Biology miscellany

July 23, 2012 • 7:35 am

I have one item to recommend and two pictures to show.

The first is Olivia Judson’s article on bacteria in an Antarctic volcano, “Life in an icy inferno,” in July’s National Geographic (you can read it for free). You may remember Judson from either her bestselling book, Aunt Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, a winsome and evolutionarily-informed look at animal reproduction (Judson has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Oxford), or from her several years of writing the “Wild Side” column for The New York Times.

At any rate, the piece is excellent in three respects. It shows the immense amount of preparation it takes to even visit the Antarctic, much less do research there (she camped on the slopes of the Antarctic volcano Mt. Erebus for two weeks), but interweaves this adventure tale with a scientific discussion about why researchers  are looking for microbes in such a remote place (I’ll let you read the article to find out). Finally, it’s extremely well written.

And here are two photos sent me by pinch-blogger Matthew Cobb, who is in Vancouver this week giving a plenary talk at the 17th International Congress on Animal Reproduction. The first is from the BBC Nature News site, was communicated via Twitter by Helen Ward, and shows two northern gannets (Morus bassanus) engaged in courtship, which can apparently involves gifts of flowery necklaces.  The caption is a bit anthropomorphic, but the picture, by Steve Race, is lovely:

Adolescent northern gannets have been photographed “flirting” with flowers at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, the only mainland colony of the birds in England. The birds are at their busiest in the summer; breeding, nesting and rearing young. Gannets pair for life and the adult birds will return to their cliff homes year after year, decorating it with plants, flowers and nearby debris. Wildlife photographer Steve Race has observed young birds offering feathers and flowers to potential partners during courtship at the RSPB reserve. But he described capturing this scene of a young male presenting his beau with a necklace-like sprig of red campion as “surreal”. Reserve manager Ian Kendall said, “If the pair return next year and have a family, we’ll find out whether their adolescent romancing has paid off.”

And there’s this, originally “tweeted (I hate that word!) by the estimable Ed Yong as “two handfuls of burrowing owls”.

Since many of us like owls, I’ll throw in another photo; I’m not sure who took it, but it and the one above appear on Nicholas Heitzman’s “owl” page. This snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a ghostly presence in a dark wood:

37 thoughts on “Biology miscellany

  1. I am 99% sure the background in the snowy owl pic is photoshopped; there are upward arcs of gray in the bottom 2/3 of the photo.
    The owl might even be placed there.
    It is however, still an attractive work of computer art.

    1. The arcs go up to the very top of the image, would appear to have as their center the sun. I don’t know off hand what might produce that effect, but I don’t think your conclusion is necessarily the best one.

      1. Yeah, you may be right.

        I am a watercolor artist whose ability to earn a living has been usurped by Photoshop, so I guess my point of view is skewed.

        I see lots and lots of people on ebay making quite a bit of money selling photoshopped stolen images so that’s another reason why I am a little jaded. The buying public has no idea. It’s the result they pretty much only care for, not how an item was produced.

        I like to see a bit of provenance when an item is labeled “photograph” or “painting” or “watercolor”. For example, just because Photoshop marketers decided long ago to call a manipulation in their program “watercolor” does not mean that the manipulated photo is now a watercolor painting.

        I’ve even seen photographers manipulate their own photos with Photoshop and then sell them off on their own websites as “watercolors”. Needless to say it irritates most real painters.

    2. The arcs have a N-S axis, implying the sun is off-picture on a bearing of about 0 (up = “N” = bearing zero).
      The shadows on the owl imply a similar sun bearing.
      But the shadows in the clouds appear to have a sun bearing between 270 and 300.
      I think you’re right to call “Shop!” Or, if the ‘Pulp Fiction’ scene appeals to you, “Bring out the Gimp!”

      1. I was hoping for a little more discussion on this. Thanks.

        I am hoping to get an opinion from a person I know who’s been a top Photoshopper for ten years, doing covers for major newsstand magazines in NYC… it might be several days before I can reach him but if he gives an opinion I’ll try to put it up here.
        I don’t usually belabor issues like this (I could spend 24 hrs. a day doing it online and not make a dent) but for some reason this one irks me!

        I should add that usually there is some sort of reflection of color/light of nearby objects on a white subject like the bird. It is subtle but as a painter I’ve learned to look for those sorts of things.

        Also, the bird does not seem to throw the correct shadow.

        The tree might even be fake.

        Again, who cares within the “free” nature of the internet, but if I were to spend money on such a product, being told it was a photo and then finding out later it was “shopped” would irritate me.

        When you see a really good representational painting, done with good style, it can set your heart aflutter — just because of the STYLE, not because of the subject matter. This is referred to as “painterly style”. It’s like when someone says they would pay to listen to Doc Watson read the phone book. It’s about the DELIVERY, not the subject matter. I rarely have seen computer art that has beautiful style.

        Enough said… just thought if someone in future sees this they might want to learn something.

        And if anyone wants to see really spectacular snowy owl pics from this past winter in downtown Chicago, he/she might wish to go to this site… a combination of chance plus good photo skills and good birding skills produced a spectacular interaction between a Peregrine and a Snowy, and the photos aren’t touched up.

        1. correction:
          in my last paragraph I mean that chance plus good skills produced a spectacular series of photos (not “interaction”) between a Peregrine and a Snowy.

        2. Re your comments on painting “style” : still, after 30+ years, my favourite mineralogy text book is (packed in a box for moving … ) illustrated by hand-drawn paintings (probably watercolour, but I’m not sure) of mineral specimens. They are much more representational of the specimens than photographs.
          The author / artist was Sinkankas, but it wasn’t (isn’t, but it’s buried) one of the books listed here :

          1. Yes, a good painting or drawing can be much better than a photo. I looked at Sinkankas’ artwork online. (What an accomplished person!) The paintings are really nice.

            I think there is some special spark of life or humanity that comes through in paintings made by the human hand (as opposed to computer art). A painting is translated by the human brain and skeleton and muscles, transmitted down the brush and into the paper. There is an aesthetic sense that guides that process. Add the unique physical and chemical properties of (say, transparent watercolor) paint, its colloidal behavior in water, the way it behaves when imbedding in the textured paper’s surface, the way the various earth-elements react to each other, and the way it settles out on the surface and dries so that you can see the granulation–and you have something computers cannot match!

            BTW lots of watercolor pigments come from ground-up minerals. But you probably knew that.

            No word yet on the Snowy image above but I’ll add it here in a week or two. For posterity!

            1. I wouldn’t swallow a “spark of humanity”, but the way that I rationalised this (when I was comparing my preferred mineralogy text book with the recommended one for my Geology ‘AO-level’ course ; my teacher had asked why I used a different text) was :
              The painter has viewed the specimen with understanding ; s/he knows what aspects of the image they want to stress, and which extraneous data they wish to suppress (e.g. ‘flare’ reflected from a crystal facet ; dullness from a dusting of mica on facet surfaces ; growth lines across a facet) ; those conscious choices then get put into the drawing without extraneous data.
              A few days ago I was feeding a bottle of wine and a packet of fags to an artist friend who was working, from a photo, on a painting and we were discussing exactly this point. He was quite conscious about doing this.
              I note that “camera lucida drawings and line-art are still the norm for illustration of fossils in monographs, linked to photographs of the fossils. When I was doing my degree, we were still required to produce hundreds, literally, of drawings of fossils, microscope fields of view (PPL and XPL) and crystals in our lab note books. Many people hated the task – it is a difficult skill – but it really did sharpen the precision of people’s observation.
              At work, I often astonish my younger, junior geologists by being able to look down the ‘scope at something that’s puzzling them for 5 seconds, then sit down and sketch the salient points, and illustrate what they need to look for to distinguish [characteristic X] from [characteristic Y]. From this, I deduce that more recent students don’t do the pen-and-ink drawings that we were required to. (JAC, or someone else involved in modern teaching, comment?)
              It’s only a few years ago since I disposed of my blocked Rotring tube pens, not having used them for some years. Wonderful drawing tools, but such a pain in the posterior to maintain if they’re not in use every hour of every day. Propelling pencils, and good quality disposable drawing pens are less hassle.
              I am not now, and never have been, a member or fellow traveller of “the artistic community”.

              1. What you describe, mostly, would be called illustration (more precisely, scientific illustration), as opposed to fine art painting.

              2. Call it anything you want, but don’t call it late for lunch. [GRIN]
                How would you classify … Versalius’ anatomical drawings? Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man? Hartmann’s oft-used planetary impact paintings? The small horde of people who draw NewDinosaurOfTheMonth for PalaeontologistOfTheMonth? They might not be art to you, but they are to me.
                That stuff about landscapes and shepherdesses and so on just goes “in one eye and out of the other” – unless I think “I recognise that mountain – that’s Meall a’ Mhuthaich seen from Bruthach an Lochain Fhada ; what on Earth took an artist out to that misbegotten excuse for a place?”
                I had a room mate who was an art student once. I couldn’t even recognise which way up his “things” were meant to go – and he couldn’t tell us either. But I suppose that’s what you get for having an art student, a geologist and a PhD candidate biochemist in the same flat.

              3. You wrote,
                “Many people hated the task – it is a difficult skill – but it really did sharpen the precision of people’s observation.”


              4. One more thing to add…
                I have a science background, with no formal art training except for a botanical illustration course at a museum. I come to Jerry’s site to reactivate the dormant brain cells that landed me a BS in ecology and evolution 30 yrs ago.
                I learned most of what I know about art from art magazines and art books. Robert Bateman, a Canadian wildlife artist, has a wonderful series of coffee table books that explain his artwork, piece by piece. Highly recommended. He has a background in natural history and also abstract art, but his paintings are realistic and he is very successful. He explains the reasons for a branch being placed here or there, or why a spot of snow is a certain color in one location of the painting vs. another location. The books are available used, quite cheaply on Amazon or ebay.

              5. I’ll take that under advisement. I’ve a superabundance of un-read books round the house already.

              6. gravelinspector wrote, “They might not be art to you, but they are to me.”

                Yes, it’s all art. But there are categories/lines drawn within the art field. Try googling “illustration versus fine art” and you might get a few hints about what sorts of people make the distinctions and why the distinctions exist. It’s not fair but it is the way it is. I chose to do transparent watercolor, which unbeknownst to me was not valued as highly as oils by buyers–altho it is highly regarded by most artists who know how difficult a medium it truly is.
                And yes, I have even seen a winning abstract art piece published upside down. That’s real art for you, when it doesn’t matter which way you hang it. It’s like getting four paintings in one : )

              7. I got a definitive “Yes, this is photoshopped” reply from my expert. He writes that the background is a digital painting and that the white spots are bent pixels.

              8. I’m trying to find a definition for a “bent pixel”. But I’ve literally got to fly to work now, so no time to wade through the 74000 Google hits about a “bent pixel info war on youTube”, which sounds like a regular storm in a coffee cup.

  2. Careful! According to Rick Warren, next thing you know we’ll have human teenagers falling in love, making each other gifts, and mating for life. Can’t have that!

  3. At least know we know for sure just how much owl to use when making a recipe for owl fricassee that calls for “two handfuls of owls”. That’s eight burrowing owls (or other small species), six medium owls, or two or three large species.

    Owl fricassee: yum!

    This reminds me of a badly written recipe that said “add egg yolk to make a soft dough”, after an ingredients list that said merely “egg yolk”. One egg yolk? Egg yolk quant suff?

    Turned out it meant one single egg yolk.

    Good recipe but I had to make it five times before I sorted out the egg yolk business.

    As that recipe, so the recipe for owl fricassee.

    1. I have some great recipes for owl; a lovely ragout, one for owl stuffed with truffles and pine nuts and a superb Cajun owl jambalaya. I seldom use them though. Kinda like quail and guinea fowl, all the plucking and preparations seem to be a lot of work for so little meat. I don’t suppose I’ll ever make it on Iron Chef. (Sigh)

  4. I’d just call it two clutches of owls.

    As for bacteria in cold places, my crystal balls tell me it’s astrobiology or exobiology. Now to go check out the article …

  5. Another biology miscellany, with Biblical and scientific explanations:


    Male humans are in the minority of mammals who don’t have one. A theory:

    Gilbert [2001] proposed that in the Bible Adam’s “rib” was really a baculum [penis bone]. According to this interpretation, Man lost his baculum in the Garden of Eden when God took it from a sleeping Adam to make Eve.

    Science has since taken up the cause:

    In a wide variety of mammals, researchers report, the longer the intromission [that’s how long the male is inside the female], the longer the baculum. Dogs protract the process for up to an hour. Bush babies – those cute nocturnal primates withe big black eyes – “intromit” for up to two hours at a time and have gargantuan bacula. This raises questions. It’s not as if human males don’t engage in some fairly lengthy intromissions, at least at times. Possibly those times have not been a driving force in our evolution. Possibly those times have been comparatively rare in the larger scheme of things.

  6. But he described capturing this scene of a young male presenting his beau with a necklace-like sprig of red campion as “surreal”. Reserve manager Ian Kendall said, “If the pair return next year and have a family, we’ll find out whether their adolescent romancing has paid off.”

    It would indeed be interesting if the “young male” and his boyfriend (“beau”) were to have a family next year.

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