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Open Lab 2010 Now Available

March 28, 2011

Hey there loyal readers,

Remember back in January when I announced that one of my posts had been selected for Open Laboratory 2010? Well, the wait is over (you’ve been waiting anxiously, right?). Open Lab 2010 is now available in book form (and downloadable pdf form for e-readers).

Buy it here!


Flirting Polar Bear

March 7, 2011

Friday Funnies

March 4, 2011


Research Roundup: The Penis Edition

February 4, 2011

I was just browsing Research Blogging and came across two posts I wish I had written. Both posts discuss the same paper (one by EA Bowman), but they take different approaches to the discussion–and they’re both awesomely written.

If you’re at work (or somewhere where people might peer over your shoulder and judge you), you should read Zinjanthropus’ Adaptationism in the Human Penis first. (There aren’t any pictures in this post, but you will come across gems like this: “Males with better plungers should have more offspring…”)

Then check out Scicurious’ Friday Weird Science: Penises are Funny Looking! (The title comes from something SciMom said in the bean aisle.)

Note: These are serious scientific discussions of the human penis. Of course, they’re funny too because, well, what SciMom said.

Splendid Splendiferousness and the “Scary Movie Effect”

January 31, 2011

ResearchBlogging.orgSuperman thought he was pretty freaking super and Mighty Mouse thought he was pretty freaking mighty. Therefore, splendid fairy-wrens must think they’re pretty freaking splendid.* And they probably do (especially when compared to their cousins, the less splendidly named lovely fairy-wren and superb fairy-wren). Alas, despite the splendiferous cockiness that their name suggests, male splendid fairy-wrens lack confidence in their ability to snag a female.

In fact, male splendid fairy-wrens are so insecure about their ability to get a female’s attention that they’ve resorted to a technique employed by human boys worldwide: the “scary movie effect.” In other words, they wait until something scary—in this case, the call of a predator—grabs the female’s attention and then they simply let her know that they’re there. And guess what, it works.**

It goes like this: A butcherbird calls. (Butcherbirds, named for their habit of hanging their prey on a hook, are a major fairy-wren predator.) And almost immediately after the start of that call, a male splendid fairy-wren lets out his own call—a type II call. This vocal hitchhiking produces a duet that the female splendid fairy-wren presumably hears as: “Yo” (in the scary voice of a big bad butcherbird) “Hey there pretty lady” (in the sweet voice of a male splendid fairy-wren).

The female responds by looking in the direction of the male splendid fairy-wren, inviting him to flirt with her. He accepts the invitation, showing off with a face fan (a display in which he flares his ear tufts), a seahorse flight (a display in which he undulates between a horizontal position and a vertical position as he slowly lowers himself to the ground and then springs back up into the air) or by accessorizing with pink and purple flower petals.

Male splendid fairy-wren face fan. Wikimedia Commons: Nevil Lazarus

Emma Grieg and Stephen Pruett-Jones, the scientists who studied this behavior, found that female splendid fairy-wrens were more attentive to butcherbird-type II call duets than they were to stand-alone type II calls. They also found that the female splendid fairy-wrens only responded to the duets when the type II call came from an intruding male. If the type II call came from her own mate, she wasn’t interested—even if it followed a butcherbird’s call.

(Yeah, that’s right—her mate. Ya see, splendid fairy-wrens have an interesting social structure. They pair up for life, but they mate predominantly with individuals other than their actual “mate.”)

Wacky morals aside, what is that splendid little bird thinking when he calls attention to himself in the presence of a predator? Grieg and Pruett-Jones aren’t sure, but they suspect that butcherbirds are most dangerous when they sneak up on splendid fairy-wrens in open areas. So when the fairy-wrens are safely tucked away in vegetation and totally aware of the butcherbird’s location, perhaps they’re safe—perhaps even safe enough to flaunt their splendiferousness.

*Imagine if every Tom, Dick and Harry were re-named splendid Tom, splendid Dick and splendid Harry. Just imagine…

**For the birds. Guys, please, if you’re older than 15 do not use this technique on your date. It’s lame.

Greig, E., & Pruett-Jones, S. (2010). Danger may enhance communication: predator calls alert females to male displays Behavioral Ecology, 21 (6), 1360-1366 DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arq155

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Leapin’ Blennies

January 18, 2011
In true science writer geekdom, I have spent the last week trying to figure out where the name “blenny” comes from. Of course, it comes from the suborder name Blenniodei (in the order Perciformes) and the family name Blenniidae…yada yada yada. But where does the blenn- come from?

Most scientific names come from Latin, but Google came up empty when I searched for Latin variations of blenn. Could it be someone’s name (eg. Dr. Blenn)? Again, my search proved fruitless. That left one logical explanation: the original blenny-namer was a toddler. Who else could match a cute little name with a cute little fish?

Anyone who knows Greek, apparently. It turns out that the name blenny isn’t that cute after all. Blenn- comes from the Greek word blennos, meaning mucus. And since there are approximately 833 species in the Blenniidae suborder, there are about 833 species of mucus fish. Nice.

Saber-toothed blenny, William Leo Smith, AMNH

Why the sudden interest in blennies? Well, I came across a paper about saber-toothed blennies. Don’t they sound vicious? Yeah…They’re not. They do have fang-like canine teeth and those teeth are connected to a venom gland. But they only use their built-in weapons to nip skin or mucus off an unsuspecting fish (much like naughty bluestreak cleaner wrasses).

My disappointment in the saber-toothed blenny left me searching for a cooler blenny—a mucus fish that could walk or talk or…leap. Meet the Pacific leaping blenny. These fish begin their lives in the ocean as planktonic larvae and then move to the supratidal zone, which is the rocky, splashy section of land above the high tide line. That’s right, these fish live on land.

Obviously, any normal fish living on land would be totally screwed. First, there’s the issue of breathing. Normal fish use gills to extract oxygen from the water. That same process would work just fine in air if it weren’t for the fragility of the lamellae (the part of the gills responsible for gas exchange). Out of the water, a fish’s lamellae will collapse, rendering gas exchange—and therefore breathing—impossible. To thwart suffocation, Pacific leaping blennies don’t breathe through their gills when they’re on land. Instead, they take oxygen in through their skin.*

Then there’s the issue of mobility. Normal fish swim. Swimming requires water. Critters that live on land tend to walk. Walking requires legs. The Pacific leaping blenny has neither, but such piddly details don’t really matter for a fish that can leap.

In a fantastically titled paper (“A Locomotor Innovation Enables Water-Land Transition in a Marine Fish”), Shi-Tong Tonia Hsieh describes the leaping maneuverability of these talented mucus fish. To launch itself, a Pacific leaping blenny curls its tail towards its head and pushes its tail fin into the ground, propelling itself forward and up at a speed of 1.5 meters/second (3.3 mph). Like this:

Ahem. I can’t embed the video. Click here to see it.

To travel shorter distances on land, they simply hop:

Again, the video issues…Click here to see the blenny hop.

I know what you’re thinking: These fish may be able to hop and leap, but what would they do if there were a vertical sheet of plexiglass in their habitat? Ironically enough, Dr. Hsieh had the same question. Here’s the answer:

Of course, I still can’t embed a .mov video so click here to see it.

*FYI: Walking catfish have a structure that strengthens their lamellae so that they can continue to use their gills on land.

Hsieh, S. (2010). A Locomotor Innovation Enables Water-Land Transition in a Marine Fish PLoS ONE, 5 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011197

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Open Lab 2010!!!

January 14, 2011

Late last week, Jason Goldman (author of The Thoughtful Animal and editor of Open Lab 2010) announced the finalists for Open Lab 2010. Well…guess what made the cut? A whole lot of amazing posts from amazing science bloggers–and Rump-Shaking Red-Eyed Treefrogs!

Jason had this to say about this year’s competition:

Determining the ultimate composition of Open Lab is no easy task, especially since we started out with an unprecedented nearly 900 entries. Competition was fierce! In the end, these 50 posts (plus 6 poems and 1 cartoon), are representative of the best science and the best writing in the science blogosphere from 2010. Not only is the science accurate and the writing top-notch, but they are highly accessible, and they truly make the reader care about the topic. I hope that this final list succeeds in the goal of showcasing the breadth and depth of the science blogosphere and of highlighting the incredible diversity and talent among science bloggers.

Needless to say, we are absolutely positively stoked! While we bask in our dorky glory, check out all the other posts (listed here)–or wait and read them in their published touchable form. The book will be out in a few months. We’ll keep you posted.