The Real Octowives of Jervis Bay

By Christie Wilcox | January 28, 2016 6:00 pm
An angry octopus ready for a fight. Image credit: David Scheel

An angry octopus ready for a fight. Image credit: David Scheel

Scientists have long thought that octopus are largely asocial creatures. But a new study finds that these eight-legged cephalopods are actually quite gregarious, and their lives are full of sex and conflict.  There hasn’t been this much drama under the sea since The Little Mermaid! Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts

Watch: Man Takes Back To Back Bites From Two Of The World’s Deadliest Snakes To Prove People Can Become Immune To Snake Venoms

By Christie Wilcox | January 25, 2016 6:17 am

Black mamba venom is among the world’s deadliest, with potent neurotoxins that can kill a person in a matter of minutes. Photo by NickEvansKZN

“A bite from the black mamba Dendroaspis polylepis is an event that poses an immediate threat to life,” explained scientists in a 2011 case report. “Given the content of neurotoxins in the snake’s venom, the mortality of envenomation reaches 100% in almost every case if ventilation is not provided in a timely manner and adequate therapy initiated.” The article goes on to give the account of a 31-year old man who arrived in the emergency room after he was bitten by one of these notorious snakes. He was sweating, his heart was racing, and his blood pressure was through the roof. He had to be intubated almost immediately as the neurotoxic venom was shutting down his diaphragm muscles, and he was struggling to breathe. Over the next two days, he was on the brink of death, requiring dose upon dose of antivenom. But, he was lucky. Fifty-eight hours after the bite, thanks to extensive medical intervention, he was finally able to breathe on his own, and he went home the next day.

Black mambas aren’t just lethal — because of the volume of paralytic venom they inject and how potent that venom is, they are strong contenders for the deadliest snake on Earth. But Tim Friede isn’t one to be scared by words like “deadly” or “lethal.” He’s been injecting himself with snake venom for more than 16 years in an attempt to build up a natural immunity to the most notorious snakes. And according to a recent TV special from Barcroft USA (video embedded below), he’s succeeding. “To prove his self-immunization theory works,” the narrator explains, “he recently took back-to-back bites from two of the world’s deadliest snakes.”

“I have a mojave rattlesnake, water cobras, PNG taipan, black mamba, and western diamond back rattlesnake, and I can take a bite from all of them,” says Friede.

Read More

Science Sushi: 2015 in Review

By Christie Wilcox | December 31, 2015 12:00 pm


It’s that time of the year again where I look back and see what has happened over the past 365 days in the life of this blog. So far in 2015…

…I have posted 46 posts

…that received over five hundred twenty-five thousand views

…from 217 countries/territories

…with 260 comments

The most viewed post of the year was about hypodermic flatworm penises, which won the title by a landslide (never underestimate the popularity of penises, I guess).  Stories on parasitic wasp viruses and the spread of invasive lionfishes were the closest runners up. Y’all loved the news this year, and my top ten was littered with breaking news pieces about everything from species discovered on Facebook to the future of GMOs. Critiques also did very well (as they usually do), as my comments on why it’s still a bad idea to give birth amongst dolphins and why we shouldn’t respond to shark bites by killing sharks also landed in the top ten. Other popular posts included what it feels like to die by boomslang, using genes to change eggs into sperm, and how lemurs can tell a baby’s sex by its mother’s smell.

My words also reached beyond the boundaries of this blog. Some of the best include why we’re obsessed with bacon for Yahoo! Health, why focusing entirely on fins won’t save sharks for The Washington Post, the race for the $2 million Ocean XPRIZE for Popular Science, and the biggest idea in marine ecology to emerge in 2015 for Quartz. However, my favorite piece of the year was my longread for Mosaic on how we’re turning dangerous venoms into life-changing pharmaceuticals.



It’s been an incredible year, and next year looks to be even more amazing. In March, my first foray into editing — Science Blogging: The Essential Guide — hits shelves. The volume, co-edited by Bethany Brookshire and Jason Goldman, brings together 27 of the biggest names in science blogging. Then in August, my first book, Venomous, releases. I traveled around the world and came face to face with some of the deadliest species on the planet (and the scientists that study them) to write Venomous, so you won’t want to miss the adventures!

Overall, it’s been an incredible year, and I look forward to the challenges, surprises, and joys of the year to come. Thank you to all of you who read this blog: let’s keep this bio-nerdy party going all through 2016!

Fireworks image (c) Mark Wooding, from Wikipedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, Top Posts, Uncategorized

What It Takes To Rule The (Marine) World

By Christie Wilcox | December 30, 2015 5:27 pm
The dreaded tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is among a tiny minority of fish species which spans oceans, according to a new paper. Range map from FishBase, image of shark from Wikipedia.

The dreaded tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is among a tiny minority of fish species (<1%!) whose distributions span oceans, according to a new paper. Range map from FishBase, picture of shark by Albert Kok.

Fifty-five years ago, Jack Briggs determined there were 107 fish species with a trait most fish cannot boast: a global distribution. These circumtropical species can be found in all tropical oceans, having found their way around the land masses which split the seas (at least often enough to persist as a single species). Now, in a publication for the journal Fish and Fisheries, Briggs has teamed up with Michelle Gaither, a postdoctoral research associate at Durham University, UK, and colleagues from the University of Hawaii and the California Academy of Sciences to update the half-century-old list. Of the over 20,000 marine fish species, a mere 284 span the seas to maintain a global distribution.

The team was able to re-evaluate Briggs’ original list thanks to breakthroughs in DNA sequencing that have occurred over the past 50 years. By looking at genetic sequences rather than just morphological differences, scientists are able to not only separate similar looking species, they are able to determine whether a single species is split into distinct populations or whether individuals are able to travel vast distances to keep disparate areas connected. Thanks to genetic data, nineteen of the original 107 have since been shown to be complexes of multiple species or not to make it around the globe, while 196 new species have joined the 1% club.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, Evolution, select, Top Posts

‘Tis the Season for Symbiosis

By Christie Wilcox | December 21, 2015 5:16 am

The whooping calls of howler monkeys were an effective alarm. I rolled up my mosquito net and hastily yanked on the pair of skinny jeans I had draped over the chair next to my bed. Ugh. They were still wet from yesterday’s rain. My luggage had gotten caught in LAX on my way to Lima, and even though I’d waited an extra day before heading to Puerto Maldonado, it hadn’t caught up with me. I’d just have to grin and bear it for now.

Aaron and Jeff examine the mysterious yellow bulbs. Photo by Christie Wilcox

Aaron and Jeff examine the mysterious yellow bulbs. Photo by Christie Wilcox

Soon, we set out on the trail — we being Jeff Cremer (an award-winning photographer), Aaron Pomerantz (entomologist for the center), our guide from the Tambopata Research Center, Frank Pichardo, and myself. “There’s something you’ve gotta see,” Aaron said. As we rounded the bend in the trail, it was obvious what he was referring to — in front of us stood a tall tree covered in strange, raised yellow spots. “What are those?” I asked him. He didn’t know. But while colorful bulbs had caught Aaron’s eye, what really intrigued him was what he found living amongst the canary protrusions: a caterpillar he’d never seen before, tended to by ants. Jeff zoomed with his macro lens while Aaron collected some of the larvae to hopefully raise into adults.

The caterpillar spotted by Aaron and its hymenopteran protective detail. Gif by Aaron Pomerantz

The caterpillar spotted by Aaron and its hymenopteran protective detail. Gif by Aaron Pomerantz, filmed with the help of Chris Johns

I picked at one of the bulbs. The yellowish dome seemed to erupt from the bark, sometimes with a brownish cup at the base. The bulb itself was firm, but not that tough — my fingernail easily penetrated and split it in half. No visible spores, nothing to suggest they were the fruiting bodies of some fungus. The bulbs seemed plant-like, though unlike any plant parts I’d ever seen. There are trees that have fruits which burst from the trunk and branches, but those fruits are much larger, and this tree had dark, larger fruits on higher limbs. The yellow bulbs just seemed out of place, like they didn’t belong.

It turns out they didn’t.

The mysterious yellow bulbs sprouting from the tree's bark. Photo by Christie Wilcox

The mysterious yellow bulbs sprouting from the tree’s bark. Photo by Christie Wilcox

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Build it up or let it drown: future prospects for a disappearing nation

By Christie Wilcox | December 9, 2015 8:00 am

This is a guest post by Jamie M. Caldwell, PhD Candidate at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa with the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology and NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow. I invited her to write this post for her perspective on the ongoing discussions at COP21 in France, as she was in the Marshall Islands this past June to teach climate science to high school teachers.

For many people, the idea of setting up shop thousands of miles from anywhere on a remote Pacific island, surrounded by palm trees and crystal blue water, sounds like a dream come true. In reality however, life on many of these islands, especially the low elevation islands, is anything but paradise. While developed countries shouldn’t expect to feel the effects of climate change for another 20-30 years, low elevation islands sprinkled across the Pacific Ocean are feeling the effects of climate change today.

“It’s not hard to imagine these islands underwater when you’re standing on a sliver of land with a seemingly never-ending blue ocean on both sides.”

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Climate Change

Trading Turkey for Turkeyfish: A Holiday Proposal

By Christie Wilcox | November 26, 2015 4:18 pm

If you live in the United States, then odds are that today, you’re eating turkey. It’s Thanksgiving — that’s what we Americans do. Some fifty million turkeys are consumed in the states every year on Thanksgiving, keeping with a centuries-old tradition started by the first Europeans to come to this land. But the land has changed since the pilgrims shot their first wild turkey; forests have been clear-cut, making way for agricultural fields and urban centers. Rivers have been dammed and diverted, and many of the beasts and birds that once dominated the landscape have been depleted or exterminated. Even the turkeys have changed — they’ve nearly doubled in size from selective breeding, with breasts so large that they cannot fly or mate, needing human hands to perform the act of insemination using a device ironically akin to a baster.

According to scientists at the University of Manchester, over 25 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions are produced to raise each chubby bird we consume. That means we pay for our Thanksgiving feast by releasing over 1.25 billion pounds of climate changing carbon dioxide into our already carbon-laden atmosphere.

But there is another way. Rather than turkey for your holiday feasts, consider instead the delicious flesh of the turkeyfish.

You won't even notice the difference. Ok, you'll notice. But turkeyfish is better for you and the environment! Images from Wikimedia users TheKosher and Food Republic.

You won’t even notice the difference. Ok, you’ll notice. But turkeyfish is better for you and the environment! Images from Wikimedia users TheKosher and Food Republic.

Read More

Trick or Trick: Hawaii Department of Agriculture Trolled with False Snake Sighting

By Christie Wilcox | November 6, 2015 2:45 am

Wednesday, KHON2 published a news report about a snake sighting in Honolulu. The original post was brief: “The state Department of Agriculture is investigating a report of a snake spotted in Nuuanu,” it began. It went on to say that the unwelcome tourist was spotted near a place called Morgan’s Corner on Nuuanu Pali Drive — less than three miles from my house — so naturally, my interest was piqued. But it wasn’t just that someone spotted a snake in Hawaii that caught my eye. After all, just two years ago, a five foot long boa constrictor was killed on the highway in the same area, presumably a released/escaped pet. It was the photo accompanying the story that really struck me, allegedly of the sighted snake before it slithered off into the rainforest:

That's a very large — and very deadly — snake. Photo from KHON2

That’s a very large — and very deadly — snake. Photo from KHON2

The second I saw it, my stomach clenched: that is a king cobra. A KING COBRA. That’s no ball python or little pet snake — that’s the world’s longest venomous snake, capable of delivering up to seven milliliters (or almost a tablespoon) of venom with its long fangs. It’s estimated that 50-60% of king cobra bites are fatal — a combination of the potent toxins and the overwhelming volume.

It can’t be a king cobra, I told myself. Not in Hawaii! So I asked my boyfriend Jake Buehler (who I lovingly call “Jakeapedia”), what he thought. “Looks like a king cobra.” So I turned to venom expert and snake guru (and friend of mine), Bryan Fry, a professor at the University of Queensland. “That is one seriously underweight king,” he told me. I looked closer at the photo, searching for any signs it could be something else. I reached out on Twitter, asking for IDs. I kept getting the same answer. What if it’s not a king cobra? I exasperatedly asked Bryan, providing hopeful alternative suggestions. “Nah, definitely a king. I’d recognize that head anywhere.”

A king cobra slithering around Nuuanu means two things. 1) that there’s a very dangerous snake on the loose. And 2) that someone is smuggling large, highly venomous snakes into the islands. The odds that a king cobra would accidentally arrive here are infinitesimally small. They’re native to India and Southeast Asia, and seeing as several thousand miles of water separate our islands from all continents, it didn’t swim here. They live in forests, not terribly close to most airports with direct flights to Honolulu, and they are ground-dwellers, which means they’re not likely to climb up into a wheel well of a plane anyway. No, if a king cobra arrived in Honolulu, someone intended for it to do so. And who even knows how they were feeding it — these huge serpents are snake-eaters primarily, taking the occasional lizard if necessary. Hawaii has no native terrestrial reptiles, and our introduced ones are small — not much to feed such a lengthy snake. Then again, maybe that’s why it looks so skinny..Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Hawaii, Snakes

Electric Eels Shock Scientists With Sophisticated Hunting Strategies

By Christie Wilcox | November 3, 2015 7:00 am
An electric eel strikes towards its prey. Photo by Ken Catania, Vanderbilt University

An electric eel reaches for its prey. Photo by Ken Catania, Vanderbilt University

Lurking in the muddy waters of the Amazon is a fish that has fascinated some of the greatest scientists in history, including Darwin and Faraday. The electric eel (Electrophorus electrics) is one of the most notorious species on the planet, and yet, there is still much to be learned about these elusive fish.

Despite the name, electric eels aren’t actually eels at all — they’re the only species in the genus Electrophorus, a member of the knifefishes (order Gymnotiformes). These slender shockers can grow to lengths in excess of 7 feet and weigh almost 50 pounds, and are one of the top predators in the muddy South American waters they call home. Their name comes from the current-producing cells that coat roughly two-thirds of their body, called electrocytes, which can collectively discharge more than five times the voltage of a US power socket.

In humans, the shock produced by electric eels feels much like that of a stun gun, causing brief, painful paralysis by overactivation of muscles. And since the discovery that these slippery fishes can cause such a strong electrical pulse, it has generally been assumed that they use their weaponized electricity to stun prey, using their electric organs to produce taser-like shocks. But neurobiologist Kenneth Catania wasn’t sure that was the whole story. While the eels’ shock is enough to take out the small goldfish fed to them in captivity, Catania wasn’t sure that it would work on the diversity of invertebrates and fishes that could comprise the eels’ natural diet. He was curious what would happen if the eel were presented with larger, less easily subdued meal choices. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

What It Feels Like To Die of a Boomslang Bite

By Christie Wilcox | November 2, 2015 4:13 pm
The deadly boomslang, the snake fingered in the death of Karl Patterson Schmidt. Photo by William Warby

The deadly boomslang, the species of snake fingered in the death of Karl Patterson Schmidt.
Photo by William Warby

It’s estimated that somewhere between one and five million people are bitten by snakes every year, with around 1/5 of those resulting in death. That number is a lot lower than it once was — several decades ago, antivenoms for deadly snakes were few and far between, so people frequently succumbed to bites. One such victim was American herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt. Read More


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