Carnival roundup: Berry-go-Round and Diversity in Science

One of these tulips is not like the others. Photo by Jørund Myhre.

On the last day of April, two blog carnivals—collections of links to posts on a given topic—are freshy posted, and both are worth some of your surfing time.

First, over at Seeds Aside, is a double March/April edition of Berry-go-Round, which rounds up online writing about all things botanical, with everything from peppers to savannah treetops to electrical signalling within the tissues of carnivorous plants.

And then over at her blog on Scientopia, Scicurious is hosting an edition of the Diversity in Science Carnival devoted to “imposter syndrome,” the nagging fear of secret inferiority that almost everyone seems to feel at some point in a scientific career. In science, imposter syndrome can be especially troublesome for women and members of minority groups, who may not see many folks that look like them amongst their colleagues.◼

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Science online, this does not follow edition

Sometimes a red dress just looks good when you’re dancing. Photo by Lieven SOETE.

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The living rainbow: In budgies, same-sex courting isn’t practice for wooing the ladies

Budgies in their natural habitat. Photo by David Cook Wildlife Photography (kookr).

I’ve just set myself up a Google Scholar alert for papers on the evolution of same-sex mating behavior. The plan is, I’ll post some brief notes on anything interesting that shows up in my inbox. First up: bisexual budgies!

Male budgerigars—or parakeets, to those of us in the States—live in female-dominated social groups when they’re not caged in a petstore. In these groups, apparently, it’s quite common for pairs of males to engage in behaviors that look a lot like what males do when courting female budiges. It’s been hypothesized that this same-sex courting is practice for the real, reproductive deal. If that were the case you’d expect that male budgies who put in more time practicing with other males would have better luck with females later on.

However, when Puya Abbassi and Nancy Tyler Burley of the University of California Irivine compared the frequency with which individual male budgies engage in same-sex courting to their later success with females, they found a negative relationship—males that had more same-sex interactions were less likely to find female mates [$a]. The authors propose that the same-sex interactions are actually males assessing each others’ social status. That would square with Abbassi and Burley’s observations if low-status males, who are less likely to get lucky in the mating game, spend a lot more time sorting out relative rankings amongst themselves—and this is what the authors suggest may be going on.◼

Reference

Abbassi, P., & Burley, N. (2012). Nice guys finish last: same-sex sexual behavior and pairing success in male budgerigars Behavioral Ecology DOI: 10.1093/beheco/ars030

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: What’s in my traditional medecine?

Saiga antelope. Photo via Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

This week at the collaborative blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, Sarah Hird explains how to identify the ingredients in traditional Chinese medecines—with a whole pile of sequence data.

[Coghlan et al.] target one animal and one plant marker and “genetically audit” the samples by sequencing the heck out of them using a bench-top HTS, the Roche GS Junior. Their protocol produced 49,000 sequence fragments. They then compare their sequences to large databases containing sequences of known origin and thus, identify what’s in the TCM.

To learn what the group found, go read the whole thing.◼

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Science online, overlooked life on Mars edition

A sidewalk produce cart. Photo by bitchcakesny.

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Adventures in funding applications

Just got back the decision on my proposal for the NSF’s International Research Fellowship, which would’ve paid for me to go to southern France and do kickass field experiments with the study plant I’ve currently only seen in a greenhouse, Medicago truncatula. Except my project was rated “not competitive.”

It looks like my chief mistake was writing with an audience of evolutionary ecologists in mind when, in fact, the IRF covers a broader range of science, and the reviewer panels reflect that. Which is to say, I got dinged for using “jargon” twice—the first time that’s ever happened in my grant-writing experience—and one reviewer (the third one, natch) had this to say under the heading of “Qualifications of applicant, including applicant’s potential for continued growth”:

The applicant is obviously able, and has written what, judging by their titles, are interesting papers of general interest. The proposal worries me because it was full of bureaucratic generalities about what we would learn and the benefits to be gained therefrom … The top half page of the project summary gave me precious little idea whether the author had any mind or not. He obviously does, but when reading the proposal I kept wanting to tell him to read Homer’s Iliad, or J-H Fabre’s Souvenirs Entomologiques. or Darwin’s Origin of Species, to learn how to liven his stuff with concrete, illustrative detail. But I expect the applicant has plenty of potential, and plenty of willingness, to grow. [Emphasis added.]

Ow. I guess I’d better try and shoehorn in some references to the “wine-dark sea” if I want to revise and resubmit next fall.◼

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Notes from the field: What’s Chris doing to that Joshua tree?

Joshua tree, diverged. Photo by jby.

Cross-posted from Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

ResearchBlogging.orgMy postdoctoral research is shaping up more and more to be hardcore bioinformatics; apart from some time spent trying to get a dozen species of peanut plants to grow in the greenhouse as part of a somewhat long-shot project I’m working on with an undergraduate research associate, I mostly spend my workday staring at my laptop, writing code. It’s work I enjoy, but it doesn’t often give me an excuse to interact directly with the study organism, much less get outdoors. So, when Chris Smith dropped the hint that he could use an extra pair of hands for fieldwork in the Nevada desert this spring, I didn’t need a lot of persuasion.

Chris is continuing a program of research he started back when he was a postdoc at the University of Idaho, and which I contributed to as part of my doctoral dissertation work. The central question of that research is, can interactions between two species help to create new biological diversity? And the specific species we’ve been looking at all these years are Joshua trees and the moths that pollinate them.

Joshua trees, the spiky icon of the Mojave desert, are exclusively pollinated by yucca moths, which lay their eggs in Joshua tree flowers, and whose larvae eat developing Joshua tree seeds. It’s a very simple, interdependent interaction—the trees only reproduce with the assistance of the moths, and the moths can’t raise larvae without Joshua tree flowers. So it’s particularly interesting that there are two species of these highly specialized moths, and they are found on Joshua trees that look … different. Some Joshua trees are tall and tree-ish, and some Joshua trees are shorter and bushy. Maybe more importantly for the moths, their flowers look different, too.

Joshua trees, diverged. Photo by jby.

Here’s a photo of two of those different-looking Joshua tree types, side by side in Tikaboo Valley, Nevada. Tikaboo Valley has the distinction of being the one spot where we’ve found both of the tree types, and both of the pollinator moth species, living side by side. That makes Tikaboo Valley the perfect (well, only) place to figure out whether there’s an evolutionary consequence to the divergence of Joshua tree and its association with two different pollinators. Do Joshua trees make more fruit, or fruit with more surviving seeds, when they’re pollinated their “native” moths?

So, over several years of work at Tikaboo Valley, we’ve been edging towards answering that question. We’ve found evidence that, given access to both tree types, the two moth species spend more time on their “native” tree type, and have more surviving offspring when they lay eggs in “native” flowers. But to determine whether plant-pollinator matching matters to Joshua trees, we’d really like to find out what happens when each moth species is forced to use each type of tree, and that’s what Chris has been working on for the last several field seasons.

Installing a Joshua tree chastity device. Photo by jby.

The method for the experiment, developed after some false starts, goes like this:

  • Find Joshua trees with flowers that haven’t opened yet—untouched by pollinating moths;
  • Make sure said flowers are far enough off the ground to be out of reach of the open-range cattle that graze all over Tikaboo Valley;
  • Catalog the tree, measuring how tall it grew before it started branching (a good indicator of which type of tree it is), and its total height, and take a nice photo of it with an ID number placed nearby, for handy future reference;
  • Seal up the not-yet-open bunch of flowers inside fine-mesh netting, to keep moths out—and also, as we’ll see below, to keep moths in;
  • Cover the netted flowers in chicken wire, to keep out all the desert critters that like to eat Joshua tree flowers, even if said flowers are served with a side of netting;
  • While the flowers get closer to opening, go collect some yucca moths, which you do by cutting down clusters of open Joshua tree flowers, dumping them into a bag or a cloth butterfly net, and sorting through the flowers looking for fleeing moths, which can be guided into plastic sample vials—these moths don’t usually like to fly; and finally
  • Open caged flowers, and insert moths.

By introducing moths of each species into flowers on each variety of Joshua tree, we’ll be able to see whether trees with the “wrong” moth species are less likely to make fruit than trees with the “right” moth species; and directly verify that moths introduced into the “wrong” tree type have fewer surviving larvae than moths introduced into the “right” tree type.

Camp Tikaboo, 2012 edition. Photo by jby.

But, being desert plants, Joshua trees aren’t prone to making much fruit even under ideal conditions. After a dry winter (like this last one), it can be hard to find any flowering trees at all. So to obtain a respectable sample size takes a lot of folks—this year, I was one of ten people on the field crew camped in the middle of the valley: a cluster of tents grouped around a rented recreational vehicle, which served as a kitchen/gathering area/lab.

Chris’s lab tech, Ramona Flatz, kept the whole show organized, dividing us into teams to scout for trees with flowers, teams to follow up on scouting reports and install experimental net/cage setups, and teams to go collect moths to put in the cages. This planning was, naturally, conducted in a tent containing a table with laminated maps of the valley, and this tent was called, naturally, the “war tent.”

In the “war tent,” making plans. Photo by jby.

What results we’ll get remain to be seen; this is the second year with a substantial number of experimental trees, and we won’t know whether all that work has borne fruit until Chris returns in a few weeks to see whether any of the experimental trees have, er, borne fruit. As far as I’m concerned, it was wonderful to return to an old familiar field site, in the middle of the desert, and spend a few days hiking around and harassing yucca moths instead of anwering e-mail. But if the experiment works, the results should be mighty interesting.

Below, I’ve embedded a slideshow of all the photos I took over a few days at Tikaboo Valley—including a special moth-themed production number coordinated by Ramona.◼

References

Godsoe, W., Yoder, J., Smith, C., & Pellmyr, O. (2008). Coevolution and divergence in the Joshua tree/yucca moth pollination mutualism The American Naturalist, 171 (6), 816-823 DOI: 10.1086/587757

Smith, C. I., C. S. Drummond, W. K. W. Godsoe, J. B. Yoder, & O. Pellmyr (2009). Host specificity and reproductive success of yucca moths (Tegeticula spp. Lepidoptera: Prodoxidae) mirror patterns of gene flow between host plant varieties of the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia: Agavaceae) Molecular Ecology, 18 (24), 5218-5229 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04428.x

Yoder, J., & Nuismer, S. (2010). When does coevolution promote diversification? The American Naturalist, 176 (6), 802-817 DOI: 10.1086/657048

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Asking permission

Still from Sinead’s Hand

“Hi, is this Eileen? My name is Jeremy, and I’m a volunteer with Minnesotans United for All Families. We’re calling voters this evening to ask about their opinions on marriage for gay and lesbian people.”

Last May, the Republican-controlled state legislature voted to amend the Minnesota Constitution, adding a thirteenth section to the “Miscellaneous Items” of the Constitution’s Article XIII to declare, “Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.” The Democratic governor’s veto was purely symbolic; in Minnesota, the fate of constitutional amendments proposed by the legislature is determined by statewide ballot.

So seven months later, I started calling total strangers and asking them to vote against the amendment.

“As you may know, the Minnesota legislature has proposed an amendment to our state constitution that would ban marriage for gay people, and we’ll be voting on that in November.”

Minnesotans United for All Families operates out of storefront offices in a building on University Avenue, in the long swathe of industrial buildings, converted condominium lofts, and highly assorted retail where Minneapolis shades into Saint Paul the way riverside woodland shades into tallgrass prairie. My first night there, a clutch of MNUnited staffers—the only staff on the campaign so far—divvied us into small groups to do introductions, and tell each other why we’d come. My fellow volunteers skewed straighter than I expected: many who came in support of gay or lesbian sons, daughters, nephews, neices, and grandchildren; or on behalf of close friends.

“So, how do you feel on this issue? Do you think that gay and lesbian couples should (1) be allowed full marriage rights; (2) have some legal recognition like domestic partnerships or civil unions; or (3) no legal recognition?”

The staffers started out with an explanation of the campaign strategy: We can expect about 2.9 million Minnesotans to vote in the November election. Figure 1.5 million votes against the amendment as a solid win; but round that down to 1.4 million, since ballots cast with the amendment question left unanswered count as “no” votes. Polling suggests we’re behind even that goal, by about 160,000 votes. Another 250,000 voters are thought to be favorably disposed towards same-sex marriage, but prone to persuasion by the scare tactics we can expect in pro-amendment campaigning: changing tradition! redefining marriage! priests forced to perform weddings they abhore! schoolchildren indoctrinated into the homosexual lifestyle!

(It is worth noting that Minnesota already has a law on the books defining marriage in the terms proposed for the amendment, so a vote against the amendment is far from a vote for same-sex marriage in Minnesota. But the average citizen will probably not be thinking with such legalistic specificity, alone in the voting booth.)

This presents a rather large number of voters to either persuade or reassure. And that, the staffers told us, is why volunteers are needed—to talk to all those 400,000-some voters.

“Okay, I see. So what concerns do you have about marriage for gay and lesbian folks?”

On checking into the office, we’d all recieved a packet—mostly a small sheaf of phone numbers with names, ages, genders, addresses: at the MNUnited office, phone banking means dialing your own calls, either on a chunky office landline or a tiny pay-as-you-go cellphone. Topmost in the packet is a sheet of text that serves as something more than a list of talking points but less than a script. It is framed like a straightforward voter survey, begining with an introduction and a general question about the voter’s feelings on same-sex marriage, and concluding with a question about the voter’s specific plans to vote for or against the amendment. But in between, things get messy.

Depending on the initial answer, there are suggested responses to religious objections: cite the Golden Rule, note that some churches support and bless same-sex relationships. There are cues to discuss the meaning and importance of marriage: “I don’t know anyone who would trade their marriage for a civil union.” And there is a prompt for sharing one’s personal experience.

“Do you know any gay or lesbian folks, ma’am?”

The strategy, informed by an intense—possibly somewhat frantic—burst of messaging research in the wake of 29 consecutive defeats at the ballot box, represents a significant change from those previous, unsuccessful campaigns. In the past, campaigns for same-sex marriage have emphasized the abstract values of equality and fairness; this time around, the plan is to get personal. Ask about specific people the voter knows who will be affected by the amendment. Ask her how she’d feel if that person could get married. Tell this stranger on the other end of the phone line about yourself.

“Well, ma’am, I’m making calls tonight because I’m gay, and this amendment would affect me personally. I’d like to get married some day. To find someone to settle down with and build a life together. And to stand up in front of friends and family and make that commitment to each other.”

  *

There’s a television ad that made the blogospheric rounds a couple years ago, in which a young man sets out to ask for permission to marry. It develops that he’s not just asking a single parental authority; he’s going door to door to ask the entire population of Ireland, in person, and one at a time.

This is, of course, impossible and ridiculous.

However, as the text that appears at the end of the ad explains, it’s essentially what faces gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folks in countries where (as in Ireland) our relationships are denied equal standing before the government. The point intended is that this actual, real situation is ridiculous, if clearly not impossible; that it is absurd and unjust that any couple’s right to marry should be subject to a majority vote.

And yet here I am, spending one night a week from now until November, asking strangers all over the state of Minnesota for permission to get married.

I moved to Minnesota last spring in a generally optimistic mood. After six years of graduate school in a (perfectly lovely, I should note) small college town in northern Idaho, I was starting my first “professional” science job in a major metropolitan area with a reputation for queer friendliness, in a state I’ve long associated with pragmatic progressivism—some of my earliest political memories are of Garrison Keillor skewering the essential selfishness of Reaganomics and the absurdities of Newt Gingrich’s Republican House of Representatives.

Of course, Minnesota is also known on the national scale for Congresswoman Michele Bachmann—the polar opposite of both pragmatism and progressivism—and the teenage “suicide cluster” fostered by the Anoka-Hennepin school district’s official refusal to protect its queer students from homophobic bullying on the grounds that such protection constituted “promotion” of minority sexual orientations. (This policy is to be dramatically reversed under the terms of a recent settlement with the Justice Department.)

So it wouldn’t be fair to say the passage of the proposed amendment—right about the time I signed a lease on an apartment in Northeast Minneapolis—came as a surprise. But that’s not the Minnesota I moved halfway across the country for.

And so, given the opportunity at (I think it was) a booth at Minneapolis Pride, I did my gay civic duty and filled out a form saying I’d help out the campaign to make sure the amendment is voted down. I’m not sure what I thought that would entail. Initially, it entailed a phone call in mid-December from someone enthusiastically reading from a script to remind me that I’d said I would help, and did I think I could try joining a phone bank effort to contact voters about the amendment? Sure, I guessed.

  *

My first evening of phone-banking was more than three months ago, now—Minnesotans United got underway in January, ten months ahead of the election and earlier than any previous similar effort. Even with the conversation guide and a good deal of preparation, I fully expected that I was signing up for an evening of having, over and over, the kind of conversation I’ve successfully avoided having with a good half of my extended family.

In practice, it hasn’t been like that, exactly. Minnesotans are generally too polite, for one thing. For another, it’s funny how much easier it is to let absurd and offensive statements wash over you when the only thought in your head is “be polite,” and you can always jump ahead to the closing question, hang up, and never talk to that asshole again.

But Minnesotan voters are entirely able to be astonishingly, densely homophobic, even when they’re being Minnesota nice.

There was the lady who said she had lots of gay and lesbian friends, but she wasn’t quite ready to support full marriage equality yet, because she thought that if we could get married, “it might become cool,” and then too many attractive, intelligent folks might never reproduce!

There was the gentleman who told me that the Bible had “ordained” me to be a eunuch, and who noted his concerns about a (completely fictitious, do I need to say?) proposed bill to legalize bestiality.

There was the woman who agreed with me on every point from the basic unfairness of the question to my own desire for a wedded commitment, but said she’d probably vote for the amendment because her church told her to.

There was the lady who responded to my telephonic coming-out by asking if I didn’t want to have children? And when I said that I might, but that lots of same-sex couples have kids, and I’d rather adopt anyway as there are plenty of children in the world who need parents, she noted that—in the hypothetical straight marriage she was planning for me—I could always adopt after I’d made a few biological kids. To which I asked how many children did she want to saddle me with, here? —and she laughed.

I don’t know how she’ll vote, but somehow her laughter was encouraging.

Good progress, on the phone bank, is to dial about thirty numbers in an hour. Of those, maybe half a dozen result in actual complete conversations. Most voters aren’t home, or answering the phone, at 8:30 on a Monday night. And a lot of folks cut things off midway through the first question with the declaration that they don’t care to talk about this kind of thing on the phone.

Neither do I, I want to holler into the dial-toning handset. But I’m not the one who decided the whole damn state was going to put my civil rights up for a vote.

  *

This strategy of calling strangers and asking them for permission to get married is intended to appeal to voters on an emotional level. The focus groups and voter surveys all suggest, we’re told, that this is the way to nudge people closer to our side: Don’t get bogged down debating legal niceities or scriptural details. Put a human face on the consequences of the vote.

So it’s good evening, sir; thank you for talking with me, ma’am. Respond to concerns (however ridiculous), present alternatives (but gently), and keep it polite the whole time. You can turn to your neighbor and complain about the raging homophobe you’ve had to talk to—but keep it polite till you hang up. If nothing else, we want to leave a positive impression.

It’s hardly the kind of activism that kicked the gay rights movement into national prominence, drag queens and homeless hustlers throwing rocks and beer cans at the police who came to harass the patrons of an obscure dive bar. Nor is it the gentle-to-the-point-of-passive back-room wrangling associated with politically connected groups like the Human Rights Campaign. (Although HRC is a partner organization with MNUnited.) It’s not the simple demand for justice embodied in court cases against unjust laws, like the lawsuit that overturned state sodomy laws or the ongoing case against California’s Proposition 8. It’s not even the vodka-sponsored activism enacted in Pride parades, decades after Stonewall: we’re here, we’re queer, get over it.

It is, instead, polite to the point of meekness: Hi there. You don’t know me, but you’re about to cast a vote that affects me personally. Could I maybe persuade you not to vote away my rights? If it’s not too much trouble.

But the funny thing is, this approach manages to be more confrontational than the most outrageous Pride march. Speaking directly to a retiree in suburban Duluth, I’m not a faceless protestor on television; I’m an actual person on the other end of a phone line.

In a day and age where even Rick Santorum claims to have gay friends, voters who say they don’t know any gays or lesbians are as rare as teetotalers at a wine tasting. As often as not, people are apologetic as they tell me they’ll vote for the amendment. On some level, I think, almost everyone I’ve talked to knows that the amendment would be unjust. Opposition to treating queer folks as full and equal citizens has become so socially repugnant that the National Organization for Marriage is fighting tooth and nail to prevent disclosure of its donors as required by Minnesota’s state election laws.

And I have to think that’s a hopeful sign.

  *

There are months to go until the election in November. The campaigns for and against the amendment are raising boatloads of money, rallying volunteers and staff, and building statewide organizations. When I started making calls for MNUnited in January, I knew every staff member by name; now familiar faces are scarcer every time I come to the office. Regional offices are opening across the state, and the campaign is building a cohort of volunteers to fill rolls that were once once for staff only. A few weeks ago, I took the training to start running phone banks myself, teaming up with another volunteer to brief new callers, coach them through the conversation guide, and stand by for assistance as they start talking to total strangers.

Meanwhile, we have every reason to expect the same shitstorm of misinformation and scare-messaging that helped push through Proposition 8—NOM will be using its old reliable playbook.

How will it work this time? In twenty-nine states so far, the majority has happily voted away the rights of the queer minority. If the current polling holds steady, equality will lose again in Minnesota. At its heart, the campaign against the amendment is an attempt to change those poll numbers one voter at a time.

And outside the storefront office, spring has come early. Now that the weather permits it, I may soon be going door to door, talking to my fellow Minnesotans in person.◼

Although I’m a volunteer for Minnesotans United for All Families, this post was written without official solicitation, sanction, or input from that organization—what is written here reflects my thoughts and views, not those of MNUnited, its partner organizations, or its supporters.

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