Monday, January 23, 2012

my phone feels unappreciated

Have you seen the commercials for “Big Miracle”? It’s an upcoming movie based off a true story about three whales that become trapped inland due to the rapid formation of ice. It’s up to the people of a nearby small town in Alaska to band together and help lead the whales to the safety of open ocean. 

I have mixed feelings about this movie. It has John Krasinski, so that’s a plus. It has a “save the whales” message, which is great. But other than that, the trailer has turned me off. Drew Barrymore’s obnoxious cadence paired with the “distressed” face that accompanies all her lines might have something to do with my distaste. The trailer shows heartwarming scenes that include her diving underwater with the whales, where they gaze into each other’s eyes and share a moment of understanding. In another scene, she pleads with a group of reporters, “They know they’re in trouble. And they’re scared.”

Though I have not seen the movie, I suspect that this line is at the heart of its message. That whales and humans feel the same kind of emotions, and so we need to reach out an understanding hand of compassion to help them. Certainly, we have a duty to help them. These people clearly did the right thing by leading these whales to open water. But it’s important to remember that they are wild animals, and we should help them for that reason. Not because we think they feel “scared.”

An anthropomorphism is when we assign any non-human thing human characteristics. We do it all the time. My sister thinks that her books become sad if she doesn’t read them. I feel, just for an instant, like my phone feels unappreciated every time I drop it. It is simply human to relate to things on our own level. This movie is a prime example.

I KNOW, I know. How can you resist this face? But you must!

This really is an issue in such venues as wildlife rehabilitation. People encounter an orphaned baby owl, for example, and feel the need to baby it. They’ll wrap it in blankets, hold it, pet it, hand feed it, etc. Really, they need to present it with food and then scream at it. Or spray it with a water bottle every time they have to handle it. Not to be cruel, but to train the animal to stay away from people. Animals become imprinted when we interact with them more than necessary, and imprints will never be able to function in the wild. It may be greatly satisfying to cuddle a baby owl, it is unethical to the animal and confuses its instincts to flee humans by training them to also depend on us.

While I understand that Drew Barrymore getting in a wetsuit and diving under the ice to go face to face with a whale is good cinema, it is no bueno from a zoological viewpoint. I know, I know, no one wants to see a movie about people who try to interact with whales as little as possible. I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to swim with a whale. But maybe we need to resist our anthropomorphic urges and only interact with wildlife as little as we have to. It would be much less fun for us, but so much better for them.

“Big Miracle” comes out February 3rd. If you see it, let me know how you think it handles this issue. It is entirely possible that my irrational dislike of Drew Barrymore has clouded my judgment…

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

whale poop floats

Really, the title of today’s blog should be enough to satisfy you. But I’ll go ahead and provide a little more so we don’t leave any loose ends.

Whale populations are not in good shape, as we all know. Not too terribly many are left, and their long reproductive cycles make a very daunting road to population recovery. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying to save them, and whale scientists are on top of the problem. And as any good scientist will tell you, in order to answer a question, there must be data. We need whale data. How many there are, how many males vs. females there are, how and when they reproduce, where they are, where they go, what they eat, what they eat eats, etc. But whales aren’t the easiest animals to collect data from. They live underwater and are somewhat elusive. There aren’t many of them. Really, the data odds are stacked against us.

Enter “scat detection dog.” Scientists have trained dogs to identify and locate the scent of poop- specifically whale poop. Floating, mucusy globs of poo. The dog will stand at the bow of a boat and sense the smells in the air. If he smells some poo off to the left, the dog will orient himself port. If he smells poo off to the right, he orients himself starboard. The boat driver then corrects the path of travel towards the direction indicated by the dog. The pooch will continue to acclimate towards the direction of the smell until the path of travel has been adjusted so that they are headed directly towards the whale poo.

Once the poop is found, it is collected. From it, scientists can develop a profile full of useful information. They can tell which whale did it (or if it belonged to a whale new to the territory), the sex, the diet of the whale, hormone (and therefore stress) levels, toxin levels, and of course approximately when the animal took the poo.

Another bonus about this method is that it is completely non-invasive for the whales. A lot of times, biologists will place or implant tracking devices on animals as a means of collecting data. For instance, a grizzly bear might be fitted with a collar that transmits location data. And while they swear up and down that the bear doesn’t even know the collar is there (yeah right), the animal still has to endure the stress of being tranquilized and fitted with the collar. But the whales never even know that they are being monitored... I wouldn’t even be slightly annoyed if someone was following me around sampling my poo. Well, maybe a little annoyed…

The linked article below will tell you more about this scat-detection dog business. It notes that it is applied to monitor killer whales- which have been found to have the highest concentrations of pesticides and other man-made toxins of any animal on earth.

This week’s challenge: can you think of any reasons why? Feel free to post thoughts or theories, or just ponder them in your head. I encourage you to consider the role killer whales play in their ecosystems, specifically within the food web.

Friday, January 13, 2012

the secret structures of birds

When I was in ornithology, I found out some things about birds that really blew my socks off. Not because these facts were so amazing per se, but because they were so obvious and I had never taken the time to notice them. So let me pass on this wisdom to you.

First off, owls have ears. Like real flaps of tissue. I found this out during a lab where we had to skin and stuff a bird for the collections. I managed to partner with a guy whom I had had a big-time crush on, partly for that reason, and partly so he would scoop out the brains so I didn’t have to. We got a Barred Owl, and when we got to the head, he showed me these crazy owl ears of which I speak.
I mean, I knew owls had ear holes with which they could hear. But I didn’t realize that they had ear structures under their feathers. Am I the only one who is surprised by this fact? What’s more is this little tidbit: many owls’ ears are located asymmetrically. One ear is closer to its face, while the other is set farther back on the head. This creates a sort of stereo surround sound effect; the owl can audio-locate the origin of sounds with more accuracy within its full 360˚ environment. From this, you can infer that an owl’s ability to turn its head almost completely around is no coincidence. These animals are sensory processors specially adapted to monitor their environments in 360˚.

Another hidden structure that all birds have is called the uropygial gland. If you’ve ever watched a bird, you notice it exhibits extensive grooming behaviors. They turn their heads around and seem to straighten their feathers with their beaks in quick motions. What they are really doing is reaching around to their oil-secreting uropygial gland (located under the feathers in the butt area) and spreading oil all over their feathers to keep them waterproof. Who knew?
If you are a bird, the importance of keeping your feathers waterproof cannot be stressed enough. Without a solid, water-impermeable layer of feathers, a bird is as good as dead. I think it’s kind of crazy that avian evolution did not produce a physiological system that passively kept the feathers oiled. Instead, an active behavior evolved. You know that humans have oil glands all over our bodies to keep our skin from drying out. Can you imagine that instead, you have a little flap of tissue on your lower back and every 10 to 15 minutes, you have to reach behind and spread some oil to your dry skin patches. It’s weird.

Also, another crazy avian anatomical tidbit: skeletor legs. And yes, that is their official scientific name. Bird legs are synonymous with “skinny legs” (I would know- when I was in junior high an older, cute guy told me that I had bird legs and I never frickin forgot it). Have you ever stopped to think how it is that their legs are so skinny? They look meat-less, right? That’s because they are. They have no muscles! Yet they are fully functional, moveable limbs. So how does a muscleless limb move? Via a rope and pulley system, baby.
Their feet are sort of like marionette dolls- an extensive system of tendons connect their toes to the muscles at the top of the leg. If you cut a bird leg open right where the meaty part ends and the skeletor part begins, you can find the little tendons. Pluck one, and one toe moves. Pluck another, and another toe moves. It’s so cool.

Holla for interesting and unexpected bird morphology!

Monday, January 9, 2012

check this out

This guy does some seriously cool investigating. He is a ballistics expert, but creates easy-to-understand videos about all sorts of sciencey things. Check out his YouTube channel, called Smarter Every Day. Really good stuff here!

Friday, January 6, 2012

so, you think we came from monkeys?

As acknowledged previously, there are plenty of folks who choose not to support evolution. Quite frankly, I think people’s views on such matters are no body’s business and ultimately pretty inconsequential- that includes people on both sides of the issue. Live and let live, people. That being said, there is one phrase I have heard over and over from evolution opponents that I just can’t move past. It is usually said with a tinge of condescending sarcasm that rubs me the wrong way. I have to remind myself that it is probably not meant to be so (who knows, maybe it is), but rather born from a lack of understanding.

“So, you think we came from monkeys?” Yup, that’s the one.

First off, if you mean “so, you think that we share a common ancestor with present-day monkeys?” then yes, I do believe that. I’ve come to suspect that many are under the impression that evolution is a linear process and that chimps and gorillas are the primitive forms of humans. Evolution is anything but linear, and we certainly did not evolve from chimps. Rather, chimps and humans evolved from the same animal- one that is neither human nor chimp nor gorilla. This animal is what we refer to as the “most recent common ancestor.”

I think the tone of this question is also a little grating. As if it were a nasty or offensive suggestion that we are related to monkeys. I’ve got news: if we’re going to define “monkeys” as a group of animals that includes gorillas, chimps, orangutans, etc., then that makes us monkeys. Is that such a bad thing? Primates show some of the most advanced cognitive abilities in the entire natural world (not to mention our nifty opposable thumbs). Don’t tell me you don’t get a little teary when you see KoKo caring for that kitten, or using the signs for “finger” and “bracelet” to describe a ring. Is it so bad to be a primate?

I watched a program on Discovery one time that explored what it is that makes us different from the other Great Apes. It showed this experiment that a lady conducted on human children and young chimpanzees. She has a simple box that has some doodads on top that play absolutely no functional part in the box. She allows the test subject to watch her put a food reward (candy) into the box and close it. She then demonstrates a series of arbitrary motions that include tapping the side of the box with her finger, sliding one of the doodads to the left, and flipping another doodad. She then opens the box, takes out the food reward, and consumes it. She reloads the box with candy and places it in front of the test subject.

Since none of her tapping or sliding or flipping made any difference in her to ability to open the box and retrieve the food reward, it would seem silly and almost stupid to blindly repeat her motions, right? Why not just open the box and eat your candy?

Chimps did. No problem. Just opened it right up and took out the Jolly Rancher.

Human kids unfailingly repeated her arbitrary motions, then opened the box and ate their reward. Iiiiinteresting, huh? Here in lies one of our greatest adaptations that has allowed for the success of humans. We learn from our elders and from a very young age repeat their actions as a means of passing down generations’ worth of learned skills. Why do you brush your teeth? Well, your parents taught you to do it when you were little and so you just did it. Now that you’re older, you know it’s to keep them from rotting your face off. But in your critical learning years, you repeated what you were shown. We as individuals do not have to start from square one when it comes to learning things like building a house, or opening a candy box, because our highly developed brains and extensive parental care allow for us to take advantage of our forbearers’ know-how. We are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of years worth of trial and error.

So while we are pretty amazing as a species, we as individuals don’t just open the box and take the frickin Jolly Rancher. No, we did not “come from monkeys.” But even if we did, what’s so horrible about that?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

virus hunter extraordinaire

I’ve decided that the coolest business card ever is that of a virus hunter. Sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, right? Good thing it’s actually a real profession: one that routinely prevents the apocalyptic demise of the global population. Ya know, like Neyo from the Matrix. Or Batman. Or any character that makes black leather look oh-so-cool.

We’ve all seen the movies and read the books about the virus that mutates, infects one person, and spreads, threatening the entire world with painful and slow death. The Hot Zone, Contagion, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, etc. The sheer number of these stories suggests the very real possibility that this will occur at some point. It almost has- the bird flu, Spanish influenza, SARS, and most recently H1N1 (swine flu). It’s sort of terrifying, and if you think about it too long you might induce a panic attack. So don’t.

Thankfully, thousands of brilliant minds around the world do the thinking for us. Lots of them are at the CDC in Atlanta, or employed by the World Health Organization, or work from their labs at universities. Virologists have learned a lot about the nature of modern viruses. The imagery we have come to associate with pandemic viruses often includes Asia, farm animals, people sneezing on each other, and ultimately blood leaking out places it shouldn’t followed by death. And all this is pretty accurate.

The viruses that have posed the biggest threats to us have originated in Asia and in a farm animal- usually a bird. The interesting thing is- viruses usually don’t skip from birds to humans. They require an intermittent carrier- and the common pig has proven to be a very good one. This is how it might go down…

Lets say a chicken on Mr. Smith’s farm contracts a deadly chicken flu. Mr. Smith himself is recovering from the common human flu- which he has given to one of the pigs on his farm. This pig also accidently eats some poop from the infected chicken, and so contracts both the human and bird flu. These viruses mutate and combine to create a sort of hybrid super-virus that can now be transferred to both humans and chickens alike. The pig is slaughtered and eaten, the unsuspecting humans not aware that it is sick. And so, the consumer of Mr. Smith’s bacon contracts the super virus- for which there is no known vaccine- and gives it to his family. His wife gives it to her coworker who is scheduled to fly across the country, who in turn gives it to someone on the airplane. Who gives it to 2 other people on the airplane, who give it to their families. You see where this is going….  a pandemic that induces mass chaos, panic, and death. Literally like in the movies.

Let’s go back to square one, with the chickens on Mr. Smith’s farm. The virus didn’t just spontaneously generate. It “lived” dormant in chickens- most not experiencing any sickness until our unlucky friend on Mr. Smith’s farm. The chickens were the “viral reservoir,” or the population of animals in which the virus could live and reproduce undetected. Remember the recent bout of H1N1 that now seems to have disappeared? Hate to burst the bubble, but it didn’t disappear. It found a reservoir and went into hiding. Virus hunters still haven’t found it.

Virus hunters (who in my mind must complete retinal scans to enter their offices and carry arsenic capsules in the event of capture) are sifting the globe right at this very moment. They’re taking samples from both suspected and random populations of animals. Mainly domestic, and mainly in Asia. They pore over genomes looking for both already-identified viruses in hiding and ones we’ve never even seen before. When one is found, its reservoir is destroyed (sorry PETA) and its genetic profile is shared with pharmaceutical companies and universities around the world so that we can start trying to develop a vaccine for it. I imagine that a virus hunter’s motto has something to do with an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure…

In reality, virus hunters probably wear khakis and plaid button downs with loafers and white socks. I bet they wash their hands a million times a day and don’t touch very many surfaces in public places. They know the alarming part airports play in the transfer of pathogens, but brave them anyway. If you ask me, they are some of the closest things to real-life superheroes that we have.