Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beetles most fashionable

Figure 1: Beetles wearing clothes. Adapted from [1] and [2]

So let me tell you about some of the most adorable research about beetles going on right now.
Done by Marie Dacke and Jochen Smolka (and many others) this work has led to many interesting insights, all of which are overshadowed by the research methods of the group.

Namely, these guys love to put clothes on beetles.

The picture on the right of the dung beetle (Scarabaeus lamarcki) wearing some  stylish green silicon boots comes from the much-publicized paper in late 2012 by Smolka et al entitled "Dung Beetles use their dung ball as a thermal refuge". Published in Current Biology, this paper found out that the balls of dung constructed and rolled around by the intrepid little dung beetles provided the beetles with a place to escape the scorching desert sand. Not only that, the dung balls also acted as a heat sink!

Since the balls are cooler than the surrounding sand, they absorb heat from it. Dung beetles push their balls in front of them as they move through the desert, and this can actually lower the temperature of the surrounding sand by 1.5 degrees C. (This is about 34 degrees Fahrenheit, for all those unfamiliar with metric).

Back to the boots- Smolka et al coated the beetle's legs with heat-resistant silicon in order to gauge which legs the beetles use to sense heat. It turns out they seem to sense the hot sand with the protibia of their front legs.

The picture on the left shows a beetle with a rather dashing hat. This hat was used in the 2013 paper by Dacke et al titled "Dung Beetles use Milky Way for orientation", also published in Current Biology.
In this paper, the authors determined that a different species of dung beetle (Scarabaeus satyrus) used not only stars in the night sky, but specifically the Milky Way galaxy to keep themselves rolling their dung ball in a straight line.

When the beetle's vision was obscured with these stylish hats, they took significantly longer to push their dung ball out of a predetermined arena because they couldn't seem to push it in a straight line.
A further battery of tests confirmed that these beetles actually use the Milky way galaxy specifically to orient themselves and keep moving in a straight line.

With all that in mind, I encourage whomever reads this to go and put clothes on any animal you find, and record your observations.

Trust me, it is for science.

[1] Dacke et al 2013. Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation. Current biology : CB doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.12.034
[2] Smolka et al 2012. Dung Beetles use their dung balls as a mobile thermal refuge.doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.057

Saturday, February 4, 2012

So I spend a lot of time thinking about human evolutionary origins, or at least in the context of the morphological novelties we possess that set us apart from other species. Fitting, as this is essentially what my research focuses on, albeit in beetles.

One thing that just baffles me is the patchy distribution of hair on our bodies. There are many theories that try to explain this phenomena, but I think most of them are largely incomplete. P.E. Wheeler puts the onus on thermal regulation coupled with bipedality, Markus Rantala claims it had to do with a fitness advantage against ectoparasites, and Elaine Morgan even claims it was an adaptation to aquatic environments! Mine may seem like a fatuous criticism, and that is a valid complaint, but my criticism really hinges on what I consider an outstanding problem in evolutionary biology.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A slight rant about organic agriculture

The scientific blogging community has largely become a voice not just for science, but also for skeptical inquiry. Legions of established scientists, scientists in training, citizen scientists, science enthusiasts, and everyone in between have made it a personal collective mission to evaluate claims about the world at large with an eye towards interpretations backed by evidence. Rightly so, this cadre of skeptics tears apart claims of the paranormal, faith healing, alternative medicine and other quackery in the name of evidence and reason.

There is a sort of "dark side" to all this, however, in that some things get a bad reputation due to their close proximity or endorsement by people who generally accept worldviews contrary to those of the skeptic army. One such field that has a tendency to get shit all over by skeptics is the organic foods movement. One would assume that a movement that largely aims to reduce pesticide use in farming, decrease the dependence on monocultured growing practices, and take a skeptical view on GMO crops wouldn't be too difficult of a sell for most anyone with a basic understanding of ecology. Unfortunately the tendency for proponents of organic agriculture to have a decidedly "anti-science" attitude tends to draw the skeptic community like flies, and they waste no time denouncing these "wackos" and criticizing the entire shebang. Now, it is fair to say that there are some legitimate criticisms of the organic movement, especially with the increasing desire to commercialize and oversell the claims made...but this doesn't mean we should throw the baby out with the pesticide-free bathwater!

Monday, October 17, 2011

A return to blogging -or- interesting bug of the week!

As it turns out, moving to the other side of America and starting your PhD program has a negative correlation with posting on your blog.

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But! No longer will this little corner of the internet languish in a state of shameful neglect! I mean, come on I spent like a whole hour making that banner image at the top of the page!

So, without further ado, I resume posting starting now.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Steak Made from Poops?

I pretty much doubt it. Not only is this wildly implausible, the people reporting the story don't even bother to see if the words they are using are actual science words.

Like this quote:
After isolating those proteins in the lab, Ikeda's team then combined them with a reaction enhancer and put them in an exploder. What eventually came out was no filet mignon, but it was edible.
a reaction enhancer and an exploder.

Its like these people aren't even trying.

Now, maybe I could see if "reaction enhancer" was a weird way of saying "PCR", or maybe some sort of peptide synthesis but they put them in an exploder? Come on now, homologous recombinaltion tiniker at least tried to sound like science gobbledeygook!

Salon is reporting, thankfully, that this story is most likely a hoax

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Letter to PZ Myers

 The following is an email I sent to PZ Myers after reading his letter to Emma B.

PZ, I would like to slowly applaud your recent post. If I had it handy, a famous internet .gif would be included with this email displaying exactly how impressed I was with your letter.

As of writing the initial email, I have since found that .gif

I would like to take a quick second and give a defense of South Carolinian homeschoolers. You see, when I read Ken Ham's post, I noticed that the young girl in question was wearing a shirt that says "100% All Natural Homeschool Chick". As a "100% all Natural Homeschool Dude", from the same state as poor Emma B, I must give the disclaimer that we are not all like that!

In fact, the majority of the homeschooling community in South Carolina was either non-religious, or if they were, "religion" wasn't their reason for keeping their children from the public school system. Rather, it was the abysmal state of the public schools coupled with the lack of concern and outright hostility towards public education demonstrated by our legislators.

Given that seven out of the eight children I grew up with that were homeschooled along with me went on to achieve at LEAST a bachelor's degree, I don't want Emma B's mother to tarnish the reputation of the homeschooling community in South Carolina.

Some of us not only are committed to furthering our education and asking questions, but some of us are even scientists!

Also, I really think you should find a way to send that letter to the young girl, or at least her mother.

Sincerely, RZINZ

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why *aren't* there insects in the sea?

This is a question I have been asked many times, and have thought about myself.
Matthew Cobb over at Why Evolution Is True gave his take on this a few days ago

I basically agree with Matthew, but want to add something. I have two main points.