Voices of GLBT scientists

For a broader perspective on being gay and being a scientist, check out some great pieces on BoingBoing, posted for National Coming Out DaySteve Silberman interviews endocrinologist Neena Schwartz about her decision to come out after a career in the closet; then Maggie Koerth-Baker rounds up personal stories from an array of LGBT scientists, including evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma. As Maggie puts it in the introduction to both articles,

Together, we realized that we’d never seen a Coming Out Day feature dedicated to the experiences of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered persons in the sciences and engineering. Science journalist powers: Activate! We hope today’s two-part celebration will add to the diversity of stories and help science-minded young queer folks everywhere know that it does, indeed, get better—both through the course of history, and the course of an individual’s life.

Other queer scientists are invited to contribute stories in the comments of Maggie’s piece. (Maggie asked me to help contact people to share their stories, and I put her in touch with Dr. Futuyma; and Steve was kind enough to give me a nod at the end of the cross-post of his interview with Neena Schwartz.)

Photo by bensonkua.

Why I’m out online

ResearchBlogging.orgExactly a year ago today, I came out of the online closet. Now it’s another National Coming Out Day, and it seems like as good a time as any to think out loud about why I made that decision.

Image borrowed from Wikipedia under fair use rationale.

My reasons aren’t going to surprise anyone who has even a passing familiarity with gay rights history:

  • Familiarity breeds acceptance. This is mainly a political argument. It’s widely accepted (and supported by ongoing public opinion surveying) that people who personally know GLBT folks are overwhelmingly more likely to support treating GLBT people like full citizens. The psychology isn’t hard to understand—it’s easy to hate the nebulous, faceless, unknown Gays; it’s rather harder to hate your son, or your niece, the nice neighbors who let you borrow their lawnmower, or (I hope) the guy who writes that one not-entirely-terrible science blog you check every so often.
  • Gotta give’em hope. And an example. This is more personal. I grew up without knowing any out gay people, which was, to put it mildly, not helpful. I was, to paraphrase the Onion headline, The Only Homosexual in the World; I didn’t have any of the support, or visible examples, that would’ve helped me think critically about my sexual orientation or imagine a future in which I was out, and happy about it. (Which I very much am, these days.) By being open about my orientation, maybe I can help someone else figure out his (or hers) in a way I couldn’t, and even show that, as confusing and frequently miserable as growing up gay is, it gets better.

And if there’s one impression I hope to give a confused, lonely (and presumably nerdy) gay kid reading D&T, it’s that it did get better for this formerly confused, lonely (and unquestionably nerdy) gay kid. And a large part of how it got better, for me, has to do with going into science.

Evolutionary biology has turned out to be a good field for me, in this personal respect. When I started my first genuine biology-related internship, I was surrounded for the first time by people who didn’t talk about gays in the hushed, scandalized tones I’d heard through a lot of my childhood and schooling. Biologists are as human as the next ape descendent, but they’re also a generally open-minded bunch who tend to be more interested in the quality of your work than what you do after you leave the lab. And, for what are probably obvious reasons, evolutionary biology doesn’t attract the sort of people who hold doctrinaire conservative religious positions on any subject.

Evolutionary biology is also a pretty good academic discipline for me because evolutionary biology has something to say about sexual minorities, just as it has something to say about humans in general. Humans are biological beings, and we’re part of an animal kingdom that exhibits a wide array of sexual behaviors, as elaborately documented by the evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden in her book Evolution’s Rainbow. Exactly how to explain this diversity, particularly in the case of humans, is still quite controversial [$a]—but it’s a question for which I have some expertise, and one I’d like to weave into the writing I do for D&T in the future.


Futuyma, D. (2005). Celebrating diversity in sexuality and gender. Evolution, 59 (5), 1156-9 DOI: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2005.tb01052.x

Roughgarden, J. (2004). Evolution’s Rainbow. Berkeley: University of California Press. Preview on Google Books.


Science online, “Look out! Here comes the spider worm,” edition

Good news, everyone! We might finally know what’s killing honeybees. Photo by Max xx.
  • I’ll show you my effective population size if you show me yours. Have humans historically been polygamous? Population genetics tells all. (The Primate Diaries in Exile)
  • Spider worm, spider worm/Does whatever a spider worm does. Biologists have engineered spider genes involved in silk production into silkworms, which will spin much more silk than spiders do. (Wired Science)
  • Unintended consequences, anyone? Eradication of dingoes from parts of southern Australia turns out to have been bad for endangered prey species. (Laelaps; see also my discussion of dingoes and prey diversity)
  • It was a fungus. With a virus. In the, um, conservatory. New analysis of proteins collected from bees in dying colonies points to the cause of recent honeybee declines. (NY Times; original article on PLoS ONE)
  • There’s a horror movie here somewhere. Mosquitoes living in the London Underground may have evolved into a new species. (Thoughtomics)
  • Another one for the list. Evolution Since Darwin, a history of 150 years of biology, looks like a good read. (Dechronization)

And this week, from BBC Earth, prairie dog communication. (Which has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that this week’s mammalogy lab covered rodents.)


Time to start thinking about #scio11 already?

Science Online 2011, the conference for online science communication, now has a website, and NESCent, whose blog writing competition helped me attend Science Online 2010, has announced another round. I’m going to sit on my hands and let someone else have a chance for a change, but I’ll bet I can wrangle a grant from U of I’s grad student association to get me to North Carolina next January …


The kids aren’t all right: Brood parasite chicks grow up with species identity issues

ResearchBlogging.orgIf you’re a bird, brood parasitism seems like a cushy reproductive strategy—lay your eggs in someone else’s nest, then sit back and let the inadvertent foster parents raise your kids for you. But what if they don’t raise you kids quite right? Could brood parasite chicks raised by parents of another species grow up a bit … confused? According to a recent study of brood-parasitic ducks, they can indeed [$a].

Redheads (above) sometimes lay eggs in the nests of canvasback ducks (below)—but redhead chicks raised by canvasbacks may not know what species they are. Photos by Nick Chill and meantux.

The new study examines redheads, a species of North American duck which frequently lays its eggs in the nests of other duck species, particularly the canvasback duck, which occupies much of the same range. Redheads are facultative brood parasites—in years when conditions produce lots of resources, female redheads lay eggs in other ducks’ nests as a supplement to their own nests; and in poorer years, they may lay only parasitic eggs [PDF]. Canvasback ducks, on the other hand, will lay eggs in the nests of other canvasbacks (which is not uncommon in birds [$a]), but don’t parasitize other species.

This sets up a nice behavioral experiment. In birds, species recognition may be due to varying degrees of nature and nurture—a male bird may recognize females of his own species by genetically-transmitted instinct, but he may also have to learn socially important songs or other behaviors from his parents and other adults. You might expect that redhead chicks have evolved to recognize their own species regardless of who raised them, while canvasbacks might be confused if they grow up around another species.

So the authors experimentally transferred just-hatched male redhead chicks into canvasback broods, and male canvasback chicks into redhead broods, and compared their social development to male chicks raised by their own species.

A female redhead spurns the advances of a cross-fostered male canvasback. Photo from Sorenson et al. (2010), figure 2.

When the chicks had grown up, the authors offered the cross-fostered males access to females of both species, and recorded their interactions. It turned out that the brood parasitic rednecks were just as prone to species-confusion as the canvasbacks. Males of both species preferred to associate with females of the species with which they were raised, and directed almost all of their courting effort—displays of neck-arching and special calls—toward the species that fostered them. In fact, many of the cross-fostered males successfully formed mated pairs with females of the other species.

So why hasn’t redhead parasitism of canvasback nests broken down the reproductive isolation between these two species? The authors don’t have a clear answer, but note that the rate of observed hybrid couplings are much lower in natural populations than in their experimental setting. Social learning is a complicated thing, and life in larger, natural populations of the two species might not be well replicated in this study.


Petrie, M., & Moller, A. (1991). Laying eggs in others’ nests: Intraspecific brood parasitism in birds. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 6 (10), 315-20 DOI: 10.1016/0169-5347(91)90038-Y

Sorenson, M., Hauber, M., & Derrickson, S. (2010). Sexual imprinting misguides species recognition in a facultative interspecific brood parasite. Proc. Royal Soc. B, 277 (1697), 3079-85 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0592

Sorenson, M. (1991). The functional significance of parasitic egg laying and typical nesting in redhead ducks: an analysis of individual behaviour. Animal Behaviour, 42 (5), 771-96 DOI: 10.1016/S0003-3472(05)80122-8


The Molecular Ecologist

The journal Molecular Ecology Resources, a methods-focused offshoot of Molecular Ecology, has just launched an official blog, The Molecular Ecologist. One of the contributors is Dilara Ally, who until quite recently was one of my colleagues at the University of Idaho Department of Biological Sciences. From the first few posts, it looks like TEM will be a good resource for working biologists, who are the target audience.


Science online, return of the blogger edition

Okay, I think I have things back under control. Or as back under control as they ever get. Or back under control enough to manage a link roundup, anyway.

Believe it or not, the first edition of The Origin of Species discussed giraffe tails, not necks. Photo by ucumari.
  • This is a pithy lead-in. This is a brief description of the scientific news to which I will link. (This link also names the source)
  • Necks for sex? Sounds like a stretch. Did you think biologists know why giraffes have long necks? Think again. (Laelaps)
  • GM pesticides: still pesticides. Bt toxin produced as a built-in insecticide by genetically modified plants has been detected in agricultural runoff. (Observations)
  • Time to revise the kosher laws? A fish called the European eelpout suckles its young, after a fashion. (BBC)
  • Self-fulfilling expectations. When reminded about gender stereotypes, men make riskier financial decisions, and women make safer ones. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)
  • A convenient genetic bundle of “magic” traits. A single region of inverted DNA is behind substantial adaptive change—and reproductive isolation—between two forms of the wildflower Mimulus guttatus. (The Intersection)
  • Berry-Go-Round! The 31st edition of the botany-themed blog carnival is online this week at A Blog Around the Clock.
  • Masturbating squirrels. From the journal that brought you fruitbat fellatio. (PLoS ONE)
  • If you buy real estate, pick your hemisphere carefully. The first documented planet in the “habitable zone” of another star (just close enough for water to stay liquid) is about three times the mass of Earth, and tidally locked to its sun. (Science 2.0, Discovery News)

And the video for the week: tickling a slow loris. Not sure the critter is laughing, exactly, but it seems to be having fun.