Archive for the 'Journal Club' category

Salmon, scent and going home again

Dead salmon in spawning season, Oregon state (U.S. Pacific Northwest).

Image: Pete Forsyth, 9 November 2007.
This image is licensed under a creative commons license.

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On a cool autumn afternoon, I stepped out of my friend's house and witnessed a phenomenon of nature I had never seen before. In a stream flowing through the back yard, I saw the bodies of spawning coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch, gleaming blood-red in the bright sunlight. These fish battered themselves mercilessly against the stream bed, digging shallow nests in the gravel where they were depositing their eggs. Against enormous odds, they had survived the rigors of ocean life, and had returned to their birthplace to spawn.

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Foldit: Innovative Biology for Gamers

Aug 05 2010 Published by under Biology, Journal Club, Streaming videos

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Guessing how a protein will fold up based on its DNA sequence is often too complex for even the most powerful computer programs. Now biochemists and computer scientists at my alma mater, the University of Washington, have collaborated to create Foldit, a free online computer game where online gamers do the work.

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Parrots, People and Pedagogies: A Look at Teaching and Education

Jul 16 2010 Published by under Education, Journal Club, Teaching

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ALEX the African Grey Parrot and Dr Irene Pepperberg.
Image: The ALEX Foundation.

Like anyone who has taught science courses, and probably like anyone who has ever taught anything to a classroom in the history of mankind, I've wondered how to motivate my students to really care about the material they are learning, beyond simply "studying for the test." For example, I have used a group method of study where groups of 4 students are each assigned a specific task: to become an expert in a particular area and to share their knowledge with the other groups. This method is only partially successful since it is dependent upon good classroom rapport and careful management by the professor, otherwise, each group of "experts" can selectively withhold or misrepresent information that is important for developing a better understanding of the topic at hand.

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Are Zombie Vultures In Our Future?

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Only thirty years ago, tens of millions of White-rumped Vultures, Gyps bengalensis,
were flying the skies of Asia. They are now classified as Critically Endangered.
Image: Marek Jobda / [larger view]

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A zombie is another name for The Walking Dead -- those who are lifeless, apathetic, or totally lacking in independent judgment. But in an ecological sense, a zombie species no longer fulfills its ecological function because it is becoming extinct. This is a topic that I hope to explore further in another blog entry, but for now, today's zombie theme and vultures' delightful dining habits (they eat zombies) and my zombie icon have inspired me to focus on them.

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Distressed Ravens Show That Empathy Is For The Birds, Too

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Common Raven, Corvus corax, showing off at Bryce Canyon National Park, USA.
Image: United States National Park Service (Public Domain) [larger view]

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Humans have long tried to distinguish themselves from other animals on the basis of characters that are perceived to be unique, such as tool design and use, planning for the future and the seemingly "human" capacity for empathy. But one by one, these "unique" characters are found to be shared with other animals. For example, early research shows that making and using tools is shared with our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. Since we have a shared evolutionary ancestry, this is not terribly surprising. But when a distantly related animal, such as the New Caledonian Crow, Corvus moneduloides, demonstrates that they also are very capable tool-makers and users [DOI: 10.1126/science.1073433], evolutionary biologists sat up and took note. As if that wasn't enough, once again, another feature of human "uniqueness" is being called into question because new research has documented what many bird watchers have known for decades; ravens apparently console their friends after an aggressive conflict with a flockmate.

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Gulf Oil Spill Disaster: Spawn of the Living Dead for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna?

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An adult Atlantic (Northern) Bluefin Tuna, Thunnus thynnus.

A recently published study, intended to provide data to commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico so they maximize their catch of Yellowfin Tuna, Thunnus albacares, whilst avoiding bycatch of critically endangered Atlantic (Northern) Bluefin Tuna, Thunnus thynnus, suggests that the Deepwater Horizon oil leak may devastate the endangered Atlantic bluefin population, causing it to completely collapse or possibly go extinct.

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Oiled SeaBirds: To Kill Or Not To Kill? What Is The Ethical Thing To Do?

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Bird rescue personnel Danene Birtell (L) and Heather Nevill (R) hold an oiled brown pelican, found on Storm Island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, that will be washed at the treatment facility at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, USA. BP has contracted bird rescue groups to rehabilitate wildlife affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The birds are examined, thoroughly washed and then allowed to recover.
Image: Paul Buck/EPA.

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British Petroleum's current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is unfortunately one of many oil spill events that occur every year due to rampant corporate greed and systemic corner-cutting. These events result in the slow agonized deaths of millions of animals, birds and fish in addition to damage and destruction to entire ecosystems. After dead and dying animals wash up on public beaches, the public becomes alarmed and rushes to their aid, setting up rescue stations to clean and rehabilitate oiled birds and marine mammals. At least a few experts have openly advocated killing all oiled wildlife immediately, claiming that animal lovers are merely prolonging their distress and suffering.

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(How) Are Birds Affected by Volcanic Ash?

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Figure 1: The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, photographed by a farmer in Iceland. This eruption sent massive billowing clouds of volcanic ash several miles into the atmosphere.
Image: Ólafur Eggertsson (Newscom/Zuma) [larger view]

April is the peak month of spring migration for millions of birds, so the ongoing eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, presents hundreds of millions of birds with an unusually challenging set of circumstances as they fly to their northerly breeding grounds. But when a reader asked me how volcanic ash affects birds, I had no ready answer. The best I can do is to say that the ash is affecting birds, but I cannot say precisely how -- so I decided to investigate this issue in more depth and share the studies I found.

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15 responses so far

Is That A T. rex Up Your Nose? New Species of Nose-dwelling Leech Discovered

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Figure 1. Mucosally invasive hirudinoid leeches. Known from a wide variety of anatomical sites including eyes (A) as in this case involving Dinobdella ferox (B), mucosal leech species, as in a case involving Myxobdella annandalei (C), more frequently feed from the nasopharyngeal surfaces of mammals (D). [larger (and more delightfully repulsive) picture.]
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010057.

Most people are repulsed by leeches -- those spineless blood sucking animals that are not only ugly, but can, in extreme cases, pose a threat to the host's life. But most people are blissfully unaware that some species of leeches specialize in attacking mammalian mucous membranes -- those hairless, smooth and moist tissues that line the mouth, intestines, eyes and urinary and reproductive tracts (Figure 1).

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What do Great Tits Reveal about the Genetics of Personality?

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Bold or cautious? Individuals with a particular gene variant are very curious --
but only in some populations.
Image: Henk Dikkers.

Research suggests that personality variations are heritable in humans and other animal species, and there are many hypotheses as to why differences in personality exist and are maintained. One approach for investigating the heritability of personality lies in identifying which genes underlie specific personality traits so scientists can then determine how the frequencies of specific variants of personality-related genes change in both space and time as well as in relation to changing environmental influences.

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7 responses so far

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