Natural history needs more .gifs

Natural Science, ScienceSeptember 15, 2014

There’s something glorious about .gifs, the short video clips that proliferate across the internet. Not quite as demanding of commitment as a full video, slightly more than a still image. These mighty little loops of endless wonder can express joy, surprise, or disdain far better than their static counterpart. They are an artform unique to the web.

Yet, somehow, the humble .gif has never garnered the same level of prestige as a carefully crafted photograph or a lovingly edited documentary. Heck, some science communicators think we should to away with .gifs completely. This is, of course, misguided.


How you can help support Southern Fried Science

BloggingSeptember 10, 2014

Image courtesy of the Love Lab.

Image courtesy of the Love Lab.

Earlier this summer, we switched funding models from an ad hoc Paypal-based donation system to Patreon, a crowdfunding style service for authors, musicians, writers, and, thanks to us, scientists. Thanks to our wonderful Patrons, Southern Fried Science is, for the first time in history, financially sustainable.

We’re still growing. As many of you witnessed during the last Shark Week, our servers are spinning at full capacity and our bandwidth is consistently maxed out. We need to upgrade to a bigger, dedicated server. That costs money.

Southern Fried Science is, and always will be, free and ad free. With the exception of the rare Amazon affiliate links that appears if we mention specific products, we don’t post ads. There are no awkward pitches for weight loss supplements; no pop-ups encouraging enticing you to check your car insurance; no dehumanizing images of Walmart shoppers. Just pure, safe, wholesome marine science and conservation.


Breaching Blue Chapter 5: The Hunters

Popular Culture, Science FictionSeptember 5, 2014

breakingblueAll week I’m posting the first five chapters from my absurd work-in-progress, Breaching Blue. Check out Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4. This concludes our week long mermaid adventure. Enjoy. And, if you don’t enjoy, blame Shiffman.

The reef made them strong. Janthina no longer hesitated to swim above the sunbreak, to explore the illuminated waters above. Each morning, as the sunlight penetrated the twilight waters of the reef, Janthina would rise into the realm of light. The animals that lived in the sun were new. They were active, vibrant, powerful. They moved as if the whole ocean was theirs to command.

Janthina spied Tornus below. The arch of her back was unmistakable. She had grown into a powerful, confident mermaid, broad across the shoulders and strong. Resting on the seafloor, she look like nothing so much as a massive boulder. Tornus sat in a circle with Simnia, Luidia, and several others, fashioning spearheads from a pile of discarded stingray carcasses, their meal from the previous day. The long, jagged barbs were perfect for hunting. They could puncture the toughest scales and would remain lodged until their prey went limp.

The barbs were cheap. The spears, though, required great effort to prepare. The instructions for their manufacture were scattered across the reef. It took nearly a full lunar cycle for Tornus and her compatriots to find enough driftwood, another cycle to grind them down into long, sturdy shafts.  They were solid and  stout. There were none to spare.

Janthina swam down to greet her sisters.


Ocean Optimism and Aliens

Conservation, Environmentalism

Ripley: How long after we’re declared overdue can we expect a rescue?

Hicks: … Seventeen days.

Hudson: Seventeen days? Hey man, I don’t wanna rain on your parade, but we’re not gonna last seventeen hours! Those things are gonna come in here just like they did before. And they’re gonna come in here…

Ripley: Hudson!

Hudson: …and they’re gonna come in here AND THEY’RE GONNA GET US!

Ripley: Hudson! This little girl survived longer than that with no weapons and no training. Right?

[Newt salutes]

Hudson: Why don’t you put her in charge?

Ripley: You better just start dealing with it, Hudson! Listen to me! Hudson, just deal with it, because we need you and I’m sick of your #@&%#$!

Aliens (1986; 20th Century Fox)


At the recent International Marine Conservation Congress, one of the buzzwords was #oceanoptimism (eg see this blog). This hashtag was launched on World’s Ocean’s Day (8th June) this year, and has subsequently gone somewhat viral. But why is “ocean optimism” such a big deal?

There was a concern among many marine conservationists that the situation in the world’s oceans is so dire, and the message given by marine scientists is so bleak, that the constant negativity portrayed by marine scientists will lead to the public turning off, and/or conservation practitioners feeling that they were working against insurmountable odds. There are numerous articles on this topic in the scientific literature (e.g. this). The fact that the media often concentrates on the controversial and disastrous to sell a story can often exacerbate problems   (e.g. this and this) especially when worst case scenarios do not happen (often because a conservation intervention occurred) and scientists are portrayed as being over negative Eeyores and crying wolf on environmental issues.

The idea of portraying a more positive marine conservation message was not new – there was program called Beyond the Obituaries: Success Stories in Ocean Conservation at the 1st International Marine Conservation Congress in 2009  (click here for a video of the event).

However, the quest and insistence for more optimism and positive messaging in conservation could lead to problems.  For example the upcoming World Parks Congress is specifically looking for positive messages for protected area management.  This has led to concerns by many that by filtering out the negative presentations to concentrate on the positive, it may make the situation seem better than it really is. Especially in a venue where agencies and governments are presenting their “success stories”, their inactivity, failures and downright disasters may be overlooked and downplayed.

There is also the danger that filtering out all but the positive messages -and being overly optimistic -could be used by “the bad guys” to argue that the conservationists are just being overly negative. For example, developers who claim that a destroyed ecosystem could easily be “fixed” with a replacement wetland or a protected area, like they found claimed in a scientific paper. Or politicians stating that there are plenty of polar bears left because a local population is doing well (a prime example of this can be found here). So there is as much danger if scientists bias their work with too positive a message, as with biasing with too negative a message.

But why the Aliens quote at the beginning of this article?

Well the whole idea about “ocean optimism” is not to be like Hudson but rather more like Ripley , to help empower marine conservationists and give hope to the public despite – as far as the marine environment is concerned – being faced by many diverse and weighty problems and threats.

However, if one filters out all but the positive success stories, there is the danger of modern conservation being perceived as this with everything being fine and dandy, with governments and agencies doing an excellent job at conservation, when the actual situation is substantively different.

So for promoting conservation optimism and hope we need less of this  and more of thisand of thisand of thisand especially this!

alien transformed


Many thanks to Brett Favaro for spurring me to write this blog, and for providing suggestions some of the youtube clips. Also  for distracting me so much that I didn’t complete any of my to-do-list today and instead spent way too much time looking for video clips of aliens.

Mr Darcy’s Guide to Conference Etiquette – Part 1

Blogging, Personal StoriesSeptember 4, 2014

It is a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the professional growth of an academic. They are important occurrences for learning about the methods and results of peers in one’s field, cutting edge techniques and the latest information that could be incorporated into one’s own studies and papers. With the vast quantity of scientific publications now available that would fill library upon library in my family seat of Pemberley, conferences veritably serve up a buffet of the latest and most relevant research results, saving one weeks of searching and heaven forbid, reading. Conferences are also opportunities for informal colloquies where one can receive and give advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Many of these latter activities occur, of course, outside of the lecture halls, over a bottle of claret or a glass of port – or, for the less refined, a dram of Scotch whisky. Rare is the conference where one does not come home with a leather-bound notebook full of contacts with whom to correspond, studies to cite and methods to apply to one’s own work. Occasionally conferences have even been known to foster romantic liaisons, and there has been more than one highly advantageous and amicable marriage that has resulted from an academic meeting.

Oh yes, conferences are also places where one may share one’s own work. They give one a chance to share data and ideas with academic peers, to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that one can strengthen and refine one’s analysis and one’s interpretation of data.

However, it is becoming all too common that, for many, the latter is the only reason to go to a conference. Moreover, an oral presentation is increasingly the only format of worth and if one’s abstract is not accepted, or if one is offered “merely” an alternative format, such as a poster, one will refuse to attend.

Quite frankly, I view any academics who would refuse to attend a conference on their own specialist topic because they are denied an oral presentation, as poor and narrow-minded. Nothing grows in a vacuum, and innovative science is no exception. To refuse to attend a meeting because one is not presenting a talk is to figuratively cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It is the academic who suffers who denies himself the latest research results from, and direct interaction with, the best scholars in his field.

I recognize that there are many academic institutions that will provide funding for conferences only when one has an oral presentation accepted, but if one belongs to such an institution, then work to change its policy! Such institutions are stifling academic growth, and moreover ultimately reducing their visibility, reputation and enrollment. Each academic that goes to a conference is potentially an opportunity to market and advertise a university, and potentially attract and recruit students. The tuition from just a single graduate student persuaded to come to a university or college by talking to a conference goer, pays back the expenses of sending that person to the conference tenfold. This also encompasses funding graduate students, as potential students would as likely, if not more so, listen to their peers about an institution. A single happy, enthusiastic graduate student at a conference could potentially attract dozens of other students to apply to a college or university, a fact that many academic administrators overlook to their financial disadvantage.

Moreover, do not look down upon alternative presentation formats. Posters give one a unique ability to talk directly to conference goers, often while they are well flown on a glass or two of wine, in a depth one cannot achieve with the audience at an oral presentation. A single good, well-designed poster is also very memorable, much more so than dozens of slides in an oral presentation. Speed presentations likewise are excellent conveyors of certain types of information, such as innovative ideas or hypotheses, and like the poster can often be more memorable. Moreover, if one can describe one’s research in a three minute window clearly and concisely, one can also present one’s information in a way that might be more palatable to the general public, the press or policy makers. If one has a project that needs to reach a wider audience – for example, research on the conservation of an endangered species, or highlighting a new threat to the environment – a speed presentation might indeed be the best format.

As for other aspects of participating in conferences, if one volunteers to review abstracts, please do so promptly. Many people are waiting to make travel plans and visa applications, or finalize grant applications based on these decisions. By dilly-dallying, one may not only frustrate the organizers (who very often are senior members of one’s field who will likely remember those who are reliable and efficient reviewers and those who are lazy wastrels who do not live up to their commitments – I certainly do!) but also deny colleagues the chance of attending the conference, ultimately impacting their careers. Also, when and if reviewing, be ethical. If one is given the abstract of a colleague in one’s department, a student or similar, or even a competitor, and one clearly has a conflict of interest, do the right thing and declare it.  The organizers will respect honesty and professional integrity, and one will earn their respect, whereas if one’s conflict is not declared and is later discovered, it could be extremely detrimental, even ruinous, to one’s professional reputation.

If one’s submitted abstract is not accepted, do not write to organizers an angry tirade. “Do you not know who I am!” emails will not work, as they can easily see who one is – an entitled ego-ridden oik! Threats that one will not attend, or that one will tell one’s colleagues not to attend either, unless one’s abstract is accepted, will also not work. The organizers will likely respond not to let the carriage door hit one on the nether regions on the way out. Their job is already difficult, and having a recognized childish and obnoxious attendee at their meeting will not make their job any easier, or more pleasant for the other attendees. Moreover, such behavior is an attempt to circumvent the peer-review process. Peer-review is one of the foundations of academic quality control. Peer-review may have its faults, but it is the best feedback process academia has. Trying to circumvent peer-review by bullying and threats will only make one appear unethical and unprofessional in the eyes of the organizers, who as noted above, are likely to be senior. Most certainly they will be well connected, and will likely tell others about one’s unethical and unprofessional behavior (this again I have seen all too frequently).

It has also become all too common for would-be presenters to berate the scientific program committee if their presentation was chosen as an alternate format, even though the presenter indicated said format was their preferred alternate. Often such admonishments are accompanied with polemics along the lines of “there is no way I can convey the magnificence of my work in a speed presentation” or “I can guarantee that everyone will want to see my talk because it is so important/innovative/will single-handedly save the world/will change our understanding of the universe as we know it, so how can it be relegated to a poster.” Oh the arrogance…

However, people often must cancel attendance at conferences, and presentation slots may become available at the eleventh hour. If one would really prefer a different format for one’s presentation or a chance to present if rejected, politely (and I emphasize politely) contact the organizers and ask if one might be placed in a queue of some sort to take advantage of such last minute cancellations. A polite, good natured request is remembered, whereas an angry tirade… well, it too will be remembered but not in an advantageous way.

Assuming that all goes well and one’s abstract is accepted (even if it is not one’s first choice of format), one should note that many conferences require presenters to register in advance of the meeting, often by the early registration deadline to provide time for the organizers to build the program, and to contact wait-listed presenters in a timely manner. It is simply one’s own fault if one ignores email notifications and does not read submission instructions, and arrives at a meeting to find that one does not have one’s presentation in the program, because one did not register as required; a mistake which might be financially costly.

If the meeting approaches and one realizes that one cannot attend, do tell the organizers as quickly as possible. Conferences typically have a limited number of presentation slots and a queue of hopeful attendees, as noted above. If one informs the organizers swiftly, it will mean that perhaps someone else can present a talk in one’s absence, and as funding is often (sadly) dependent on presenting, perhaps even attend the meeting. By procrastinating and not informing organizers that one cannot attend, one has basically denied colleagues the potential to progress their careers, and for conservation meetings, perhaps even to help protect the environment. Moreover, do not pass on one’s work for another to present in one’s stead (another troubling trend). They will not be able to present it as well and will not be able to answer any questions appropriately. Again this is more likely to reflect badly upon oneself, as well as irritate the organizers who could have gifted one’s presentation slot to someone else, as noted above.

In my next installment I will describe the proper etiquette once a conference is actually upon one. But for now I must be away as my butler tells me that members of the local gentry are calling and I must play the gracious host. I only hope that they do not have a half of unmarried daughters in tow, looking for a suitable husband of means. Sometimes it is truly wearisome to have such a large and sought-after endowment.


Breaching Blue Chapter 4: Over the Edge

Popular Culture, Science Fiction

breakingblueAll week I’m posting the first five chapters from my absurd work-in-progress, Breaching Blue. Check out Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Enjoy. And, if you don’t enjoy, blame Shiffman.

Clymene swam just below the sunbreak, testing the limits of her own courage. The reef was behind her, its unexplored pinnacles rising into sunlit waters. She cut a lazy circle around the coralline towers as she drifted upwards with each circuit. Luidia watched from a distance.

Clymene cast an elegant profile as Luidia looked up from her sentry. Her tail was long and graceful, slimmer than Janthina’s, with a broader fluke. Her arms were long and limber; her fingers reached nearly to her peduncle, where there powerful muscles of her tail met the wide blades of her fluke. Luidia admired her sister. Her own stumpy hands barely reached past her waist, and hers was a bulkier build. Luidia had one advantage over her more streamlined sister. The massive pelvic fins that sprung from the base of her tail were fantastically versatile, she could to pivot and turn with exceptional precision. Where Clymene was constantly frustrated by the tight narrow corridors they continued to discover within the reef, Luidia could traverse them with ease.


Sharks aren’t always the top of the food chain

Blogging, marine science, Natural Science, Science, sharksSeptember 3, 2014

Most people think of sharks as being apex predators, large, fearsome  hunters sitting right at the top of the ocean food chain.  Of course, that isn’t always the case. There are more than 500 known species of sharks, and they vary in size from the size of a pencil to the size of a school bus. In many cases, there’s a larger predator in their environment, which can lead to some surprising and amazing  interactions.

A crocodile ate a bull shark

Brutus, a famous crocodile in Australia, was recently photographed eating a juvenile bull shark. Southern Fried Science writer Sarah Keartes has the full story at EarthTouch.

Photo by Andrew Paice

Photo by Andrew Paice


Marine Conservation, Inspiration and a Great Big Geek

Conservation, marine science

From 14-18th August 2014, the 3rd International Marine Conservation Congress was held in Glasgow, Scotland. The IMCC meetings are the largest international academic conferences on marine conservation. IMCC3 had over 700 presentations ranging from fisheries science to how marine scientists could better interact with the media, from Marine Protected Area effectiveness to the ethical treatment of marine species, from the impacts of oil spills and debris in the marine environment   to how to better use social media and storytelling to communicate marine conservation science to the general public. For a glimpse of some of the topics covered at the meeting and key information and quotes, look for #IMCC3 on Twitter.

I got several requests to post my closing speech – although the number of requests might partly because people wanted to count quite how many geek references I managed to sneak in. There are 13, can you find them all?

The IMCC3 Chair’s Closing Speech

So here we are on the raggedy edge, at the ending of IMCC3, the third one. I’ve received many positive comments about the content of this meeting and I’d like to give you a quote with exemplarizes what people have been saying:

“In my department, I was told not to step out of the ivory tower, that if I wanted to engage with marine conservation more than just doing the science, then I was being a bad scientist. I was made to feel that I was a freak for wanting to do so. But after this meeting I know that I’m not alone. I have a huge community that feels the same way and who are supportive. I feel like I can finally come out of the conservation closet as a scientist”

A famous professor from a nearby academic institution, Albus Dumbledore, once said: “dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when one must choose between what is easy and what is right”; the situation in the oceans is so dire we must now do what is right!

A major theme of this meeting has been… well, conservation, this word does not mean what you think it means. Conservation is very unlikely to happen if you just publish a paper and nothing further. Don’t get me wrong, papers are important – they give vital evidence on which to base good conservation decisions. But, you need to get that science into the right hands, at the right time, in the right format. Some of our community are excellent communicators … so we’ve got that going for us, and that’s nice. But some of us don’t feel so comfortable about putting ourselves out there quite so much.

The good news is though that there are many people who will gladly help you to get your science into the right hands, and minds. “There can be only one” is not the tagline for marine conservation. As Sesame Street would extol… cooperation, and collaboration, is the key.

This meeting has showed that marine conservation scientists are making a difference. It’s important that we remember that scientists can, and have, changed the world. Once upon a time, a Fellow of the Royal Society was frustrated with the inequality of the world and collaborated with a science nerd colleague, who was an eloquent writer, and came up with an idea… which we now call the United States of America.

(Incidentally had the internet existed in Benjamin Franklin’s time he would have had quite an impressive h-index, including highly cited publications on oceanography)

Another one of my favorite sayings coined at this meeting  by the SCB [Society for Conservation Society] Marine Board was “don’t just whine about it, do it!”

This has been most apparent this meeting with the case of the Vaquita,* the Gulf of California harbor porpoise. There are only 97 individuals left of this critically endangered species, with maybe just 25 reproductive females. The science is in for the vaquita, we know what it will take to fix this crisis, it will cost $60million. So yesterday the SCB marine section decided to do something. We didn’t want yet another dolphin to go extinct on our watch. We put in seed money to pay for a fund-raiser/lobbyist to raise that $60million and we challenge other NGOs to match us and contribute.** We can make a difference, this is a species we can save so easily. We can fix this, yes we can! So come on NGOs and governments !  As Yoda says “do or do not, there is no try!”

Time is fleeting and I can’t talk for very much longer, so I would like to finish off with a quote from an undergraduate student who told me last night (admittedly they were somewhat in their cups) “I learnt more about what I want to do with my life these past 4 days than in the last 4 years at my university”.

A key theme for this meeting has indeed, been inspiration and #oceanoptimism***. Scientists can indeed make a difference. So now everyone just go, and walk out that meeting door, take what you’ve learnt from this meeting, and “engage”. ****

*For a truly geeky site with information about the vaquita go to the Vaquitas are Browncoats Facebook site. Another great site is Viva Vaquita who also have a Facebook page.

** Anyone wishing to give a donation to the fund, please send a check to “Society for Conservation Biology” at Society for Conservation Biology, 1017 O St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001, USA. Please note that the money is for the Vaquita fund.

*** Another relevant quote from Albus Dumbledore would be that “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light” #oceanoptimism.

****So geeky references include: Firefly, Sharknado 2, Harry Potter, the Princess Bride, Caddyshack, Highlander, Sesame Street, Bob the Builder, the  Empire Strikes Back, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Star Trek: the Next Generation.

Breaching Blue Chapter 3: In the Heart of the Reef

Popular Culture, Science Fiction

All week I’m posting the first five chapters from my absurd work-in-progress, Breaching Blue. Check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Enjoy. And, if you don’t enjoy, blame Shiffman.

The mermaids listened intently as Tornus described the mysterious chamber.

“We have to go inside.” Amphisamytha declared.


Great white shark movements at Geyser Rock

marine science, Natural Science, Science, sharks

michelleMichelle Wcisel is a Zoologist specialized in predator/prey behaivour and the Scientific Communicator for EDNA Interactive.  She has spent the past 4 years studying the behaviour of white sharks and Cape fur seals at Geyser Rock, ‘Shark Alley’, South Africa.  


Animal movement is often shaped by natural barriers; a fish can’t leave the river it swims in, a tortoise is going to struggle to climb a cliff face, and a pangolin can’t swim across the sea.  These barriers come quite naturally to the animals, yet researchers have often struggled to account for these constraints in movement analysis, particularly when it comes to estimating home range (or ‘Utilization Distributions’, UDs).  Unfortunately, the few solutions that have attempted to account for barriers are often incredibly complicated without providing much improvement overall, so previous studies have been forced to simply ‘clip out’ the parts of the estimate that extend over these inconceivable areas (i.e. Heupel et al. 2004; Hammerschlag et al. 2012; Jewell et al. 2012).


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