Science online, bird’s-eye view of peer review edition

Miami Beach Stormy weather ahead. Photo by Elido Turco – Gigi.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Brood parasites with benefits

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, Amy Dapper discusses a new study of brood parasites, birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, letting those adoptive hosts take on the costs of raising the brood parasites’ chicks. This sounds like a bad deal for the host species, but in at least one case, it turns out that a brood parasite chick can be a boon to its adoptive nest-mates:

Canestrari et al. (2014) focused on the great spotted cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) and their host, carrion crows (Corvus corone corone). They studied the success rate of nests with and without brood parasitism and found that carrion crow nests that contained parasitic cuckoo nestlings were actually more likely to be successful (i.e. fledge at least one crow nestling). How could this be?

To learn why a carrion crow might want to raise a baby cuckoo, go read the whole thing.◼

The Molecular Ecologist: Charles Goodnight

Ants and Aphids, Backlit Photo by binux.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist, John Stanton Geddes continues his interview series with quantitative geneticist Charles Goodnight, whose work covers everything from multi-level perspectives on natural selection to the the causal linkage between directly measurable trait variation and interactions between individual genes. Here’s a sample of what Goodnight has to say about the group selection versus kin selection debate (which I’ve discussed here before):

Why the controversy continues today is not so clear. It is interesting that it is mostly very one sided. Those who champion group selection tend to understand kin selection, and dismiss it because it is not useful to them. Those who tend to champion kin selection tend to not understand group selection and dismiss it because it is a priori wrong.

The interview also covers Goodnight’s thoughts about how molecular genetics has changed the field since his days in graduate school, his experience starting up the blog Evolution in Structured Populations and his estimation of the probability of extraterrestrial invasion—I recommend reading the whole thing.◼

Spring-cleaning Twitter

Masjid Sweeper Photo by Meanest Indian.

Late last week I happened to notice that I was following something like 1,400 accounts on Twitter. That seems like … a lot? So I decided to start pruning the list a little. I like Twitter for interactions with other scientists and science-y folks, for discovering new ideas and results and news, and for its overall global water cooler aspect. So with that in mind, I’ve decided to triage who I follow along these lines:

  • I’m only going to follow accounts that actually update regularly. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
  • I’m prioritizing accounts belonging to people I know personally.
  • In many cases, I was following both the official account for publications or organizations and accounts belonging to their staffers/contributors—and I’d get tweets about the same stuff from each. Given the choice, I’d rather follow individual people than organizations; Mark Joseph Stern over Outward.
  • I’m prioritizing scientists, particularly those in my field.
  • I’m blanket-unfollowing politicians and political organizations. I read the news; I don’t need links to press releases and official statements in my Twitter feed. And if they tweet something genuinely interesting, I should see it re-tweeted from the “real” people I follow.
  • I’m blanket-unfollowing parody and joke accounts. Yes, it’s funny to read the latest management tips from Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but I really don’t need a regular drip of them in my feed. As with political feeds, I’m now relying on the actual human beings I follow to show me the best stuff from these accounts.
  • I’m unfollowing any account if, when it comes up on my feed, I can’t remember the last time I clicked on one of its posts (unless the account falls into one of the priority lists above).

Twitter doesn’t provide any useful way to sort through a, let’s face it, ridiculously long list of account names based on anything other than the order in which I followed them, so I’ve been casting about for a third-party system. The interface at Tweepi is somewhat balky, but it does let me sort the list by how recently each account was updated, which is useful. I’m also simply keeping an eye on my main feed, and unfollowing whenever I see something that doesn’t meet the triage conditions. So far I’m down to … 1,169.◼

Science online, eddies in the space-time continuum edition

Ripples Photo by tomopteris.

Video of the week: Joe Hanson on the evolutionary history behind human endurance running, a topic near and dear to my heart.

The Molecular Ecologist: Crowd-sourcing natural history

Moths in an insect drawer Insects in a museum collection. Photo by Leeds Museum and Galleries.

This week at The Molecular Ecologist, I discuss some emerging initiatives to collect biodiversity data with a little help from the entire Internet:

… the websites iSpot and eBird ask volunteers to record their natural history observations directly, creating crowd-sourced records of species occurrences. (iSpot covers everything from amphibians to fungi, while eBird is specialized exactly as you would expect from the name.) Both of these sites provide educational resources in concert with their data-collection missions; iSpot through user-generated quizzes, eBird by helping bird-watchers find new species in their own neighborhoods. And both of them make their datasets public.

Have you ever worked with crowd-sourced data like this? Go read the whole thing, and tell us about your experience in the comments.◼

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Adjunctivitis

2006.10.21 - Life Sciences South, University of Idaho The life sciences building at the University of Idaho. Photo by jby.

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Noah Reid tackles the question that was left hanging in my recent article about a six-day creationist teaching introductory microbiology at the University of Idaho: how a person with such questionable credentials could have been hired in the first place. Noah argues that it’s a symptom of the poor treatment of adjunct faculty in American higher education.

These faculty are hired on a course by course, semester by semester basis. They receive no benefits and don’t have a shred of job security. By some estimates an average “full-time” adjunct faculty member teaching 8 courses a year (3 each semester and 2 in the summer, perhaps?) would make less than $30,000 a year and it’s thought that adjunct faculty are now doing 70% of the teaching at higher education institutions in the US.

… In response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of that coin: when you offer shitty compensation, you might just get shitty employees.

To see the argument in full, go read the whole thing. Edited to add: and see also P.Z. Myers’s blistering reaction.◼

Science online, sticky tape and storytelling edition

2006.07.10 - storm's a'comin' Wilderness: still worth preserving. Photo by jby.

Queer in STEM: What’s the relationship between openness and comfort?

Faculty members who are out to their colleagues are … much more likely to describe themselves as “uncomfortable”? Figure 1 from Patridge et al. (2014).

Over at the Queer in STEM site, I discuss the first study to try and tackle the questions that motivated QiS, which was just recently published. It’s exciting to see that other folks are also looking at the experiences of LGBTQ folks in STEM careers—but it’s a bit puzzling that this new study found a pattern very different from what we see in our own data:

… of the STEM faculty who answered the Campus Pride survey, those who who rated their “outness” level as 4 or 5 were much more likely to say they were uncomfortable in their department.

… In the most comparable analysis from our own study, we found that participants who described their workplaces as “welcoming,” or said they were “treated the same” as their straight colleges, were much more likely to be out to their colleagues—exactly the opposite of the relationship Patridge et al. found between begin out and feeling comfortable.

In the full post, I discuss some hypotheses about why we might have found such completely different results, and try to evaluate them based on the Queer in STEM data.◼

The Molecular Ecologist: Tracing soft selective sweeps in your gut microbiota

ποντίκι / μυς, mouse (Mus musculus) by George Shuklin Why is my poop glowing blue? Photo by George Shuklin.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist, I’m discussing a new study that traces the adaptation of bacteria moving into a mammalian gut:

João Barroso-Batista and colleagues at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência and Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica in Portugal first treated mice with streptomycin to clear their guts of bacteria, then fed them cultures of Escherichia coli that were genetically uniform—except that half the E. coli cells in the culture had been engineered to produce a blue fluorescent protein, and half had been engineered to produce a yellow fluorescent protein. … If a single mutation made that one cell so successful that its descendants entirely dominated the gut, the authors would be able to tell—by checking the color of the host mouse’s poop.

To find out what the study’s authors learned by sequencing the bacterial genomes in that colored mouse poop, go read the whole thing.◼