Moved to New Website

 For anyone finding my old blog, I have moved my updates to this personal website:

Caught in the Act - Some News Coverage

Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell. © Austin American-Statesman 
A week or so ago, students working with Dr. Ben Pierce, including myself, conducted a monthly visual encounter survey at the Twin Springs Preserve in Williamson County, TX. We do these surveys at two sites every month, and we look for a local species near and dear to our hearts: the Georgetown salamander (Eurycea naufragia).

The survey I just mentioned was special in that we had a reporter and photographer from the Austin American-Statesman newspaper take some photos and write an article for this week's paper. I was flattered to be included in the article - as it was primarily focused on opening up this preserve to county-trained, permit-carrying individuals.

Here is the article: 'Georgetown-area preserve open for visitors -- but only after some training'. I'm the guy in the stylish blue Animal Behavior Society shirt I designed.

Also - take note that in the right-hand sidebar on this blog, I have some links for my most current CV and press such as this article.

Eurycea naufragia. Photo by Alex Hall.

Boy or Girl?: A Climate-Fated Adventure In Lizards

Niveoscincus ocellatus (Photo credit)

Ever caught yourself wondering what it might be like if you could know the sex of your future children? Several methods allow for this to be determined with modest accuracy in the late stages of a human pregnancy, but what about early pregnancy? Before pregnancy? In other animals?

Sometimes the answers to these questions can be predicted based on the context in which they are asked. For example, I came across this article this article a few months ago, and would like to share its findings (full paper here; additional source). Essentially, the researchers found that climate, combined with genetics, was a main determinant of what sex-determining system emerged in a species of lizard.

But isn't sex in vertebrates determined by chromosomes? Not always. For instance, in many (not all) reptiles, sex is influenced by environmental factors, often temperature (i.e., temperature-dependent sex determination, or TSD). But how would a knowledge of TSD help you predict the sex your offspring? Well consider the example offered by our study in question.

In these experiments, an international cohort of herpetologists collected and observed female Spotted Skinks, Niveoscincus ocellatus from two types of habitats in Tasmania: highland and lowland. The habitats differ in altitude and therefore atmospheric oxygen, UV irradiation, moisture, and temperature, among others. Female N. ocellatus from the lowland habitat, when raised in a lab setting, varied in the ratios of male/female lizards based on the amount of sunlight they were exposed to (4 hr or 10 hr; sunlight functioning as a natural variable in temperature, UV irradiation, and light). Surprisingly, although the same species, female N. ocellatus from the highland habitat did not demonstrate this discrepency between sunlight exposure times.

What does this mean? The authors of this paper predict that in N. ocellatus, the lowland-dwelling lizards are more likely to give birth to female lizards than male lizards when temperature is higher. Lowland female lizards born earlier (as a result of warm temperatures earlier in the year) have a reproductive advantage over lowland female lizards born earlier in the year. Neither highland lizards or male lowland lizards experience a similar boost from being born earlier (resulting in more females in lowland species in warmer years). For the highland lizards, the overall temperature is colder and there is not a significant reproductive advantage to being born earlier in the year. Additionally, the paper revealed a possible mechanism for species divergence (i.e., cladogenesis) - that of environmentally-sensitive evolution of sex-determination systems.

Remember our question about predicting the sex of future offspring?  The authors also suggest that if the warming trend continues in the species' habitat, more females will be expected. Hypothetically, lowland N. ocellatus mothers can plan on more female offspring in their future (assuming it remains an evolutionary stable strategy for the species). Greeting card companies for newborns take note!

It a Gril! (via Cake Wrecks)

How Bats Use Echolocation to Find Water

Hello again! My last semester was demanding, but I did not forget about this blog of mine. Instead, I have a lineup of several articles, reviews, short writings, and interesting animal behavior finds to be posted in the next couple of months.

Second, I recognize that I am receiving a lot of new traffic to the blog. Welcome visitors! You are welcome to subscribe to the blog using the fancy RSS feed stuff on the right-hand sidebar. I would appreciate that so much. Now on to the good stuff:

Water is crucial to life on Earth, to state the obvious. So crucial, that over 126,000 known species rely on constant access to freshwater habitats to survive. Those lucky enough to stray from the geographic restraints of fresh water habitats often have life cycles that reflect adaptation to the moisture content of their surroundings (e.g., cacti and burrowing toads). Needless to say, the adaptation to recognize water for a terrestrial species will generally be adaptive, whether to find it or to protect against it. In animals, this will often manifest as a behavior, or movement, typical to the species (e.g., cats drinking water).

A bit of hullabaloo occurred last November with the release of a paper in Nature Communications (which I first read about here) with strong evidence for an innate (not learned) recognition of a habitat feature by an animal. More shocking, these animals are mammalian. The paper by Stefan Greif and Bj√∂rn Siemers found strong evidence in fifteen different species, that bats recognize water as acoustically flat surfaces. Clearly ethology territory. They reached this conclusion by presenting bats with a flat metal sheet, and were surprised to find that bats would attempt to lick the surface of the metal panel, much like how they would drink from a flat body of water.

I could dryly summarize the rest of the paper (an open access article which can be found here), but Nature Communications has already provided a brief, fascinating video with incredible high speed photography that does a better job than I ever could:

Jumping Spider Male Breeding Behavior

Hey guys! Still don't have much time for full posts. I'm applying for graduate school in the field of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB).

But, here as I type with one hand and holding my leopard gecko in the other, I share this wild video with you of a male jumping spider advertising to a female cadaver. Sound is highly recommended.

Review - "The Emotional Lives of Animals" with Comments on Anecdotal Evidence


Anecdotal evidence: oxymoron or label of necessity? Within the sciences, anecdotal evidence (i.e., untested claims and stories) is typically treated as only a beginning step in the means of answering a question or, more commonly, is disregarded as useless. The reasons for this mutual understanding begin at the roots of how modern science works: something is unknown, it is tested against an informed suggestion, then it is argued (usually by retesting or investigating a competing hypothesis) until accepted or rejected by the scientific community (news networks and public school systems attempt to have a say in the process, too). Furthermore, if an event happens and a human observer is around to witness or experience it, unless a convincing, systematic attempt at recording the event takes place, the event might as well have not happened. Many field biologists carry some sort of notebook with them wherever they go for this purpose - unless an observation is recorded convincingly, why should anyone believe him or her?

Anecdotes are treated quite differently when we remove ourselves from the world of science. Belief in stories and hearsay 'evidence' is more rooted in emotional impact and similarity of belief between the belief and the believer, regardless of the truth behind the mask. You probably don't have to stretch your imagination very far to grasp how the rest of the world interprets what science calls anecdotal evidence (e.g., religion, politics, and even fad diets!). Hundreds and thousands of books on conspiracy theories, self-help, and what you should- and should-not wear after Labor Day are published every year. Consumers buy these books for various reasons, but generally these people accept the power of anecdotal evidence to explain problems in people's lives.

Marc Bekoff's The Emotional Lives of Animals is a book from the respected scientist which compiles several anecdotal stories in making a case for the pervasiveness of human-like emotions in non-human animals. I read this book as one of several I could have picked for SU's Intro to Animal Behavior course, required of all Animal Behavior majors, and I must say if I had known the pace of this book before I read it, I would have never tried.

My position at the time was one of transitioning from a prospective freshman business major to the fascinating world of animal behavior. Even though I then knew close to nothing about the fundamentals of the field, I already had a place in my heart for the feelings of animals, whatever they may be. Anyone with a pet dog or cat probably feels the same way. This acknowledged, I already had no reason to read the book. The more I flipped through its widely-spaced letters, the less interested I became as a reader.

Upon reading about two-thirds of the book, I set it down and never finished the rest. I had just lost interest. Probably because a more appropriate title for the book would be "The Emotional Perceptions of Humans." The whole book, across all non-human species, was the same story over and over again - humans having some level of epiphany when confronted with the knowledge that their token non-human animal could have emotions strikingly similar in appearance to their own.

Without any ability to refute the claims made in the story, there is no opportunity for contribution to either the arguments for or against the presence of emotions in non-human animals. The saddening truth is that Dr. Bekoff seems to acknowledge the lack of scientific novelty for his argument in the Preface, before the book proper has even begun:
"It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, and social neuroscience supports the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives."
As with the rest of the book, Bekoff omits references to any of this past work in favor of beaming reviews from friend Jane Goodall, Ingrid Newkirk (cofounder/president of PETA), and the Dalai Lama to name a few.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Dr. Beckoff. He has an engaging personality and even signed my copy of this book, but I will hold that the book's thesis was uninteresting from the start.

Overall: 2/5; Save your money unless you are totally unconvinced that non-human animals can feel emotions.

SU Fleming Lecture Spring 2010: L-R -- Marc Bekoff, Carol Adams, Paul Waldau

The Great Turtle-Egg Evacuation

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a very, very sad story. No matter how you look at it, the whole thing is spelling disaster.

What is surprising to me is how the event is being labeled as an ecological disaster by the mainstream media. Even though the explosion of the oil platform has left 11 dead (plus 2) and 17 injured, these facts have been essentially forgotten as the yet-contained oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico and its surrounding shoreline. The focus is not unwarranted in most respects, as the consequences of this input of crude into the Gulf and associated cleanup efforts have and will have staggering effects on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Unsurprisingly, an already-struggling effort for effective sea turtle conservation is being hit with very difficult decisions about what to do. Several species of adult sea turtles are running the risk of being cremated alive when caught inside oil slicks being burned. Additionally, as eggs hatch from nests on the beaches of the Gulf, juvenile turtles would face thousands of miles of oil-polluted water in the most vulnerable time of a sea turtle's life.

This last situation is why the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Florida Marine Fisheries Service have developed a plan to relocate an estimated 70,000 sea turtle eggs from almost 800 beaches along Alabama and Florida. Read more here: The Great Turtle-Egg Evacuation

The plan is very risky for turtles inside eggs. As the article states:
"[...] within 12–24 hours of the eggs being laid, embryos attach to an oxygen-supplying membrane. So any movement of the eggs could cause detachment and death [...]."
A former student from my university completed a series of research projects on sea turtle conservation in the last few years which illuminated my perception of the effectiveness of current conservation efforts. This last point about the eggs dying if moved at the wrong point in time is correct, and is a major concern in these operations.

This topic has been a hot one in many email listservs I am subscribed to (especially C-TURTLE), and the point most interesting to me in all of this is the question of how the relocated hatched juveniles will respond to being transported to beaches several hundred miles from where they were laid. The previously-linked article continues to talk about potential affects of this operation on the relocated turtle's behavior:
Moving the eggs is not generally viewed as problematic. "We have adequate data showing that eggs moved with competence at that age have no difference in survivorship to those not moved," said Mike Salmon, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. 
But the release could be another matter. "What we don't know is what impact it might have on other aspects of behaviour," says Salmon. 
"The $64,000 question is, if you take hatchlings that would normally emerge in northwest Florida to the east coast," he said, "will they return there, or to the northwest, where they should go?" Because scientists don't know for sure whether imprinting occurs in the nest or after emergence, this remains a mystery.
This point is one where conservation, ecology, and ethology intersect. My favorite! I anticipate some interesting research will come out of this project, especially if local behavioral research-heavy universities (e.g., University of Florida) are asked to become involved. So much is known about sea turtle navigation and spatial perception, but I do not know of any test which has analyzed how moving recently hatched eggs 500 miles away affects the survival of individuals. Normally, this is not a practical situation which would not require testing (and thus, I see why there is a paucity of research on this specific topic).

Finally, it is worth noting that Heppell et al. (1996) found that the most effective contributors to sea turtle conservation were not efforts directed towards very young sea turtle (particularly 'headstarting', or catching recently hatched individuals and raising them for a year before release). Instead, turtle excluder devices (TEDs) attached to shrimp trawling nets offer the greatest positive effect on their survival. I wonder how meaningful this project to move ~70,000 eggs will be in light of these results.

Thank you for reading, I hope you are doing your part to support relief and clean-up efforts in the wake of this ecologically-disruptive event.

Addendum: I could insert lots of opinion on the oil spill, but I'll pass for two reasons: 1) I'm not a geologist, and 2) no one wants to read my whining (not even me). You can read more about sea turtle headstarting here.

Ecological Drinking Words (EDW)

This is a fun one.

Last summer when I was at UNDERC, I came up with the concept of Ecological Drinking Words (EDW, for short). Like many drinking games before it, the concept simple: read an ecological or biological article and take a shot of your favorite drink (alcohol optional) every time you see one of these buzzwords. It works because many of these words are not seen anywhere outsite of ecology.

Here is a short list of some of the terms we decided were up to snuff. These are all real words or terms (although my spell-checker doesn't think so):

Habitat Fragmentation
Trophic Cascades
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD)

And a special appearance from astronomy:

Please suggest your own and tell me your favorites!

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