Gone out, back soon

Tikaboo Valley, Nevada. Photo by jby.

One of the nice things about maintaining a long collaboration is that sometimes, it gives you an excuse to get out of town to help out. I’m spending this week playing field assistant to Chris Smith, on his ongoing study of Joshua trees and their interaction with pollinating moths. The field site in Tikaboo Valley, Nevada, puts me completely out of Internet and cellphone contact—which makes this a nice chance to take a break from the 21st century in the name of science. So: no further posting until next week. ◼

Science online, paper in your hot dog edition

Hot dog. Photo by stu_spivack.
  • Two plus two may equal five, depending on what you’re counting. A series of thought experiments explain why in statistics, numbers need not add up.
  • Because of course you were curious. The anatomy of alligator erections, explained.
  • In other news, too much food is bad for you. Deborah Blum puts the recent study linking red meat consumption to risk of death in context.
  • Teamwork! Pesticides aren’t the sole cause of honeybee colony collapse—but they interact dangerously with other stresses.
  • But less likely to be journal editors. Hmm. Women are less likely to turn down requests for peer review.
  • And how to cultivate better ones. Author Charles Duhigg tells Steve Silberman how to break bad habits
  • Unnatural history. A new kind of museum showcases animals that have been modified by humans.
  • My baloney has a first name/ It’s P-A-P-E-R. A new form of processed cellulose—the same plant fibers used to make paper—could replace saturated fat in foods like hot dogs.


Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Making sense of the evolution of language

The language of evolution. Photo by CharlesFred.

This week at the collaborative blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, guest contributor James Winters describes the considerable inter-relationships between evolutionary biology and the study of human language.

Darwin recognised, along with several other linguists of the period such as August Schleicher and Mikołaj Kruszewski, that language falls under the remit of evolutionary principles. Since then, there has been a renewed and growing interest in evolutionary (Croft, 2000) and ecological (Mufwene, 2000) theories of language change, with biological, cultural and linguistic forms of evolution being captured by the more general rubric of Complex Adaptive Systems. … it is the capacity to evolve and adapt that differentiates language and biology from these other systems, with the key concept being their ability to learn: past experiences filter through, or influence, future states of the system due to cumulative amplification dynamic (Deacon, 2010).

To find out more, go read the whole thing. ◼


Oh, hey, the guy who who did the Public Radio rap sings about other things, including important biological information that will come in handy if you have plans tonight. Or, at least, explain your headache tomorrow morning.

(Via pretty much the entire Internet. I do not personally celebrate the feast of St. Patrick, but this almost counts as a religious connection, right? So I will probably be having a beer or two, thank you.) ◼

Science online, endogenous cannabinoids edition

Running! Photo by andronicusmax.
  • If you’ve got ’em, use ’em. Eels’ comparatively complex lifecycle may be made possible by extra copies of key developmental genes.
  • Yes, it’s real. No, we don’t know why. What science knows—and what it doesn’t—about the runner’s high.
  • I don’t think I’d call any crocodilian snout “dainty,” though. The shapes of an alligators’ and crocodiles’ snouts don’t make a difference for the strength of their bites.
  • Alas, it won’t produce flour ready-made for Girlscout cookies. Wheat engineered to carry and express genes from mint could repel aphids.
  • As if you needed an excuse to build a robotic squirrel. The purpose of ground squirrels’ rattlesnake-repelling tail-waving, tested using a robotic squirrel.
  • Because, as we all know, humans stopped experiencing natural selection 20,000 years ago. Is it possible that human speech and music are purely products of cultural evolution, instead of natural selection?
  • Less obviously, that is. Fruit flies left to evolve in complete darkness for 1,400 generations change less than you might think.


“Andrew in Drag”

I’ve resisted the urge to post the video for “Andrew in Drag,” the headline song from the Magnetic Fields’ new album, mainly because it’s NSFW (butts! boobies!). But I’ve heard it several times now, including on the radio this morning, and it just gets better every time.

Also, it’s pretty ear-wormy. So now you, too, can listen to Stephen Merritt’s dolorous singing voice all day, inside your head. ◼

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Cardiothoracic surgery

Photo by akeg.

This week at the collaborative science blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, my brother Jon, a third-year med school student, describes his experiences helping out with open-heart surgery:

I stood on the other side, holding the still-beating heart out of the way. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the calm at which they did this, as if this were a perfectly normal and ordinary thing to do. Then, once all the lines were in place, a clamp was placed on the aorta, completely isolating the heart from the circulation of blood in the rest of the body. At this point, the heart is cooled down with ice and infused with a solution that arrests it in the phase of contraction called diastole. This is when the timer starts: From this point on the surgeon can operate for up several hours without any damage occurring to the heart.

For all the (not actually very gory) details, go read the whole thing. ◼

Science online, world’s worst amnesia edition

Zebra finches. Photo by Lip Kee.


Do choosy cuckoos choose well-matched hosts?

A reed warbler feeds a cuckoo chick. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

ResearchBlogging.orgCross-posted from Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

Brood parasitism, the reproductive strategy of choice for cuckoos and cowbirds, sounds like a lazy approach to parenting: lay your eggs in another bird’s nest, and let the unwilling adoptive parents take the trouble to raise your chicks. But contracting out parental care like this comes with many of its own complications. Chicks raised by parents of a different species have to eliminate competition from their adoptive nestmates, and may grow up a bit confused; reluctant host birds may need to be told, and reminded, that raising cuckoo chicks is an offer they can’t refuse.

But before crossing all those hurdles, a brood parasite’s first task is to lay eggs in the nest of a host who won’t immediately recognize and reject them. The strong natural selection imposed by host rejection has led cuckoos to evolve “host races” that lay eggs whose color and spotting pattern matched to those of their preferred host species. This kind of broad-scale pattern could arise without much direct effort by female cuckoos—those who lay eggs in the nest of the best matching host species would simply be the ones most likely to have chicks that survive to the next generation. But is it possible that cuckoos do take an active role in matching up to their hosts, seeking out host nests containing eggs that look like their own?

The answer, according to a series of studies over the last several years, is yes—probably.

Cuckoo eggs (indicated by arrows) in the nests of three different host species. Illustration via The Knowledge Project.

Although the match between cuckoos’ eggs and those of the specific host species whose nests they invade is striking even to human eyes, it had been generally assumed that, within these egg-matching associations, cuckoos could choose nests pretty much at random. That is to say, while the differences in coloration and spotting between the eggs of different host species were enough to make it hard for a cuckoo egg to blend in with the nests of redstarts and warblers at the same time, a cuckoo whose eggs match the eggs of one redstart will also match the eggs of most other redstarts.

A 2006 study suggested this thinking might be wrong. A group of European ornithologists took advantage of a handy “natural experiment” on the Dutch island of Zealand, where cuckoos had been absent until the early twentieth century. Using museum specimens of cuckoo eggs and eggs from the reed warbler nests in which they were collected, the team compared the match between cuckoo egg color and host egg color over time. Improved matching could be due to female cuckoos selecting better-matched host nests in the new host population; but it could also be created by simple natural selection—the colonizing cuckoos evolving eggs that better matched the host population on average. The coauthors found evidence of rapidly improved matching—but no evidence that the cuckoo’s egg color had changed overall. It looked like the newly arrived brood parasites were adapting by learning, or by evolving, preference for better matches.

Some of the same ornithologists followed this result with a small 2007 study that more directly examined the role of host choice by cuckoos. At a field site in Hungary, they measured the match between cuckoo eggs laid in the nests of great reed warblers, and compared the rate at which warbler parents ejected the naturally-laid cuckoo eggs to the rate at which they rejected randomly-drawn cuckoo eggs introduced into their nests by members of the research team. They found that, indeed, the cuckoo-laid cuckoo eggs were better matches to the eggs in their host nests than researcher-laid cuckoo eggs were—and, more importantly, warblers were less likely to reject the better-matched cuckoo-laid eggs.

A great reed warbler is probably ready for this cuckoo chick to leave the nest. Photo by phenolog.

This result was somewhat complicated, however, by a study just published in PLoS ONE. This time the authors, again including many of the same ornithologists involved in the original 2006 study, compared the match between cuckoo eggs laid in marsh warbler nests at a site in Bulgaria to the cuckoo eggs’ potential match with warbler eggs in nearby unparasitized nests.

If cuckoos were choosing the best-matched host nests, the authors reasoned, there should be a better match between cuckoo eggs and the eggs in parasitized nests than in nearby nests, which the same cuckoo could have used, but didn’t. Six years after the original cuckoo choosiness study, the team was able to use a new approach to compare the match between host and cuckoo eggs: rather than simply compare the spectrum of light reflected by the eggs, they fed the measured spectrum into a mathematical model of bird vision—an approach used in other studies of brood parasites, which is thought to be superior because it estimates how similar, or different, two eggs look through the eyes of a host parent.

With this approach, the team found that cuckoo eggs were not siginificantly better matched to warbler eggs in parasitized nests than they were to eggs in nearby unparasitized nests. Did this overturn the previous evidence for choosy parasitic parents? Well, maybe.

On the one hand, the new study uses the new vision model comparison method, which should give more biologically meaningful results. But on the other, the new study’s design is different in from the 2007 study in a critical way: it doesn’t tell us whether cuckoos’ host choices make the hosts less likely to reject cuckoo eggs. In the 2007 study, there was no need to guess whether the statistical comparison of egg color spectra was biologically meaningful—host parents “told” the researchers that the comparison mattered by rejecting randomly-chosen cuckoo eggs more often than they did eggs laid by actual cuckoos.

So, although there are good reasons to think that the form of measurement used in the new study is better, it’s not clear to me that the result is actually more useful for understanding how natural selection could be acting on cuckoos choosing among many available host nests in a single population. What I’d like to see is a study using the field methods of the 2006 study, and the color matching methods of the 2012 one. ◼


Antonov, A., Stokke, B., Fossøy, F., Ranke, P., Liang, W., Yang, C., Moksnes, A., Shykoff, J., & Røskaft, E. (2012). Are cuckoos maximizing egg mimicry by selecting host individuals with better matching egg phenotypes? PLoS ONE, 7 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031704

Avilés, J., Stokke, B., Moksnes, A., Røskaft, E., Åsmul, M., & Møller, A. (2006). Rapid increase in cuckoo egg matching in a recently parasitized reed warbler population Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 19 (6), 1901-10 DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2006.01166.x

Cherry, M., Bennett, A., & Moskat, C. (2007). Do cuckoos choose nests of great reed warblers on the basis of host egg appearance? Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20 (3), 1218-22 DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2007.01308.x