Be a biologist!

August 2, 2010 • 7:26 am

Going through the July 13 issue of Current Biology, I was struck by just how many interesting things you can learn from a single issue of a journal:

  • From a review of the new book Butterflies: Messages from Psyche, by Philip Howse: The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) evolved the image of a snake head at the tip of each wing; the moth flicks its wings when disturbed to mimic a snake’s swaying motion.

Atlas moth (Photo: copyright Stratford upon Avon Butterfly Farm Ltd.)

  • The eyed hawk moth (Smerinthus ocellata) has wing patterns that look like the face of a fox.  Could this be aggressive mimicry of a mammal, evolved to frighten predators?

Eyed hawk moth (Photo: copyright Chris Manley)

  • Fungus-growing ants use bacteria (which produce antibiotics) to keep down the parasites in their fungus gardens.  The ants also exhibit “proactive hygiene,” grooming themselves compulsively before entering the garden chamber of the nest.  They groom themselves longer if they’re more contaminated by microbes, but don’t groom when there is no fungus growing in the garden.
  • Adult mongooses crack bird eggs by either biting them or throwing them against rocks.  Some scientists made artificial eggs and watched how adults opened them while juveniles were nearby.  Two to four months later, the juveniles were presented with fake eggs.  Surprisingly, they used whichever opening method—either biting or throwing—that they had witnessed much earlier.  According to the authors, this is the first evidence in any animal for “social learning involved in the transmission of behavioral variants between individuals.”  I don’t know enough about things like primate behavior to judge if this is true.

An artificial egg for the mongooses.

  • Cleaner fish, who remove parasites from other “client” fish (thereby getting a meal) in a famous example of mutualism, have evolved independently many times.  One species (L. dimidatus) eats 1200 parasites per day, most of them isopods.  When fish are caged and not allowed access to cleaners, the isopods can increase more than fourfold on the fish’s body in 12 hours, and can kill it.  But who cleans the cleaner fish? Answer: they clean each other.

The bluestreak cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus (left) cleaning a “client,” a Pacific sailfin tang (Zebrasoma veliferum). Photo (in the journal) by Karen Cheney

  • This is relevant to our discussion of senescence. In an intruigingly-named dispatch called “Behavioral ecology: the menopausal aphid glue-bomb” (who wouldn’t read a dispatch with a title like that?), William Foster highlights some nice work—published in the same issue—by Keigo Uematsu and colleagues from the University of Tokyo.  The gall-forming aphid Quadrartu yoshinomiya is clonal: females produce exact genetic copies of themselves via parthenogenesis. (Galls are bizarre growths on plants that are induced by insects themselves; the evolution of gall making is another fascinating evolutionary tale.)  The aphids have an unusually long life span, hanging around well after they stop reproducing. It turns out that post-reproductive (“menopausal”) aphids cluster around the opening of the gall (through which the aphids exit), and secrete a glue when a predator (e.g., a ladybug) is nearby.  This glue gums up both the aphid and the predator, dooming both to death.  The authors do a bunch of experiments supporting their idea that this “altruistic” behavior, which really does keep down predators, has evolved via kin selection.  The aphids are, after all, clonal, so when an individual dies as a glue bomb, it’s really helping save exact copies of its genome.  This is analogous to sterile worker bees dying after they sting an enemy (the sting pulls out the worker’s innards), thereby saving their future-queen sisters, with whom they share three-quarters of their genes.

Aphid gall on evergreen witch-hazel (Distylium racemosus). The meonopausal glue-bomb aphids are clustered around the gall entrance, waiting to bomb predators. Photo by Harunobu Shibao.

C. Wingless adult aphids secreting glue (scale: 0.5 mm). D.  Wingless adults (arrows) stuck with glue to a doomed predatory ladybug larva.

These are only about half of the articles/dispatches I read in this issue, and this is but single issue of a single journal—there are dozens of journals relevant to evolutionary biology.  And this is why it’s so much fun to be a biologist. Not only do we get to find out stuff in our own labs, but we get to read about all the cool stuff that other people have found out.  In other words, every day we go to work expecting to learn about new marvels of nature.  And those marvels are, apparently, inexhaustible.  Imagine getting paid to do this!

Now many of these articles are also of interest to laypeople who are curious about science, but how many laypeople read scientific journals? Most of those journals are expensive, arcane, and can’t be seen online for free.  I can’t do posts like this every day, so if you’re a parent, and want your kids to have as much fun as we do, by all means expose them to biology when they’re young.

Oh, and congratulations to Geoff North and his team at Current Biology for keeping the journal a repository of not only good science, but good stories as well.


p.s. The latest (July 27) issue of Current Biology contains a nice “quick guide” to pycnogonids, or sea spiders, by our own pinch-blogger Matthew Cobb. Pycnogonids are bizarre marine arthropods that appear to be all legs and no body:

The pycnogonid Colossendeis gigas perched on an anemone, Liponema brevicornis, 2893 meters down in Monterey Submarine Canyon, CA, USA. Photo (c) 2005 MBARI.

49 thoughts on “Be a biologist!

  1. There are many, many more children who dream of being biologists than dream of being investment bankers. Every biologists should remind themselves of this on occasion, that they might live more gratefully.

  2. Your question “…but how many “laypeople” read scientific journals”? or (?”)? summarizes the brutal reality that impinges upon the broader, deeper and stronger issues discussed here-the blog i mean. I have no numbers,but a swift succint recollection of some of my “layfriends” reading habits, no pun intended, suggest a number close to zero. Which should be a variable constant in our approach explaining reality to said layfriends. And “seduce” them, as someone pointed out before, to the good side.

    1. The question mark should go inside the quotes since it’s part of what Jerry said. Consider:

      Sarah said “coffee?” – i.e. Sarah asked a question.

      Sarah said “coffee”? – I’m asking whether Sarah made a statement.

  3. Part of the problem isn’t that people don’t read. Its that journals are often completely inaccessible to the general public – requiring expensive subscriptions.

    I’m a secondary school biology teacher – I’d love to be able to read some of the latest journals. I can’t afford a subscription – school boards don’t pay for them – and there really isn’t the time to spend popping down to the local university, and sitting there for a couple hours in the stacks.

    Add to that some of the scientific jargon used in many articles and its completely unreachable to many readers and youth. The vocabulary needed to read many journals outstrips the average high school student (and most adults).

    The Victorian era was a time when science was accessible to the general public, which opened there curiosity, and vice versa. Take “On the Origin of Species” – readable to the reasonably literate man of the 1870’s.

    A summary like the one below taken from the current issue of CURRENT BIOLOGY highlights the gap:

    1. Part of the problem is publishers. They hoick up the cost of journal subscriptions every year regardless of the ability of universities to pay from limited budget. Secondly it would be nice if more scientists were to use open access journals, however the pressure of getting high ‘impact factors’ means they have to publish in the most prestigious journals they can. I work in a university/hospital medical library & the doctors tell me they are under pressure to publish so a good deal of what comes out ends up being poor quality material of the ‘case report’ type. There are other factors of course, but this makes the science reporter’s job even more important. I prefer to get my lead ins to news stories via quality popular scince magazines, Scientific American & New Scientist, the BBC website or now, this blog. I generally like to see the abstract as well – so often the papers or radio get things wrong or exaggerate, particularly medical stories, where what sounds like ‘new’ work can frequently be a meta-analysis.

  4. I KNOW this is off-topic, but Jonah Lehrer has an interesting article on free will (a subject of great interest on this blog) at Wired. It’s well -worth reading.

  5. It is tough to get articles without subscriptions but certainly not impossible. Many authors post pdfs on their research websites despite officially not being allowed to do this by the journals (I do). Also, there are email addresses associated with article abstracts on journal websites. If you send a brief email requesting a pdf of an article I can’t imagine an author not sending a copy. I have both had many requests for articles and requested articles myself and I can’t remember an instance where I didn’t have a positive response. I think most authors are very happy to have interest in their work!!

    1. The day will come when any significant scientific work will be freely available-well actually, I hope all science work- which will open a bright era of-for free-knowledge ‘enlightenment’ for all to break from the chains of supply side science.

          1. A problem with open access is that it is paid for by authors. There’s got to be real pressure to bias publication to those who can pay.

            1. I’m not entirely sure that pay to publish is necessarily a major drawback of the open access model. I just had my first experience publishing in an open journal (Plos One, online last week) and was very happy with it overall. It was a good fit, their policy is to review for soundness of science rather than impact and we had an important but not groundbreaking paper. I was curious about the journal and did a bit of research and came across an interesting article about the journal that I unfortunately can’t now find. The article was about their first impact factor, which was unexpectedly high I thought, and in it the person interviewed hinted that every request for a waiver of publication fees was excepted. I have also seen open access publication fees written into grant applications.

    2. And, it’s a process. arxiv has meant a lot for easy access to physics papers.

      The flip side is that you need to be able to judge the value of the work to a higher degree. That is why science blogging helps, and the new label for “Blogging on Peer-reviewed Research” (I would assume).

      A blog can’t do posts or reviews on science every day, but the pointers will help to build a value basis, and relieve some of the bottle-neck problems. (Getting the info out there; a more flexible review process.) It’s a win-win.

      1. arxiv has shown that rubbish doesnt stand; in fact, no numbers here, but it seems as if rubbish is detected sooner there- in a “free-eer” environment-.In second thought it is kind of obvious?

  6. Those isopods – amazing that enough survive to keep infesting the host fish. And interesting that without being kept in check they kill the fish they feed on. A message for humans in that perhaps? Of course I had to look up the isopods – & this giant of the deep is new to me –
    And perhaps even more fascinating – an example of evolutionary ‘stasis’, the Triops cancriformis (I am sure many people have had them as ‘pets’) found to be still living in Scotland by a masters student at Glasgow University

    1. The deep sea isopod shown in the last two images on your first link is a truly awesome creature. Caught hitch-hiking on a ROV that was operating at 8500 feet!

      That thing could give HR Geiger nightmares. Probably make him slit his wrists in a fit of despair.

  7. You can’t do posts like this every day, and it’s generous of you to do them at all. Outreach! Science education!

    A thought occurs to me. Maybe some enterprising biologists could get together and start a Popular Biology magazine? On the model of The Philosophers’ Magazine and Philosophy Now – run and written by academics, but magazines, not journals, aimed at the general public, not colleagues.

    Srsly. It could be good.

    1. Lets make publishers-entrepeneurs work harder for truth: and see where everybody stands. Lets ask the NAS, PNAS, AAAS, ESA so forth to support free total access to knwoledge.

  8. As long as we are going OT here and there, surely many have read today’s xkcd or Pharyngula’s elevation of it to “Best xkcd ever”.

    I don’t think I’ll make a spoiler if I note that xkcd have captured how some accommodationists and agnostics have elevated the special pleading of religion to use it on the background of existing pleading. Well, these things are both belief in belief, so it’s not surprising when it turns out to have characteristics of belief^2!

    Now the question becomes, is it watered down or souped up belief?

      1. Opinion, surely! My own favorite is “Science. It works, bitches.” (The fantastic blackbody spectra fit of standard cosmology.)

        Your favorite cartoon impregnates its subject, I’ll give you that.

  9. “I can’t do posts like this every day, so if you’re a parent, and want your kids to have as much fun as we do, by all means expose them to biology when they’re young.”

    How about a post on some suggestions on how to do that (assuming the parent does not have much formal training in biology). What would be a good list of books and activities accessible to a junior high or high school children that would expose them (and captivate them!) to modern biology? Are there textbooks that cover the school curriculum that you actually like?

    1. I’m sure the Templeton Foundation has plenty of resources. just kidding.

      I did a search at for biology books for kids and found a bunch. Or look in the children’s section of a book store.

  10. “this is the first evidence in any animal for ‘social learning involved in the transmission of behavioral variants between individuals.’”

    Not to nit-pick, but is it really transmission if the children learn by watching adults, who don’t care if the children learn or not?

    1. LOLz! How come every post that starts off with “not to nit pick” winds up nitpicking? 🙂

      Anyway, I don’t think it matters whether the adults are trying to teach kids, and I seriously doubt that in this case they are. What the authors were studying is the way these behaviors are culturally transmitted across generations, and whether different behaviors are transmitted as different.

    1. It’s not really a “review” in the sense of passing judgment on the book; it tells you what the book is about, which seems to be the adaptive significance of wing patterns. There is only one comment on the Amazon site, but it’s very positive.

  11. Hah, years catching the Atlas moth and its (very large, green) caterpillars and I never imagined a snake image on the wingtips. Are humans imagining too much? How do we know that other animals (a) perceive it as a snake and (b) avoid snakes?

  12. Jerry,
    I’m about half-way through Why Evolution Is True and I’m very impressed at the way you can deliver the information in an interesting and understandable manner for lay people like me, while simultaneously maintaining the scientific detail. Excellent book!

  13. Are there not the natural history books about that there used to be (at least in Britain in my youth)? An interest in natural history, which most children and young people have to a degree, can lead ‘naturally’ into an interest in biology. Why start off with ‘biology’, as if it were something separate from natural history? David Attenborough’s books, books on recognising birds, beasts, insects, trees and flowers, minerals (the Observer series, if it’s still going) are not to be sniffed at.

    1. I would imagine that many biologists start out as naturalists. For example, Steve Jones said in (IIRC) is Almost Like a Whale that he started out as a birdwatcher as a teen.

  14. I don’t understand how the pattern in the hawk moth’s wings came into being.

    It’s an adaptation, right? Moths have it to scare predators. Ok, they are useful now; but the hawk moth evolved from a more standard moth with standard, unpatterned wings, didn’t it? So how does an unpatterned wing evolve into a super specialized wing through small, gradual steps, each one of them more fit than the coeval average? How is a slighly, remotely patterned wing useful to scare predators? I’d say it’s clearly not useful for that–certainly not more useful than the average wing–so natural selection couldn’t have promoted the slightly patterned variant in the beginning.

    Of course selection can promote a fine fox pattern over an already existing, recognisable-yet-lame fox pattern, but it’s the initial steps what doesn’t make sense to me.

    There’s an alternative idea: sexual selection. Here I can see an obvious selective advantage to even slightly flashy wings, if only we found that moth chicks like flashy colors better. Why the resulting pattern looks like eyes instead of something else? Well, maybe we are just to good at viewing patterns like in clouds. Anyway!, that’s another question and I’ll cover that in another paper or, er, comment. 🙂

    It’s too bad the paper on the moth is just a book review & interview. I guess I’ll have to buy the book. Oh well.

  15. Excuse my French, but those top two butterfuly photos are fucking incredible!

    I couldn’t see the fox face for a few seconds, and then it literally jumped off the page. Absolutely amazing.

  16. For you journal-starved folks living in the UK: try taking a course or two at the Open University. Their on-line library has a very large selection of journals, and access is included in the tuition price.

    It’s a great value. The course materials are pretty good, too.

  17. It is amazing how evolution works. It enables almost any living organism to adapt to very difficult conditions in the environment one inhabits. I wonder what will it bring in the future. One thing is certain – it is never going to stop astonishing us.

  18. “The eyed hawk moth has wing patterns that look like the face of a fox. Could this be aggressive mimicry of a mammal, evolved to frighten predators? ”

    I, for one, appreciate that you asked this as a question, as opposed to stating it as a fact, as so many science articles do.

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