I get e-mail

Submitted without comment, except to note that I’ve been science-blogging for, like, three years now, and this is, to the best of my memory, the first time I’ve gotten this sort of e-mail. I’m not sure how that reflects on me, or on my readership.

hi i am a biology student doing an assignment on diversity and evolution

can you please tell me about the variation within weevils. how it came about and stuff like that

Thank you

[Name redacted]

And my response, in its entirety:

Hi, [Name redacted],

Well, I’m not an expert on weevils, although I’ve written about some specific work other people have done on specific species of weevils ([long URL]) and about that group of beetles in general ([long URL]). But I’m sure you’ve already read those posts, since you e-mailed me using the blog’s address. I would suggest that you start your research by following up on the papers I cite in those posts, however. (I’m attaching PDF copies of each.)

Also, “variation within weevils” is an extremely vague, and potentially very broad, topic. Weevils are, after all, one of the most diverse groups within the beetles, which are themselves the most diverse group of animals on the planet. So unless you want me to pick your topic, too, I think maybe you’d better do some additional reading and figure out exactly what it is you want to do your assignment on.


Okay, fine, I will make one comment, in two parts: (1) [Name redacted]’s e-mail address is an academic one, and (2) the complete text of everything I’ve written on the subject of weevils is quite thoroughly indexed by Google, and therefore easily findable by both inquiring students, and suspicious professors. ◼

Science online, fish out of water edition

Fish, out of water. Photo by las – initially.

And now, video of one gecko saving another from an attacking snake.


Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Two parasites, one host

Daphnia, a water flea. Photo via Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!.

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, the still shiny new collaborative science blog, contributor Devin Drown describes what happens when two different parasite species infect the same water flea.

Octosporea bayeri needs the host to produce offspring for vertical transmission, that is the host and parasite have an aligned interest in producing offspring. On the other hand, Pasteuria ramosa is using host resources, including the reproductive tissues, to produce spores for infecting other hosts. Because of the alignment of interests between host and the vertically transmitting parasite, the question becomes: does infection by O. bayeri provide host protection from future infection by P. ramosa?

The answer, of course, is in the full post. ◼

The joy of sex (well, one, anyway): Fewer parasites

Natural selection does not necessarily love sex. Photo by xcode.

Hey, don’t knock [selfing]! It’s sex with someone I love.
—Woody Allen, in Annie Hall

Sex is a puzzle to evolutionary biologists. I don’t mean that we’re socially awkward—I mean that sexual reproduction, which involves mixing your genes with someone else’s to produce one or more children, seems to be at odds with natural selection. Every child produced by sexual reproduction carries only half the genetic material of each of her parents; but parents who can make children without sex pass on all their genes to every child.

Over time, individuals who can make babies without sex should become more common in the population than individuals who have to have sex to reproduce, simply because every baby produced without sex “counts” twice as much for its parent. We know of cases (for instance, stick insects) where asexual reproduction has apparently evolved and spread multiple times.

And yet, not only is sexual reproduction widespread in the natural world, there are many species of living things in which some individuals reproduce sexually and some reproduce without sex, and the two types coexist more-or-less stably. This is particularly common in plants, but it’s also seen in lots of other taxa. That suggests there must be something useful about sexual reproduction that offsets the cost associated with making only half a copy of your genome for every child you have.

One popular hypothesis is that sexual reproduction helps generate new combinations of genes to fight parasites and diseases—this is called the Red Queen Hypothesis, after the character in Through the Looking-Glass who tells Alice that “… it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Sex, the thinking goes, means that your children are more likely to have new parasite-fighting gene combinations, and that populations can “run faster” in the coevolutionary race against parasites. And now, a new study in a population of peculiar little fish provides some reasonably direct evidence [$a] for that proposed benefit of sex.

A mangrove killifish. Photo via USGS, used under fair use rationale.

The mangrove killifish, Rivulus marmoratus, leads a pretty remarkable life even before you consider its reproductive strategy. Mangrove killifish live in coastal mangrove swamps, where they must contend with changes in water salinity and water level—and they deal with dry spells by packing into hollows in mangrove tree trunks. Jammed together in a hollow log, the killifish can survive up to two months entirely out of water.

They’re also one of very few vertebrate species known to be able to reproduce asexually. Most mangrove killifish are hermaphrodites, capable of making both eggs and sperm and combining them—or “selfing”—to lay fertilized eggs. A few killifish develop as “pure” males instead, capable of producing only sperm, and therefore only capable of sexual reproduction. Why that small fraction of males persists in killifish populations is probably related to the selective costs and benefits of sex, both for mangrove killifish and for living things in general.

The Red Queen hypothesis predicts that sex is beneficial because it creates new combinations of genes, which in turn lead to greater parasite resistance. Therefore, if killifish produced by sexual reproduction should have more diverse genomes, and are better able to resist parasites than killifish who only have one hermaphroditic parent, then the Red Queen may be the reason why male killifish haven’t gone the way of the dodo.

This is what Amy Ellison and her coauthors found in a population of mangrove killifish from four sites in Belize. They collected killifish and took their genetic fingerprints to identify individuals that were most likely descended from a single selfing lineage, or those that carried genes from multiple lineages. They also checked each fish for infection by three major groups of parasites—bacteria, a common protozoan parasite of killifish, and parasitic worms.

Their total sample size is a bit small, but the team found a pattern generally quite consistent with the Red Queen. Fish descended from sexually-reproducing parents were more likely to be heterozygous—to carry two different forms of a gene—than fish descended from asexual lines. More importantly, fish descended from sexually-reproducing parents also generally had fewer parasites of all three classes, and were generally less likely to carry any protozoans or worms, than those descended from hermaphrodites. That’s consistent with the Red Queen, and it shows the perfectly good selective “reason” for a hermaphrodite to mate with a “pure” male—even though the hermaphrodite is giving up half the selective benefit of the offspring thus produced, those offspring are more likely to be healthy.

A broader prediction that follows from these results is that mangrove killifish populations with higher rates of parasite attack should have more males, or at least more individuals with two parents. What would really be cool, though, is if hermaphroditic killifish can respond to parasite infections by choosing to reproduce sexually—self-medicating, like monarch butterflies, but with sex instead of a toxic host plant. It’s been observed that the hermaphroditic nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans responds to environmental stress by giving birth to more male offspring, but I know of no such result in a vertebrate. ◼


Ellison, A., Cable, J., & Consuegra, S. (2011). Best of both worlds? Association between outcrossing and parasite loads in a selfing fish. Evolution, 65 (10), 3021-6 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01354.x

CreatureCast: Strangler figs

Kevin Zelnio’s post about the need for evolutionary biologists to approach outreach like viral marketing reminded me about CreatureCast, a frickin’ awesome project by the Dunn Lab at Brown University, which has scientists talking about their work in bite-sized videos illustrated with whimsical animation. Here’s one on strangler figs:

If this isn’t a good argument for adding a little money to your next grant to support an undergrad video production or communication major as a “broader impact,” I don’t know what is. ◼

Science online, vitamin vacuity edition

Pills. Photo by aSIMULAtor.


Big news, everyone!

There’s a new science blog in town. Er. Online. Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! is what happened when I asked a bunch of my friends—collaborators, “sibling” grad students, and, yes, my brother the medical student—to pitch in their time and expertise in a collaborative science blog. Some of us have a lot of experience writing about science online, and some of us are trying it out for the first time.

The site’s name, of course, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous statement that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In that spirit, I’m hoping the diverse expertise of contributors to Nothing in Biology means that we’ll help each other make sense of the living world, together.

(I’ll continue posting here at D&T, too, though probably at the same reduced frequency I’ve managed lately. Nothing in Biology is a group blog; D&T is still my personal home on the web.)

We launch today with a post on the importance of evolution in human medicine—have a read, make a comment, and, if you like what you read, like us on Facebook and share the link! ◼

Science online, unhelpful anthropomorphism edition

Young chimpanzees at play. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.