Thursday, November 19, 2015

daily doses of tiny dinosaurs

Since I took a furry dependent into my care, I’ve made it a daily habit to come home at lunch. It’s not always easy to find the 45 minutes to an hour in my workday, and I usually feel stressed and rushed as I shovel food in my face while simultaneously running around with Rosy in the backyard. But today, I decided to just sit beneath the tree and “smell the roses,” as they say.

Today was clear and beautiful and cool: the kind of cool that is replaced by the warm sun rays in the most pleasant of ways. As I sat with eyes closed, I could hear Rosy’s little nose sniffing around, the faint sounds of Youree Drive traffic, and birds. I love listening for the birds.

One block over, I heard a large flock of Cedar Waxwings. Behind me, a handful of robins making fools of themselves. In my front yard, the usual suspect, Mr. Blue Jay, doing a pretty good impression of the Red-Tailed Hawk I heard perched not too far away. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Barred Owl that lulled me to sleep last night from the pecan tree in my backyard. As visually inspiring as our avian cousins are, they deserve equal admiration for their vocalizations.

I think I love birds because they are just so ridiculous. Consider the metabolic energy that is required to produce their elaborate colors, patterns, and feather structures with the primary selective pressure being to look sexy. And then their elaborate songs! They have two voice boxes that are capable of producing sounds at the same time (thanks to a structure called a syrinx- not unlike your larynx). So basically they can sing twice… at once. And would you believe it, the primary selective pressure for this is to sound sexy. Not to mention their incredible visual capabilities that exceed our own in almost every way -- they see more of the world than we ever will. Migratory birds gaze at the night sky as little nestlings, learning the stars by which they navigate their migrations. Corvids like crows and jays can solve problems that baby humans can’t.

So here we have these furby-sized dinosaurs that are pimped out and more perceptive than many vertebrates their size. But they’re not these elusive, exotic creatures that must be sought out in the farthest reaches of the wilderness to be observed. They’re accessible; they live in the trees around our houses and serve as our personal alarm clocks each morning. They de-stress us as we sit beneath pecan trees on our lunch breaks and often raise their babies under the trusty shelters of our porches. They’ve adapted to urban settings like New York City yet still thrive in nature. These daily doses of tiny dinosaurs are part of our human experience and among the most relatable connections we have to nature in increasingly non-natural settings.

Show some love to some birds this weekend. Many are migrating right now and are weary. Be hospitable and provide them a meal. Give them a place to take a bath with fresh water. Put a cat indoors. It’s the least we can do for the tiny dinosaurs.

Bird doodles

Friday, October 23, 2015

you go, little burs

It’s a miracle I haven’t written a post about dogs yet- if you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ve probably noticed I’ve developed a borderline obnoxious obsession with my newly adopted puppy. Don’t you worry; I’ve got some in the works. This one only features the cutest dog in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD.

Rosy (synonyms or nicknames: Rosalind, Roseballs, Lady Rose, Roseface, or Rosepot) has some of the sweetest paws you’ll ever squeeze. So when I see her suddenly limping on our walks, it always causes me momentary distress. As we’ve found out, my neighborhood is populated with those little burs that get stuck on your socks and shoes, or in this case, paws. They’re the seeds of Soliva sessilis, a leafy green weed that commonly invades people’s lawns. Though Rosy and I try to avoid them on our walks, she still manages to catch a few each time. To her credit, she’s a champ and patiently holds still as I locate them and pluck them from her feet.

Fig. A. Thanks Disney.
We take for granted our two legs and locomotive powers as human animals. They help significantly in our reproductive challenge of genetic diversity. Proven time and time again, diverse genes, when sexually combined, produce more fit offspring. Should genetic diversity be lacking in a reproductive pool, you get inbreeding and decreased fitness (Figure A).

This model is so important that almost any sexually reproductive species you consider has evolved adaptations to accommodate it. Be it the wings of male drone ants that carry them to unrelated queens in  different nests or the roaming behaviors observed in male primates (playas, I’m looking at you), Animalia likes lots of genes to choose from when it comes to swapping DNA.

Plants are no different, though they do have the immobility issue to overcome. When it’s likely that a plant’s nearest neighbors are its siblings, it needs a way to get its DNA package over to a plant that is not as closely related. Basically, plants must depend on their environment to do the traveling for them. That environment includes gravity, wind, water, precipitation, bugs, and animals like you and your adorable dog.

For them, it’s a matter of life vs. evolutionary death. They depend on us to get their DNA over to a plant other than their immediate family (who can blame them!?) I prefer they not involve Rosy’s paws in their sexy quests, but I also wish I didn’t have to pluck that weird hair from my forehead every few weeks. Nature deals the cards and we make the best of it.

Actually, the Soliva sessilis burs, though annoyances, are in a way a nice addition to our walks. In a neighborhood where people cut their lawns and trim their bushes so no animals can find refuge, plant non-native flowers, immediately reach for a shovel upon the discovery of a harmless snake and allow their outdoor cats to stalk and kill birds, I secretly root for the little weed. In a humanized, unnatural setting, the little guys are doing what it takes to further the fitness of their species.

You go, little burs.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

mirabilis jalapa got moxy

I currently rent a little 2-bedroom house in Shreveport, Louisiana. Built in the forties, it features an old phone booth in the hallway, a foldout ironing board in the kitchen wall, and those pretty clear crystal-looking doorknobs. I really am fond of the place, but whenever people ask where I live, I always preface with “I don’t live in the greatest area…”

And I don’t. But my immediate neighbors are all good folks who keep tidy lawns and look out for each other. So when I moved in, I decided to make the place mine as much as I could and enjoy being a young working gal who comes own to a nice little home every day. I started with the backyard.

The backyard was overgrown, so I cut it to a luscious 3 inches and weed-eated the perimeter to rid it of the leggy weeds. It took a whole Saturday, but by the end of it, the yard was clean and manicured. And it’s stayed that way until about a month ago.

As life and work in general picked up in September, I let the yard fall behind (getting a new puppy might have had something to do with that…). I recently noticed that those weeds I spent so long cutting had grown back, but looked more like bushes. On closer examination, I realized that I had attempted to murder one of my all-time favorite plants. Luckily, it’s a determined plant with moxy and heart, God love it.

 4 o'clock at my mom's house
Four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) are blooming bushes with pretty green heart-shaped leaves.  Their flowers open in the late afternoon (hence the name) and stay open all night. Come dawn, they close up again. Although this is pretty cool, it’s not the coolest thing about four o’clocks.

Their color, or rather, how they inherit their color, may be the neatest thing about this plant. They come in three different colors- yellow, pink, and white. But a single flower on a whole bush can show multiple colors- and in unique patterns.

Four o'clock color inheritance clearly does not follow the traditional dominant-recessive model that good ole’ Gregor laid out. For instance, the dominant recessive model would dictate that if a red cow (red being dominant) made babies with a blue cow, there would be a 75% chance of having red babies and 25% chance of having blue babies. But all the babies would be either red or blue. But what if some of the babies were purple? What if they were striped blue and red? That would be incomplete dominance.
Spunky 4 o'clock at my house

Four o’clocks exhibit incomplete dominance. A *completely yellow flower cross pollinated with a completely pink/red flower yields an orange-flowered plant. The more generations there are, the more complicated the genetics get – think Punnett squares that are 16 x 16. You start getting multi-colored flowers, and in different patterns. They are really very lovely.

The 4 o’clocks in my mom’s yard are both yellow and pink. The feisty ones in my current backyard are all pink. I’m thinking about going to my mom’s house and grabbing some of the multicolored ones and matchmaking them with the yellow ones at my house.

What do you think would happen?


Friday, June 26, 2015

like a fat kid at the doughnut case

The past two weeks have kicked my butt. I’ll just say that they have involved falling in love with and giving away the best kitten in the world, stressful challenges at work, being sick (twice), being hit in a very scary car accident, friends moving away, and numerous other challenges and confrontations that, when added together, will just get a gal down.

Yesterday, I had the good, unexpected laugh that I’ve needed. You see, two weeks ago, I bought basil and mint plants at the farmers market and placed them in my kitchen window. I haven’t been overly attentive to them, instead glancing at them quickly each morning as I grab some breakfast and rush out of my house. I’ve noticed that the mint plant seems to be growing in height, not so much sprouting leaves. But finding a sunnier spot for it hasn’t been at the top of my priority list.

So yesterday, I came home and sloughed into my kitchen for a glass of water to find my mint plant with all of its leaves plastered to the window like a fat kid looking in doughnut case at the grocery store. I can’t tell you exactly why I found this to be so hilarious, but I definitely stood in my kitchen laughing by myself like a maniac for a solid minute.

It occurred to me that Minty (that’s what I’m calling it now- I’m having kitten withdrawals don’t you judge me) was doing some pretty neat things in my window sill. First off, it’s not growing the big leaves I’d like to put in my iced tea. Instead, it’s become lanky and growing stem length. This is a behavior (that’s right, plants behave) it has evolved to find sunlight when it’s not getting enough. Also, it’s moving its leaves to maximize the sunlight that it can find. Minty is being very proactive for Minty’s well being. I’m proud.

This begs the question- how does a plant A.) “know” wtf is going on around it B.) “act” on those conditions? Where are the sensing organs to tell it it’s not getting enough sun? How does the info from those sensors translate into movements and actions? Do plants have plant nerves?

Answer: plants do stuff via plant hormones.

Giberellins are the class of hormones responsible for stem elongation. Right now, they’re coursing through the vascular system of Minty, only affecting cells and tissues that they’re supposed to activate. Giberellins are flowing through the puny leaves just like they are the stems, but only causing growth in stems. This is just how human hormones work too.
Giberellin organic structure.

Once I find a sunnier home for my plants, they’ll signal to lower the production of gibberellins and to up the production of cytokinins, which will cause leaf growth. Which means I will be enjoying some iced tea very soon.

So next time you walk past a plant, you may want to offer it some chocolates and tell it it’s pretty. You never know what kind of hormonal swings our plant cousins are enduring.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


You probably saw on your news website of choice last week the discovery of the first “warm-blooded” fish- the opah.

First off, let’s get rid of that term, as we did in big gurl hongry. It’s really not very descriptive, nor is “cold-blooded.” The terms we’re looking for are endothermic and exothermic.

Every animal has a temperature at which it can most optimally do its thang. Ours is 98.6-ish. If it gets too far above that, things start going wrong. If it drops too far below that, things start going wrong.

I can be slow on the
uptake sometimes.
Same thing goes for animals across the phyla- endothermic and exothermic alike. Jellyfish dislike getting too cold just as much as Jack Nicholson.

The real difference in “warm-blooded” and “cold-blooded” animals is the source from which their heat comes. Endothermic animals generate their own heat from inside, while exothermic animals obtain heat from outside their bodies, from the environment. Exo and endo; it’s almost like they planned that.

When I was first learning about all this thermoregulation business, and I heard the sentence “endothermic animals generate their own heat from inside,” an image of tiny campfires throughout my body flashed in my head. But obviously this isn’t right. Really, the heat is a collective result of our cellular metabolisms. Every single living cell in your body is constantly ticking: taking in nutrients, transforming them into proteins and building… well, you. The by-product of all this chemical work is excess energy in the form of heat. So in a way, each cell is acting as a microscopic chemically-powered campfire, putting off tiny amounts of heat that when added up together collectively, keep your tissues at about 98.6.

One advantage of being endothermic is adaptability. Since we make our own heat, we don’t have to depend on one specific environment to maintain it for us. Wanna take a trip to Antarctica? Bundle up and bring some food and you’re good to go. Bring an exotherm to see Santa and no matter how many Northfaces you put him in or flies you feed him, he’s going to freeze to death.

The opah- very pretty!
Another advantage of being endothermic is energy levels. Yes, we have to eat more (some reptiles can go years without eating! I can go about 1.5 hours before I get cranky), but we can not only perform rapid motions, but sustain thems. A frog may be able to quickly hop away, but only for short bursts. When you look at predator species in the endorthermic clades Mammalia and Aves, you’ll see animals that can hunt intensely and for long periods of time before their tissues tire, since their energy reserve is internal. We make darn good hunters because of our thermoregulation systems.

Combine these two advantages, and you’ve got a strong case for while the opah has evolved endothermy. Here you’ve got this predator with morphology fit for cold ocean depths, but with a metabolism that allows it to function in colder waters while simultaneously having the energy capacity of warm water dwellers. And in those colder waters, where it is almost certainly the only endotherm in its food chain, its high energy levels give it the ability to quickly chase down those slow-moving exotherm prey species and eat their asses. It’s kicking butt down there.

No doubt about it- it has evolved away from exothermy. This is the first known fish to be an endotherm. Ever. It’s a big deal.

Let’s welcome our ray-finned, bony friend to the club, and wish him many metabolism-sustaining meals to come. Opah!

Monday, April 27, 2015

i just can't

There was a bit of a scene in my house last week. Let me set the stage for you.

I’ve had a very long day. Up at 4:30 AM, done with work at 8:00 PM. I’m exhausted and finishing my lentil quinoa bowl from Panera. All I can think about is taking a quick shower and lying down to go to sleep.

So I go into my bathroom, turn on the shower, strip my clothes, and start fishing out bobby pins from my hair. And then I see it.

Within about half a second, I’m out of the bathroom and hiding behind my doorframe, screaming, peering back into the bathroom at a huge cockroach perched on my shower curtain.

Now before you assume that I’m a sissy girl who hates bugs, let me clarify that I regularly scoop up spiders, crickets, and other arthropod friends and take them outside to set them free. But when it comes to cockroaches, I simply cannot. I JUST CAN’T.

They’re big, so they feel very invasive. They scurry. They climb up walls. They twitch their long creepy antennas. They’re dirty. They make sounds when they walk. Their presence in my personal space disturbs me to my very core- even more than people who hashtag their babies. And that’s a lot.
The only roach I will ever be REMOTELY okay with,
Hal from Wall-E.

After screaming a bad word at the roach for a while, I left the room to collect myself. Was I being unreasonable? Well, clearly, yes. But was I being cruel in my wanting to kill this cockroach? Should I try to capture it and take it outside like I do my arachnid friends? Was he just as scared of me as I was of him?

A recent paper claimed to prove that roaches have personalities. Basically, they microchipped the little bastards and dropped a bunch of them into a brightly lit arena with shelters here and there. Roaches are naturally averse to light, and will seek dark places to dwell. The folks running this study used the microchips to track the movements of these roaches, and found that some lingered in the light longer than others, suggesting that they are “braver” than those that sought darkness immediately, who were interpreted as being “more timid.”

Another interpretation, or perhaps just a more continued explanation, of these results is that these foraging/shelter-seeking behaviors have evolved to be varied in the species because it is advantageous. Since roaches are social and live in colonies, it would make sense for these behaviors to be varied. Perhaps the roaches who ran for darkness first were trying to signal to the others what to do. Or perhaps the ones who explored in the light were more likely to find an escape from the arena altogether, or even a new food source for everyone.

I touched on the evolution of personalities in my post Myer-Briggs Voodoo Magic. I don’t think it’s too much of a jump to say that social animals that live in groups have mostly evolved to have a variety of exploration behaviors, simply because it improves survival chances of the group.

Am I prepared to say that cockroaches have personalities? Oh hell no. But then again, what exactly is a personality? Maybe, by classical definition, cockroaches do have personalities. Are they as complex as ours? Or as dogs? Absolutely not.

It begs an interesting question- where do we draw the line on which animals think and feel, and those we deem as unthinking and unfeeling? Would you easily kill a dog? No. But would you easily kill a lizard, or a starfish, or a shrimp, or a ladybug?

As an interesting side note, I read some research recently on invertebrate pain. Evidence suggests that insects do not feel it, but crustaceans like crabs most certainly do, and even seem to remember and fear the cause of that pain. Does that change how you feel about killing arthropods?

As for my roommate, I did not kill him. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. I swatted at him with a shoe, screamed, and ran. Then he climbed onto the ceiling. So then I went and sat on my couch and cried for five minutes, until I gathered the courage to spray him with Lysol until he scurried behind the toilet. After that, I shut the bathroom door and crawled into fetal position in my bed and tried to manage my roach anxiety. I had roach nightmares all night.

I spent this past Sunday spraying my house with bug spray and sanitizing every single surface I could find. And now I have a can of Raid in every single room, ready to bring death to any of the “brave” roaches that dare show their ugly little faces in my house.

Now here's a picture of my super cute dog to get rid of the heeby jeebies.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

ruminations on cubicle primates

My life has changed dramatically the past six months. I moved back to Louisiana, moved into my own house, landed a cool (though relatively stress-inducing) job. I recognized a need to balance and find release from the 9-5, so I made the decision to get healthy. As part of this resolution, I aim to eat like a grown up and work out.

So, I joined a gym. I go regularly to a class called “Skinny Jeans,” where a mean lady makes me do things that make me unable to breathe. On other days, I go run on the treadmill or do the bike for a while. Because I am apparently incapable of remembering headphones, I usually wind up people watching while I do this.

I see big people, little people, short people, tall people, young people, old people, meat heads, normal folks, girls in full makeup, girls with no makeup- you name it. Some of them are peacocking, some of them are trying their hardest to go unnoticed. All kinds of people come to the gym.

As I’m watching all these people, it always occurs to me how strange the whole situation is. Here we have people- these super complicated, cognitive animals- draping their bodies in specific types of clothing and moving about in repetitive motions and engaging parts on these big machines, all of their own free will. The fact that these bipedal animals take time out of their day to make these movements in these specific clothes at this specific place at this specific time, in a specific order, is to me, utterly fascinating.

There is no immediate food reward as there is for a dog once it shakes your hand or rolls over. There is no immediate social reward (you may get checked out but you don’t become alpha dog for benching 100 pounds bro). So then, why do we do it?

We do it because we, as a species, have evolved away from a natural state. We used to have to chase down our meals, club them to death, and tear them apart with rudimentary tools. Then we developed agriculture, and went to working the land with our hands. That was hard work. This kind of manual labor was part of daily life for people up until just a couple generations ago.

Now, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and globalization, we drive to the store to buy our food. We sit all day on our pelvises that are in no way meant to be sat on for 8+ hours a day. Our metabolisms burn to fuel our eyes as they strain on computer screens instead of powering large skeletal muscles. Our circulatory systems are slow and degrading, never pumping blood with any speed or force as we sit still in our cubicles answering phones and making spreadsheets.

I read an article the other day about a local chimpanzee sanctuary that is dealing with obesity in their chimps, since the chimps are captive and do not have to hunt for their own food. It’s a similar situation. But you won’t catch a chimpanzee doing a Skinny Jeans class for the betterment of health and balance in its life.

It’s not a happy state of affairs for us captive primates in cubicles and sanctuaries, folks. As I jog on the treadmill, I am comforted by one silver lining in the whole “our species is doomed and everything is ruined” scenario.

All these people at the gym are there because they have the ability to comprehend long-term investment. They know that they won’t look any better or be in noticeably better shape when they leave the gym that night. But they do know that if they keep at it, they will look, feel, and be healthier over time. They don’t need a treat after rolling over- not tonight, at least.

And this means that we’re smart. We’re smart enough to figure out what our bodies need for balance and optimum health, and we’re smart enough to appreciate long-term investment. Chimps aren’t there yet, but we are.

At some point, we cubicle primates are going to have to use those smarts to figure out a better balance. How can we accomplish all the amazing things we do while sitting at a desk but not compromise our health?

Some folks say that in time, we may see selection for more adept thumbs for texting, or more resilient eyes for screen reading. But I’m not ready to jump on that train quite yet. Let’s take a poll of how emotionally fulfilled those able-thumbed bug-eyed mutants are in the future. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to Skinny Jeans.