Nest in the city

One of the most incredible things about peafowl is how well these birds thrive in the suburbs. There were hundreds in Arcadia, CA, where I studied them, and every once in a while I hear about some other town where they’ve taken over – Orange County, Palos Verdes, Miami – they even disperse and occasionally pop up somewhere new (like here, or here). I’ve been told that in India (where the species is originally from), flocks also tend to settle down in villages. (And the name for a group of peafowl? A muster!) And peacocks are now on the cover of a book on urban birds1.

So what makes peafowl so much better at urban living than other, similar species?

It could be that they’re catholic about their diets, or that they’re tolerant of a broad range of environmental conditions2. Other research has suggested that, in mammals at least, successful invaders tend to have relatively large brains3 – possibly because a large brain confers the ability to respond flexibly to new situations. American crows fit this theory, as an urban success story with relatively large brains. But peafowl are some of the smallest brained birds out there, when you consider brain size relative to body size – and pigeons, starling and house sparrows aren’t particularly well-endowed, either. So what if it has more to do with how they use their brains to adapt?

A new study points to an intriguing benefit of city life for some birds, and it has me wondering about learning as a mode of urban adaptation. Apparently, some urban birds use cigarette butts to build their nests – and researchers have now shown that the cigarette butts actually improve the living conditions for young birds.

Continue reading →

Hipsters who hunt

An update on a previous post: my good friends Martin and Vanya are the official poster boys of a new movement.

Collecting oyster mushrooms north of Kingston. Photo by Charlie Croskery.

Read about it here, as told by Vanya’s sister-in-law, Emma Marris. It’s a great article. Charlie took the photos at the Croskery farm (more here). I helped with the shoot, including costume changes and strategic placement of my shadow to avoid lens flare. It was a lot of fun. The only problem is, hipster isn’t the right word for what these guys do. Not sure what would be.

Innovative, naturally

bluegill sunfish field work

Chandra Rodgers sampling bluegill sunfish on Lake Opinicon.

This spring I had the opportunity to write a feature article on the Queen’s University Biological Station, a site just north of Kingston where researchers have a long history of major scientific breakthroughs involving modest Ontario wildlife. Several of these discoveries have proved to be as useful as they are compelling. The story was published in the Kingston Whig Standard, and on the web through the Queen’s Alumni Review and Funding for photography was provided by the CFI’s 2011 Emerging Science Journalists Award.

Talking to scientists about their research was by far the best part of this project – much more fun than I expected! And even the toughest interviews were a gold mine of ideas. Thanks to everyone who participated. The full story is posted below…

Continue reading →

To save trees, major rethink is needed

When you stop to think about it, few things are weirder than a tree. Like us, they’re largish organisms made up of many cells, each with a central nucleus – but we have little else in common. Plants diverged from our early ancestors well before there was anything bigger than a single cell around. They split from the animal lineage even before fungi, which leads to a shocking conclusion. That spot of mould in the vegetable drawer? It’s more closely related to you than the plants upon which you both depend.

Small wonder, then, that plants don’t live and die by the same rules as animals – but this could have dire implications. That’s the message of a new study by Jonathan Davies of McGill University, published in PLoS Biology. Davies and his international collaborators have shown that the factors causing extinction in plants are entirely unexpected, and the upshot is that the current IUCN Red List criteria for listing endangered species – which are based on animal studies – might be useless when it comes to plants.

Davies and his team used the latest the comprehensive Red List data for all flowering plant species in two locations: the United Kingdom and the South African Cape. The Cape is a biodiversity hotspot with thousands of endemic species: plants that evolved there, and that can be found nowhere else. The UK flora, in contrast, is made up of species from other regions that moved in after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers.

Previous work has shown that among mammals, we are most likely to lose species with large body sizes and long generation times – giant pandas and elephants are classic examples. But according to the new analysis, plants break the mold. Davies and coauthors found that the kinds of plants most at risk in the UK are different from those at risk of extinction in the Cape, indicating that basic traits like size have nothing to do with it. Using a detailed evolutionary history of the Cape species, the team also found evidence that extinction risk in plants is tightly linked to mode of speciation: the Cape species most at risk tend to be ones from the younger, rapidly-evolving lineages.

This implies that in plants, extinction is pruning the tips of the evolutionary tree. The authors suggest an explanation: unlike animals, new plant species tend to arise from small isolated populations that are at the extremes of a much larger ancestral range. Thus, a new plant starts off with a limited distribution, and because range size is an important criteria for Red List risk, it is also highly vulnerable.

The team’s analysis of anthropogenic factors turned up an additional surprise. For the Cape flora, human-induced habitat changes such as urbanization and agriculture cannot explain extinction risk of local plants. In other words, there is no simple geographic correspondence between human activity and plant decline. As the authors put it, places like the South African Cape might therefore be both “cradles and graveyards of diversity”, regardless of human activities.

This study suggests that a major strategy revision is in order if we want to conserve the world’s plants – a group that we all depend upon for oxygen and energy. More generally, risk criteria for one taxonomic group cannot necessarily be applied to another, since the pathways to rarity may be as foreign as the species themselves.

Further Reading

Davies, J. T. et al. 2011. PLoS Biology: 9(5): e1000620.

A royal waste?

Giant pandas are in the news again, this time for their annual date night at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. But hardly a day goes by without a report somewhere on the latest captive panda birth, strategic breeding attempt or panda relocation.

A blogger at the London Review of Books compared the bears to members of the British royal family: both are suffering from shrinking ecological niches and in serious danger of extinction, hanging on by virtue of their marketing potential. The similarities don’t end there. Giant pandas, like royals, are expensive to house, with a fee of over $1 million per year for a zoo to lease a pair from China. Naturally, the breeding activities of giant pandas are as intensely scrutinized as those of Prince William.

This entails some surprising efforts when it comes to the pandas. The history of captive breeding for Ailuropoda melanoleuca is no sordid royal affair. It’s long, and for the most part, pretty unfortunate; zoos have been failing to produce heirs to the panda legacy for decades.

For starters, it’s nearly impossible to get the bears to mate in captivity, and it’s not just their deficiency in the looks department, as comedian Mike Birbiglia suggests. Captive pandas can’t seem to figure out a working sexual position1. Females often start things off all wrong by lying down, but the males are just as clueless. This led to panda porn: zoos started making videos of pandas achieving copulatory success, as training tools for the more hapless bears2. Other attempts to use Viagra on pandas were less encouraging, but the porn worked – for females as well as males – leading to a boom in captive births in recent years3.

Giant panda cub

Visitors can pay to see the cubs at the Chengdu giant panda breeding centre. File photo modified from

Continue reading →

What should Stephen Harper know about biology?

I’m teaching again this semester, this time in Bob Montgomerie’s fourth-year course on the history and philosophy of biology. My job is to moderate group discussions and seminars in the tutorials. It will be a lot of work, since tutorials happen every week, but I’m excited at the prospect of using our debate as fuel for this blog.

I started by asking the class to answer three questions in an anonymous survey. First, I wanted them to tell me the most surprising thing they had recently learned about science.

My example of this was the nocebo effect. it’s the opposite of the placebo effect, with a bit of voodoo-witchcraft thrown in: apparently just believing in a negative outcome can be bad for your health. What I found surprising about it initially were the spooky anecdotal accounts of people diagnosed with terminal illness, and then dying within a few months just as the doctors predicted – only to have pathologists later realize that the original diagnosis was in error. Can we think ourselves to death?

But maybe this was a bad example. In general, the power of negative thinking isn’t all that surprising. Why shouldn’t there be a flip side of the coin for the placebo effect? After all, the negative effects of stress and anxiety on health are well-documented by the medical community. For example, this Washington Post article describes a study on blood thinning drugs where doctors showed that just by giving patients a warning about gastrointestinal side effects, you can make it much more likely that they will experience those negative symptoms. Other documented nocebo effects in the Skeptic’s Dictionary range from headaches to allergic reactions. Again, the power of thought to affect us via our own immune systems is perhaps not so surprising.

Voodoo may have lost its magic too: according to this article from Salon, there is some debate as to whether examples of death by curse in tribal societies are really due to starvation and dehydration, since feeding the doomed individual is often seen as a waste of scarce resources. And of course, the medical anecdotes of death by false diagnosis are good stories, but probably not much more than eerie and highly memorable coincidences.

What do the students find hard to believe? Out of 28 responses, 4 had to do with the paradoxical nature of modern physics. There was 1 response on lemmings that was certainly hard to believe, because it was just plain wrong (more on that later, but lemmings do not jump off of cliffs in a form of altruistic mass suicide. That is a myth). The majority, at 14, were on marvels of adaptive evolution (e.g., the complexity of the brain, venomous mammals like the platypus, bowerbirds, examples of rapid evolution).

This is proof that majoring in biology does not diminish the sense of wonder we have about living things. If anything, it probably enhances it. Here are two student responses that sum it up nicely: the “diversity that surrounds us” and “just how much there is out there to learn”. It may be the hardest thing about biology to really wrap your mind around, but it sure is fun to try.

The second question: What should Stephen Harper know about biology?

The most popular category here was the environment, with 13 students listing principles of ecology and environmental science that Harper could use. After that, 4 wanted Harper to have a basic grasp of evolution and natural selection, especially given the strange opinions of his science minister Gary Goodyear. There were 2 shameless requests for more research funding. Sadly, 2 left this one blank – hopefully not because they think Harper doesn’t need any biology. At the other extreme, 1 complained that there is a lot Harper should know about “any matter really”. One student wants him to have “a dangerous idea like Charles Darwin”.

I would tell Stephen Harper that Taq polymerase comes from Yellowstone National Park. Everyone should know this one – I’m sure I learned it during undergraduate, but forgot, only to be reminded of it again recently.

Here’s the story: Taq polymerase is a chemical we use to study DNA. A workhorse of the modern genetics lab, this enzyme makes it possible to turn a minuscule amount of DNA into a much larger sample by rapidly copying the molecules at high temperatures in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Countless techniques are made possible as a result: forensic DNA fingerprinting, diagnosis of genetic diseases, unraveling gene functions, sequencing whole genomes, and filling in the branches on the tree of life that describes how all living things are related to one another.

Taq polymerase works at high temperatures because it comes from Thermus aquaticus, a heat-loving bacteria. Up until the 1960s, the temperature threshold for life was thought to be around 73 degrees Celsius (which is the limit for photosynthetic bacteria). However, in 1967 Thomas D. Brock and Hudson Freeze reported finding bacteria that could withstand temperatures a lot higher than that in the hot springs of Yellowstone. This was revolutionary. Years later, when people were working out the chemical procedures necessary for DNA analysis, it was knowledge of the earlier Yellowstone discovery that made efficient DNA copying at high temperatures possible.

I also asked the students what they hoped to get out of the course. Only 1 claimed a good mark, which was surprising for an anonymous survey. Some emphasized novelty: to learn “something new in biology for once”, “something stimulating and eyebrow raising” and “ideas never thought of before”. Others hope to learn some personal and biographical details of the iconic figures in science: “what inspired them” and “what was going through their heads when their ideas were opposing the popular belief of their time”. I hope I can learn from this group about what goes on in the heads of students and the public in Canada.