres the rest, a not unknown precaution in human families of consequence, and then occupies the vacancy left by the death or departure of her mother.

And speaking of departure, check this out:


It’s hard to see at internet quality, but that big black blob in the center is the swarm.  Just as the bee keeper arrived and started cutting into the wall, the reigning monarch took off with about half the hive.  They hung out near the top of the maple next to our new house for a couple of hours, sending out scouts.  And then, suddenly, a suitable new location having been found, they all took off.  Somewhere in a mile or two radius in the Coolidge Corner area of Brookline, a hive is born.

Note that I said “bee-keeper,” and not exterminator.  By local law, you can’t just kill honey bees (and if you did so without opening up the wall, you’d end up with as much as fifty or sixty pounds of honey melting down the interior of your house too, with consequences I don’t want to think about).  Instead, you have to find someone who specializes in bee removal who comes by, equipped with the appropriate armor and a very gentle sort of shop-vac kind of thing to remove the bees alive:

Vacuuming the bees

It’s a good deal for the bee keeper, in this case a delightful and extremely mellow young man named Jean-Claude:  he gets paid skilled rates for the removal (you don”t think that it makes sense to seek out a discount bee-wrangler, do you?  Not in my house…) and he gets to keep the bees, putting them to work in his own apiary.  (This is why he was a bit put out by the sudden decision to swarm; he was left with many fewer bees than he had hoped.) I don’t begrudge the craftsman’s gleanings — I don’t want them, certainly, but it did both de-and impress me that I have to put myself on the waiting list to sample Jean-Claude’s honey production.  He’s already oversubscribed.

That leads to the last note I’ll add:  the high point of the morning was when Jean-Claude pulled off some honey-bearing comb and handed it round.  It was unlike any other honey I’ve ever tasted — Cuvee Brookline, perhaps — and certainly the freshest I’ll ever taste.  It was composed of who knows what:  the choke cherries in our back yard, the neighbor’s English garden flowers, just about anything in a mile or so radius of the house.  It had a sharp, spicy flavor, lots of orange in it, and not so sweet as commercial honey.  Wild.  It really exploded in the mouth.  We grabbed a couple of pounds of comb for later, and as we share it with friends we can truly say it was home-made.

So that’s it.  Enjoy a little schadenfreude at my family’s expense.  I’d venture to say that we were the only folks on our block with our own bee-hive, however briefly.  So for all you home-renovators out there, as you contemplate medieval plumbing and knob-and-tube wiring, reflect on the fact that at least you didn’t have to confrong 40 or 50,000 six legged room mates in your walls.

And now back to the serious stuff…unless something else weird this way passes.

Program Notes: New York Times on the Hardest Job in Science…

August 24, 2008

Or at least in the top ten: Check out this story on someone who sounds like a fantastic teacher of high school biology in Florida, doing his best to put evolution all the way back into the curriculum.

I’ve no doubt that the science blogosphere will pick up on this piece, and it should. But as someone who has taken a fair share of potshots at the Times and some of its writers lately, I thought it was dead down the middle of the “credit where credit is due” imperative to note that the paper and reporter Amy Harmon did a fine job here.

Image: Henri Rousseau, “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Quote of the Week (not for the weak of stomach)

May 22, 2008

From PZ Myers:

I don’t know about you, but a system that muddles excretion with reproduction and that allows random lizards to crawl up your butt and squat in your oviduct doesn’t sound like great engineering to me.

I’m so sorry I read that before lunch.  That’ll teach me to procrastinate by wandering the blogosteppes.

Image:  Aelbert Cuyp, “Rooster and Hens,” 1652.  Source:  Web Gallery of Art.

Don’t Play Poker With…

March 16, 2008

JP Morgan.

This not so much science as natural history. Observe the behavior of the fauna in the wild.

Or perhaps this is science, or at least an illustration of the kind of observation on which scientific ideas rest. Consider this quote:

I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large
and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another,
and including (which is more important) not only the life of the
individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a
time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which
shall get food and live.

That Charles Darwin fella kinda had a thought or two in his head.

One Bear goes extinct, and a more lupine creature feasts on its carcase.

File this one variously: The Struggle for Existence (the title of the chapter of The Origin from which the quote above was taken); Homo hominis lupus est, (with a nod to my man Tommy Hobbes); or perhaps in the Gordon Gecko file, under the subhead, “The Rich Get Richer (even the ones that fail).”

And yes, this all pretty much an excuse to link to the ur-Darwin text one more time. It’s never a bad moment to read a little of what the Devil’s chaplain had to say.

Update: I’d temper my snark about wealth immune to risk because while it is certainly true that people like Bear Stearns chairman “Ace” Greenberg have done OK over the years, but there are a lot of folks out there less well cushioned to the blow. They’re grownups, risk is risk, and Wall Street is not for the faint of heart…but still, it’s a very bad day for a lot of folks, and I do not want too dance to hard to other folks’ dirges. (h/t Atrios)

Update 2 (March 24, 2008):  Maybe you can play poker w. JP after all.  Perhaps there was a reason Bear Stearns managed to maintain the third highest average compensation average of the big players on Wall Street as recently as 2006.  (h/t Atrios)

Image: Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, “Wilki podczas zamieci” [AKA — your guess is as good as mine, unless you have some Polish competence handy], 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday Poetry Break

March 14, 2008

Warning: just a glancing encounter with science content below, but some value anyway, I hope.

Woke up today to Molly I’s command over at Atrios’s shop: “Read some poetry!”

She’s got class — and a thought to evoke. She sent her readers over to Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Consider lines like these:

 That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Poetry that has consequences was also the theme of a delightful thread a while back evoked by John Wilkens’ memories of Marlowe — and he in turn was prompted by Shelley Batts at her then-blog Retrospectacle.

I’m going to blog a bit about perhaps the most important poem in the history of science in a post this weekend — Lucretius‘ “De Rerum Natura” — “On the Nature of Things.” But it was hard going this morning, and the cogs and gears upstairs just aren’t turning that well yet, so when I hit Auden’s terrifying poem on the sorrow and horror of war, I did not flash on the World War I poets, nor Walt Whitman’s “Come up from the fields, father.

No — I recalled instead the voice and accent — posh English, Girton-polished — of my mother, now gone and sorely missed, roaring with gusto the lines of one of the most happily belligerent bits of high-class doggerel a more or less proper English poet ever produced: Thomas Love Peacock’s “The War Song of Dinas Vawr.” You have not lived until you hear someone declaiming, with happy bloodthirsty gusto, the opening lines: “The mountain sheep are sweeter/But the valley sheep are fatter;/We therefore deemed in meeter/To carry off the latter….”

Go. Wince. Enjoy yourselves. You have been warned.

Image: “Achilles killing a Trojan prisoner in front of the Etruscan demon of death, Charun.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.”