At the time, it seemed like the logical thing to do. Australian farmers were desperate. It was the 1930s, and beetles were tearing through their crops, especially sugar cane. Word spread of a toad that loved to gorge itself on the problem pests, which had been successfully brought to Hawaii to manage beetles in sugarcane fields. The Australians could have turned to pesticides, sure, but pesticides are expensive and often harmful to people and the environment. And if the toad could be introduced once, why not again? Why shouldn’t they fix their bug problem once and for all with a harmless little amphibian? So in 1935, two suitcases of cane toads (Rhinella marina; formerly Bufo marinus) arrived in Australia.
I have spent more hours than I want to admit scrolling through #CuteOff on Twitter. The hashtag (following on the heels of the much more R-rated #JunkOff) is a competition of sorts between tweeps to see who can post the cutest animal photo. But as I was sitting on the couch the other day, showing pic after pic to fellow biologist and science writer (and my boyfriend) Jake Buehler, we started to notice that vertebrates — animals, like us, with backbones — were highly overrepresented. Invertebrate species make up more than 95% of the diversity of animal life on this planet, including all of the major groups of animals (called phyla), yet there were choice few to be found in #CuteOff. The discussion went a little something like this…
J: It’s just not fair!
C: Well, I don’t know… most inverts are pretty… gross-looking.
J: You’re gross looking — to a ribbon worm!
J: Just kidding. But being serious: there are lots of adorable inverts out there that deserve a little love.
C: Hm… You think so? Care to make a wager?
J: I’m listening.
C: How about we take the major phyla of animals, split them down the middle, and see who can assemble the cutest arsenal of inverts?
J: What does the winner get?
C: Bragging rights.
J: You’re on.
So we looked up a quick phylogeny of animals and decided to take turns starting with what is traditionally considered the most basal multicellular group: phylum Porifera. I drew the short straw, which meant I had to go first.
C: You ready for this?
J: I was born ready. Read More
Two years ago, a newspaper story about a couple from North Carolina heading to Hawaii for a “dolphin-assisted birth” caught my attention on Twitter. Now “spiritual healer” Dorina Rosin is planning a similar stunt, believing the birth will be more relaxing and natural than one in a hospital. She also believes that her child will be able to speak dolphin. Her birth is to be featured on a British documentary Extreme Births.
So far, there’s no info on whether the mother-to-be has gone through with the at-sea birth or not. For that matter, no one knows what happened to the couple from NC — as far as I can tell, no one has ever actually gone through with a wild dolphin-assisted birth. I was able to find one grainy video of what appears to be a birth with a live dolphin, but it’s clear that this woman is in a pool with a captive dolphin, not the ocean.
Update 9/2: According to the documentary, Dorina did not go through with her watery plans. She went into labor at night, and thus had a natural birth on land. But, she did say she could feel the dolphins ‘sending positive energy’.
Below is my original commentary on the practice of dolphin-assisted births, from 2013. But the tl;dr version: Dolphins are wild animals. Wild animals do not make good midwives.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that gulls are among the least-loved birds in the world. These loud and annoying seabirds have a disturbing lack of fear of large mammals — including us — and a seemingly insatiable appetite, as any beach picnicker can attest. It’s no wonder that the creators of Finding Nemo portrayed them as mindless feeding machines, the only species in the movie to lack intellect and personality. But they were wrong in at least one respect: while seagulls might be feeding machines, they are far from mindless. Read More
Twenty-six snakes. Three sting rays. Two centipedes. One scorpion. Like a twisted version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry goes through and lists the number of each group of venomous animals he’s been bitten or stung by. It’s November in Brisbane, and we’re sitting at a small table in the Red Room, the University of Queensland campus pub, in part so I can ask him a few more questions for an article I’m working on, and in part because I couldn’t go to Australia and not catch up with Bryan. I’ve known him for several years now; when I was in desperate need of stonefish antivenom to complete one chapter of my dissertation, I messaged him on Facebook, and he was nothing but eager to help out. He brought it with him less than a year later, carefully packed in his baggage, as he traveled from Australia to China and finally to Hawaii for the International Society for Toxinology meeting. “I carried this halfway around the world for you,” I remember him saying sternly as he handed over the glass vial, the first time I’d ever met him face to face. My heart stopped — had I somehow offended such an influential scientist in my field? — until a half a second later, when his mouth cracked a smile.
“What about hymenopterans?” I ask with a grin two and a half years later over a pint, knowing how he’ll reply.
“Who counts bees? You want me to count every fucking fire ant, too?” Read More
In the first chapter for my upcoming book Venomous (due out in 2016), I excitedly explain how nearly all the sundry branches of the tree of life have venomous leaves. I’m simply enthralled by the incredible diversity of venomous animals (and plants!) on this planet, from the tentacle-wielding jellies to the spiny scorpionfishes and, of course, the oft-feared and misunderstood snakes, spiders, and scorpions. But until today, there is one group that could not boast a single venomous member: the anurans, commonly known as frogs and toads. While there are plenty of poisonous ones, no one has ever found a venomous frog — that is, until now.
Venomous animals are natural biochemists that take toxic to a whole new level. While it is true that venoms and poisons are both toxins, the two terms are not interchangeable. All toxins cause harm in low doses; Poisons are substances that cause such harm through ingestion, inhalation or absorption. To earn the title of venomous, on the other hand, an animal has to do more than just have toxins — they have to have a means of wounding their intended victims to force those toxins upon them. That “wounding” can be caused by any weapon of choice; jellies and other members of the phylum Cnidaria use specialized stinging cells that shoot out hollow threads in less than a microsecond to deliver their potent venom. Snakes and spiders use fangs, the venomous fishes use spines, and the newest members of the venomous family — the frogs Aparasphenodon brunoi and Corythomantis greeningi — use their spiky heads. Read More
“It was just another normal day on Facebook,” claims Paulo Gonella, a PhD student at the Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. “I was scrolling down my newsfeed when I came across a post by a friend. He was sharing a photo originally posted by Reginaldo Vasconcelos, a plant enthusiast from Governador Valadares, showing some plants in their natural habitat.” But as Paulo looked at the low-resolution image, some of the plants jumped out at him. They looked like sundews — in the genus Drosera — but unlike any of the thirty species that are found in Brazil.
“The plants in the photo looked much larger and had very distinctive leaf and flower characteristics when compared to all the other Drosera I know,” Paulo recalls. “I immediately showed this photo to Fernando Rivadavia, who also studies this group of plants, and he was astonished as well.”
Though they weren’t sure, Paulo and Fernando had just done something no one else had ever done: discovered a new species of plant on Facebook.
Snakes, with their sleek, slithering shape, are unmistakable amongst the reptiles. Yet for decades, scientists have been debating just how these limbless lizard relatives ended up with their distinctive, elongated body.
On one side are scientists who argue that the serpentine shape was an aquatic adaptation. Many snake traits, including an elongated body and reduced limbs, are also features of swimming animals (think whales and dolphins, for example, which have lost their hind limbs). Early evidence also suggested that snakes were closely related to mosasaurs, the terrifying and extinct group of lizards that were woven into pop culture the moment one was fed a great white shark in Jurassic World. Non-theatrically, these marine reptiles ruled the seas during the Cretaceous, and possessed many snake-y features, including a jaw which stretches for large prey. The discovery of extinct marine snakes with hindlimbs, including Pachyrhachis, Haasiophis, and Eupodophis, seemed further proof of a marine origin.
But later analyses have suggested that Pachyrhachis and others are secondarily marine, the offshoots of a more derived snake group, and the connection between snakes and mosasaurs has come under suspicion. The prevailing hypothesis is now that snakes evolved on land — or, even more specifically, in it. A burrowing or ‘fossorial’ lifestyle could also produce long, skinny bodies and reduced limbs. More recent finds like Najash, Dinilysia, and Coniophis, which date back further than Pachyrhachis, all lived on land. But the evidence for a largely underground existence isn’t conclusive, either, and some hold to the idea that snakes were born in the sea.
The debate has continued so long because there is a dearth of snake fossils to rely upon. Snake bodies are by and large small and fragile, with thin bones that do not lend easily to fossilization. So scientists have had little material to work with when trying to determine changes over time.
A new fossil hopes to end the debate once and for all. A paper published this week in Science describes what appears to be a four-legged burrowing snake from Brazil. “Here it is, an animal that is almost a snake” says David Martill, a paleobiologist from the University of Portsmouth, “and it doesn’t show any adaptations to being in an aquatic environment.” But is it really that cut-and-dry? While the latest fossil find is making a splash in the news, it’s one of four noteworthy papers this year examining snake evolution, and placing the new study in context helps explain what makes the fossil so exciting, if controversial. Read More
It’s no secret that last year I had no love for Discovery Channel’s annual fin fest. Shark Week 2014 kicked off with yet another fake documentary, included a reprise of their infamous Megalodon mockumentary, and had what I might argue was the worst shark week special of all time, set right here in Hawaii. It was incredibly disheartening to see Discovery double down on the B.S. after the initial Megalodon special prompted an outpouring of anger from scientists and viewers. Given the drop in viewership from 2013 to 2014, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one disappointed by the channel’s choices, and that there were serious concerns coming from critics and fans alike. The disgustingly-awful Eaten Alive in December was simply the last straw; I was certain that there was no hope for the once-educational network. Then Rich Ross stepped up as the new president, stating that he was going to get rid of the faked footage and gaudy stunts, and suddenly, there was a glimmer of light in the deep, deep darkness.
Rich kept his promise, delivering a Shark Week that even softened the heart of the scientist dubbed its biggest critic, David Shiffman. In a public statement on his Facebook page, the PhD candidate at the University of Miami said he was “very pleased with the improvements this year.”
“There was a much higher focus on science and biodiversity, and greatly reduced fearmongering and pseudoscience. Some of the shows from this year will inspire kids to become scientists or conservationists, and I won’t have to correct misconceptions caused by this year’s programming when I speak to schoolchildren over the coming months!” (see his detailed reviews of each show here)
Even the ads were better, if you ask me: in place of the sexist, sensationalized chum spot from last year was this lovely beach scene, completely devoid of blood and gore:
But the real question is: did the rest of Discovery’s viewers feel the same way? Read More
The diamondback moth catterpillar (Plutella xylostella) may not look like much, but don’t be fooled by its generic caterpillar-y appearance; these larval lepidopterans are one of the world’s worst insect pests. Diamondback caterpillars gorge their way through cabbages, canola, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale, costing farmers $4-5 billion annually worldwide. The worst part is that these hungry beasts always seem to be a step ahead of pest management strategies, readily evolving resistance to every organic and synthetic chemical that farmers attempt to wipe them out with. But now, scientists have created a secret weapon that the bugs cannot resist: genetically modified males whose genes kill their female offspring. Read More