Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Reduce Stress with this Animal Behavior Meditation

A reposting of an original article from March 21, 2012.

In a search for the promised inner peace and tranquility of meditation, I attended a meditation class at a local yoga studio. In a room with dim fluorescent lights and an artificial wood floor I laid on my back on my yoga mat, sandwiched between a fidgety woman who kept her smartphone on the edge of her mat and a man whose stress had apparently resulted in a flatulence problem. I was told to close my eyes, breathe deeply, and think about nothing. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and thought: “How do I think about nothing?” I thought about black. “Does black count as nothing? Wondering if I’m thinking about nothing is definitely not nothing. Am I doing this wrong? Is this going to work? If this isn’t going to work, I’m just wasting my time. I could be working through my to-do list right now. Oh! I forgot to put laundry on my to-do list. Oh, right… think about nothing. Black?

This ring-tailed lemur has found her inner peace - Can you find yours?
Photo by Margaret at Wikimedia Commons

It was years later that I realized that meditation doesn’t have to be so painfully contrived. I do it all the time naturally. Maybe you do too. We just have to nurture those moments. Here’s one way to do it:

1) Go to a place where you have seen at least one animal in the recent past. Maybe you saw a squirrel or a songbird in that tree in your yard. Maybe you saw fish in the creek you pass over on your way to school. Maybe there’s an occupied spider web in the corner. Maybe you have a favorite spot at the local zoo or aquarium. Go there. Don’t worry if there is an animal there now or not.

2) Sit down in a comfortable position and take a deep breath. Look around and take in your surroundings. Feel the environmental conditions. Listen to the sounds around you. Wait and observe. If you’re quiet, they will come.

3) When an animal shows up, focus on it. If multiple animals show up, pick one to be your focal animal. Observe every possible detail of your focal animal: What does it look like? Does it have any markings? What is it doing? How does it position itself with respect to its surroundings? What is its posture? How does it respond to changes in its surroundings?

4) Allow your mind to wander into your focal animal’s world (or umwelt). How do you think your focal animal perceives its surroundings?

5) Allow your mind to ponder explanations and consequences of your focal animal’s behavior.

6) Continue for as long as you can keep your mind focused on your animal, or until you have somewhere else you are supposed to be.

Try this out for yourself, and then let us know what you experienced!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Beginnings of Jurassic Park: Dinosaur Blood Discovered? (A Guest Post)

A reposting of an original post by Samantha Vold on February 9, 2015.

The classic tale of Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs once again walked the earth has tickled the fancy of many a reader. Dinosaur DNA preserved in a fossilized mosquito was used to bring these giants back to life. But in real life, it was previously thought that there was no possible way for organic materials to be preserved, that they often degraded within 1 million years if not rapidly attacked by bacteria and other organisms specialized in decomposition. Skin and other soft tissues, such as blood vessels, would never withstand the test of time. Or would they…?

T. rex skeleton at Palais de la découverte. Image by David Monniaux at Wikimedia

In 1992, Mary Schweitzer was staring through a microscope at a thin slice of fossilized bone, but this bone had something unusual. There were small red disks located in this tissue and each had a small dark circle in the middle resembling a cell nucleus, the command center of the cell. And these little disks very much resembled the red blood cells of reptiles, birds, and other modern-day vertebrates (excluding mammals). But it wasn’t possible, was it? These cells came from a 67 million-year old T. rex. And it was commonly accepted that organic material never lasted that long.

Comparison of red blood cells. Image by John Alan Elson at Wikimedia

This opened a huge controversy in the scientific community, but Schweitzer persisted. She consulted with her mentor, Jack Horner, a leading scientist in the paleontology field, and he told her to prove to him that they weren’t red blood cells. Schweitzer took the challenge and began to run some tests.

The first clue to these mysterious scarlet-colored cells potentially being red blood cells was the fact that they were located within blood vessel channels of the dense bone that were not filled with mineral deposits. And these microscopic structures only appeared inside the vessel channels, as would be true of blood cells.

Schweitzer then began to focus on the chemical composition of these puzzling structures. Tests showed that these “little red round things” were rich in iron, and that the iron was specific to them. Iron is important in red blood cells as it helps to transport oxygen throughout the body. And the elemental make-up of these little red round things differed greatly from the surrounding bone and sediment around them.

The next test was looking for heme, a small iron-containing molecule that gives blood its characteristic color and allows hemoglobin proteins to transport oxygen throughout the body. Schweitzer tested for this through spectroscopy tests, which measure the light that a given material emits, absorbs, and scatters. Her results from these tests were consistent with what one would find in heme, suggesting that this molecule existed in the dinosaur bone she was analyzing.

Schweitzer then conducted a few immunology tests to see if she indeed had found hemoglobin in these ancient bones. Antibodies are produced when the body detects a foreign substance that could potentially be harmful. Extracts from the dinosaur bone were injected into mice to see if antibodies were produced to ward against this new organic compound. When these antibodies were then exposed to hemoglobin from turkeys and rats, they bound to the hemoglobin. This suggested that the extracts that caused an antibody response in the mice included hemoglobin. This in turn suggested the T. rex bone contained hemoglobin, or something very similar.

Through years of research, Schweitzer has shown that what was once believed to be impossible is indeed true. Soft tissues, blood cells, and proteins can withstand the test of time. This process is possibly done through iron binding to amino acids (the molecules that make up proteins) and thereby preserve them. Research is advancing in this area, but as of yet, no DNA has been found to bring Jurassic Park to life. But for the avid believer, don’t get up hope yet. Perhaps one day we truly could walk amongst dinosaurs.


Fields, Helen. (May 2006). Dinosaur Shocker. Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine.

Pappas, Stephanie. (13 Nov. 2013). Mysteriously Intact T. Rex Tissue Finally Explained : DNews. DNews. Live Science.

Schweitzer, M. (2010). Blood from Stone Scientific American, 303 (6), 62-69 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1210-62

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Mr. Nanny Makes Mr. Right

A reposting of an original article from November 28, 2012.

Quick! Introduce yourself to this guy before
his baby-high wears off! Photo by David
Castillo Dominici at
What happens if you take a wrestler or action star and force him to babysit obnoxious but lovable kids? Well, if you’ve seen movies like The Pacifier with Vin Diesel, The Tooth Fairy with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarzenegger, or The Spy Next Door with Jackie Chan, you know that he will fall madly in love both with his young charges and with the closest available woman. Hollywood is so sure of this phenomenon that they have based a whole genre of family movies on it. Now, scientists are finding that Hollywood may be on to something.

Prairie voles are one of the only 3-5% of mammals that are monogamous and in which both parents help take care of young. In females, maternal care is regulated in part by the hormones associated with pregnancy, birth and lactation. The fact that males don’t do those things and they still provide paternal care is curious. The fact that male prairie voles will often provide care to offspring that aren’t even their own is even more curious.

Will Kenkel, Jim Paredes, Jason Yee, Hossein Pournajafi-Nazarloo, Karen Bales, and Sue Carter at the University of Illinois at Chicago recently explored what happens to male prairie voles when they are exposed to unfamiliar vole pups. Male voles without any experience with females or pups were placed in a new clean cage. Then the researchers put either a pup (that was not related to the male), a dowel rod (an unfamiliar object), or nothing into the cage with them for 10 minutes. Afterwards, they measured oxytocin (a hormone associated with bonding between mothers and their offspring) and corticosterone (a stress hormone) in the males’ blood at different time points. In another study, they also looked at the activity of brain neurons associated with the production of these hormones.

A male prairie vole is startled to find a baby in his cage...
But then he takes care of it. Video by Will Kenkel.

Both adult and juvenile males exposed to a pup for 10 minutes had higher oxytocin and lower corticosterone compared to the males not exposed to a pup. But this effect was short-lived, as male hormone levels quickly evened out again. Most of these males that were exposed to a pup showed alloparental care (care of a baby that is not their own), like approaching the pup, cuddling with it and grooming it. Males with higher oxytocin and lower corticosterone levels were more attentive towards the pups. Additionally, alloparental males exposed to pups had more activity of oxytocin-producing neurons and less activity of neurons associated with corticosterone-production in a specific brain region called the paraventricular nucleus (or PVN for short).

Oxytocin is strongly associated with pair bonding in prairie voles, particularly in females, and corticosterone affects pair bonding too (generally increasing pair bonding in males and preventing it in females). If exposure to a pup affects these hormones, maybe it affects how the male would interact with adult females. To test this, the researchers put male voles in a new clean cage and put a pup, a dowel rod, or nothing into the cage with them for 20 minutes. Then they put the males with an unfamiliar adult female for 30 minutes. After getting acquainted with the female, the males were put in a “partner preference apparatus”, which has three connected chambers: a neutral center chamber, a connected chamber with the familiar female tethered into it, and a connected chamber with an unfamiliar female tethered into it. The researchers measured how much time the males spent in each of the three chambers and with each of the two females over the next 3 hours.

A prairie vole pair snuggles. Photo from Young,
Gobrogge, Liu and Wang paper in
Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology (2011)
Males that were exposed to a dowel rod or to nothing before they were introduced to a female spent equal amounts of time with each of the two females. But males that were exposed to a pup before they were introduced to a female spent nearly 4 times as much time with that female than with the unfamiliar one. In other words, hanging out with a random pup acted like Love Potion #9 on these bachelor males and made them fall for the next female they encountered! Interestingly, this effect was true not only for the males that acted in an alloparental way towards the pups, but it was also true of males that attacked the pups (The researchers quickly rescued the pups if this occurred). Perhaps, males that were alloparental with the pups had increased oxytocin and males that were aggressive with the pups had increased corticosterone, either of which would make it more likely for them to form a preference for the female they were with.

Hmm… Got your eye on a special someone? Try volunteering him to babysit before your next date.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Kenkel, W., Paredes, J., Yee, J., Pournajafi-Nazarloo, H., Bales, K., & Carter, C. (2012). Neuroendocrine and Behavioural Responses to Exposure to an Infant in Male Prairie Voles Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 24 (6), 874-886 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2012.02301.x

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What To Do If You Find Orphaned Wildlife

A repost of an original article on April 11, 2016.

A nest of baby cottontails waiting for sunset when their
mom will return. Image by Jhansonxi at Wikimedia.
Spring is finally in the air, and with Spring come babies! Finding baby animals in the wild is thrilling, but also concerning. Does this animal need your help? Where is its mom? What do you do?

Whenever possible, baby animals will do best when we leave them in the care of their mom. Even a well-meaning human is seen by a wild animal as a threat. Our interactions with them cause them extreme stress that can cause serious health problems and even death. Furthermore, if we take a baby animal home, it will not be able to learn its species-specific behaviors and skills and it can lose its natural and healthy fear of humans. It is also very hard to meet the specialized dietary needs of a wild animal in a captive setting. Taking a wild animal home can cause problems for us as well: many carry diseases that can be transmitted to our pets or even ourselves. And most wild animals are protected by state and federal laws that prohibit unlicensed citizens from possessing or raising them.

Luckily, most baby animals that seem alone actually have a mom that is not far away, either looking for food to feed herself and her babies or simply hiding from you. For example, rabbit mothers actively avoid their nests most of the time so as to not attract predators to the nest. Cottontail moms visit their babies only briefly at dawn and dusk for quick feedings. If you find a bunny nest, you can test to see if the mom is visiting by placing a few blades of grass or thin twigs in an X-shape over the babies. If you come back the next day and the pattern has been disturbed, then their mom is still caring for them and you should leave them be.

Many animal moms are prevented from taking care of their young when concerned people are hovering. Deer moms, for example, also actively avoid their babies (called fawns) so as to not attract predators to it. They generally return to nurse the fawns every few hours, but they won’t return to nurse if people or pets are around. If you find a fawn and it is not wandering and crying non-stop all day, then leave it alone so its mom will come back.

A red fox mom and baby. Photo by Nicke at Wikimedia.

Even if you find a baby all by itself in the open, the best course of action is often still to leave it alone. Many mammal moms, like squirrels, raccoons, mice, rats, foxes, and coyotes, will retrieve their young if they fall out of their nest or wander away from their den. Although it is a myth that most animal moms will abandon their babies if you get your smell on them, your odor can attract predators. It is best not to touch wildlife babies if you can avoid it.

Awww... as tempting as it is to pick up an adorable baby skunk, don't do it
unless you are a trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitator (like this woman is).
Image by AnimalPhotos at Wikimedia.

So when should you get involved? If an animal is in a dangerous location (like a busy street), then it may need to be moved. You can slowly, quietly and gently try to guide a mobile baby animal away from hazards and to a safer location. If the animal is not yet mobile, in most cases, you can use clean gloves to pick up the animal and move it to a safer location, placing it as close as possible to where you found it.

If you know that the mom is dead or has been relocated, then you are dealing with a truly orphaned baby animal. Likewise, if an animal has been attacked (or brought to you by your “helpful” cat), or is bleeding, injured, wet and emaciated, weak, infested with parasites, or has diarrhea, then it may need medical attention. In these cases, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Wildlife rehabilitators have been trained and have the necessary equipment to temporarily care for and treat injured, sick and orphaned wild animals so they can be released back into the wild. If you can’t find a wildlife rehabilitator, contact the Department of Natural Resources, a state wildlife agency, animal shelter, humane society, animal control agency, nature center, or veterinarian. Ideally, they will come to pick up the animal themselves. If they can’t, then they should give you detailed instructions for your situation on how to catch and transport the animal.

For more information, check here:

The Humane Society of the United States

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Birds, Vitamin E, and the Race Against Time: A Guest Post

A repost of an original article by Alyssa DeRubeis on February 6, 2013

The long and tapered wings on this young
Peregrine Falcon means it was built for some
serious speed! Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.
Maybe you’ve been put under the false assumption that humans are cool. Don’t get me wrong; our bodies can do some pretty neat physiological stuff. But I’m gonna burst your bubble: humans are lame. Just think of how fast we can run compared to a Peregrine Falcon in a full stoop: 27 MPH versus 242 MPH.

Keep thinking about all the cool things birds can do. It doesn’t take us long to realize that our feathered friends are vastly more fascinating compared to humans. Now that you’re finally admitting defeat, I ask that you read on.

The most amazing avian physiological feat is the ability to travel long distances seasonally (a.k.a migrate). Between poor weather conditions, preventing fat loss, and staying alert, migration is not easy by any means. However, birds can cope with all of these things by assimilating and using antioxidants like vitamin E.

Here’s a classic bird migration scene: thousands of Tundra Swans, geese, and ducks congregate on the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Here, they rest and refuel before continuing their journey south. Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.

Let’s talk a little bit about bird migration. It’s a two-way street, where a migratory bird will (usually) fly north as soon as possible to rear its young, and then fly south where it can stay warm and eat all sorts of goodies. During these two bouts of intense exercise, the birds produce free radicals, which are types of atoms, molecules, and ions that can harm DNA and other important stuff inside the body. This is where vitamin E comes in to save the day, because this vitamin, along with vitamin A and carotenoids, are antioxidants. They drive away bad things like free radicals from birds’ bodies; some scientists suggest that they may even reduce risks of cancer! In the case of migrating birds, antioxidants can make this migration headache a lot more bearable.

Well, that’s great. But where do these antioxidants come from? The short answer is avian nom-noms, but it’s one thing to eat something with an antioxidant in it. It’s quite another to actually be able to assimilate and use this antioxidant. Okay…so where do the birds get this ability from? It’s parentals!

Anders Møller from the University of Paris-Sud, along with his international team including Clotilde Biard (France), Filiz Karadas (Turkey), Diego Rubolini (Italy), Nicola Saino (Italy), and Peter Surai (Scotland), pointed out that there is little research looking at maternal effects on our feathered friends. Møller hypothesized that maternal effects (the direct effects a mother has on her offspring) play a critical role in migration: If mothers put a lot of antioxidants in their eggs, the chicks will be able to absorb antioxidants better later in life. This would give these birds a competitive edge because they will migrate in a healthier condition and arrive to breeding grounds earlier.

This male Barn Swallow on the left must’ve gotten back pretty early for him to have landed himself such a beautiful female. Thank you, Vitamin E! Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.

In the early 2000s, Møller and his five colleagues collected 93 bird species’ eggs. The crew was able to analyze how the natural differences in antioxidant concentrations (put in by the mother) related to the birds’ spring arrival dates in 14 of them. They found that vitamin E concentration, but not vitamin A concentration, was a reliable predictor of earlier arrival dates.

This European posse took it a step further by injecting over 700 barn swallow eggs with either a large dose of vitamin E or a dose of corn oil (which contains a small amount of vitamin E). It was soon evident that the chicks with more vitamin E were bigger than chicks that received less vitamin E, thus already giving the big chicks a competitive edge over their less vitamin E-affiliated brethren. The researchers kept track of the eggs that hatched out as males in the following spring via frequent mist-netting sessions (a bird-capturing technique). Guess what? The fellas with higher vitamin E concentrations arrived earlier on average by ten days than those with lower concentrations!

Sweet. But what does it all mean? First off, vitamin E is crucial for migratory birds because it allows them to process antioxidants more efficiently. In fact, another study done by Møller, Filiz Karadas, and Johannes Emitzoe out of University of Paris-Sud suggested that birds killed by feral cats had less vitamin E than birds that died of other reasons. Furthermore, the early birds get the worm. Events such as insect hatches—vital for baby birds—now occur earlier in the spring as temperatures rise (read: climate change). Plus, if you’re a male arriving at the breeding grounds early, you get to pick the best spots to raise your offspring.

Wood-warblers, such as this Palm Warbler, must get back to their northerly breeding grounds in a timely fashion in order to hit the insect hatch for da babies. Photo by Alyssa DeRubeis.

Obviously, there’s an advantage to up the vitamin E intake and get a head start as a developing embryo. In an egg, most nutrients come from the yolk…which comes from the mother. The healthier the mother, the more vitamin E she will put in her eggs. And vitamin E isn’t produced internally; birds must consume it. While Møller’s paper on maternal effects states that vitamin E can be found widely in nature, a separate study found no apparent association between vitamin E and avian diet. Hmm. So then where DO birds get vitamin E from? Is it a limiting resource? Is there competition for it?

Clearly, we’ve got some questions and answers. As the field of “birdology,” advances, we will learn more and keep humans jealous of birds for years to come.


1. Møller, A., Biard, C., Karadas, F., Rubolini, D., Saino, N., & Surai, P. (2011). Maternal effects and changing phenology of bird migration Climate Research, 49 (3), 201-210 DOI: 10.3354/cr01030

2. Møller AP, Erritzøe J, & Karadas F (2010). Levels of antioxidants in rural and urban birds and their consequences. Oecologia, 163 (1), 35-45 PMID: 20012100

3. Cohen, A., McGraw, K., & Robinson, W. (2009). Serum antioxidant levels in wild birds vary in relation to diet, season, life history strategy, and species Oecologia, 161 (4), 673-683 DOI: 10.1007/s00442-009-1423-9

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: An Outline

Do you dream about a career of studying animals?
Image by
A repost of an original article from March 13, 2013.

**NOTE: Although this advice is written for those interested in applying to graduate programs in animal behavior, it applies to most programs in the sciences.**

So you want to go to grad school to study animal behavior… Well join the club! It is a competitive world out there and this is an increasingly competitive field. But if every fiber of your being knows this is the path for you, then there is a way for you to follow that path. With hard work, dedication and persistence, you can join the ranks of today's animal biologists to pursue a career of trekking to wild places to study animals in their native habitats, testing questions about the physiology of behavior in a lab, or exploring the genetics of behavioral adaptation.

This is an outline of advice on how to get into a graduate program in animal behavior. More details on the individual steps will follow, so leave a comment below or e-mail me if you have any particular questions you would like me to address or if you have any advice you would like to share.

  1. Get good grades, particularly in your science and math courses. And make sure you take all the science and math prerequisites for biology graduate programs.
  2. Prepare well for the GREs.
  3. Get research experience. This can come in many forms (such as volunteering in a lab, working as a field technician, or doing an independent project for credit), but as a general rule, the more involved you are in a project, the more it will impress those making acceptance decisions.
  4. Choose the labs you are interested in, not just the schools. As a graduate student, you will spend most of your time working with your advisor and the other members of your advisor’s lab. This means that the right fit is imperative. Figure out what researchers you may want to work with, then see if they are at a school you would like to attend.
  5. Be organized in your application process. There will be a lot of details to keep straight: due dates, recommendation letters, essays, communication with potential advisors… The more organized you are, the less likely you are to miss a deadline or make an embarrassing mistake.
  6. Write compelling essays. Most schools will ask you to write two short essays: a Statement of Purpose and a Personal History. This is your place to set yourself apart. They need to convey your experience with animal behavior research and passion for working with that particular advisor. They also need to be very well written, so expect to write multiple drafts.
  7. Be organized and prepared when you ask for your recommendation letters. The easier you make it for your references to write a thoughtful recommendation letter for you, the better the letters will be.
  8. Apply for funding. This isn’t essential: Most first-year graduate students do not have their own funding. But the ability of a school and a specific researcher to accept a graduate student depends on what funding is available to support them. If you have your own funding, it is more likely you will to be able to write your own ticket.
  9. Be prepared for each interview you are invited to.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Although heartbraking at the time, it is very common in animal behavior graduate programs to not be accepted anywhere in your first year of applications. If you are rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good candidate. Often it means there is no funding available to support you in the labs you would like to join. Spend the year participating in research and applying for funding so you can reapply next year.
The submission of a successful application takes a lot of planning and preparation. Getting good grades is a continuous effort. Plus, the most successful applicants often have two or more years of research experience. Ideally, you are working on these two things at least by your sophomore year of college. But if you waited too long and you haven’t taken enough science or math prerequisites, your grades are not where they need to be, or you don’t have enough research experience, you can take some extra time after you graduate to take community college courses and volunteer or work in a lab. Persistence and dedication are key to following a challenging path.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Animal Mass Suicide and the Lemming Conspiracy

A repost of an original article from April 4, 2012.

Ticked off Norway lemming doesn't like gossip!
Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Frode Inge Helland 
We all know the story: Every few years, millions of lemmings, driven by a deep-seated urge, run and leap off a cliff only to be dashed on the rocks below and eventually drowned in the raging sea. Stupid lemmings. It’s a story with staying power: short, not-so-sweet, and to the rocky point.

But it is a LIE.

And who, you may ask, would tell us such a horrendous fabrication? Walt Disney! Well, technically not Walt Disney himself… Let me explain:

The Disney Studio first took interest in the lemming mass suicide story when, in 1955, they published an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic called “The Lemming with the Locket” illustrated by Carl Barks. In this story, Uncle Scrooge takes Huey, Dewey and Louie in search of a lemming that stole a locket containing the combination to his vault … but they have to catch the lemming before it leaps with all his buddies into the sea forever. Three years later, Disney further popularized this idea in the 1958 documentary White Wilderness, which won that year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. A scene in White Wilderness supposedly depicts a mass lemming migration in which the lemmings leap en masse into the Canadian Arctic Ocean in a futile attempt to cross it.

In 1982, the fifth estate, a television news magazine by the CBC (that’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), broadcast a documentary about animal cruelty in Hollywood. They revealed that the now infamous White Wilderness lemming scene was filmed on a constructed set at the Bow River in Canmore, Alberta, nowhere near the Arctic Ocean. Lemmings are not native to the area where they filmed, so they imported them from Churchill after being purchased from Inuit children for 25 cents each. To give the illusion of a mass migration, they installed a rotating turntable and filmed the few lemmings they had from multiple angles over and over again. As it turns out, the lemming species filmed (collared lemmings) are not even known to migrate (unlike some Norwegian lemmings). Worst of all, the lemmings did not voluntarily leap into the water, but were pushed by the turntable and the film crew. Oh, Uncle Walt! How could you?!

Norway lemmings really do migrate en masse, but they don't commit mass suicide.
Drawing titled Lemmings in Migration, in Popular Science Monthly Volume 11, 1877.
As far as we know, there are no species that purposely hurl themselves off cliffs to die en masse for migration. But, strangely enough, North Pacific salmon do purposely hurl themselves up cliffs to die en masse for migration. And what, you may ask, is worth such a sacrifice? Sex, of course!

Migrating sockeye salmon thinking about sex.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Joe Mabel.

The six common North Pacific salmon species are all anadromous (meaning that they are born in fresh water, spend most of their lives in the sea and return to fresh water to breed) and semelparous (meaning they only have a single reproductive event before they die). After years at sea, salmon swim sometimes thousands of miles to get to the mouth of the very same stream in which they were born. Exactly how they do this is still a mystery. Once they enter their stream, they stop eating and their stomach even begins to disintegrate to leave room for the developing eggs or sperm. Their bodies change in other ways as well, both for reproduction and to help them adapt to fresh water. They then swim upstream, sometimes thousands of miles more, and sometimes having to leap over multiple waterfalls, using up their precious energy reserves. Only the most athletic individuals even survive the journey. Once they reach the breeding grounds, the males immediately start to fight each other over breeding territories. The females arrive and begin to dig a shallow nest (called a redd) in which she releases a few thousand eggs, which are then fertilized by the male. They then move on, and if they have energy and gametes left, repeat the process with other mates, until they are completely spent. If the females have any energy left after laying all their eggs, they spend it guarding their nests. Having spent the last of their energy, they die and are washed up onto the banks of the stream.

Now that’s parental commitment! So the next time your parents start laying on the guilt about everything they’ve given up for you, share this nugget with them and remind them it could be worse…

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Learn more about semelparity here

2. Learn more about salmon reproduction at Marine Science

3. And learn even more about salmon reproduction with this awesome post by science blogger and Aquatic and Fishery Sciences graduate student, Iris. Her current blog posts can be found here.

4. Ramsden E, & Wilson D (2010). The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal. Endeavour, 34 (1), 21-4 PMID: 20144484

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Those Aren’t Chocolate, Easter Bunny!

A repost of an original article from March 27, 2013.

The Easter Bunny has a dirty secret. When he’s not hopping around in his pristinely white fur hiding beautifully colored eggs and decorated baskets full of treats…he’s eating his own poo. Gross!

Never trust a rabbit. Photo by the Mosman Library at Wikimedia.

But don’t judge him before you understand him. It’s not that he chooses to eat poop, but that he has to for his own health. In fact, all rabbits do.

Rabbits are herbivores, which means that they only eat plant material. Plant material is very difficult to digest, although it may not seem like it (I mean, we eat plants all the time with no problem, right?). But when it comes to digestion, it’s not what you put in your mouth and swallow that matters, but what your body can break down.

This process of breaking down food depends on digestive enzymes, a group of chemicals that break down food. Each type of digestive enzyme is specific for breaking down a particular type of food chemical. Plant material is so hard to digest because it is largely composed of cellulose, a sugar that we vertebrates don’t have an enzyme for.

Herbivorous animals that lack this enzyme have developed an alternative strategy to get the nutrients they need out of these plants – They have microbes that live in their guts and ferment the plant material. Many of these microbes, which include bacteria, protists, yeast and fungi, produce the enzyme needed to break down cellulose. But these microbes are slow-acting (which means herbivores with longer guts get more nutrients), and they are sensitive (which means herbivores with special microbe gut chambers get more nutrients).

Rabbits have a special gut chamber called a cecum (or caecum) that houses many of their gut microbes. The cecum is so important to rabbit digestion, it’s even bigger than their stomach! When a rabbit eats something, the food is broken down by chewing, swallowed, and passed on to the stomach (follow along with the diagram below). The stomach stores and sterilizes the food while breaking down some of the nutrients before it passes the food on to the small intestine. The small intestine absorbs the nutrients it can before the remaining food gets sorted at a fork in this digestive road. The fibrous food parts move on to the colon, where it is converted into little hard turd-balls. The non-fibrous parts go to the cecum, where the microbes living there work their magic, breaking down the remaining food into absorbable nutrients.

This diagram of the rabbit digestive system was posted by Sunshineconnelly at Wikimedia. Trace through it as we talk about where each digestive step happens.

The trouble is, this food has already passed the part of the digestive tract that absorbs most of these nutrients: the small intestine. Now, it has nowhere to go but out. So the cecum pushes these remaining nutrients into the colon, which turns them into cecotropes (or caecotrophes): mucus-covered, nutrient-rich, moist turds shaped like a bunch of grapes (and according to the Easter Bunny, just as delicious). And the only way rabbits can get the nutrients (and remaining microbes) out of these little nuggets is to send them through the digestive tract all over again by eating them. So that is what they do.

Eating poo sounds gross and unusual, but it is actually fairly common in the animal kingdom. So common, in fact, that there is a term for it: coprophagia. Hamsters and capybaras have similar digestive tracts to rabbits and eat their own poo for the same reasons. Other animals, like elephants, hippos, pandas, and koalas, are born without the necessary microbes to digest the food available, so the babies obtain these microbes by eating their mothers’ poo. And many coprophagous insects, like flies and dung-beetles, subsist on diets composed of the poo of large animals.

So don’t hate on the Easter Bunny for his repulsive ways. He can’t help what he is. Just appreciate him for all the chocolate eggs he brings you every Easter. Wait… Those are chocolate eggs he brought you, right?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Physicists Determined That Cats Are a Liquid

Marc-Antoine Fardin, a physicist at Paris Diderot University, was inspired by a post at called “15 Proofs That Cats Are Liquids” and set out to use the tools of his trade to determine if this is, in fact, true.

Figure from "On the Rheology of Cats": (a) A cat appears as a solid material with a
consistent shape rotating and bouncing, like Silly Putty on short time scales.
(b) At longer time scales, a cat flows and fills an empty wine glass.
(c-d) For older cats, we can also introduce a characteristic time of expansion and
distinguish between liquid (c) and gaseous (d) feline states.

Rheology is the branch of physics that studies the flow of matter. Matter can come in three forms: solid, liquid and gas. Under pressure or stress, solid matter deforms whereas liquid and gas matter flows. Liquid matter is incompressible, whereas gas matter is compressible. Thus, liquids are substances that conform to the shape of their containers (i.e. are fluid) and have constant volume (i.e. are incompressible).

Flow is the process of conforming to the shape of containers and has a set duration for different substances. In rheology, this duration is called the relaxation time. The ability to determine if a substance is a liquid depends then on whether you observe it for longer than its relaxation time. Based on the evidence provided in images, Marc-Antoine determined that cats can, in fact, conform to the shapes of their containers if given enough time. Therefore, cats are liquid.

But this leaves us with additional questions about how cats flow. For one thing, some fluids are more viscous (thicker) at some times and less viscous (runnier) at others. This property is called thixotropy. Do cats exhibit thixotropy? In other words, does the relaxation time of a cat depend on its age? And do they flow with vortices or with laminar flow? A substance flowing with vortices would spin around the container and start to climb of the walls of the container. A substance flowing in a laminar way would calmly follow the outline of their container. Cats may be a fluid that can do both.

Figure from "On the Rheology of Cats": (a) A cat spontaneously rotates in a cylindrical jar.
(b) Normal forces and Weissenberg effect in a young sample of Felis catus.

Clearly, more work needs to be done on this very important question. If you have a cat, you can explore this question with some photographic evidence of your own.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Fardin, M.A. (2014). On the Rheology of Cats. Rheology Bulletin, 83(2):16-17.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Science Life 3

The science life is a stressful one, no matter what stage you're at. Take a music break and know you're not alone.

"Take Exams" by AcapellaScience (parody of "Shake it Off" by Taylor Swift):

"Part of Your Lab" by Florence Schechter (parody of "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid):

"Some Budding Yeast I Used to Grow" by Nathaniel Krefman (parody of "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye):

Vote for your favorite in the comments section below. If you would like to see more music videos on the life of a scientist, check out The Science Life and The Science Life 2. And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future post!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Caught in My Web: Marine Technology

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons
For this edition of Caught in My Web, allow yourself to be amazed both by the range and depth of behaviors of marine animals, and by the incredible technologies we have used to learn these things.

1. Penguincams show that Gentoo penguins “talk” to one another while foraging and you can see some of the penguincam footage here.

2. Scientists built an 8-foot touchscreen for the dolphins at the National Aquarum in Baltimore and discovered they like to play “Whack-an-Angelfish”.

3. Using audio-recording tags, we learned that mother and baby humback whales “whisper” to one another to avoid predators.

4. Scientists created virtual reality holodeck for zebrafish.

5. Thanks to the fact that zebrafish larvae are transparent, scientists have discovered a way to image brain activity in an animal as it is behaving in real time. Humans may be cool enough to have developed this technology, but now we know that zebrafish have developed predator eversion strategies when they are still larvae.

What will we come up with next?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Risky Business: Ape Style

A repost of an original article from April 3, 2013.

The decisions of this chimpanzee living in the
Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary are affected
by his social situation. Photo by Alex Rosati.
If you have a choice between a prize that is awesome half the time and totally lame the other half of the time or a mediocre prize that is a sure-thing, which would you choose? Your choice probably depends on your personality somewhat. It may also depend on your needs and your mood. And it can depend on social contexts, like if you’re competing with someone or if you’re being watched by your boss or someone you have a crush on.

All animals have to make choices. Some choices are obvious: Choose the thing that is known to be of high quality over the thing that is known to be of low quality. But usually, the qualities of some options are uncertain and choosing them can be risky. As with us, the likelihood of some primates, birds, and insects to choose riskier options over safer ones can be affected by outside influences. And we aren’t the only species to have our risk-taking choices influenced by social context.

Anthropologists Alex Rosati and Brian Hare at Duke University tested two ape species, chimpanzees and bonobos, in their willingness to choose the riskier option in different social situations. They tested chimpanzees living in the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary and bonobos in the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary, both in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the apes living in these sanctuaries are confiscated from poachers that captured them from the wild for the pet trade and for bushmeat. In these sanctuaries the animals live in social groups, generally spending their days roaming large tracts of tropical forest and their nights in indoor dormitories. This lifestyle rehabilitates their bodies and minds, resulting in psychologically healthy sanctuary inhabitants.

It is in these familiar dormitories that Alex and Brian tested the apes’ propensity for making risky choices. For their experimental set-up, an experimenter sat across a table from an ape and offered them two options: an overturned bowl that always covered a treat that the apes kinda like (peanuts) versus an overturned bowl that covered either an awesome treat (banana or apple) or a lousy treat (cucumber or lettuce). In this paradigm, the peanut-bowl represents the safe choice because whenever the ape chooses it, they know they’re getting peanuts. But the other bowl is the risky choice, because half the time they get fruit (yum!), but the other half of the time they get greens (bummer).

This figure from Rosati and Hare's 2012 Animal Behavour paper shows Alex demonstrating the steps they would go through before the ape chose one of the two options.
After spending some time training the apes to be sure they understood the game, the researchers tested their choices in different social situations. In each test session, the ape was allowed to choose between the two bowls (and eat the reward) multiple times (each choice was called a trial). But before the test session began and in between choice trials, another experimenter sat with the ape for two minutes and did one of three things: In one group, the experimenter sat at the table and silently looked down (they called this the “neutral condition”). In another group, the experimenter repeatedly offered the ape a large piece of food, pulling it away and grunting whenever the ape reached for it (they called this the “competitive condition”). In a third group, the experimenter tickled and played with the ape (they called this the “play condition”).

Alex and Brian found out that whereas bonobos chose the safe option and the risky option about equally, the chimpanzees were significantly more likely to choose the risky option. But despite this species difference, both species chose the risky option more often in the “competitive condition”. Neither species increased their risk-taking in the “play condition”.

The graph on the left shows that wheras bonobos chose the safe option and the risky option each about 50% of the time (where the dashed line is), the chimpanzees chose the risky option much more often. The graph on the right shows that both species chose the risky option more often in the "competition condition" than they did in the "neutral condition". Figure from Rosati and Hare's 2012 Animal Behavour paper.
These are interesting findings, especially when you consider the natural behaviors and lifestyles of these closely related species. Bonobos can be thought of as the hippies of the ape world, happily sharing and using sex to settle disputes and strengthen relationships. In comparison, chimpanzees are more like gangsters, aggressively fighting over resources and dominance ranks. So in general, the more competitive species is more likely to take risks. But when the social environment becomes more competitive, both species up the ante. This effect doesn’t seem to be simply the result of being in a social situation, because the apes didn’t increase their risk-taking in the presence of a playful experimenter.

This still leaves us with some questions to ponder though. Are apes more likely to take risks when an experimenter is offering food and taking it away because of a heightened sense of competition, or is this the result of frustration? And would we see the same effect if the “competitor” were another ape of the same species, rather than a human experimenter? How would their behavior change if they were hungry? These questions are harder to get at, but this research does demonstrate that like in humans, the decision-making process in chimpanzees and bonobos is dependent on social context.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Rosati, A., & Hare, B. (2012). Decision making across social contexts: competition increases preferences for risk in chimpanzees and bonobos Animal Behaviour, 84 (4), 869-879 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.07.010

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Love Chemical of 2018

Hello and welcome to the Love Chemical Pageant Results Show! The voting results are in, and today we get to crown the Love Chemical of 2018… Vasopressin! Now let’s get to know Vasopressin a little bit better.

Vasopressin (also known as Antidiuretic Hormone) is a molecule that is widely involved in the balance of water and ions (such as salts) in mammals. (Other taxonomic groups have variations of it as well). But this chemical has gone to our heads, influencing behavior as well.

In the brain, vasopressin acts on a specific receptor type, called vasopressin 1a receptor (V1aR). There are lots of V1aR receptors in brain areas that regulate social and emotional behaviors. When vasopressin binds to many of these receptors, it can result in aggression, territoriality, and fight-or-flight responses. It is also involved in the formation of memories that are necessary to avoid danger. Interestingly, males and females usually have different patterns of where in the brain these V1aR receptors are.

Although we often think of love and aggression as opposites, the life-preserving roles of vasopressin have made it well-suited to become an important chemical of love. In animals, pair bonding (the formation of a strong and unique connection between mates of a socially monogamous species) is often accompanied by an increase in aggression towards non-mates. This aggression can serve to protect the mate and family, but also to reject competitive suitors towards either partner.

Photo of a prairie vole pair from Young, Gobrogge, Liu and Wang paper
in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology (2011)

Researchers often use several closely-related vole species to study how the brain regulates pair bonding; While prairie voles and pine voles are monogamous, raise their offspring with their partners, and defend their homes and families, montane voles and meadow voles are promiscuous and females raise their young by themselves. Oddly, giving monogamous vole species vasopressin increases their preference for spending time with their mate, their parental behaviors, and their selective aggression against outsiders, but giving promiscuous vole species vasopressin does not. Vasopressin is also more likely to increase these monogamous behaviors in males more than in females. Both males and females respond differently to vasopressin depending on their reproductive status.

It turns out, the pattern of V1aR receptors in the brain is similar between the monogamous prairie and pine voles, but different from the promiscuous montane and meadow voles. Genetic factors drive this difference, and if you alter the gene for the V1aR of a promiscuous species to be more like the prairie vole’s version of the gene, the previously promiscuous species behaves in a monogamous way! The reason promiscuous vole species don’t behave in a monogamous way when given vasopressin is because they don’t naturally have the V1aR receptors in certain brain regions to respond to it that way.

We are still learning about the role of vasopressin in pair bonding behaviors. Much of what we know has focused on these vole species, and we know much less about vasopressin’s involvement in pair bonding in other species. We also don’t know as much about the role of vasopressin in females across different reproductive stages. But one thing is for sure: Love wouldn’t be the same without Vasopressin!

Want to know more? Check these out:
Carter, C.S. (2017). The Oxytocin–vasopressin Pathway in the Context of Love and Fear. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 8(356): 1-12.

Phelps, S.M., Okhovat, M. and Berrio, A. (2017). Individual Differences in Social Behavior and Cortical Vasopressin Receptor: Genetics, Epigenetics, and Evolution. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 8(537): 1-12.

Tickerhoof, M.C. and Smith, A.S. (2017). Vasopressinergic Neurocircuitry Regulating Social Attachment in a Monogamous Species. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 8(265): 1-10.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Love Chemical Pageant of 2018

A modified repost of an original article from February 15, 2012.

Hello and welcome to the Love Chemical Pageant of 2018! I’m your host, Miss Behavior, and YOU are the judges.

Since the beginning of…well, social animals, many hormones and neurotransmitters have been quietly working in their own ways to fill our world with love. Lately (over the last few decades), some of them have been brought out of the background and into the limelight, credited with every crush, passionate longing, parental hug, embrace among friends, and cuddle between spouses. But who truly deserves the title of The Love Chemical?

Let’s meet our contestants!

Let’s first meet our reining title-holder, Dopamine! Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain. Sex increases dopamine levels in both males and females and blocking its effects during sex can prevent prairie voles (a monogamous species often used to test questions on pair bonding) from forming preferences for their own partner. Dopamine also plays a role in maternal and paternal behaviors.

But dopamine is not just involved in love. It has a wide range of known functions in the brain, involved in everything from voluntary movement, mood, motivation, punishment and reward, cognition, memory, learning, aggression, pain perception and sleep. Abnormally high levels of dopamine have been linked to schizophrenia and psychosis. And dopamine is especially well-known for its role in addiction... in fact, many researchers believe that we may even be addicted to our own romantic partners.

Now let’s meet Dopamine’s partner, Opioids! When natural opioids are released in the brain, they can cause a rewarding feeling that often cause us to seek more of it. When prairie voles are given drugs that prevent opioids from acting on a particular opioid receptor type (mu-opioid receptors) in a particular brain region (the caudate-putamen), they do not form pair bonds with sexual partners. Interestingly, people that see the faces of their loved ones experience lots of activity in the caudate-putamen region of the brain, especially if they rate their relationship with that person as very romantic and passionate. The caudate-putamen region of the brain also uses dopamine, so the two chemicals appear to work together there to promote the feelings of romantic love.

Please welcome Oxytocin! Oxytocin is a peptide hormone, most of which is made in the brain. Some of this oxytocin is released into the blood and affects body organs, such as the uterus and cervix during child birth and the mammary glands during breast feeding. But some of it stays in the brain and spinal cord, acting on neurons with oxytocin receptors to affect a number of behaviors. Released during child birth and nursing, oxytocin is important for helping mammalian mothers behave like moms and in species in which both parents raise young, it helps fathers behave like dads. Also released during sex, oxytocin plays an important role in pair bonding in prairie voles (particularly in the female of the pair). In humans, people given oxytocin nasal sprays have been reported to have less fear, more financial trust in strangers, increased generosity, improved memory for faces, improved recognition of social cues, and increased empathy.

But before you fall head-over-heels for oxytocin, you should know a few more things. For one thing, oxytocin isn’t exclusively linked with feel-good emotions; It has also been associated with territoriality, aggressive defense of offspring, and forming racist associations. Also, oxytocin doesn’t work alone. It has been shown to interact with vasopressin, dopamine, adrenaline and corticosterone and all these interactions affect pair bonding.

Next up is Vasopressin! Vasopressin is closely related to oxytocin. Like oxytocin receptors, vasopressin receptors are expressed in different patterns in the brains of monogamous vole species compared to promiscuous vole species. Released during sex, vasopressin plays an important role in pair bonding in monogamous prairie voles (particularly in the male of the pair). If you block vasopressin in the brain of a paired male prairie vole, he will be more likely to prefer spending time around a new female rather than his mate. On the flip side, if you increase vasopressin activity in specific brain regions of an unpaired male prairie vole or even a promiscuous male meadow vole and introduce him to a female, he will prefer spending time with her than other females. Vasopressin may also make male prairie voles more paternal.

But vasopressin does a lot of things. In the body, its primary function is to regulate water retention. In the brain, it plays a role in memory formation and territorial aggression. And even its role in monogamy is not exclusive: Vasopressin interacts with oxytocin and testosterone when working to regulate pair bonding and parental behavior.

Look out for Cortisol! Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands (on top of the kidneys) and is involved in stress responses in humans and primates. Both men and women have increased cortisol levels when they report that they have recently fallen in love. Many studies have also found relationships between cortisol and maternal behavior in primates, but sometimes they show that cortisol increases maternal behavior and sometimes it prevents it. In rodents, where corticosterone is similar to cortisol, the story is also not very clear. Corticosterone appears to be necessary for male prairie voles to form pair bonds and it plays a role in maintaining pair bonds and promoting paternal behavior. But in female prairie voles, the opposite seems to be true! Corticosterone in females appears to prevent preference for spending time with their partner and pair bond formation.

Put your hands together for Testosterone! Testosterone is a steroid hormone and is primarily secreted from the gonads (testes in males and ovaries in females). Frequently referred to as “the male hormone”, both males and females have it and use it, although maybe a little differently. Testosterone is associated with sex drive in both men and women. But men who have recently fallen in love have lower testosterone levels than do single males, whereas women who have recently fallen in love have higher testosterone than single gals.

This is Estrogen! Estrogen is another steroid hormone, frequently referred to as “the female hormone”, although again, both males and females have it. Estrogen also seems to play a role in sex drive in both men and women. The combination of high estrogen levels and dropping progesterone levels (another steroid hormone) is critical for the development of maternal behavior in primates, sheep and rodents. But look closer and you will find that the activation of estrogen receptors in particular brain regions is associated with less sexual receptivity, parental behavior, and the preference for spending time with the mate.

So let’s have a round of applause for this year’s contenders in The Love Chemical Pageant! Now it is your turn to voice your opinion in the comments section below. Vote for the neurochemical you believe deserves the title The Love Chemical. Or suggest an alternative pageant result!

Want to know more? Check these out:

Burkett, J.P. and Young, L.J. (2012). The behavioral, anatomical and pharmacological parallels between social attachment, love and addiction. Psychopharmacology, 224:1-26.

Fisher, H.E. (1998). Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature, 9(1) 23-52.

Marazziti, D. and Canale, D. (2004). Hormonal changes when falling in love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 29, 931-936.

Van Anders, S.M. and Watson, N.V. (2006). Social neuroendocrinology: Effects of social contexts and behaviors on sex steroids in humans. Human Nature, 17(2), 212-237.

Young, K.A., Gobrogge, K.L., Liu, Y. and Wang, Z. (2011). The neurobiology of pair bonding: Insights from a socially monogamous rodent. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 32(2011), 53-69.