Monday, December 17, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Drinking the Clouds

I don’t often talk about water movement in plants even though I work in a lab that studies water movement in plants. I should probably ruminate on that but won’t. Instead, I’ll start out by putting a complex problem into the simplest of terms: Plants drink water with their roots. Okay, that’s true but perhaps it is a bit too elementary. I think that, in this case, I need to explain it in more detail so that you can really appreciate why a certain research paper caught my attention.

For water to do all the important things it should, it needs to get in and around the plant. This is one of the most basic plant physiology…no, basic biology mechanisms we know. Water diffuses in near the tip of a growing root (you know, the hairy part) and makes its way to the xylem. The xylem is the vascular tissue that conducts water and dissolved nutrients to all parts of the plant. Considering that plants grow up, this water must be moved against gravity. This is where transpiration, root pressure, and capillary action come in. Transpiration (like evaporation, it is the loss of water vapor from parts of a plant, usually the leaves) causes tension and pressure that pulls water up, and root pressure pushes water up when transpiration is low, the soil is moist, and when the roots are absorbing lots of water. Capillary action helps it all as it allows water to flow up the narrow channels of the xylem. The leaves are where the plant usually loses water. Leaves have many, small structures called stomata that function in gas exchange. Guard cells open and close a stoma, and when the carbon dioxide is let in water vapor can be let out. Plants can lose a lot of water through transpiration and have various methods (that I won’t go in to) to try and combat it. Now, this sounds like a lot of info but I’m really just barely scratching the surface (see some links below if you want to know more) of this process. What makes the paper I read today so interesting is that it adds another layer to what we already know about water movement in plants.

The authors of a new paper, published online in Ecology Letters, take a look how plants function in cloud forests. These forests are unique and super neat! Tropical montane cloud forests (TMCF) are among Earth’s most rare and endangered ecosystems occupying just 1.4 percent of the world’s tropical forest area. They are like rain forests in that they receive high levels of precipitation. Where they differ is that much of this precipitation comes directly from clouds, through the cloud filtering of the trees. Lateral cloud filtering is a process where clouds blow among the trees and the moisture condenses as it touches the leaves, forming water droplets. This process reduces the vapor pressure deficit (VPD) and photsynthetically active radiation (PAR), decreasing plant water demand and suppressing leaf-level transpiration. When regular, vertical precipitation is limited in the dry season these cloud water droplets can become an important water source. The researchers in this study looked a phenomenon referred to as foliar water uptake (foliar uptake), where this condensed water is taken in through the leaves, and its occurrence in TMCFs.

The researchers compared neighboring tropical montane and pre-montane cloud forests along the Pacific slope of the Cordillera de Tilarán mountains near Monteverde, Costa Rica. They characterized the cloud cover using remote sensing and created an environmental characterization of the forest by looking at factors such as humidity, temperature, soil water content, rainfall, and leaf wetness. Then they characterized and compared foliar uptake in situ in both forest types, measuring sap flow on the small branches of woody plants using the heat ratio method. They also measured the capacity for foliar uptake in several woody plant species by collecting leaves, rehydrating them, and measuring them individually in the lab.

The researchers found that during the dry season, the pre-montane cloud forests (which are further west and at a lower elevation) are subject to greater rain shadow and less cloud immersion. These forests experienced, on average, a lower number of hours of leaf wetness per day and a shorter duration of each individual leaf wetness event when compared with the tropical montane cloud forests. The higher cloud cover frequency of the TMCF resulted in more, longer leaf wetting events resulting in foliar uptake. They found the prevalence of foliar uptake to be quite high and widespread among species, occurring independently of phylogeny, morphology or growth habit. This foliar uptake also took a significant role in the plants’ water status both in the field and in the lab, resulting in greater water deficit reductions. Furthermore, the results showed that the TMCF plant community demonstrated a higher capacity for foliar uptake than did the pre-montane plant community. This is interesting because foliar uptake benefits the drier, pre-montane forest more and yet these forests are unable to capitalize on them physiologically to the same extent as the TMCF plant communities. This may be a result of the presence or frequency certain leaf traits that facilitate the uptake (cuticle, trichomes, hydathodes) or the ability of water to enter the stomata.

As with everything we do now, look at this through your climate change lenses. What are the consequences of climate change in these ecosystems? Tropical mountains are projected to experience high rates of climate change, increasing dry season surface air temperatures 3.8°C and decreasing precipitation by 14 percent. All of this could increase cloud frequency and cloud base height causing a higher water demand in these plants.

All in all, this new layer to the water movement mechanisms we all know and love is pretty thought-provoking. I know it set out to shed light on the prevalence and role of foliar uptake, but, with me, it had a greater impact in thinking about its consequences. The effect of drought on plants is a hot topic in the plant physiology world, and this paper is an interesting way to look at it.

ResearchBlogging.orgGoldsmith, G., Matzke, N., & Dawson, T. (2012). The incidence and implications of clouds for cloud forest plant water relations Ecology Letters DOI: 10.1111/ele.12039

More on water movement in plants:
Bellevue College's "Transport in Plants" notes
Univ of Illinois at Chicago's "Transport in Plants" lecture notes
Science Mag's "Transpiration: Water Movement in Plants" (Flash player animations that are good)

About cloud forests:
Community Cloud Forest Conservation
Canopy in the Clouds

On this story:
Science Daily: "Cloud Forest Trees Drink Water Through Their Leaves"
UC Berkeley's "Cloud forest trees drink water through their leaves"

(image via

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Thrilling Arctic

What do you do to pass the time when you are an Arctic researcher? Simple:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Safety First!

I've been doing a lot of lab paperwork lately, and so this made me smile.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Ugly Animal Preservation Society

The IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. This List is used for information and analyses on the status, trends and threats to species in order to establish a baseline from which to monitor status changes, monitor biodiversity trends, establish conservation priorities, and provide freely available data. Their are seven classifications of species: Least Concern (LC), Near Threatened (NT), Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), Critically Endangered (CR), Extinct in the Wild (EW), and Extinct (EX).

The IUCN Red List currently has over 4,000 species listed as Critically Endangered. This classification includes species such as gorillas and leopards, but the list is made up primarily of less charismatic species than these. The ugly species, if you will. These ugly species are important, of value, and contribute to their ecosystems in significant ways.

Now, evolutionary biologist Simon Watt has proposed that we stand up for these less aesthetically pleasing creatures through the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (UAPS). When you really take the time to find out about them, many of these ugly animals are more weird and fascinating than their charismatic co-inhabitants. Simon often champions the Canadian blue-grey taildropper slug. This slug is bright blue and has the interesting behavior of dropping its tail when it is scared. Yep, its butt drops off so the predator can eat it while the slug gets away. Don't worry though, it grows a new butt.

Recently, the UAPS had their first general meeting. Okay, well, it was sort of an excuse to get a bunch of comedians in the same room together to talk about ugly animals, but it turned out to be productive anyway. The audience of this meeting voted on a species that would represent the UAPS as their mascot. The winner was the Proboscis Monkey. Sure, you may find this breed of ugly to be kind of cute until you find out that this monkey's digestive system makes them bloat up and become massively flatulent. Ew.

We are all guilty of it: we get so caught up in the cute, the cuddly, and the beautiful that we sometimes forget about everyone else. The UAPS also takes an "everyone else" viewpoint in that they champion saving a habitat rather than a single species. By protecting a habitat, we save all of the species within it, ugly and cute alike.

What do you think? What is your favorite ugly animal....or plant (we shouldn't forget about plants!)?

(via the Naked Scientists podcast)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Gift of Regifting

Be honest: How bad is it to regift? We've all gotten gifts that are clearly items someone was given and didn't want. A Chia Pet, a fruitcake, or an ugly piece of jewelry. Some things you can just tell. No lie, I once got a set of used cassette tapes. I don't even own a cassette tape player. I considered rethinking a friendship.

Most often, people regift things they will not use or gifts they do not like. If you want to stick a name on it, it is a problem researchers refer to as "deadweight loss." This is because the gift recipients would never spend as much money as the giver (especially on an ugly, unusable item like that), and the receiver is left with an item that lingers around in the closet (or wherever) until they can get rid of it (hence, the "deadweight" terminology). How do you shed the deadweight? You pass it on. Maybe the receiver will appreciate it in ways you never did, or at least they will pretend to. And this gets to the heart of today's post: How do people regard regifting? Resourceful and thrifty or rude and distasteful? Does it matter if you are the giver or the receiver? A study published this year in Psychological Science asked just these questions in a series of studies.

Study 1: Is it okay to regift gift cards?
Participants were asked to imagine that a 50 dollar Amazon gift card had been given as a birthday gift and then regifted to someone else. Then they were asked to assess their feelings as either the giver or the regifter. The researchers found that regifters thought the giver would be more offended if they regifted the card than givers reported that feeling.

Study 2: Do you regift or throw away an undesirable present?
The first study showed that regifters may be overestimating how offended the givers would be at having their present regifted. But what if that present were just thrown away? Participants were asked to imagine that they had recently given or received a wristwatch as a gift and, depending on the rolls they were assigned (giver or receiver), how would they feel if the watch was either regifted or thrown away? Similar to Study 1, the researchers found that the receivers thought that regifting or throwing a gift away would offend givers more than givers felt they would have been offended. They also found that the recipients found throwing away a gift to be more offensive than regifting it. Givers were less offended if their present was regifted than if it was thrown away.

Study 3: In the real world, how do friends really feel about regifting?
In this study, the researchers wanted to get a more real world feel. How do real groups of friends feel about regifting? So they asked participants to sign up with two of their friends. One member of this group was assigned the roll of the giver, separated from the group, and asked to choose from three items that were pretested and identified as bad gifts (a magazine for retired people, a DVD about the life of Mandy Moore, and a weight-loss cookbook). The giver then wrapped their gift and gave it to one of their friends. Once the giver had gone back to the waiting room, the receiver (now the regifter) of the bad gift was then asked to rewrap the bad gift. Then, in front of the initial giver, the regifter enters the waiting room with the rewrapped gift and gives it to the final friend. I don't know about you, but this almost sounds mean just reading it. When each was asked about their feelings on this bout of regifting, the regivers again thought the initial giver would be more offended than they were. Givers thought that the regifters were entitled to do what they wished with the gift.

Study 4: Is it possible to make receivers more comfortable with regifting?
Did you know that there is a National Regifting Day? It's true. In honor of holiday office parties and the “unique” gifts exchanged at them, the creators of have declared the third Thursday in December as National Regifting Day. The results of Study 3 suggested that interventions that encourage receivers to do what they wish with their gifts may liberate them to regift. The researchers found that study participants were more likely to regift if they were told that it was National Regifting Day than if they were not told. They also found that receivers felt more entitled to do what they wanted with their bad gift if they were told it was National Regifting Day, although they still felt less entitled than givers thought they should.

When I stop and think about it, this all makes sense. However, I maintain that giving a bad gift (like used cassette tapes) is still giving a bad gift and that isn't being a good friend or relative. Go back and read the last gift giving post, your friends often don't need something flashy or weird (unless they are that kind of personality). Think about what they want and get it for them. Odds are that they will keep your gift and use it. At least I hope so. And if not, this article suggests that they don't mind if you regift it. I would have been interested to see another choice in Study 2 that included feelings on donating the gift.

What about you? What are your thoughts on regifting? Will you be giving away that ugly office gift from last year?

ResearchBlogging.orgAdams, G., Flynn, F., & Norton, M. (2012). The Gifts We Keep on Giving: Documenting and Destigmatizing the Regifting Taboo Psychological Science, 23 (10), 1145-1150 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612439718

Some more regifting reading:
The New York Times: "Re-Gifting: You Shouldn’t Have. But if You Did, Here’s How to Get Away With It"
The Huffington Post: "To Regift or Not to Regift, That Is the Question" and "Regifting Christmas Presents: How To Do It Properly"
ABC News: "Re-Gifting: It’s Not Just for the Poor, Frugal or Unashamed Anymore"

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Heroes of Science!

Datazoid @ Deviantart has created a wonderful image of what the Heroes of Science Action Figures would look like.
"These little guys took between 40 minutes and 2 hours each, totalling around 50 hours of work.
I like action figures. I have a small collection of them. I’ve noticed that you can buy Albert Einstein figures, Nikola Tesla bobble-heads and The Simpsons even brought out a Stephen Hawking figure based on his appearance in an episode. However, I thought it’d be really cool if there was an entire series of them, based on all of the people who’ve contributed to our understanding of the world and the universe it sits in. 
I realise there are a *lot* of scientists that I’ve missed!
I did make a few rules for who I’d include in this selection, which are: 
the scientist must have been alive at some point in the 20th century. This is a practical consideration, as it really narrows the field down, and it eliminates a lot of the more outrageously-dressed characters, allowing me to work with mostly dudes in suits. No scientists famous for major medical breakthroughs. Primarily because medical heroes is a category all of its own, and there are hundreds to choose from. I’ve included Alexander Fleming here, because he was primarily a chemist, and because his discovery of penicillin was not a discovery made in the course of trying to cure something."
Unlike the Lil' Giants of Science, these action figures aren't real. I know, I know, we all wish they were. Maybe someone out there will make them (*insert pleading puppy dog eyes here*)?

(click image for larger version)

Read more about this art at Datazoid @ Deviantart page.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Psychology of Gift Giving: Unique and Expensive or Ordinary but Useful?

The holiday shopping season is almost upon us. Black Friday is but a couple of days away. The annual shopping explosion event when you start thinking how close the year is to being over, how you haven’t even thought about what you are going to buy anyone, and how much money you don’t have to spend. Actually, I tend to be a Cyber Monday kind of shopper, but the same tenets hold true.

Gift giving: What do you get someone? Will they like it? What will they give you? Will you like it? Quite frankly, the whole process can be fun but exhausting.

Gifts can be tokens of social relationships, ways that we transmit impressions and feelings to one another. If you boil down the above questions, you are really asking about the attractiveness of gifts. A study in 2005 looked at the attractiveness of a gift seen from the perspective of the giver and the recipient. When you are shopping and picking out a gift, you probably go for something that you find attractive and/or you think the receiver will find attractive. Ultimately, you want your gift exchange to be successful. As a giver, that means you try to take the receiver’s perspective into account. As a recipient, that means you realize that any number of gifts could have been chosen for you and the one you received is what the giver thought you would like best. As with so many social psychology papers, this question of gift attractiveness was broken down into a series of studies.

Study 1: High-quality and unique or ordinary but useful? 
Ideally, you want to choose a gift that is both high-quality but also useful to the recipient. But high-quality usually means expensive. If, as a giver, your shopping list doesn’t include expensive then you have to make a trade-off. Usually this means a smaller, high-quality gift or a larger, more ordinary gift. This first type of gift is nice, and often exclusive or unique. The second type of gift is probably something more useful, something the recipient can use. They found that givers preferred to give expensive, exclusive, smaller gifts. On the other hand, receivers preferred less luxurious, more useful gifts. Makes sense I guess. As a giver, you want to give someone something both you and they perceive as nice. As a receiver, you actually have to live with that gift.

Study 2: What do you expect of your gifts? 
Cultural conventions, we all fall into them. In western societies, a gift should be nicely wrapped, come without a price tag, and arrive on time. The gift itself should be neither too cheap nor too expensive (especially as gifts are often reciprocal). Oh, and cash is only accepted under certain circumstances, usually helping someone pay for something specific (house, car, school, etc.). Receivers are expected to act surprised when they open the gift (even if they knew what it is), to be grateful, and to praise the gift (even when they hate it). This study asked people a series of questions: Gift voucher (gift cards) or cash? Opera or movie tickets? How important is it that a gift be a surprise? Or arrive on time? They found that givers prefer gift vouchers to cash and are concerned about timing, showing that gift givers are more serious about social conventions than are recipients. It’s weird really, because they found that gift givers are most concerned with pleasing the receiver even though the givers are abiding by cultural conventions that don’t do that (see Study 1). Receivers accept cash gifts and claim to not really care if the gift arrives late.

Study 3: Does self-perception or perceptions of others play into gift giving? 
Personally, you prefer the ordinary but useful gift, but you think these preferences are not shared by others. So you end up selecting gifts according to the preferences you think are more widespread among others. "Everybody likes expensive wine so I will buy expensive wine as a gift." They found little support for this self versus others perception hypothesis. Rather, people change their preferences in accordance with their rolls as either givers or receivers.

Study 4: Why are some conventions more important than others? 
It is nice to divide these questions up into studies, but in real life, pairwise comparisons aren’t made. When choosing a gift, givers have to choose between two or more simultaneous options and evaluate potential gifts one by one. Receivers don’t know all of the decision-making that the givers went through to pick their gift or what other gifts they could have gotten instead. This study found that when receivers evaluate a gift on its own they tend to agree with the givers’ preferences and prefer more exclusive gifts.

So what do we take away from a paper like this? Studies 1 – 3 seem to say “Skip the fancy wine and just buy them the comfy sweater.” I tend to agree. Buy something you know they will both love and use. Look at cultural gift giving conventions and choose to step away and consider your friend or loved one’s interests.

Our next topic – Regifiting…you know you shouldn’t but is it really the taboo you think it is?

ResearchBlogging.orgTeigen, K., Olsen, M., & Solås, O. (2005). Giver-receiver asymmetries in gift preferences British Journal of Social Psychology, 44 (1), 125-144 DOI: 10.1348/014466604X23428

Read more about gift giving:
Scientific American: "The Psychology Behind Gift-Giving and Generosity"
NY Times: "A Gift That Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself"

(image via

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Superman, Please Call Me Neil

I think that introducing a little science into a fictional story is never a bad thing. Science is so cool on its own that it can only make your story that much cooler. In the upcoming issue of Action Comics #14, astrophysicist and science rock star Neil deGrasse Tyson show up to help Superman find his home planet Krypton. We all know how good Neil is at calling the media on their science screw-ups, and so what a wonderful idea it is to get him involved before said screw-ups ever happen. Neil determines that Krypton is located 27.1 light-years from earth in the constellation Corvus. It orbits the red dwarf star LHS 2520 at Right Ascension 12 hours 10 minutes 5.77 seconds, Declination -15 degrees 4 minutes 17.9 seconds, and Proper Motion 0.76 arcseconds per year, along 172.94 degrees from due north (see Celestial Sphere).

“As a native of Metropolis, I was delighted to help Superman, who has done so much for my city over all these years,” Tyson said in a statement. “And it’s clear that if he weren’t a superhero he would have made quite an astrophysicist.”

Also of note is an episode of webseries Fact or Fictional that discusses the plausibility of the  S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier from The Avengers with scientist Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy). Can that thing actually fly? How much power would it take? What about the cloaking technology?

(via /Film)

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Science Behind Superheroes

Some superheroes are a bit more set in reality than others. This becomes arguably more or less the case when you talk about movies vs. comic books, one superhero vs. another. Perhaps, Christopher Nolan's new Batman, Jon Favreau's Ironman, or maybe the new Amazing Spiderman work with the laws of the natural world a little better. OK, well, only if someone really knows what an arc reactor is and how spiders can change you at a genetic level. We could probably argue this all day.

Anyway, here's a great little infographic that I came across about The Science Behind Superheroes. Enjoy!

(via GeekTyrant via AllFancyDress)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dung Beetles and Ball-Cooling: The Secret of the Poo

You’re a dung beetle. That isn’t an insult, it’s a visualization aid. You are a dung beetle, you live in South Africa, you roll up feces into balls, you push those balls to a storage location, and you use the balls as food or for brooding. Now, as a human visualizing yourself as a dung beetle, consider the environment you are rolling your dung ball across: the sands of the South African desert. Are your feet hot? How do you cool them down?

The authors of a new paper in Current Biology asked just these questions. The hot desert sands of South Africa can exceed temperatures of 60°C (140°F). Even for the resident dung beetle (Scarabaeus lamarcki) that’s hot. It is known that many species will seek refuges to cool down in these hot climes. For example, desert ants will spend up to 75 percent of their foraging time cooling down on elevated thermal refuges (like stalks of grass). It would make sense that dung beetles, which work under similar hot conditions, would seek refuges as they roll their poo-balls across the sand. Returning to your imagined-dung-beetle-state, what do you do to cool off?

The researchers used infrared thermography and behavioral experiments to see how dung beetles use their dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge onto which they climb to cool down. Jochen Smolka and his colleagues set up two sandy, circular, 3 meter diameter arenas in a natural South African habitat. One of the arenas was shaded in the morning to keep the ground temperature cooler. The other arena was exposed to full sunlight. They found that at the cooler ground temperatures, below 50°C, the beetles roll their dung balls straight across the arena without stopping. On the hotter ground, the beetles were observed to occasionally stop, climb up onto their ball and preen their front legs with their mouth-parts. It is likely that this preening covers the legs in regurgitated liquid, cooling them down by evaporative cooling. After the preening, the beetles perform an orientation dance and continue to roll their balls across the arena.

Fig 1. The dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge. (A) With rising soil temperature, beetles climb onto their dung balls more frequently while rolling (B) Temperature of the right front leg (red) and thorax (blue) of a beetle during its first three ball climbs (periods of rolling are grey) (C) Front leg temperature profile averaged over 84 ball climbs from 7 beetles (D) With silicone ‘boots’ on their legs, beetles perform fewer ball climbs. Similarly, beetles climb onto cool balls less often than hot balls

Ground temperature also significantly affected the frequency of this ball climbing behavior. At progressively high temperatures, the beetles climbed up on their balls more often, spending almost 70 percent of their time on top of their balls when the ground temperature went above 60°C.

So why climb balls? Answer: Ball-cooling. Infrared thermography shows that when the beetles roll their dung balls, the surface temperature of the beetles’ front legs increases by as much as 10°C, but when they climb up on their balls that temperature decreases again. That’s quite a bit, but is it really their hot feet that causes the beetles to ball climb? To this, they applied dental silicone to the beetles’ front legs. Pause: Beetle-booties, fun to say and I’m sure fun to see, and reminds me of the awesomeness that is ants on stilts. They found that these beetle-boots doubled the beetles’ ball rolling time, decreasing their ball climbing by 35 percent. This suggests that the ball climbing behavior is related to ground temperature and the heating up of beetle feet. As it turns out, the poo-balls are acting as thermoregulators in three ways:

1. They are portable, elevated platforms that can be used to escape the hot sand.

2. They are heat sinks. The moist dung ball undergoes evaporative cooling, keeping it the much cooler temperature of 31.8°C. This is substantially cooler than the beetle and the sand.

3. They are sand-coolers. Essentially, they are performing another heat sinking duty, sort of a heat vacuum, if you will. The dung ball draws the heat from the sand so it is cooler for the beetles to walk on.

If the poo-balls are actually acting as heat sinks, both during rolling and while the beetle is on it, then warmer balls should be less efficient heat sinks and the beetles should climb on them more often. The researchers tested this by giving beetles cold balls and hot balls. They found that the beetles climbed the hot balls 73 percent more often than the cold balls, supporting the heat sink hypothesis. “Because beetles roll their ball rather than drag it, the ball, preceding the beetle, cools down the sand the beetle is about to step on” by 1.5°C.

Put together, these mechanisms allow dung beetles to operate during a time of day when most arthropods, and other animals for that matter, seek a cool shelter. I guess there are a lot more good things about poo than I ever realized. And it appears that dung beetles have uncovered the secret of the poo.

ResearchBlogging.orgSmolka, J., Baird, E., Byrne, M., el Jundi, B., Warrant, E., & Dacke, M. (2012). Dung beetles use their dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge Current Biology, 22 (20) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.057

Here are a few news outlets that have picked up the story:
From Wired UK "Study: Dung beetles cool their heels atop balls of poo"
Discovery News' story "Why Dung Beetles Like to Chill on Poop Balls"
LiveScience's "That's Hot! Beetles Dance on Poop Balls to Keep Cool"
The Naked Scientists' report "Beetles use dung balls to keep cool"

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

MIT Gangnam Style

How MIT does Gangnam Style.

Look for the cameo by Noah Chomsky!

Sciency Jack-o-Lanterns

Happy Halloween!

Here are some sciency pumpkins for your enjoyment. Now I'm going to look for some will power to not eat every piece of candy in sight.

Carl Segan pumpkin


Pumpkin Pi

Skeleton hand pumpkin

Leaves and Science pumpkin

Space Shuttle pumpkin

Equation pumpkin

Anatomical Heart pumpkin

Mitosis pumpkin

(via The Segan SeriesCells in Culture, Science Stuff on FB, forevergeek, and

Monday, October 29, 2012

MMM...Chocolate Braaains!

Tis the season for candy everything, and Halloween is a perfect time for candy body parts of all kinds.

Check this out: chocolate brains! Not just any chocolate brains though. These edible brains are made at the 3D technology company Inition. The brain-shaped chocolate candy is created using sliced data sourced from an MRI scan of co-founder Andy Millns' brain. So how do you use an MRI to create a chocolate brain? Easy:

Step 1: Convert sliced DICOM data into the STL file format (a 3D geometry format widely used for 3D printing)
Step 2: Edit that model to clean up
Step 3: Print a 3D solid model
Step 4: Produce a latex mold
Step 5: Cast chocolate
Step 6: Eat your brain while making "mmm...braaains!" noises

After consuming his own brain, Millns said: "I've been involved in some weird 3D projects over the years at Inition but eating my own chocolate brain was one of the most bizarre."

You can get the full instructions for creating a chocolate brain, and lots of neat computer images, over at Instructables.

Additional chocolatey brain links:
Inition blog story "Inition Co-founder Eats His Own Brain"
Laughing Squid story "Edible Chocolate Brains Created From MRI Scan Data"
That's Nerdalicious blog story "Company Creates Edible Chocolate Brain From MRI Scan Data"

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Marine Biology of Pokémon

I was never really a Pokémon fan, but I thought this was cute.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How NOT to Promote Science to Women

I truly had a facepalm moment when I saw this video.

This video was published by the European Commission for a campaign designed to attract more women - or girls, rather - to a career in science, showing them that "science does not just mean old men in white coats." They designed it to "speak their language to get their attention," to be "fun, catchy" and strike a chord with young people. Instead it looks like an shallow fashion magazine. One of the video's comments sums it up nicely: "Science!!! Its good for creating MAKEUP! And you can look hot doing it!!" 

The original video was taken down after it received so many negative comments. Omigod, I like totally challenge you to guess why.

(via Huffington Post, VideoSift, and GeeksAreSexy

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Rocky Mountain Parnassius Problem

Lately, I've been thinking about butterflies. I won't subject you to the interesting, if slightly convoluted, train of thought that led me to today's paper (this post is long enough as it is), but suffice it to say that we are back on the topic of butterflies and climate change. If you remember, back in March I wrote about a paper that explored how a single climate parameter can determine population dynamics in a butterfly species, the Mormon Fritillary (Speyeria mormonia) - An Early Spring Isn't Always a Good Thing. In that case, it was how snow melt time in the first year would affect butterfly fecundity through flower abundance.

Along these lines, a preprint in the journal Ecology takes a look at how regional climate, particularly winter and winter extremes, affects annual rates of population change. We know that climate change is causing range shifts in many species. Good examples of this can be seen in high elevation, typically mountainous regions. The idea here is that a warmer climate facilitates growth in areas where a colder climate had previously prevented growth. However, this warming trend is not the only prediction attached to climate change. Variability in climate and weather and the extremes of seasons and events are also expected to have a large impact on ecological processes. This means that not only do species have to respond to general climate warming but also to general and local extremes. Long-lived vertebrate species with overlapping generations may be buffered to this because such these extreme changes act primarily on a single age class or cohort. Short-lived, univoltine (one brood or generation per year) ectothermic species have little to no buffering, meaning the entire population is affected by these extreme events.

The authors of this study use long-term (15 year) estimates of population size for 21 subpopulations of the Rocky Mountain Apollo butterfly (Parnassius smintheus Doubleday) in Alberta, Canada. This species is common in the alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains of North America. They are known to overwinter as pharate larvae inside the egg, hatching in May, feeding on their obligate host plant (Sedum lanceolatum), pupating in late June, emerging as adults in late July, and the females ovipositing on their host plant through August. Although they are common, they tend to occur in relatively small subpopulations, having limited dispersal, which makes them good for metapopulation studies and studies of local changes. The researchers estimated population size in each subpopulation using mark-recapture data. The climate variable they chose was the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) index, an index shown to have strong correlations with their chosen study site. This index “contrasts the spatial distribution of sea temperatures between the northeastern and northwestern Pacific Ocean after correction for mean global temperature…providing a single integrative measure of climate across western North America through its strong temporal correlation with both temperature and precipitation.” A positive PDO means that warm water is along the coast and are associated with warm, dry years inland. A negative PDO means that cooler water lies along the coast and are associated with cool, wet years. They used both annual PDO as well as seasonal PDO values corresponding to stages of the life-cycle that were of particular interest. Then they ran some models that I won’t go into (I’ve used up a lot of space and I haven’t even gotten to the results yet!).

These models showed that “more frequent climate extremes pose important consequences or animal population growth affected by climate.” They found that winter values of the PDO were a strong predictor of annual population growth. The effects of climate in these butterflies was found to be curvilinear wherein both extremes (too warm and too cold) result in population decline. This suggests that the variability and extremes predicted by climate change models will greatly affect the population dynamics of species such as this and that there may be less opportunity for them to adapt to general climate warming as the occurrences of these extremes increases. Additionally, the curvilinear nature of these results suggests some complications in the mechanisms involving range shifts. Their data support range shifts (either poleward or elevational) in that climate warming may sustain a positive population growth, although low latitude and low-elevation range margins might be affected more causing negative growth.

Are these results applicable to all species? No. P. smintheus is an alpine species that is naturally subjected to a cold, unpredictable environment, and, as such, they exhibit several behavioral, morphological and physiological adaptations. This means that curvilinear results of the model suggest multiple climate-related factors that need to be teased out (temperature, precipitation, snow cover, snow distribution, etc.) and that the PDO index itself may have a range with extreme values on its edges. Because these are extreme factors rather than just gradual shifts in climate, conservation planning could be more difficult over the long term. The extremes themselves decrease populations and the variability shrinks geographic ranges (depending on event and climate interactions) also causing decreases. Perhaps helping to curtail the effects of the short-term weather extremes may help in the long-term. As yet it is unknown, and, as with most science, needs more investigation.

I encourage you to read the entire paper. There are additional ideas and fleshing out of these conclusions that are particularly interesting.

ResearchBlogging.orgRoland, J., & Matter, S. (2012). Variability in winter climate, and winter extremes, reduce population growth of an alpine butterfly Ecology DOI: 10.1890/12-0611.1

There are also a couple of articles that have nice interviews with the authors:
From EurekAlert! and the University of Alberta: "Climate change isolates Rocky Mountain butterflies"
ScienceDaily's article: "Climate Change Isolates Rocky Mountain Butterflies" 

(image via GeoLocation)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nye Needs Help

How can we ignore a plea from Bill Nye the Science Guy? I'm thinking "We can't" may be the only acceptable answer to that. Here's what he's asking us to do:

"We are at a crucial turning point in the history of planetary exploration.

After the wild successes of Cassini, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the breath-taking skycrane landing of Curiosity, the future of NASA's planetary exploration program lies in doubt.

Earlier this year, the proposed 2013 budget included a 21% cut to the planetary sciences division within NASA. This division is responsible for all robotic space exploration beyond the Earth and Sun. This cut represents a major setback for the program. Major missions are not possible on this budget, and merely maintaining support for current missions would be difficult.

Right now, we're asking our members and supporters to send a message to the President. Can you help?

The Planetary Society is in the middle of a long-term campaign to reverse these proposed cuts. We've organized our members to contact politicians and staffers at the national budget agency to express their support. We've been spreading the word to the public and meeting with key decision-makers on Capitol Hill. Our CEO, Bill Nye, has visited Washington, D.C. multiple times, and we've worked closely with our lobbyist in Congress.

Together, we can get the budget we need to support for our planetary endeavors and Save our Science."

Go over to The Planetary Society website and look for a big red link button about mid-way down the page that says "Write to the President." It will bring up a form letter that you can keep as it is or personalize as much as you wish. Take 5 minutes to be a science activist.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


When I build new environmental sensors I feel like I need to do this...

...and then I say "Please work!"

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Science Debate 2012

Warning: Today's post is political in nature, but don't worry, it is really sciency too.

I am posting this because it directly relates to science, and even though it deals with American politics, the resulting policies will impact the rest of the world. I'm not taking a political side and all of the links presented here give equal time to each side.

If you are interested in science - education, policy, funding, etc. - then you should check out Science Debate 2012.

In November 2007 a small group of U.S. citizens -  two screenwriters, a physicist, a marine biologist, a philosopher and a science journalist - wanted to work towards restoring science and innovation to America's political dialogue. So they put together Science Debate 2008. The idea was very simple: A presidential debate on science. This idea turned out to be very popular. Within weeks, more than 38,000 scientists, engineers, and other concerned Americans signed on (see who here and sign in here). It became so popular as to grow into the largest political initiative in the history of science, representing over 125 million people. These people submitted thousands of questions they wanted the presidential candidates to answer about science and the future of America (submit your own question here).

Long story short, the candidates refused. They refused even after the Science Debate team secured cosponsors in the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness. They refused after bipartisan congressional co-chairs were secured. They refused after a deal was made with NOVA and NOW on PBS to broadcast the debate, and a venue was secured. Instead, the candidates opted to debate their religious faith in two nationally televised "faith forums." In my opinion, we probably didn't need two of those, one would have gotten the point across nicely.

Want to stun the scientific and engineering community? That is how you do it. Considering that the questions that would have been asked at this debate lie at the center of most of the major unresolved policy challenges facing the country, it is kind of amazing that the candidates would refuse to debate them. So what was the next step?

The Science Debate team culled their thousands of submitted questions into "The Top 14 Science Questions Facing America," and teamed with Research!America to do a national poll to show the candidates that 85% of the American public thought that debating these topics was important. That's a large percentage, one the candidates couldn't really keep ignoring. Response attained, televised debate still refused. The candidates assembled teams of science advisers to help them answer the questions in written form. That's good. It helps inform the candidates' strategic thinking and gets them to look, in detail, at topics that they really should have already been looking at. The result: The inauguration of Barack Obama marked the first time a president has gone into office with a fully formed science policy and a sense of how it fits into his overall strategic agenda.

Now the U.S. is on the verge of another election. Are we getting our Science Debate 2012? Unfortunately, no. But both candidates have answered "The Top 14 Science Questions Facing America." Science Debate 2012 gives a nice side-by-side comparison of the candidates answers. Now, I know that many of us Americans have already picked our candidate, but I still encourage everyone to read through the responses to these questions. Both sides!
Perhaps just as interesting, the Science Debate 2012 team partnered with Scientific American and posed a subset of eight of the 14 questions to thirty-three members of Congress in leadership positions on the nation's science-oriented congressional committees. Six of them declined outright, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who were asked to participate because of their overall responsibility for the flow of legislation through Congress. Several more ignored numerous requests from ScienceDebate and Scientific American. Nine of the thirty-three responded. If you think about it, the U.S. Congress is a very powerful branch of government (more powerful than many Americans realize), and so I also encourage everyone to read the few responses that were sent.

My parting words on this topic: If you can vote, please vote!

Nov 1, 2012 UPDATE:
This morning a Presidential Surrogate Debate was held called "After Sandy: Climate Change, Science, and the Next 4 Years." This debate featured Obama campaign surrogate Kevin Knobloch and former Republican congressman and Delaware governor Mike Castle, and it was moderated by Chris Mooney of ClimateDesk Live and Shawn Otto of -- Watch it here:

Watch live streaming video from climatenexus at

If you want to keep reading on this topic:
Scientific American article: "Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?"
Science Magazine article: "In a Torrent of Campaign Rhetoric, Hints of Science Policy"
LA Times' article: "Obama and Romney answer questions about science policy"
The Scientist's article: "Obama's Science Report Card"
... and more!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Wine-ific Method

I tend to buy wine like I buy books: by their cover. Give me a good label and I'll probably give it a try.

This is why when I came across the wines of the Roots Run Deep Winery I got all kinds of impressed in the science-nerd part of my brain. Roots Run Deep is a Winery out of Napa Valley, California, and they pride themselves on producing great wines that are also affordable. In my opinion, they should also pride themselves on their wonderful naming and labeling system.

Meet Hypothesis, a Cabernet Savingnon that is 100% produced from a brand new winemaking technique called "flash detente." "This technique is an all natural and organic pre-fermentation process that simply involves quickly heating and cooking the skins of the fruit before beginning fermentation." As far as wine names go though, this one is pretty good.

Next, meet Educated Guess, a Cabernet Sauvignon that got its name "during a lively, second bottle of wine conversation about winemaking styles, vineyard sites, and the progressive escalation of wine prices without comparable increases in quality. The discussion the proceeded to the 'art vs. science' aspect of winemaking and after a few more glasses of wine...'Educated Guess' was born!!!" Not only is the name great, I find the label to be spectacular! The label was "deigned to tell the story of how you can make an educated guess in winemaking," showing you "the actual winemaking formulas that are either induced or naturally occur during a specific winemaking process." I'll drink to that!

Head over to the Roots Run Deep Winery website to learn more about their unique wines.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dinosaurs, Diversity, Distribution, and the LBG

For some reason I am in the mood to read a biogeography paper. I didn’t really have a particular topic in mind when I started looking, just a few journals I occasionally peruse. Then I came across a paper about palaeodiversity and the distribution of dinosaurs. I like dinosaurs and I like biogeography. So this must be a win-win. I haven’t visited the idea of dinosaur community structure and distribution since my Dino Eco post back in 2010. That paper concluded that the entire Western Interior of North America may have once been populated by a single dinosaur community with low beta diversity. Today’s paper looks at dinosaur diversity on a global scale. Last month, authors Philip Mannion et al. published a paper in Global Ecology and Biogeography that used the dinosaur fossil record to examine spatial patterns in terrestrial biodiversity.

To really get into this paper we’ll have to first explore the latitudinal biodiversity gradient (LBG). The LBG is essentially a biodiversity pattern in which species richness (a simple count of species) is highest in the tropics and declines polewards. It is a well-recognized pattern with causes that are a little less clear and that are still strongly debated. The two strongest hypotheses are that climate is the prime driver that influences biodiversity directly or via increased productivity in the tropics (warm areas are more hospitable and produce more food) or that the global distribution of area where the greater land area supports more species (the more land you have the more species will fit on it). The fossil record offers a deep time perspective that may help figure out the causes of the LBG we see today. The authors of this study chose a group of animals that was widespread, ecologically diverse, well studied, belonged to a long-lived clade, and had a fossil record that was adequate for the application of sampling standardization techniques. This gave them dinosaurs of Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems for 160 million years, from the Late Triassic to the terminal Cretaceous (230-65.5 Ma).

Mannion and his colleagues decided to use genera as the taxonomic unit of analysis for their study as the species scale can be inconsistent in its taxonomic treatment and the family scale tends to have arbitrary content (some families comprise a single genus while others are diverse). They then assembled a comprehensive dataset of Mesozoic dinosaur genera (738), including birds. Using the Paleobiology Database, they compiled stratigraphic ranges and modern geographic coordinates for occurrences, converting modern day coordinates to paleolatitudes using software called PointTracker (uses palaeogographical reconstructions of continental drift to transform present-day coordinates to past ones). They used a number of different methods to account for sampling biases in the fossil record, and they analyzed the data in seven time slices representing epochs and then the entire Jurassic and cretaceous periods as bins.

The authors found that dinosaurs did not conform to the modern LBG. Dinosaur diversity was found to be highest at temperate latitudes rather than tropic. This result was consistent across the different time slices suggesting that the pattern was not controlled by climate fluctuations; in fact, it is possible that the Mesozoic climate gradient was much weaker than it is today. Rather, or because of this weakness, the driver of this diversity was likely the result of greater land area in these latitudinal belts. These larger land areas may also have facilitated the gigantism attained by many dinosaur species.

Figure 3 Residual dinosaur diversity (thick solid lines) after controlling for numbers of dinosaur-bearing collections (DBCs) and formations (DBFs), plotted against non-marine area (NM area) and palaeogeographical reconstructions (using Mollweide projections) for the Late Triassic (bottom), Jurassic (middle) and Cretaceous (top). From Mannion et al. (2012)
Unfortunately, these results suggest modern diversity patterns cannot be extrapolated into deep time. Guess we'll have to look somewhere else. However, it does add support to the hypothesis that land area is the primary control on the terrestrial LBG during times of weakened climatic gradient. And that, on its own, is a really interesting conclusion. The contrary, modern vs. past result also indicates that there may have been some kind of shift that took place during the middle Cenozoic that gave rise to the diversity patterns that we see today. I think I see a future study!

ResearchBlogging.orgPhilip D. Mannion, Roger B. J. Benson, Paul Upchurch, Richard J. Butler, Matthew T. Carrano, & Paul M. Barrett7 (2012). A temperate palaeodiversity peak in Mesozoic dinosaurs and evidence for Late Cretaceous geographical partitioning. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 21 (9), 898-908 DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2011.00735.x

Also, check out this guest post by article author Philip Mannion over at Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings blog: "Guest Post: Dinosaurs and the latitudinal biodiversity gradient"

(top image titled Dinosaur Diversity by Elliot Merton III found on Dinosaur Central)

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Paper Bird Projects

Diana Beltran Herrera is an artist that is inspired about everything that exists in nature, animals, humans, everything that has a life, a shape, a color. She questions "what is the life, where is the point where it starts...everything that exist in the space, and then, discover that in this relations, things are created, transformed, improved in this constant evolution." For her, the movement is the big question and she wishes it understand it in a way that it can be communicated to others and allows people to relate to one another.

These first three pictures belong to her project Salida de campo (Field Trip) where she collaborates with Colombian photographer Victoria Holguín to put the art "subject" into a real context that provides information about its relationship to the environment.

These next three pictures are from her Colibri investigations project where she explores hummingbirds and their relationships to plants.

These final three pictures are from her Studies of movement project where she analyzes the movement of birds in relation to space.

If you like these then go over to Diana Beltran Herrera's website to see lots more!
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