Gobble? image from http://www.public-domain-image.com
The noble turkey, a centerpiece of the American Thanksgiving supper. It looms large from its prominent position on the dining room table. The master of ceremonies – or, in my case, the guy who keeps slicing himself open with various sharp objects yet is inexplicably the one people call on when there’s knife-work needs doing – draws a set of fine, honed knives, set aside for this particular task, and carves, delicately yet firmly, into the hefty white meat of the turkey’s breast. Sure, some favor the dark, rich meat around the legs, but this white meat, soaked in gravy and topped with cranberry sauce or stuffing, that is what we crave.
“We give thanks,” the benediction may begin, “to Charles Darwin, for determining the underlying mechanism by which a theropod may, over the course of 65 million years, through a process of gradual change by means of the retention of beneficial traits through successive generations, evolve into this delicious, delicious bird.” And then, perhaps, that surly teenager, the one determined to point out the social inequalities inherent in the holiday and the colonialist attitudes which led to the wholesale extermination of America’s native peoples – every family has at least one – will chime in to quip “you know, evolution didn’t shape the turkey. The modern Thanksgiving turkey is the product of an extensive selective breeding program that began in the 1940′s. Commercial turkeys can’t even reproduce naturally, they have to be artificially inseminated.” At which point the older members of your family may blush and/or faint at such an unseemly turn of phrase.
Continue reading America’s lust for gigantic breasts leads to impotence: the population genetics of captive-reared turkeys
Orange Roughy - image by FishBase artist Robbie Cada
Slimehead is not a word you would expect to find on the menu of a fancy restaurant. Like dolphin*, toothfish*, goosefish*, mudbug*, hog*, and gizzard fish*, slimeheads have undergone a bit re-branding over the last few decades to make their name as palatable as their fillets. Enter the Orange Roughy, a dull, uninspired name that captures nothing of the grandeur of Hoplostethus atlanticus and ignores the defining characteristic of these deep-sea fishes.
What does Orange Roughy mean to you? Well, it’s probably orange, and I guess roughy means it might be rough, or something. The name is pretty uninformative. But slimehead! Slimehead tells you quite a bit about this creature, and leads to some interesting ecological questions. Why is it’s head covered in slime? What does the slime do? How is the slime contained in its head?
Continue reading A slimehead by any other name should never be on your plate
In my mind, where I imagine people are so interested in what I do that they hang on every carefully chosen word I write, I imagine some unspecified mob of readers looking over my I *heart* cryptozoology post and going “Whoa now, pardner!” (yes, you all sound like cowboys in my mind) “You just said there was a difference between cryptozoology and real zoology, but you deal with cryptic species all the time! What’s up with that?”
Cryptic hammerhead shark. Photo from http://www.physorg.com/news68994294.html
Continue reading Misunderstood Marine Life # 3 — Cryptics and Cryptids
Sexual dimorphism in fiddler crabs. Female (A) and male (B) Uca panacea. Scale bars indicate 1 cm. From Darnell and Munguia 2011
Imagine yourself a fiddler crab. For this exercise, imagine yourself a male fiddler crab. Are you with me? Great. Check out your right claw, it’s a sleek, slender machine, perfect for picking through the sand as you sift out bacteria and other microorganisms for food. It also makes a handy shovel for digging nice deep burrows to protect you from harsh conditions. Now check out your left claw. Wow! This thing is massive. If you possess a particularly vivid mind and have place your ego within the carapace of Uca panacea, your giant claw is more than a quarter of your body weight. This comically mis-proportioned appendage is why those pesky bipeds call you and your cousins “Fiddler Crabs”.
See that female fiddler crab at the perimeter of your territory? Yes, she is checking you out. That giant claw of yours is primarily used to attract mates, signalling to interested parties that your are fit and fecund. You even have a special dance, unique to each fiddler crab species, to announce your vitality. And if some other, lesser-clawed, male tries to move in to your territory, why, you’re equipped with a serious piece of hardware to drive off that interloper.
Continue reading In sexual selection and thermoregulation, bigger is better, at least for fiddler crabs
Last week, volunteers monitoring a sea turtle nesting beach on Virginia Key came across a beached lemon shark. They called in scientists from the University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation program, including myself . Dunlap program director Dr. Neil Hammerschlag decided to film the necropsy to use as an online teaching tool. The end result, edited together by Dunlap program multimedia specialist Christine Shepard, is below. Check it out to learn about the internal anatomy of a shark, as well as the process that scientists use to determine causes of death in marine organisms. If you have any questions about the process or about the animal, please leave them as comments below.
Shark Research with RJD: necropsy on mysteriously beached lemon shark from R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation on Vimeo.
Yellowstone National Park was established to preserve the American West, largely held up as the iconic American landscape. Picturesque Yellowstone houses the hopes and dreams of the frontier, the wilderness that is a large part of American heritage, and the final refuge for North American wildlife. Despite such a colorful and large part of American history, Yellowstone should perhaps be famous not for its astounding trees and bouncing elk, but instead for the ecosystems that depend on Yellowstone’s geysers. They are the unsung heroes of modern biotechnology and place Yellowstone’s wilderness leaps and bounds above other temperate forests in terms of biodiversity.
Continue reading Biodiversity Wednesday: Yellowstone Geysers
In the lecture we just posted, Keith Rittmaster mentioned that Sperm Whales are highly asymmetric. Below is just one examples of this dramatic asymmetry, the size difference between the left and right nostrils in the cranium.
Continue reading A brief example of asymmetry in Sperm Whales
In The Mass Extinction of Scientists Who Study Species, Dr. Craig McClain argues that we are loosing a fundamental unit of biological science – the Taxonomist. He’s right, of course. Taxonomy is a shrinking field. Entire phyla sit, unstudied, as the expertise necessary to understand them retires and expires. With few to train the next generation of taxonomists, the field could slowly vanish. Molecular tools are supplanting traditional taxonomy (once described to me as “the ability to identify hundreds of species of centimeter-long worms by counting ass-hairs under a microscope”) as the de rigueur method for identifying organisms.
I do not disagree with Craig. Losing skilled taxonomists is tragic for the biological sciences. Unlike many leading the charge in support of taxonomy, I did not benefit from a rigorous taxonomic study in my early career. I fall into the same camp as Dr. Holly Bik, relying primarily on molecules, not morphology, to draw the distinctions between my samples. I never identified species by counting the ass-hairs on a worm, and my education is poorer for it.
Continue reading Conservation and the Concept of Species in a Biodiversity Crisis (Part 1)