My five favorite responses to the Loch Ness Debunking.

BloggingApril 21, 2014

I didn’t expect a throw-away post I made last Friday debunking an alleged image of the Loch Ness Monster to go viral, but this is the internet and these things happen. As you might expect, my inbox, social media accounts, and this website have been inundated with comments about that post, how wrong I must be, what’s really going on, and why X theory is clearly the correct one. For the record, it’s still a boat wake, but in light of the amount of attention the post received, I updated it with a bit more information about how that image could occur.

With that out of the way, here are my five favorite responses to the latest Loch Ness Monster sighting:

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Collecting organisms to save their species

Blogging, Conservation, Science

 ProsantaDr.Prosanta Chakrabarty is an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University and an ichthyologist and evolutionary biologist. He is also Curator of Fishes at LSU’s Museum of Natural Science. You can learn more about him from his website www.prosanta.net and follow him on Twitter @LSU_FISH.

A recent piece in Science (Minteer et al. 2014) titled “Avoiding (Re)extinction” advocated avoiding collecting specimens for the sake of confirming the existence of a species. In lieu of killing and collecting the animal the authors suggest using “high-resolution photography, audio recording, and nonlethal sampling.” As a natural history curator of fishes I found this to be a pretty bad idea.

My PhD students (Bill Ludt and Caleb McMahan) in Costa Rica collecting specimens for their thesis projects. These guys better not just come back with pictures.

My PhD students (Bill Ludt and Caleb McMahan) in Costa Rica collecting specimens for their thesis projects. These guys better not just come back with pictures.

I don’t like killing animals, I was a strict vegetarian for 10 years (now I just eat sustainable seafood – hey, I live in Louisiana). I certainly wouldn’t want to endanger a species by over collecting it. I know of no scientific collectors who kill rare animals just so he or she can say they have it in their collections. We collect for a few simple reasons: because specimens are not available otherwise via loan, or additional specimens are needed for a comparative study, or because we need vouchers as evidence of the existence of the taxon.

I’ve collected rare species in the past, particularly some of the cavefishes I work on. For one of these species, Typhleotris mararybe, we collected the only two specimens we or anyone ever saw. We were in a very remote part of Madagascar and we were only allowed to collect two specimens from any given locality. I knew these individuals were part of a species new to science as soon as I looked at them. Did removing two samples place this species at risk of extinction? Guessing the population was much larger than what we found just at the surface, I would suppose not. What were we to do? Not collect them and just take pictures? We wouldn’t have been able to do the necessary comparative descriptive analysis to actually prove their novelty required by the ICZN (International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature). We collected these specimens so that we could formally describe this new and fantastic new species so that the world can be aware of their existence and so that measures can be put in place to conserve them and study them further.

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Fun Science Friday – First Female Penis

biology, ecology, evolution, Fun Science FridayApril 18, 2014

Happy Fun Science Friday.

You did not mistakenly read the title, today we bring you the discovery of the first female penis in the animal kingdom.

Mating insects of the genus Neotrogla. Photo Credit: Current Biology / Yoshizawa et al.

Mating insects of the genus Neotrogla.
Photo Credit: Current Biology / Yoshizawa et al.

Yoshizawa, from Hokkaido University in Japan, and his team of researchers documented this phenomenon of sexual role reversal in 4 species of rather unassuming insects in Brazil’s Peruaçu River Valley.  When insects of the genus Neotrogla mate, the female mounts the male and penetrates his vagina-like opening with her penis.

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No, we didn’t find the Loch Ness Monster with Apple Maps

Ocean of Pseudoscience Week

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good debunking-random-monster-sighting post. The ready availability of global satellite image databases is a powerful tool for exploration and monitoring but has also led to a boom in pseudoscience “discoveries” by people not familiar with how these images are produced or just willing to suspend disbelief for their pet woo.

This morning my inbox exploded with articles about the definitive Loch Ness monster sighting. The accompanying image is a low-resolution satellite image of a boat wake, available, apparently, only on Apple Maps. There’s really no deconstruction needed, it’s a boat wake. Compare this image from Loch Ness:

Nessie? No.

Nessie? No.

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Help the producers of SharkNado 2 support our shark conservation research!

UncategorizedApril 9, 2014

sharknado-2Last fall, I received an e-mail from a representative of one of my favorite companies: the Asylum, the film studio that brought you such cinematic masterpieces as “MegaShark vs. Giant Octopus,” “MegaShark vs. Crocosaurus,” and, of course, “SharkNado.” Following the spectacular success of SharkNado, they were interested in supporting shark science and conservation. After months of discussion, I am pleased to make an exciting announcement! If you help support a bonus scene in SharkNado 2: the Second One, you’ll also be supporting our lab’s shark conservation research!

Here’s how it works:

The Asylum is crowd-funding a bonus scene in SharkNado 2: the Second One, and to describe it, they wrote “we don’t want to give away too much, but here’s what I can tell you: there will be sharks, chainsaws, and chainsaws being used in the vicinity of sharks. ” If that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know why we’re friends.

They are trying to raise at least $50,000, and are offering some amazing rewards to anyone who donates, including a signed poster, getting to have your scream appear in the film, and even getting a walk-on role!

10% of all funds raised for this crowd-funded bonus scene will be donated to support our lab, the RJD Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami, and our ongoing shark conservation research! If enough funds are raised, the Asylum will adopt a shark, which you can track (along with all of our other satellite tagged sharks) from this website. 

In short, if you donate to help create an amazing piece of shark pop culture history, you’ll also be supporting important shark conservation research! Learn more about their crowdfunding campaign here.

SharkNado 2: the Second One will air Wednesday, July 30th at 9 p.m. on SyFy!

Distracted by abstracts: Tips for writing a good abstract for a scientific conference

Blogging, Science, Science LifeApril 7, 2014

ParsonsDr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in research projects in every continent except Antarctica. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) (the world’s  largest academic marine conservation conference) and is currently the Conference Chair and a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.

I have just read and reviewed through close to 100 scientific abstracts for a conference, and my main conclusion is that ” ‘abstract’ – this does not mean what you think it means!”

An abstract is supposed to be a concise summary of your entire paper or study. Basically a written version of the 30 second “elevator pitch”. In these days of information overload there is so much emphasis on publishing, and so many journals willing to accommodate, the number of articles in scientific fields has increased rapidly. As a result, academics are increasingly reading no further than the abstract, and often only reading the title. To test this I looked at some of my papers where the website they were hosted by kindly provided statistics on abstract page views and actual download rates. The download rates were approximately only 10% that of the abstract views across the papers (and I am naively hopeful that at least some of a downloaded paper will be read). The figures were similar for other articles, so it wasn’t just my papers. So 90% of people who see your work probably won’t go beyond your abstract. This makes it vitally important that all the information you want to convey about your work is in the abstract.

However, in a frighteningly high proportion of abstracts the key results and conclusions of studies are not even mentioned. One of the abstracts I read in this latest batch noted that the methods, results  and the conclusions of the study “would be discussed”. As an abstract this is useless. Too frequently place holder abstracts are submitted to conferences, with the assumption that results will magically appear before the meeting. But if you don’t manage to get that analysis done, you’ll be giving a presentation that will be lacking, will embarrassing you and damage your career. Moreover, a lot more people will see your abstract than will actually get to your presentation, so professional opinions may be made on you by the quality of your abstract rather than the final presentation. Plus abstract books are physical entities, whether electronic or hard copy, and will be around a lot longer than your 10 minute presentation.   So for your professional image and also for the sake of communicating your study it is in your interests to produce a good abstract.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions on abstract structure.

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Deep sea sharks: Do they survive?

Conservation, fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, Science, sharksApril 2, 2014

BrendanBrendan Talwar is a graduate student at the Florida State University Coastal & Marine Lab studying Ecology and Evolution. Hispast experiences in diverse marine ecosystems have led to his current research interests in deep sea fisheries management. His thesis work will take place in the Gulf of Mexico and Exuma Sound while working closely with collaborators at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and The Island School, where he will use this project to teach an Applied Research course. 

Imagine it is a crisp, sunny, warm spring day and you’re out on the flats hoping a trout rips your topwater minnow to pieces. Out of a deep pocket fringed by oyster bars, a fish erupts from the mirrored surface and engulfs your bait. You win the fight, measure and bag the yellow-mouthed speckled trout, and repeat.

An hour later, you snag an undersized mackerel near the gills and reel it in for a few photos before throwing it back under the assumption that it will survive, grow, and eventually reproduce. You keep fishing and hope for the best, but find yourself wondering if it truly survived until the end of the day. What if it didn’t? Well, you didn’t mean to catch the fish. You didn’t mean for it to experience a fight-or-flight response, for its blood pH to drop, or for its lactic acid to build up. You were targeting 15” trout, and catching the mackerel was an accident. If the fish didn’t survive, then your daily catch represents a greater impact on local fish populations than the simple number you took home for supper.

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How to protect yourself from Zombie Dolphins without violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act

evolution, Natural Science, policy, Science, Social ScienceApril 1, 2014

They rise from the deep with gnashing teeth and hissing blowholes. They stagger through the shallows, hunting for human flesh, piercing the air with their high pitched moan. They are dead but not dead. They are Zombie Dolphins.

And you can’t fight them, because they are protected.

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Explainer: An end to Japan’s “scientific whaling” program in Antarctica

Conservation, EnvironmentalismMarch 31, 2014

Early this morning, the International Court of Justice declared that Japan’s scientific whaling program in Antarctica violates the International Whaling Commission moratorium, and ordered Japan to stop.  This is big news for the marine conservation community, but like many legal policy decisions, it can be difficult to determine exactly what it means. I asked marine mammal biologists, conservation activists, and policy experts to help explain it.

What is the International Court of Justice (ICJ)? The International Court of Justice is essentially the judicial branch of the United Nations. Any of the 192 United Nations member states may submit a case against any other state.

What is the International Whaling Commission (IWC)? The International Whaling Commission is a regulatory body that was founded in 1946 as a result of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling treaty. The 88 member nations (any nation can join) regulate whaling and whale conservation issues.

What is “scientific whaling?” Scientific whaling refers to intentionally killing a whale for the purpose of scientific research. According to marine mammal researcher Jake Levenson, this is permitted by Article 8 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. According to Levenson,  “In the 1940’s [when this rule was made,] we didn’t have many of the tools we have now to study whales, so at the time it was thought to be appropriate to kill whales for scientific purposes.” Several experts I spoke to noted that this was never intended to be a large-scale program. Here is a list of some of the scientific research that resulted from the program.

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Beaufort NOAA Lab Builds Community: It would be a huge loss to say goodbye

Conservation, Highlighting the Rural Voice, Personal Stories, UncategorizedMarch 27, 2014

Hopefully many of our faithful readers have seen the sad announcement that the NOAA lab in Beaufort, NC may be no more. The main reason cited for the potential closure is financial – the cost of maintaining an aging building. Our friends over at the fisheries blog have written a sound debunking of this reasoning, also lamenting the loss of an institution over a century old and hub of fisheries research for the mid-Atlantic. In short, the Beaufort Lab represents a strong history of productive research, recent investment into infrastructure, and a critical part of a much larger marine science community in the region. It’s fair to say that the lab is the founding member and backbone of a marine science consortium  with the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserves, Duke University, NC State, the University of North Carolina, NC Division of Marine Fisheries, and Carteret Community College.

Beyond the institutions in a list, the Beaufort lab cements a broader community and economy of Carteret County, which is still largely based on fishing. While relations with the universities and state fisheries enforcement can sometimes be strained, NOAA rises above as a voice of reason and glue of collaboration around protecting our marine resources for food, economy, and society. If you believe me, there are steps you should take right now to voice your support for the lab by contacting local Congressional representation – those with the power to stop the closure: Congressman Walter Jones, Senator Kay Hagen, and Senator Richard Burr - and write a public comment to the House Committee currently reviewing the decision. For those who need a little more context and information, read on for some personal testimony demonstrating the value of the Beaufort lab I observed during my dissertation work in the area, which was focused on collaborative fisheries research. In a nutshell, I’ve observed how the Beaufort lab builds relationships between scientists and fishermen and therefore, indirectly, trust in NOAA. (more…)

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