In today’s NY Times: A surge of off-road vehicles is roaring across the West’s public lands. Since coming west for graduate school, I’ve seen a lot of this firsthand. There’s not much of the Mojave Desert (outside of national parks) that isn’t crosshatched with ORV tracks, and it’s shockingly hard to get away from the roar of gasoline engines in the mountains of Idaho. It’s nice to know, as the Times article points out, that there are a few off-roaders trying to reshape the pastime into something more responsible – but they’ve got a lot of work to do.

Open-source journal on evolution education

Via Wired Science: the new journal Evolution: Education and Outreach aims to connect working biologists with elementary and secondary science teachers to provide a resource for teaching about evolution. And all its articles will be freely available online.

The inaugural issue includes an essay by John N. Thompson, one of the leading names in my own sub-field of coevolutionary ecology, which points out that the popular press frequently fails to use the word “evolution” when it covers such concrete examples as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and host shifts by disease organisms. I’ve noticed this myself, and I think it’s a very relevant issue: without calling evolution by its name, idiotic disconnects like the one between President Bush’s “teach the controversy” position and his spending for bird-flu preparedness aren’t as obvious.

Not-so-silent nights in Bethlehem

For Christmas Day, here’s an excellent article about life in present-day Bethlehem from National Geographic. If you aren’t well versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s a good introduction. For me, it’s a sad reminder of how much worse things have gotten since I spent three weeks in Bethlehem as part of an undergrad cross-cultural semester. Dave Landis, who was on that trip with me, is now back in-country, helping to run a sort of interfaith hostel in Nazareth. He has lots of pictures.

Huckabee’s looney fringe

I’ve been kind of conflicted about Mike Huckabee. Sure, he’s anti-science and has wacky ideas about taxation, but he first really came to my attention when he said, in defense of offering state tuition assistance to the children of undocumented immigrants, “we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did.” That’s the sanest thing I’ve heard from any Republican candidate on the subject of immigration.

But now it looks like Huckabee’s conservative Christian affiliations have wiped out that little glimmer of goodwill. Turns out he’s willing to take money from Christian Reconstructionists, a right-fringe strain of the faith I’ve bumped into in Moscow, which holds that the U.S. should be ruled by “biblical” laws like these. Including that physicians should not treat patients on Sunday. Wow. I’m actually pretty sure Jesus specifically contradicts the one.

And if Huckabee wants to hang out with that kind of “Christian,” well, he gets about as much respect from me as they do.

Foster care raises I.Q.

NY Times: A newly-released study compares cognitive development of children raised in orphanages with those raised entirely by foster families, and those moved from institutional to foster care. Key findings: foster care is associated with better cognitive development (measured for the study in terms of I.Q.), and the negative effect of institutional care is offset by the transition to foster care, with more benefit at younger ages. For the full details, see the original paper on Science‘s website [subscription required]. Yes, this is one of those studies that seems intuitively obvious, but it’s always useful to test intuition, especially in matters of government policy. As a bonus, this is also strong evidence in support of a large effect of early environment on I.Q. scores.

Red means stop?

New in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology: An article asks whether autumnal leaf colors could act as a deterrent to insect herbivores [abstract free; subscription needed for more].

It may seem odd to think that trees could be interested in defending leaves that are about to drop off anyway; but the authors’ idea is that trees with brighter red leaves are signaling a “commitment” to producing more defensive chemicals in next year’s leaf crop. To test this hypothesis, the authors measured aphids’ preference for leaf color in the fall, and whether fall leaf color predicted aphids’ performance on the same trees in the spring.

The aphids showed a significant preference for green autumn leaves over red, but there was no correlation between fall color and aphid performance on the next spring’s leaves. So, interesting idea, but no dice. The authors say, reasonably, that their results suggest aphids’ color preferences have more to do with finding the most nutritious leaves in the fall than avoiding defensive chemicals in the spring.

It’s important to note that this result is not necessarily coevolution, in the strict sense of reciprocal natural selection between the aphids and the trees. The aphids seem to have adapted to their host plant, but it’s not clear (base on this study, anyway) that the aphids exert significant selection on the plant in return.

Ramirez, C. C., B. Lavandero, and M. Archetti. 2008. Coevolution and the adaptive value of autumn tree colours: colour preference and growth rates of a southern beech aphid. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 21:49-56.

Corn’s not just for eating anymore

NY Times: Increasing ethanol production, spurred by government incentives, concern about global warming, and the desire for energy independence, could be starting to impact the food supply. Cross-reference to the Economist (whence the graph): the upturn in prices is the biggest since the 1970s.

I can’t say it’s surprising, given that most estimates I’ve seen conclude that ethanol couldn’t supply the world’s energy even if all the farmland on the planet were converted to biomass production. But it is surprising that it’s happened so early in the movement to drop fossil fuels. If this is the wave of the future, Americans could someday find themselves literally taking food out of the mouths of the Third World to fuel their cars. That’s a terrible thought.