Thursday, March 26, 2015

Where No Beer Has Gone Before

Space beer!

I haven't gotten a change to taste Bell's Planetary Beer yet (boo!). Hopefully soon on that one.

Soon you may be able to drink beer brewed with yeast that traveled to space last year.

Ninkasi Brewing Company is an independent craft brewery based in Eugene, Oregon. Last year, the co-founders brewed up up a crafty scheme (puns intended): the Ninkasi Space Program (NSP). The goal of the NSP was to send brewer's yeast to space and return it safely for brewing. In July of 2014, Mission One of NSP via the Civilian Space eXploration Team (CSXT) and Team Hybriddyne launched a rocket into space carrying 16 vials of brewer's yeast. Unfortunately, this yeasty payload was lost in the Nevada Black Rock Desert for 27 days, leaving the yeast not viable for brewing. Bummer. But NSP didn't give up. In October of 2014, they launched a second payload of yeast on Mission Two with the private spaceflight corporation UP Aerospace, Inc.  Mission Two traveled 77.3 miles up (the distance to "space" is ~62 miles) and then returned safely to Earth with viable yeast. Yay!

Mission Two Launch Stats:

Rocket Name: SL 9
Launch Date: Oct. 23, 2014
Launch Time: 7:33 am
Launch Location: Spaceport America, New Mexico
Maximum Altitude: 408,035 ft, 77.3 Miles
Maximum Speed: Mach 5.5
Payload Recovery Site: White Sands Missile Range

Introducing Ground Control, an imperial stout fermented with space-traveled yeast. Ninkasi describes it as:

"Ground Control boldly combines local and out-of-this-world ingredients. This rich, complex Imperial Stout is brewed with Oregon hazelnuts, star anise and cocoa nibs, and fermented with an Ale yeast that survived a trip to space and back. Mankind will enjoy the sweet finesse of this beer that only fares better with time."

Style: Imperial Stout
Special Ingredients: Oregon Hazelnuts, Star Anise, Cocoa Nibs, and Ale Yeast Sent Into Space
ABV: 10.0%
IBU: 80
OG: 1100
Malt: 2-Row Pale, Black, Chocolate, Munich, Crystal, Honey, Special Roast, Peated
Hops: Apollo, Bravo, Comet

Ground control will be available in 22 oz. bottles as of April 13, 2015. U.S. distribution areas include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Canadian distribution will be Alberta, Vancouver, and British Columbia. So waaaay over here in the easter U.S. I won't be able to sample the space beer. Ya'll will have to tell me how it goes.

Enjoy other space-traveling libations? Consider Japan's Sapporo Holdings Ltd beer made from ISS grown barley or Ardbeg in Space (a whiskey launched into space).

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Dottyback in Damsel Clothing: Color Mimicking in Fish

Dusky Dottyback, Pseudochromis fuscus

I was looking around for a study and stumbled upon one about fish mimicry in Current Biology. What first caught my attention was its use of a video abstract. What a cool idea amped up a few notches by beginning with music reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Then I started to think back about posts I've done on predator-prey relationships and could only come up with 1, the One-Third for the Birds post back in 2012. Clearly it is time to revisit that topic. Oh, and while we’re at it, we’ll throw mimicry into the mix.

Different prey species employ various options in predator avoidance including mimicry. Generally, mimicry is a strategy of looking, acting, smelling, or sounding like something else as an act of deception to gain protection. But prey species are not the only ones that mimic. Predators use it to get close enough to catch their prey. Blending into the background or looking like something familiar can be very useful in sneaking up on an unsuspecting prey animal. However, in both predator and prey, there is a huge caveat to mimicry - numbers. The mimic must be rare compared to their model. If the mimics are encountered too often then the predator/prey learns of this cunning deception and the mimicry becomes ineffective.

This month Cortesi et al. published a short paper looking at body color and predatory behavior in dusky dottybacks (Pseudochromis fuscus). This small species (8 cm) is a generally solitary and aggressive predatory reef fish native to the southwestern Pacific Ocean and eastern Indian Ocean. The fish are usually found in association with branching corals (e.g. Cauliflower corals [Pocillopora]  and Staghorn corals [Acropora]), setting territories where they love to hunt and eat juvenile coral reef fish, particularly the similar-looking damselfish. Individuals range in color from yellow to a “dusky” purple/brown. The researchers based their experiments on 3 interesting facts: 1) when the dottybacks matched the color of other reef fish they increased their hunting success, 2) dottybacks have been shown to change body coloration within 2 weeks when translocated to a different, dark colored reef and 3) dottybacks aggressively mimic similarly colored adult damselfishes. Does one color work better than another? Are there cues that drive the color change?

Figure 1 (A and B) from Cortesi et al (2015) Current Biology 

To test this, they set up sites at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Ya know, given the option, that's probably where I’d do my research too. They collected dottybacks and adult damelfishes and assessed the home ranges of the yellow and brown dottyback color morphs. Then, to look at the genotypes associated with different color morphs, they used microsatellites on fin clips from fish from three lagoon locations. Next, they conducted a translocation experiment. They found an open area and created a small patch reef using pieces of live or rubble coral. A total of 15 yellow damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis, P. moluccensis) and 15 brown damselfish (P. chrysurus) of all size classes were placed on the patch reefs. Once the damselfish were adjusted to their new home, the dottybacks (tagged unique fluorescent elastomer markers) were added in a 2 x 2 x 2 design (dottyback color x damselfish color x habitat type, each with 2 levels: yellow/brown dottyback, yellow/brown damselfish, live coral/coral rubble). Once all of the fish were on the patch reef, they were observed for predation and body color (using spectral imaging, skin biopsys for histology, and lots of mathematical models).

The researchers also conducted a very similar experiment using controlled conditions. Damselfish and dottybacks were caught and placed into experimental aquarium tanks containing live and rubble corals. Both juvenile and adult damselfish were acclimatized to a tank before a dottyback morph was introduced. Then strike rates of dottybacks directed at the damselfish were recorded. Then they conducted a prey color choice experiment to examine if dottybacks had a preference for a particular colored prey fish, again in the experimental aquariums. Considering that dottybacks aren't just predators but also prey for larger fish, the researchers tested to see if dottybacks also benefit from matching the color of the habitat using coral trout (the predator) in controlled choice tanks.

Whew! That’s a lot of experiments for one little report paper. In the field, they found that yellow dottybacks associated themselves with live coral and yellow damselfish, and brown dottybacks associated with coral rubble and brown damselfish. The translocation experiment showed how the color of resident adult damelfish induced color change in the dottybacks in patches where their colors were mismatched, independent of habitat type. The skin biopsies showed that unlike other species of fish, the dottybacks did not achieve this change by altering the number of chromatophores (pigment containing cells that reflect ligh) but, rather, the ratio of xanthophores (yellow pigment cells) compared to melanophores (black pigment cells) alters.

In the aquarium experiments, they found that dottybacks were three times more successful in capturing juvenile damselfish when their color matched that of the adult damselfish. This bit of deception works on the fact that the juveniles are less vigilant when they perceive all bigger fish as harmless adult damselfish. The strike rates showed that dottybacks prefer to go after prey fish of the same coloration to themselves, but, when mismatched, brown dottybacks are more likely to have successful strikes than yellow ones. When the dottybacks became the prey species, coral trout were found to strike more often at fish that were color mismatched to the background. This means that the color change has a secondary camouflage benefit and possibly a dilution effect when they are associated with similarly colored damselfish.

Full-size image (60 K)
Graphical Abstract from Cortesi et al (2015) Current Biology

Collectively, these experiments uncovered a novel mechanism of the mimicry game: phenotypic plasticity. Phenotype is an organism’s observable characteristics (how it looks), and plasticity describes a quality of being easily shaped or molded. Phenotypic plasticity is one of those rare scientific words that means exactly what it sounds like: the ability or an organism to change its characteristics in response to the environment. This plasticity allows the dottybacks to deceive their prey using multiple guises and thereby increase their hunting success with the added benefit of hiding from their own predators.

ResearchBlogging.orgF. Cortesi, W.E. Feeney, M.C.O. Ferrari, P.A. Waldie, G.A.C. Phillips, E.C. McClure, H.N. Sköld, W. Salzburger, N.J. Marshall, & K.L. Cheney (2015). Phenotypic Plasticity Confers Multiple Fitness Benefits to a Mimic Current Biology, 25 (1-6) : 10.1016/j.cub.2015.02.013

Write-up by the authors on The Conversation: "The dusky dottyback, a master of disguise in the animal world."

(image via the Australian Museum)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Water Cycle Rap

This one is for the hydrologists. Studyin' the voyages of H2O...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Will You Be My Valentine?: Making All the Right Moves

My Valentine’s Day themed posts have been both popular and fun to write. In last year’s Getting a Date for Valentine’s Day series, you learned that you should wear something red, gaze without being creepy, tell a good joke before walking up to your potential date who is preferably standing next to some flowers, and then open with a unique request to segue into asking them out. But that isn't the end of the story. Oh no, there are many more things that you can do to attract that special someone, all scientifically examined of course. Today we’ll take a look at two more of them.


It’s serendipity that our V-day themed discussion about sexual selection starts on Darwin’s birthday (Happy Birthday Chuck!). Did you know that Charles Darwin was actually the first to suggest that dance plays a role in evolution? It is a sexually selected courtship signal that reveals the genetic or phenotypic quality of the dancer, usually the male. Basically, the quality of the movement signals things like physical strength and fluctuating asymmetry (FA). The latter is a term you see a lot in these types of studies and it describes how much an organism deviates from bilateral symmetry. Essentially, if you develop all lopsided then it will show in your movement. Take what you know of testosterone, or other steroids. Increase that and you see improved physical strength and athletic ability. Now translate that, and its developmental implications, to dance.

It has been suggested that human women have developed ways to assess these visual cues in men in order to select high quality mates. However, quantifying these decisions in a study has proven difficult as women use the appearance of the dancer as well as their quality moves. A 2009 study by Hugill et al. in the journal Personality and Individual Differences looked at whether male physical strength is signaled by dancing performance. They included 40 dancers, recorded their age, body weight and height and then gave them a series of handgrip tests to quantify their physical strength. Then they dressed the men all in white overalls (I know, sexy right?), put them in a blank grey room, and asked them all to dance alone to the same song while they were being video recorded. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that this scenario doesn’t induce awkwardness in these men. Then each video was converted to grey-scale and a blurring filter applied to cover information about body shape. Once this prep work was done, the researchers recruited 50 female to rate each video. The results showed that the women perceived the dances of physically stronger men as more attractive.

The rise of motion-capture technology has added a very useful tool to this type of study. Rather than going through all of those post-conversion video steps, complex movements like dance can be captured by the computer sensors to be applied to homogeneous human figures. A 2005 study by Brown et al. in Nature did just this to look at the variation in dance quality with genetic and/or phenotypic quality. They motion-captured 183 dancers and selected 40 dance animations based on the composite measures/level of fluctuating asymmetry of the dancer (hmm…I wonder if they could get Andy Serkis to help out). Then they showed these dance animations of symmetrical and asymmetrical individuals to 155 people (themselves characterized for FA) to rate. In both males and females, the results showed that symmetrical individuals were better dancers, with males better than females, but sex didn’t matter within the asymmetrical group. For the raters, generally males liked to watch female dancers rather than male (you’re shocked, I can tell), and females liked symmetrical males. Data also showed that female raters, more than male raters, preferred the dances of symmetrical men, and that symmetrical men prefer symmetrical female dancers more than do less-symmetrical men. If you have ever interacted in any social context ever then you know that beautiful, good dancers liking beautiful, good dancing partners isn’t exactly groundbreaking. But what does this study mean for the hopelessly asymmetrical? Shift your preferences downward to a less symmetrical potential date.

Now the question becomes about the dance itself. Which body movements are the attractive ones? A 2010 study by Neave et al. published in Biology Letters looked at specific movement components within dance to see which one(s) influenced perceived dance quality. Using motion-capture, the created digitally dancing avatars of 19 men for 37 women to rate for dance quality. To quantify specific movements, angles, amplitudes and durations of joint, angular and unidirectional movements were measured. Good dancers were those that had larger and more variable movements with faster bending and twisting movements in their right knee. Weirdly specific, right? Especially that right knee thing. But, considering that most people are right-handed, this might be expected.

So what have we learned? Well, we now know that how you move tells someone a lot about you, regardless of how attractive you are. Maybe a good dance class is in order?

ResearchBlogging.orgHugill, N., Fink, B., Neave, N., & Seydel, H. (2009). Men’s physical strength is associated with women’s perceptions of their dancing ability Personality and Individual Differences, 47 (5), 527-530 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.04.009

ResearchBlogging.orgBrown, W., Cronk, L., Grochow, K., Jacobson, A., Liu, C., Popović, Z., & Trivers, R. (2005). Dance reveals symmetry especially in young men Nature, 438 (7071), 1148-1150 DOI: 10.1038/nature04344

ResearchBlogging.orgNeave, N., McCarty, K., Freynik, J., Caplan, N., Honekopp, J., & Fink, B. (2010). Male dance moves that catch a woman's eye Biology Letters, 7 (2), 221-224 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0619

Hey baby, you must be gibberelin, because I'm experiencing some stem elongation.

You've got your eye on someone fabulous. You walk over; lean against the bar and…

What you say next can make or break that first meeting. What do you say? There are several studies out there that look for practical answers to this question. Considering our current dating discussion, we’ll hone in on pickup lines (or chat-up lines), which run the gamut from cute to cringe-worthy. In general, these types of studies ask “What makes a pickup line good?”

To get at this, many categorize them according to a 1986 study by Kleinke et al.:
  1. Cute-flippant – convey interest with humor that is usually flirtatious or sexual 
    • “You must be tired, because you’ve been running through my mind all day,” (A line that has actually been used on me. Sigh.) 
    •  “Do you have any raisins? No? Well then, how about a date?” 
  2. Innocuous – convey interest without incurring the pain of from potential rejection by using simple questions to start conversations 
    • “Have you seen any good movies lately?” 
    • “What do you think of the band?” 
  3. Direct – convey interest with sincerity and flattery 
    • “I saw you across the room and knew I had to meet you. What’s your name?” 
    • “Can I buy you lunch?”
Evolutionarily speaking, women are making choices that optimize the viability of any offspring, but the male attributes they prefer are dependent on the type of relationship they are seeking. If they are looking for a long-term relationship then they prefer males who appear likely to be good fathers. Broadly, these women are picking up on signals for warmth-trustworthiness (honesty, reliability, kindness) and status-resources (intelligence, dominance, earning potential). If they are looking for a short-term relationship then signals of good genes like attractiveness and health are important. A 2010 study by Senko and Fyffe applied this evolutionary perspective to pickup lines, examining the perception of these signals. They asked 70 women to imagine that a man comes up to them and initiates contact using either a flippant, innocuous, or direct pickup line. Then the women rated that imaginary man on several attributes including trustworthiness, intelligence, sociability, sense of humor, and creativity. The women also reported their willingness to carry a conversation and long-term or short-term relationship potential. The original Kleinke study found that everyone agreed that cute-flippant lines were the worst; go with innocuous or direct lines. Both studies found this to be particularly true for women. Senko and Fyffe found long-term relationship seeking women much less receptive to a flippant pickup line even though the men were judged as more sociable, more confident, and funnier. Conversely, they were also deemed to be less trustworthy and less intelligent. Short-term relationship seeking women judged a man based on his attractiveness rather than his choice of opener. Nice when your findings line up with the theory isn’t it?

Okay, so now we have zeroed in on the categories that work best: innocuous and direct. But is there something about the lines themselves that make them successful? A 2006 study by Bale et al. aimed to construct a pencil and paper instrument to index the effectiveness of pickup lines and identify cues as to their effectiveness. To do this, they created 40 vignettes in which a man attempted to start a conversation with a woman including 20 “one-liners” chosen as signals of particular male traits. Then participants were asked to rate the man’s pickup on whether or not a woman would continue the conversation. As with the previous studies, pickup lines involving jokes, empty compliments and sexual references rated poorly. Lines that indicated those evolutionary desirable traits did best: generosity, cultured, and physical fitness.

A 2007 study by Cooper et al. built on the Bale et al. work, looking at the effect of personality on the response to pickup lines. This study proposed that these openers can have two functions: attraction and selection. These functions may allow men to increase their effectiveness by skewing the distribution of women they attract towards a particular personality type. The researchers used the short scale version of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire Revised (EPQ-r) to measure the personality traits of the participants. They also asked the participants to complete a Dating Partner Preference test which asks them to rate 33 adjectives to show how they felt about the trait in a prospective dating partner. Generally, they found four groups of adjectives that were preferred: good mate, compliment, sex (preferred by males), and humor (preferred by females). Are you sensing a theme yet? They also combined their dataset with Bale et al. to establish the relationships among vignettes to explore the effect of the sex of the participant. Women rated humorous items more favorably and sexually loaded lines less favorably than did men. (Again, you’re shocked, I know.) However, it turned out that men underestimated some things; like when he revealed wealth or proffered help in a way that showed off his character and when he handed over control of the interaction to the woman. On the flip-side, he also overestimated how she responded to showing off his accomplishments, especially if it was laden with innuendo.

Lessons learned from this? Construct your pickup lines carefully. Sure, humor is important but in pickup line form it just makes you look like an idiot. Instead, ask her what she thinks, listen and respond intelligently, and talk about yourself without being a show-off. In short, be a normal person, not a weirdo.

ResearchBlogging.orgKleinke, C., Meeker, F., & Staneski, R. (1986). Preference for opening lines: Comparing ratings by men and women Sex Roles, 15 (11-12), 585-600 DOI: 10.1007/BF00288216

ResearchBlogging.orgBale, C., Morrison, R., & Caryl, P. (2006). Chat-up lines as male sexual displays Personality and Individual Differences, 40 (4), 655-664 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.07.016

ResearchBlogging.orgCooper, M., O’Donnell, D., Caryl, P., Morrison, R., & Bale, C. (2007). Chat-up lines as male displays: Effects of content, sex, and personality Personality and Individual Differences, 43 (5), 1075-1085 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.03.001

(images via How Stuff Works, BuzzFeed, and QuickMeme, respectively)

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day! Here's another song from the Darwin Song Project.

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