Science online, domesticated bliss edition

Yeah, I’d domesticate these guys before wolves. Photo by law_kevin.

Let’s just take my passive-aggressive hint to like Denim and Tweed on Facebook as read this week, shall we?

  • Science blogging gets interdisciplinary. Scicurious and Kate Clancey evaluate the neurology and endocrinology behind a study of pre-menustrual dysphoric disorder.
  • Belyaev’s domesticated foxes are back, with minks and rats. The “domestication syndrome” of animals selected to live with people may have the same genetic origins in many mammal species.
  • They are mighty cuddly. A new archaeological find suggests that there was at least one pet fox in a Pleistocene human settlement.
  • Only one possible name for that illusion. With the right visual cues and some careful tactile stimulus, it’s possible to convince people they have a third hand.
  • Fresh country air has lots of germs. Children raised in the diverse bacterial communities found on farms are less likely to develop asthma.
  • It’s a tricky bugger. Curing HIV isn’t going to be easy, but there are some new lines of attack that look promising.
  • In case you missed it. I wrote a guest post for Scientific American!

Maybe I should wait a little longer before adding papers to my publications list

16 February 2011:

Schmidt JS, Volkov S, Baptiste J-M. “A simple Bayesian framework explains both the range expansion of malaria-carrying mosquitoes under global climate change and the probability of sexual contact following a three-course restaurant meal.” MS in prep. for Nature, planned submission by March 2011.

31 March 2011:

Schmidt JS, Baptiste J-M, Anderson KW, Volkov S. “A simple Bayesian framework explains both the range expansion of malaria-carrying mosquitoes under global climate change and the probability of sexual contact following a three-course restaurant meal.” MS in prep. for Nature, planned submission by June 2011.

29 June 2011:

Schmidt JS, Baptiste J-M, Anderson KW, Volkov S. “A simple Bayesian framework explains both the range expansion of malaria-carrying mosquitoes under global climate change and the probability of sexual contact following a three-course restaurant meal.” Submitted to Nature.

12 July 2011:

Schmidt JS, Baptiste J-M, Anderson KW, Volkov S. “A widely-applicable Bayesian approach to cost-benefit analysis.” MS in prep. for Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, planned submission by August 2011.

15 August 2011:

Schmidt JS, Baptiste J-M, Anderson KW, Volkov S. “A widely-applicable Bayesian approach to cost-benefit analysis.” Submitted to Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA.

18 August 2011:

Schmidt JS, Baptiste J-M, Anderson KW, Volkov S. “A widely-applicable Bayesian approach to cost-benefit analysis.” In review at Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA.

19 September 2011:

Schmidt JS, Anderson KW, Volkov S. “A Bayesian model to predict range shifts under varying climate change scenarios.” MS in prep. for Proc. Royal Soc. B, planned submission by November 2011.

23 November 2011:

Schmidt JS, Anderson KW, Volkov S. “A Bayesian model to predict range shifts under varying climate change scenarios.” In review at Proc. Royal Soc. B.

3 January 2012:

Schmidt JS and Volkov S. “Mosquitoes will move north if it gets warmer.” MS in prep. for Central Midwest Entomologist.

Public Broadcasting: worth every penny

Following the House’s vote to defund Public Broadcasting, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting posted this video of Fred Rogers testifying before Congress in support of some of the earliest Federal funding for public television.

That do-it-yourself determination to harness modern media for the public good is still alive and well in shows like Frontline—which just released the best report I’ve seen on the Egyptian revolution of 25 January. It’s alive and well in NPR’s Planet Money podcast, which started in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and is now the reason I (mostly) understand mortgage-backed securities. It’s alive and well in Radiolab, which is producing the best popular science reporting in any medium. And it’s alive and well in On the Media, where even the question of Federal funding for Public Broadcasting is up for debate.

Want to keep Public Broadcasting alive and well? The Senate hasn’t voted yet. And there’s a website to get you started.

Stop a proposed oil pipeline by … kayaking?

That’s the idea behind the Pipedreams Project. Concerned about a proposed pipeline that would connect Alberta tar sands oil fields to the British Columbia coast, a trio of British Columbians paddled the region that would be in danger in the event of a spill. Now they’re working on a documentary about the proposed pipeline, the trip, and the people they met along the way.

One of these mutualists is not like the other

ResearchBlogging.orgOver the last few months I’ve been writing a lot about how different species interactions have different evolutionary effects. The studies I’ve looked at so far focus on effects over just a few generations—barely time to take notice, in evolutionary time. The February issue of The American Naturalist remedies this short-term perspective with a paper showing that over millions of years, two different kinds of mutualists had very different effects on the history of one group of orchids [$a].

The new study examines the evolutionary history of coryciinae orchids, a group of South African orchids that rely on two major groups of mutualists. The first, and perhaps most obvious, are pollinating bees, which coryciinae orchids attract not with nectar but with oils. Like most other orichids, this group of flowers interacts with its pollinators in very specific ways, to the point that different coryciinae species can share a single pollinator by placing pollen on different parts of the pollinator’s body, as seen in the image below.

Double duty: This bee is carrying pollen from one orchid species on its forelegs, and pollen from another orchid species on its abdomen. Photo from Waterman et al (2011), figure 1.

The second important group of mutualists are mycorrhizae, a class of fungus found in soil, which colonize plants’ roots. Mycorrhizae aid their hosts in taking up minerals, particularly phosphorus, in exchange for sugar supplied by the host. In certain kinds of soil, having the right mycorrhizae is the difference between life and death for a plant.

Although both pollinators and mycorrhizae are vital to an orchid’s success, they should contribute to forming new orchid species in very different ways. Evolving a new pollinator relationship can directly create reproductive isolation for a flowering plant, independent of other ecological considerations. On the other hand, mycorrhizae are closely linked to basic ecology, because the mycorrhizae in a plant’s roots determine what kinds of soils it can use—wet or dry, acidic or alkaline. If new orchid species usually form by adapting to new habitats, they probably acquire new mycorrhizae while doing so.

If changing a trait—in this case, a mutualistic relationship—is related to forming new species, then closely related orchid species will be more likely to differ in that trait. This turns out to be the case for pollinators—the more closely related two orchid species are, the more likely they are to use different pollinators, or different parts of the same pollinator. However, the reverse is true for mycorrhizae. The more closely related two orchids are to each other, the more likely they are to have the same mutualistic fungi in their roots. This finding that pollination matters most to species formation is right in keeping with Verne Grant’s classic study noting that animal pollinated plants tend to differ more in their floral structures—the parts that interact with pollinators—than in other traits.

The authors followed up on these results with field experiments on a few selected species, and found that co-occurring orchids could often successfully pollinate each other, if the pollen was deliberately placed. In these cases, differences in specialized pollination interactions are most of what maintains the orchid species as separate genetic entities. On the other hand, closely related orchids that grow in adjacent habitats did just fine when transplanted into each others’ soil—and mycorrhizae.

Biologists studying the effects of pollination on plant species formation have recently become more aware that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. New pollinator interactions certainly might form new species—but it is also possible that new orchid species created by other forces must rapidly evolve new pollinator interactions to compete with existing species.


Armbruster, W., & Muchhala, N. (2008). Associations between floral specialization and species diversity: cause, effect, or correlation? Evolutionary Ecology, 23 (1), 159-79 DOI: 10.1007/s10682-008-9259-z

Waterman, R., Bidartondo, M., Stofberg, J., Combs, J., Gebauer, G., Savolainen, V., Barraclough, T., & Pauw, A. (2011). The effects of above- and belowground mutualisms on orchid speciation and coexistence. The American Naturalist, 177 (2) DOI: 10.1086/657955

Scientific American guest blog: Ecological opportunity is all around us

ResearchBlogging.orgThe latest entry in the wide-ranging Guest Blog at Scientific American is a post by yours truly, about a subject I’ve discussed before:

Since the Origin was first published, biologists have come to use the phrase ecological opportunity to describe the processes that can produce a diverse group of species from a single colonizing ancestor. Islands provide colonizing species with new food resources and an escape from predators and competitors. Under these highly favorable conditions, island species can live at much higher population densities than possible on the mainland—a phenomenon called density compensation. This increase in population size is often accompanied by increased variation among individuals, and greater competition from crowding neighbors creates strong benefits for individuals that try new ways to make a living.

Given enough time, one big, variable population will begin to fracture into smaller populations with different lifestyles. Given even more time, those smaller populations will stop interbreeding, and become different enough to call separate species. If that seems like a stretch of the imagination, consider that the processes of ecological opportunity are occurring all around us—as invasive species spread across the landscape, and viruses multiply in a new victim’s bloodstream.

To learn how ecological opportunity really is all around us, you’ll have to go check out the whole post.

Kudzu, taking advantage of ecological opportunity. Photo by Suzie T.


Yoder, J.B., S. Des Roches, J.M. Eastman, L. Gentry, W.K.W. Godsoe, T. Hagey, D. Jochimsen, B.P. Oswald, J. Robertson, B.A.J. Sarver, J.J. Schenk, S.F. Spear, & L.J. Harmon. (2010). Ecological opportunity and the origin of adaptive radiations. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23, 1581-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02029.x

The Qu’osby Show

Every time I start to think The Daily Show might be losing its edge (admittedly, this usually happens whenever the show goes on hiatus for a couple weeks) along comes something like this: Aasif Mandvi’s take on the Cosby Show. Wow.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – The Qu’osby Show – The Pilot
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Science online, louse-y Valentine’s Day edition

A human head louse. Photo by Giles San Martin.

You like D&T, you like it not …

Principle interviewee: Erica Bree Rosenblum

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgSince her office is just down the hall from mine, I couldn’t very well write about Erica Bree Rosenblum’s latest scientific paper without talking to her about it in person. Rosenblum and her coauthor Luke Harmon weave together the stories of three lizard species’ evolutionary responses to the gypsum dunes of White Sands, New Mexico. As Rosenblum told me in our interview, the study both consummates work she began as a doctoral student and suggests new avenues of study at a striking and beautiful field site.

Erica Bree Rosenblum at White Sands, where she has studied lizards’ adaptation to the dramatic gypsum dunes since graduate school. Photo courtesy Erica Bree Rosenblum.

(I’ve edited the transcribed interview for clarity and length, and paraphrased the questions I asked in person to minimize my interruptions. Rosenblum previewed, corrected, and approved the text of her answers and my questions as they appear below.)

Jeremy B. Yoder: Tell me about the new study and its context.

Erica Bree Rosenblum: Some of the things that are compelling about White Sands that motivated us to write the “Same Same but Different” [$a] are that there are a number of different species that colonized this recent formation. … At first blush, this system looks all “same same.” You look at the main trait that has allowed these animals to survive there, which is becoming light in color, and many diurnal animals at White Sands are white, unless they have some other strategy for avoiding predation. … So a lot of my work over the last several years has been focused on the “same same” aspect of convergent evolution and on the one trait that appears to be the key trait for colonizing, which is light color.

The motivation of this paper was that there is an enormous “but different” side to the story, because there are three lizard species there, and they exhibit some really compelling differences in their degree of adaptation and their progress toward speciation. And also if you start looking at other traits besides color, if you take a multidimensional perspective on adaptation, then there are a lot of really striking differences across species.

JBY: Body size and limb length?

EBR: Body size and limb length and also the genetic basis of color and how structured the populations are across the ecotone. [The transition zone between white sand dunes and dark soil – JBY] So the motivation for this study was to look at what are the essential factors for ecological speciation and then what are the promoting factors for ecological speciation and how might the three species differ.

JBY: How did you start studying the White Sands lizards in the first place?

EBR: I was co-advised in graduate school by two eminent evolutionary biologists who have opposite perspectives on how you find study systems. My first year in graduate school, my one advisor, Craig Moritz, said to pick the theory you are interested in first and then find the system that will let you address that theory. My other advisor, David Wake, said to pick something that you love aesthetically, and then learn more about that. So I had these competing influences, in that sense, when I was trying to form my dissertation project.

Rosenblum and her collaborator Luke Harmon pursue Sceloporus magister, a close evolutionary relative of one species that has colonized White Sands. Photo courtesy Erica Bree Rosenblum.

I had just come back from a bunch of years abroad, and I knew I didn’t want to do research overseas. I also knew that I wanted to do my own thing and just “plug into” a system that had already been established. So I had an idea for wanting to do a study about ecotones—to study divergence with gene flow—in herps. [Lizards and snakes – JBY]

I had talked with different people and taken a map of the U.S. and circled every place that had really sharp transition zones that had to do with interesting problems in herpetology. So I had considered other field sites—in some of the lava flows in California that have strong transition zones, coastal-to-inland [transitions], these cool legless lizards in California—there’s a bunch of strong ecotonal transitions in western U.S. reptiles.

So I circled a bunch of places on the map and I was driving around catching animals and thinking about what I wanted to do. And when I got to White Sands, the Dave Wake part of me was drawn to it aesthetically. … It just seemed like such a striking example of adaptation with such clear possibilities. I knew I wanted to study something simple enough to wrap my head around, and White Sands has a striking, small, depauperate community, so you can actually study everything. And with a few exceptions, no one had done any biological research at White Sands since the forties, when the White Sands species were described.

JBY: What question would you like to have answered five years from now?

EBR: One of the big things I’d like to know is about the dimensionality of selection in the wild. We have a tendency to think about whatever trait seems most accessible to us, but when environments change, organisms are confronted with a lot of adaptive problems to solve at once.

… Number one is understanding the genetic architecture of adaptation and speciation. We know a lot about genotype to phenotype connections in natural populations, but we don’t know a lot about genotype-to-phenotype-to-speciation connections. I’m really interested in traits that might function as “magic traits,” that make speciation easier. I’m interested in whether [for White Sands lizards] color serves as a magic trait and can “high-tail” populations towards speciation.

The other thing I’m interested in is the genetic architecture of multidimensional adaptation. If you have lots of traits that are changing in a new environment, and it is happening very quickly over time, are the genes that underlie those adaptive traits all clustered in the genome? Is there a “signature” of multidimensional adaptation at the genetic level?

And then the third thing is about the predictability of evolution in general. I think it would be really fun to do a more systematic study of the entire fauna at White Sands and understand not just three lizard replicates but all the other species that are white, from invertebrates to mammals, to understand how predictable those adaptive changes are.

Different shades of Sceloporus undulatus, one of the three lizard species adapted to life at White Sands. Photo courtesy Simone Des Roches.

JBY: What about ten years from now?

EBR: The challenge of working at White Sands is that it’s a compelling empirical system to test some classic population genetics ideas, but it’s very hard to develop general conclusions from one system with three replicates. It’s nice to have the three lizard replicates, but it’s still only one system in one place. I’ve tried to visit all the other gypsum sand dune systems in the world. There are others—in Texas, in Mexico … they have unique faunas in other ways, but none of them seem to have blanched species. So when you study natural systems, finding compelling evolutionary replicates can be difficult.

JBY: And when we go looking for study systems we often find the ones with the strongest signals first.

EBR: That’s right … Another example where we’re running into a problem is that … in two of the three species the gene that controls color is the same gene, but has different dominance patterns [PDF]. In one species the mutation that leads to white color is recessive and in the other it’s dominant. And there’s a longstanding debate from Haldane, of how dominance should influence adaptation, but it’s just an N of two. So we could get any pattern. We’re doing follow-up studies to see if the predictions would be upheld in terms of how dominance affects the rate at which adaptive alleles are fixed, and visibility to selection. But whichever way the story goes, it’s either the way you expect it or the way you don’t expect it, but it’s just two replicates. So that is one challenge of studying things in nature.

JBY: Let’s conclude with an outrageous, blog-oriented question: Is White Sands the new Galapagos Islands?

EBR: Yes. [Laughs]

JBY: That’s what I hoped you’d say.

EBR: There are things that are compelling about white sands not only for learning about evolution but also for teaching about evolution. One of the new grants I have is for integrating research and outreach there, because it’s such a compelling place to say, “this is how adaptation happens.” You can see it with your eye, and it’s exactly what you expect. We just finished helping build a new evolution museum at the visitor center at white sands. … So I think that it has cool potential for helping public education around evolution, and it’s not as expensive to go there as it is to go to the Galapagos!


Rosenblum, E., Rompler, H., Schoneberg, T., & Hoekstra, H. (2009). Molecular and functional basis of phenotypic convergence in white lizards at White Sands. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 107 (5), 2113-7 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911042107

Rosenblum, E., & Harmon, L. (2010). “Same same but different”: Replicated ecological speciation at White Sands. Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01190.x

“Going Viral” for HIV awareness

My friend Luke Swenson has just started a blog for the Vancouver, BC-based HIV awareness organization YouthCo. Luke’s working on a Ph.D. in HIV’s evolutionary response to drug treatment at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and he’ll be using the blog to explain new scientific results and how they relate to treatment and prevention strategies.

His inaugural post discusses the German AIDS patient who was recently confirmed to have been cured by a bone marrow transplant—it’s pretty clear that this cure comes at a steep price. (Full disclosure: Luke asked me for comments on an earlier draft of the post.) Go check it out and welcome Luke to the science blogosphere!