Hello to all of that

With 2008 nearly over, Mennonite institutions are looking forward to the challenges of the new year. Mennonite Weekly Review has not one but two minor prophecies in their Editorial section. Editor Paul Schrag calls out President-Elect Barack Obama on his promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan:

To keep Afghanistan from becoming another Iraq, the United States must recognize that “we can’t kill our way to victory,” said Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to Congress in September. … When a top-ranking military official urges using more “soft power,” those who reject the “war on terror” can join that call.

And Harvey Yoder reminds readers that an economic recovery based on consumption isn’t exactly Biblical:

… to pray for the recovery of a consumer-driven old order is to counter Jesus’ brand of good news. In his upside-down kingdom, where his words about wealth are both law and gospel, it is the world’s hungry who are to be filled with good things, and it is the too-well-to-do who are to be left empty-handed.

Shrikes take their cues from the competition

ResearchBlogging.orgOver evolutionary time, the easiest way to deal with a competitor is to do something different – if your competitor eats big seeds, say, it may be easier to start eating small seeds than to fight for the big ones. This idea goes all back to the Origin, wherein Darwin proposed that competition drives evolutionary diversification, with living things dividing up available resources into ever-finer slices as they scramble for shares:

Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction [of offspring] ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount. The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.

But what if competition can sometimes make competitors more like each other? A new study, published through PLoS ONE this week, shows that red-backed shrikes prefer to set up hunting territories in places where their competitors have already been hunting.

Photo by phenolog.

Shrikes are cute but vicious predators – they capture small prey and spear them on thorns or twigs for storage, or to indicate to a prospective mate what great hunters they are. Red-backed shrikes migrate from Africa to Eastern Europe for the summer mating season. When they arrive, male red-backed shrikes must establish a hunting territory with a nesting site, but they have to contend with the established territories of great gray shrikes, which live in the same area year-round, and eat the same kind of prey.

You might expect, then, that red-backed shrikes would establish nest sites well away from the impaled victims of great gray shrikes. In fact, as the paper’s authors show, red-backed shrikes are more likely to nest near great gray shrike caches. They don’t raid the competitors’ larders, but, the authors argue, understand the presence of a great gray shrike’s cache to mean there is plenty of prey nearby.

This could mean a number of things: perhaps great gray shrikes and red-backed shrikes prey on critters that are so abundant, it’s arguable that they’re not really competing. If that’s the case, it makes plenty of sense for red-backed shrikes to use great gray shrike caches as cues to find particularly good hunting grounds. Alternatively, red-backed shrikes settling near great gray shrike caches might shift their prey preferences to avoid competition – the presence of one type of prey may very well correlate with the abundance of many other types, so that the great gray shrike caches are only indirect indicators of prey abundance. Unfortunately, the current paper has no data comparing prey preferences of red-backed shrikes nesting nearby and away from great gray shrike caches, so there’s no way to test this hypothesis.

Still, this observation has significant implications for the way we think about species interactions across evolutionary time. If competitors can be drawn together as well as driven apart, maybe competition doesn’t contribute to diversification as much as we think it does.


M. Hromada, M. Antczak, T.J. Valone, P. Tryjanowski (2008). Settling decisions and heterospecific social information use in shrikes PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003930

Parting shots

President Bush ducks thrown shoes at a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. On the positive side, it looks like Iraq is developing a vigorous press corps. Will this be our final impression of The Current President? Could be – I can’t remember him getting this much coverage at any other point post-election.

Scientific art makes a nice Christmas card

John Holbo has created Christmas cards using Ernst Haeckel’s baroque illustrations of marine invertebrates. They are weirdly appropriate, a nod to a more hands-on, if perhaps not as rigorous, scientific era. A hundred years from now, I doubt anyone will be doing this with my slick Adobe Illustrator (TM) – produced graphics.

Photo by jholbo.

Via PZ Myers.

Vikings brought violence, destruction – and mice

ResearchBlogging.orgTraveling groups of humans are really mobile ecosystems, as we bring with us a whole collection of species we find useful, and not-so-useful: domestic animals, crop plants, pests, diseases, and parasites. Even if we fumigated our clothes and our vehicles, we’d still bring with us a whole collection of intestinal microbes. If you knew nothing more about humans than this, you could reconstruct our historical movement from the changes we’ve made to the living communities around us.

Photo by Pehpsii.

This is one thesis of a new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society, which shows that the population genetics of house mice in the British Isles still bear the mark of medieval Viking raids. It’s an extremely simple result: in sites especially subject to regular Viking depredations, the northwestern coasts of Scotland and Ireland, the house mice are more closely related to house mice in Norway than they are to mice from other parts of Britain. It’s not clear whether this is because the Vikings brought the first house mice to these areas, or whether stowaway mice from Norway interbred with an already-established population. House mice were in Britain well before the Vikings came along, but human settlements along the northwestern coasts apparently weren’t established much before the Vikings started raiding them.

The authors propose expanding a survey of mouse genetics in Europe to better document the extent of Viking travel. It’s one more biological tool for archaeologists, reconstructing the past based on what we leave behind.


J.B. Searle, C.S. Jones, İ. Gündüz, M. Scascitelli, E.P. Jones, J.S. Herman, R.V. Rambau, L.R. Noble, R.J. Berry, M.D. Giménez, F. Jóhannesdóttir (2009). Of mice and (Viking?) men: phylogeography of British and Irish house mice. Proc. R. Soc. B, 276 (1655), 201-7 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0958


Allowing others to be other is what we call modernity. In my view, it is worth defending. And that’s why I think of myself as a conservative rather than as a reactionary. I like the pluralism of modernity; it doesn’t threaten me or my faith. And if one’s faith is dependent on being reinforced in every aspect of other people’s lives, then it is a rather insecure faith, don’t you think?

Andrew Sullivan on religion and politics.

Surprising? Not really.

The weird yet perennial “war on Christmas” rhetoric – in which, regular as Santa Claus, the conservative commentariat gets up in arms about some perceived slight to the Christian origins of the holiday – has always mystified me. It’s transparently mean-spirited to transform the words “Merry Christmas” into a proclamation of cultural dominance, to the point that the neutral “Happy Holidays” has become more Christian in spirit. Over in Washington State, the addition of an atheist belief statement to a holiday display has set off an arms-race of symbolic appropriation culminating in demands to include a Festivus pole and a sign saying that “Santa Claus will take you to Hell,” finally forcing the state government to place a moratorium on additions.

Max Blumenthal writes that this absurdity has its roots in Anti-Semitism. Because you know who really hates Christmas? The Jews:

Unlike their more respectable counterparts, Brimelow’s writers dared to name the true anti-Christian Grinch: Jews. The winner of Brimelow’s 2001 War on Christmas competition, a “paleoconservative” writer named Tom Piatak, insisted that those behind the assault on Christmas “evidently prefer” Hanukkah, which he called the “Jewish Kwanzaa,” a “faux-Christmas.”

Which makes perfect sense; nothing offends a racist like showing basic courtesy to someone different from them. Saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” implies that you can’t assume some random person on the street is Christian. That doesn’t strike me as particularly scary or bad; but for the Christmas Warriors, it’s the end of the world as they know it.

Self-defeating pro-lifers

Anti-abortion groups are using the economic downturn as the basis for an argument to pull government funding of Planned Parenthood. William Saletan points out how insane this is, if you want to reduce the number of abortions:

If you define pro-life as preventing abortions, Planned Parenthood is the most effective pro-life organization in the history of the world. … What Planned Parenthood does, more comprehensively than anyone else, is to distribute the means and knowledge to control your risk of getting pregnant when you don’t want to be pregnant. And those two things, combined with pressure to exercise that control assiduously, are the surest way to prevent abortions.

Via the Daily Dish.

If it’s online, it must be for real

The website for the Evolution 2009 meetings, to be held right here at the University of Idaho this spring, is officially live, although issues remain with our domain registration (eventually, evolutionmeetings09.org is supposed to forward to this page). Graphic design for the conference logo is by Christian Blackman, a UI Art and Design student; HTML coding and layout by yours truly.