Gills Club Shark Tales: An online and in-person sharkstravaganza 19-20 September at NEAQ!

Note:  This post has been updated on 18 September 2017.  

Friends, Researchers, Countrywomen, lend me your ears!

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and New England Aquarium are hosting a completely free two-day event, 19-20 September, featuring an amazing line-up of shark scientists and enthusiasts, including:

Keynote Speakers:

Susan Goldberg – Editor in Chief of National Geographic Magazine

Wendy Benchley – Renowned global voice for shark protection and co-founder of the prestigious Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.

Gills Club Science Team Speakers:
Dr. Michelle Heupel – Australian Institute of Marine Science
Dr. Alison Kock – South African National Parks
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What makes high school girls love sharks but avoid science

A shortened – and less ribald – version of this post was published 24-07-2017 in the International Business Times.

Ah, the transition from middle school to high school… the one part of adolescence no one reminisces about fondly.  It’s the time in our lives where mental and physical changes happen at pace without any apparent continuity, and we feel compelled to blend in.  This is the same time when most young girls’ interest in STEM stops, and in my educator/zoologist opinion, these events are related.

What does our culture gear teenage girls to prioritize?  Making varsity teams, growing boobs to the correct size and at the correct time, and completing enough social jostling to earn the superhuman prom date.  Most of the STEM-geared young girls I have worked with couldn’t care less about the above – but the attitude of their peers changes by the end of 8th grade.

http://subtubitles.tumblr.com/post/30828711121

Students of both sexes in 6th grade will happily discuss how rainbows are made and share their mutual wonder if the natural world, but those conversations quickly become “immature” when the puberty plague takes hold.  It’s also in 8th grade when boys enter a race to the bottom of inappropriate jokes fueled by mutual insecurities.  Suddenly, STEM-interested pupils find that their friends are segregating, fashion forward girls to one side and crude boys to the other, leaving a handful who want to discuss the space/time continuum floundering somewhere in the middle.

Then, regardless of where you sit on the social divide, hormones kick in.  This critical time is when young people figure out how to create partnerships, what constitutes a good or bad relationship, and the physics of copulation.  In addition to this, obtaining a socially higher-ranking partner becomes an unconscious priority.  Guess what most young men think is unattractive in women?  Intelligence (unless you’re beautiful enough to compensate).  YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY.

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How to spot a scam shark documentary producer

Many aspects of science-ing are not explicitly taught, and scientists become accustomed to mastering the deep end.  While this tactic can make you stronger, there are situations where the deep end is a vulnerable place where nasty critters are very happy to take advantage.

One such area?  How to handle being contacted by “producers.”  In my experience, for every 1 exceptional producer you speak with, you will be contacted by at least 4 scammers.  Scam producers will particularly target naïve early-career scientists, just like white sharks and seal pups.  In light of this week, I’ve put together a guide to aid YOY scientists rising in the ranks of popularity and make the deep end a little safer.  Here are 13 ways to spot scam shark documentary producers, with a few 🚩🚩:

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New achievement milestones for academic life

Overall job satisfaction in academia has been steadily declining for many independent reasons I won’t get into here (see Nature 1 and 2). However, we do need to accept some ownership for this dissatisfaction. Our expectations and goal posts are understandable set very high.  Indeed for many of us, our impossible standards and stubborn determination are the only reasons we got this far, so it can be painful – nigh impossible – for those who are hardwired to overachieve to step back and be happy with the big picture. We need to, because the stakes are as high as health, sanity, and relationships.

This inspired me to develop a new set of milestones to measure our academic careers by. Not only for our sanity, but especially for those younger scientists and students still fighting their way up the ladder.

Here are 12 new milestones of achievement I recommend we measure our career success by:
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Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.

fig1

Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:

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Learn what whale harassment looks like (GIFs)

It’s nearly summer, which means the shores will soon be filled with SUP boards, drones, and self-professed whale whisperers.  This authentic lifestyle is an obnoxious time for marine mammals, and soon your online feeds will be flooded with aerial footage of people “sharing the water” with marine megafauna.  Some of these shots are innocent but an increasing amount are harassment.  Below is a helpful GIF guide to tell the difference.

Not harassment:

not whale harassment

Also not harassment:

not whale harassment

These scenarios happen.  They are rarely documented and totally amazing.

not whale harassment

(c) Dave de Beer, Cape Town

The below GIF explains what whale harassment looks like:

whale harassment

It’s truly that simple.  The next time an amazing 4K aerial shot shows people interacting with whales, ask yourself two things:  1) Is the whale’s head or the tail facing the people?  2) Are the people actively approaching the whale?

If the answers are 1) Tail and 2) Yes, that is harassment.

Remember:  Whales, dolphins, sharks, or anything else in the ocean does not have to interact with you, even if you brought your drone and your Instagram feed is a bit lacking.  It is illegal to harass marine mammals because it is potentially life threatening for both you and them.

Seagull swallowed by tuna

The tuna that ate a seagull, and other bird swallowing marine megafauna

Once again, the internet is in a fervour over a rarely documented, but pretty common, animal interaction.  The video below shows fishermen at a pier in L’Escala, Spain tossing small fish to a tuna.  A nearby seagull went for the same fish and was ingested by the tuna, much to everyone’s surprise.  Naturally, the tuna spat out the seagull, luckily uninjured, and it flew away to dive another day:

Seabirds are often ingested by marine megafauna since both groups forage in the same areas, often on the exact same prey.  This video was an artificial overlap of foraging animals created by the people tossing fish from the pier, but in natural settings where two animals feed on the same prey and one of those animals is considerably larger than the other, the smaller animal faces a pretty high risk of being swallowed.

This is especially true for lunge-feeding whales that take in large mouthfuls of fish, water, and anything else at the surface.  Haynes et al. identified three Glaucous-winged gulls in the fecal remains of foraging humpback whales in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  The birds were mostly intact, suggesting that humpback whales aren’t capable of digesting birds well (we’ve all been there).

All of the examples above are accidental ingestion, but some marine animals deliberately target birds for food, too.  Tiger sharks seasonally aggregate at the Hawaiian Islands of French Frigate Shoals to forage on albatross fledglings.  Fledglings are fat, slow, and naïve, making them easy and profitable prey.  This foraging strategy is common among sharks and is the same reason white sharks target seal colonies during South African winters.

The alien giant catfish of the river Tarn in southwestern France is an aquatic example.  They have also acquired a taste for feathered food and learned to ambush aloof pigeons, with a success rate of 28%:

Although not mega- megafauna, the Hilaire’s Side-necked turtles of Brazil have been documented consuming pigeons in a scene that honestly rivals Jaws.  Who’s slow now? (Edit: Thanks to @mattkeevil for the reference!)

Marine and aquatic animals do indeed eat birds, accidentally and deliberately.  Exactly how regularly this happens is unknown, but this antipodean pairing is essentially the chocolate shake and fries of the natural world.  The bottom line is, if you are in the same space where something bigger than you is foraging, you might get swallowed.  Birds, and humans, alike:

Behaviour Bites: The uncomfortable truth about that penguin video

A brilliant thing about the internet is how natural events are immediately accessible to the world-wide public.  Someone can record a cheetah jumping onto their safari car and I can watch it in my Netherlands office less than 24 hours later.  Sadly, most animal videos that go viral are ones that feature animal behaviour that we think directly relates to us, humans – the real stars of the show – but rarely does the behaviour (or the animal in the video, for that matter) have anything to do with us.  Attributing human-like characteristics to non-human things is called “anthropomorphism.”  It’s a natural part of our psyche and explains why we find Elvis in potato chips or Kate Middleton in jelly beans.

Those who genuinely study animal behaviour (ethologists) first learn to recognize anthropomorphism, no matter how subtle, and then train for years to view situations from a strictly behavioural standpoint.  You may look at a dolphin and say it’s “smiling.”  An ethologist will look at that same dolphin and say it simply has its mouth closed.  You may say the dog is “laughing,” an ethologist will say the dog associates small high-pitched barks in quick succession with a reward.  Does this mean that ethologists view animals coldly and without emotion?  No.  It means that ethologists want to decode what the animal is saying, rather than force our meanings or motives into their mouths.  We just see the potato chip.

Now, I hate to also be a wet blanket, but I often get terribly, terribly vexed when I see these videos, so I have decided that when I am not singing about science, I will explain the real behaviour featured in these popular videos.  Warning, this video cannot be unseen:

If you have a video suggestion for the next behaviour bites, please leave it in the comments!

Singing Science: Weather vs. Climate with lyrics for teachers

The month of February 2016 just broke a global temperature recordpreviously held by… January…2016.

While the Trubama climate plans are being praised, the comments section of this Guardian article was still inundated with “Well, it’s cold where I am” posts.  Perhaps we need to create more awareness about the difference between weather and climate…

I know, I’m not supposed to talk about this, but I love to sing.  Every neighbor, flat mate, and unwilling car passenger knows this.  In fact, the only thing I love as much as singing is teaching science, but the metaphorical light bulb didn’t come on until I attended a SciComm workshop in Portugal.  Why not sing about science like many others?  Maybe even weather and climate??

Adele songs were the obvious choice, both for singability and availability of karaoke versions on YouTube, so I began my research.  I asked facebook if this would be a valuable addition to the internets, or best not to talk about it ever again, and the response was significantly positive.  Thus, #SingingScience was born and with it a commitment to do more of these when I have free time.

Enjoy, Weather vs. Climate set to Adele’s “Hello”

**Note (because evidently it’s not obvious):  This is not real meteorological data.

Here are the lyrics for any science teachers who would like them: Read More