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!

On Naming Boats, or why we love Boaty McBoatface.

My first personal research vessel, a 20′ runabout with a huge staging area, was name ‘Black Smoker‘. It was an homage to the hydrothermal vents I study (via a much larger vessel), but also a reference to the nasty old Force 125 outboard, that burned oil like it had just driven the Seleucid Empire from the Temple Mount. My second boat, was small, but lighter, faster, and much more aggressive. I sailed it in some seriously marginal seas. I named it ‘Iffy’.

The French named two different research vessels ‘Pourquoi Pas?’ (literally “Why not?”) which, in addition to being hilarious, is also the answer to the question: Why did you name your ship Pourquoi Pas? The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been studying  Lake Mendota for over 6 years via the research platform ‘David Buoy’. And though the Celtic Explorer was given a strong and noble name, an engine incident on one fateful cruise led many in the Irish research community to informally rechristen it the Celtic Exploder (true story: I once reviewed a proposal that referred to it as the Exploder, throughout).

Giving a research vessel a silly name is a deep and abiding tradition within the marine research community. And, frankly, even if a vessel has a Very Serious Name (TM), the crew is still going to call it something else.

I think Boaty McBoatface is a perfectly good name for a ship, and I agree with Craig McClain that it is a great science outreach opportunity. Did you know the U launched Sikuliag last year? Or that the British christened the Discovery in 2013? No? Well I bet you know about Boaty McBoatfaceRead More

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

Pushing back against technological puritanism in ocean conservation.

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen this photograph, making the viral rounds, of a Franciscana dolphin in South America, attached to headlines like the following: Endangered baby dolphin dies after swimmers pass it around for selfiesA Baby Dolphin Died Because Tourists Wanted Selfies With HerA selfie mob in Argentina may have killed a dolphin.

seflie

I hate these news stories, but not for the reasons you might think.

These stories represent a kind of technological puritanism in ocean outreach, where we draw weirdly unfounded conclusions about the way humans relate to their tools to somehow absolve us of social responsibility. It’s not people mistreating a dolphin, it’s a selfie-crazed mob. We chuckle and move on, because we don’t take aggressive selfies. We’re better than that.

This is not correct. Read More

For science communication, hashtag games are a scientist’s secret weapon.

#ExplainAFilmPlotBadly, #StupidCommonNames, #LOTRyourResearch.

Hashtag games. A few times a week, these weird, funny, quirky wordplay challenges explode across twitter, driving the most serious, and sometimes even super-serious, tweeters to pause for a moment of levity and let you know what they think Jaws is really about.

jaws

Goofy, whimsical, and extremely silly, one might wonder why scientists and science communicators would want to jump into these games, potentially compromising the reputation they’ve built up as a Serious Scientist (TM), unswayed by such foolishness.

The answer is simple: Playing hashtag games makes you a better communicator of science.

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Scanning the Sea: How I create 3D printable ocean objects using a smartphone and free software.

Trilobites!

Trilobites!

From simple sand dollars to life-sized hammerhead shark skulls, 3D printable ocean objects present an incredible opportunity for ocean outreach. Many commercial biological models are expensive, fragile, and often overkill for educators’ needs, where simple, robust, and easily replaceable anatomical models suffice. Over the last year, I’ve been honing my 3D printing skills, learning how to design 3D-printable objects, and mastering 3D scanning using free software and the now-ubiquitous smartphone. My designs, along with the open-source objects used for Oceanography for Everyone, can be found on my YouMagine profile (though Patreon supporters get early access to most prints).

Earlier this year, I wrote about how the ability to essentially photocopy a three dimensional object in a matter of hours revived my Ocean Optimism and opened up a whole new world of outreach possibilities. Since then, I’ve been working behind the scenes on some bigger projects that depend on 3D printing, one of which, Oceanography for Everyone launched last month. It’s a big ocean out there, and one person can’t possibly come close to producing a comprehensive collection of ocean objects. With several successful 3D scans under my belt, I think it’s time to share the process and invite the rest of the ocean-loving world join me in my efforts to scan the sea.

123D Catch, the software that powers it all.

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How I decide whether or not to give an interview to a journalist

I’m quite selective about what journalists/ publication I’ll agree to an interview with, as well as what topics I’ll agree to speak about. I turn down ten or so interviews for every one that I agree to give, though I will often recommend alternative experts for journalists to interview.

First and foremost, if I don’t have time, I won’t do a media interview. My primary job is to focus on my Ph.D. research so I can finish and graduate. If it means helping a friend or taking advantage of an amazing opportunity for exposure, I may be able to reshuffle around some time, but that’s only for exceptional circumstances. Similarly, I’ll generally only do interviews before or after work, while I’m in the car between campus and home, or during my lunch break, because my main job comes first. Read More

The Extraterrestrial Ocean: Could OpenROV Trident explore the seas of Europa?

OpenROV Trident

OpenROV Trident

Our planet is an ocean, and it is almost entirely unexplored. OpenROV, and their new Trident underwater drone is one of many tools that will help change that by democratizing exploration, conservation, and ocean science. We are poised atop the crest of a wave that may change how humans interact with the ocean as profoundly as the invention of the aqualung.

Earth is not the only body in our solar system that hosts an ocean. As we (slowly) venture out into the stars, could OpenROV Trident dive in extraterrestrial seas?

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OceansOnline: How can internet tools help marine scientists and conservationists?

IMCCNext summer’s 4th International Marine Conservation Congress will include an optional full day add-on called OceansOnline. This add-on day, inspired by 2013’s successful ScienceOnline Oceans, will focus on how social media and other internet tools can help ocean scientists and conservation professionals with research, collaboration, and public outreach.

OceansOnline is suitable for total beginners who want to learn how to use these tools as well as advanced users who want to learn much more about their applications.  Scientists and professionals who are advanced users of internet tools are encouraged to attend this meeting even if ocean conservation biology is not your primary research specialty.

OceansOnline will consist of three types of events: workshops, presentations, and facilitated discussions:

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Combating fake science in popular media – six months later

As noted earlier, David and my paper on twitter, social media, Shark Week, and fake documentaries came out last week. Since scientific publishing has a “long tail” — the time between when we actually wrote the paper and when it was published, in this case, was almost 9 months — we thought it might be a useful exercise to discuss our paper in the context of the months leading up to and following the most recent Shark Week. Enjoy!

You can find the original paper here: Fish tales: Combating fake science in popular media.