Squid Lovers Switch Sex Positions In Response To Partner’s Signals

By Christie Wilcox | February 14, 2018 8:00 am
This squid is a learning lover. Photo Credit: harum.koh/Wikimedia Commons

This squid listens when he makes love. Photo Credit: harum.koh/Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to interesting cephalopod sex lives, squid seem to have drawn the short straw. Argonauts, their cousins, keep things interesting with swimming, detachable penises. Giant Pacific Octopus mating involves several hours of rough, squishy grabbing action that would make Toshio Maeda blush. But squid just get a quick hello, a few colorful flashes, and second or two of perfunctory sperm delivery—or so it would seem. A new study suggests that for all they lack in kink, bigfin reef squid do have engaging sex lives. As explained in a new paper in The Biological Bulletin, these randy cephalopods take direction well, switching up their sexual position at a female’s behest to improve their odds of successfully mating. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Cephalopod, Mating, Sex, Squid

Another Reason To Save Snakes: They Disperse Seeds (Probably)

By Christie Wilcox | February 9, 2018 8:00 am
Rattlesnakes may do more for ecosystems than we ever imagined. Photo Credit: Mr James Kelley/Shuttersotck

Rattlesnakes may do more for ecosystems than we ever imagined. Photo Credit: Mr James Kelley/Shuttersotck

We’re about a month away from the 60th annual rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater Texas. The event proudly calls itself the world’s largest—and for good reason. Last year, nearly 8,000 lbs of snakes were killed in this barbaric slaughterfest. But there are so many reasons why this all-out assault on Texas’ reptiles is a terrible idea. Rattlesnakes have complex social lives, can live for decades, and are essential to their native ecosystems. As predators, they help keep populations of mice and other small animals in check, which may ultimately help protect us from disease. And, of course, they help disperse seeds, altering the floral landscapes they slither through.

Wait—what was that last one?

If seed dispersal sounds less like something a snake does and more the purview of mammals and birds, that’s because until now, snakes weren’t thought of as seed dispersers—mostly because, well, they generally don’t eat plants or fruits (at least not willingly). And their smooth scaly skin doesn’t exactly give much for burs to stick to. But a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that rattlesnakes in the southwestern US may be acting as ecosystem engineers by spreading seeds.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Seed Dispersal, Snakes

Backpackers, Don’t Listen To Slate: Science Does Support Stream Water Treatment

By Christie Wilcox | February 8, 2018 8:00 am
The risk might be low, but the alternative is maybe months of debilitating diarrhea. It's your choice. Photo Credit: Timothy Epp/Shutterstock

The risk might be low, but the alternative is maybe months of debilitating diarrhea. It’s your choice. Photo Credit: Timothy Epp/Shutterstock

While we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, there’s no doubt that human beings are actually quite awful at assessing risk. So I can understand why Ethan Linck thought to contextualize the risk of drinking from backcountry streams with data. “Life is triage, a constant series of negotiations between risks of varying severity,” he wrote. “And how we talk about those risks matters.”

Yes, it does—which is exactly why his piece in Slate last week was so damaging. It was anything but a careful, scientific evaluation of the risks. Wes Siler over at Outside Magazine already pointed out a myriad of issues with the article, but I want to zero in on the actual data, because Linck claimed to be looking at the matter scientifically. Instead, he cherry-picked sources to argue against doing one of the simplest things you can do to protect yourself from some truly awful diseases when you’re backpacking: treating your water. Read More

In Memoriam: Conversations with my Grandpa

By Christie Wilcox | January 25, 2018 2:00 pm
Ralph Bianchi, 1928-2018.

Ralph Bianchi, 1928-2018.

For several months, my grandfather—Ralph Bianchi—has been battling stage four kidney cancer. On Monday, that battle ended when he passed peacefully in his sleep. While you can read his obituary in today’s Boston Globe, a few hundred words cannot wholly capture his legacy. Ralph Bianchi was an engineer and pioneer who dedicated his career to cleaning up the messes of others. 

I wrote the following post in June of 2010, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform led to the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry—topping even the infamous Exxon Valdez spill. I’m reposting it today in honor of my grandfather and the decades he dedicated to battling oil spills. 

I’ll miss you, grandpa.  

Oil supplies the United States with approximately 40% of its energy needs. Billions upon billions of gallons are pumped out of our wells, brought in from other countries, and shipped around to refineries all over the states. 1.3 million gallons of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. Yes, it would be great if we never spilled a drop of oil. No matter how hard we may try, though, the fact is that nobody is perfect, and oil spills are an inevitable consequence of our widespread use of oil. The question is, once the oil is out there, how do we clean it up?

Nowehere is this issue more glaring than in the Gulf of Mexico right now, where 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil are spewing out of the remains of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig every day. The spill has enraged an entire nation. But perhaps my grandfather put it best, when I asked him what he thought about how BP and the US is responding to the spill.

“They’re friggin’ idiots.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Marine Life Can Buffer Ocean Acidity, Study Finds

By Christie Wilcox | January 16, 2018 8:00 am
Tide pools reveal surprising influence of marine life on seawater chemistry. Photo Credit: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock

Tide pools reveal surprising influence of marine life on seawater chemistry. Photo Credit: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock

One of the many consequences of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is ocean acidification—the lowering of seawater pH as CO2 chemically reacts with dissolved ions in seawater. Scientists have found that more acidic waters are dangerous to many species, especially structure-builders like corals, and thus the potential drop in pH predicted in the future would be devastating to marine habitats.

So it’s not surprising that many scientists are actively looking for ways to mitigate this for coastal ecosystems, where losses could be especially impactful ecologically and economically. But the answer may be right in front of them: marine life is already able to buffer drops in pH, finds new research in Scientific Reports. Read More

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

Floral Hackers: Plant Parasites Use MicroRNAs to Shut Down Host Genes

By Christie Wilcox | January 9, 2018 8:00 am
This parasitic plant manipulates its hosts genes. Photo Credit: Stefan.lefnaer/Wikimedia Commons

This parasitic plant turns off its hosts’ genes to hide its theft. Photo Credit: Stefan.lefnaer/Wikimedia Commons

Organisms’ immune systems are constantly trying to detect and boot freeloaders. No living thing is particularly willing to give up its hard earned resources to just any moocher that comes along, so all parasites must find a way past their hosts’ defenses and survive incessant attacks. Some constantly disguise themselves to move about undetected, while others mysteriously slip under the radar. Now, in a paper published this month in Nature, researchers have discovered one parasitic plant has evolved a remarkable way to survive: it creates small chunks of RNA to silence its hosts’ genes. Read More

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

Science Sushi: 2017 in Review

By Christie Wilcox | December 31, 2017 11:00 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 2017…

…I have posted 31 posts

…that received over five hundred thousand views

…from 224 countries/territories

…with 227 comments

My most viewed post of the year was not actually mine—it was that wonderful guest post from Jake Buehler about how 30 Meters Down completely failed in its portrayal of dive science. Next in line was my Toxinology 101 post on what scientists mean when they use the words “venom” and “poison”. Some blasts from the past also performed well—y’all were curious whether dolphins really get high on pufferfish (probably not), what it feels like to die by boomslang bite, and whether mushrooms can make you orgasm (again, probably not). Other top ten posts include how the venom of brown snakes gets more potent as they age, how a shark survived with a hole through its body for over a year, and the curious science of dolphin sex.

My words also found their way across the interwebs to a whole suite of new outlets. You could find me talking about horny deaf toadlets (that can’t hear their own mating calls!) for Gizmodo, crab-mimicking cuttlefish for Hakai Magazine, and ravenous box jellies of the future for New Scientist. I admitted one of my dumbest lab mistakes in this piece for SELF on why you really, really shouldn’t look directly at an eclipse. I also wrote about the surprising way thorns may have evolved for Quanta, and speaking of pokey things, bioGraphic‘s design team turned my article about venomous weapons into a stunning work of art. I also dug deep into the debate about biodiversity’s benefits for Undark. But my personal favorite was my article for National Geographic on how some scientists in Mississippi used 6 tons of dead pigs to simulate mass extinction events, allowing them to study their effects on the ecosystem.

Venomous by Christie Wilcox

I also had a big year beyond the interwebs. I had a number of articles published in print-only magazines, with several pieces in Hana Hou!. And in August, my first book, Venomous, went to paperback!

2017 has been a rough year in many ways, but it’s also been one of trememdous joy. I embarked on a new adventure when I moved back to the mainland, trading the sunny shores of Oahu for the majestic forests of Washington. I started a new job working as an editor and writer for SciShow, which I am enjoying immensely. And, last but certainly not least, I got to meet my incredible daughter, Bianca, last June, and she has been bringing unbelievable amounts of joy into my life ever since.

Thank you to all of you who read this blog: let’s keep this bio-nerdy party going all through 2018!

Fireworks image (c) Mark Wooding, from Wikipedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, Uncategorized

Roosters Have Special Ears So They Don’t Crow Themselves To Deaf

By Christie Wilcox | December 31, 2017 11:00 am
Roosters have built-in earplugs that shut off their ears when they crow. Because of course they do. Photo Credit: Little Perfect Stock/Shutterstock

Roosters have built-in earplugs that shut off their ears when they crow. Because of course they do. Photo Credit: Little Perfect Stock/Shutterstock

If you’ve spent any time around roosters, you know that their “morning” crowing can be… loud. That distinctive cock-a-doodle-doo is piercing: if you happen to be standing near a rooster sounding off, you’re hit with a sound wave that’s about 100 decibels. That’s unpleasantly loud, like the whir of chainsaw. If one cock-a-doodled right in your ear, the sound is even louder—over 140 decibels. Sounds that loud can cause damage in less than a second, and are just shy of shattering your eardrum.

In fact, roosters are so loud that it’s surprising they aren’t deaf from their own calls. So Belgian researchers looked into it, and found that they have special ears which allow them to crow to their hearts’ content without losing their hearing. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Chickens, Hearing

Dozens—Perhaps Even Hundreds—of Lionfish Likely Launched the Atlantic Invasion

By Christie Wilcox | December 27, 2017 8:00 am

The first wave of invaders likely numbered 48 or more, according to new research. (Credit: kzww/Shutterstock)

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped it’s way across the southern US. Southern Florida, where Andrew made landfall, was one of the hardest hit areas. It’s estimated that over 100,000 homes were damaged, and 63,000 were destroyed—among them an expensive beachfront house with a very large and memorable aquarium. That aquarium contained six lionfish, and when it broke, they were swept into Biscayne Bay. And so began the lionfish invasion into the Atlantic. Read More

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

Sharks Terrorize Reef Fish In The Shallows, Changing When And Where They Eat Seaweeds

By Christie Wilcox | November 30, 2017 8:00 am

A seascape of fear? New study suggests fear of sharks shapes ecosystems. Photo Credit: Narchuk/Shutterstock

It’s kind of incredible how our fears can shape our behaviors. When Jaws was released in 1975, it fundamentally changed how we interact with sharks. In the years that followed, we hunted these large marine predators more intensely, and came to view them as terrible monsters—attitudes scientists still fight to this day. But while our fears are largely unfounded, there are lots of species that have good reason to be wary of these awesome fish. Scientists have now discovered that such fear can ripple through the reef ecosystem, impacting community structure all the way down to seaweeds.

There’s no doubt that sharks can be a bit terrifying, especially if you’re a snack-sized fish. Scientists have long suspected that such fear can alter behavior. Just like people that are scared of sharks avoid beach vacations, preyed upon fish might try to avoid areas where sharks roam in the hopes of steering clear of those sharp, pointy teeth. And where the fish avoid, the species they eat proper, a marine version of ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play.’ Thus by creating landscapes of fear—or, in this case, seascapes—sharks could shape entire ecosystems even if the amount of prey they actually consume is negligible.

Cascading effects have been shown for other predators. The mere sound of dogs barking can terrorize raccoons so much that they forget to eat. And when that happens, the myriad of species the raccoons hunt, from birds to crabs, flourish. But overall, demonstrations of the ‘landscapes of fear’ hypothesis are rare.

Not only do we not know how fear of sharks might shape marine habitats, our overall understanding of how sharks interact with other species is lacking. Despite our annual fin-fests and obsession with these fearsome fish, “we still only have a very basic understanding of their ecological roles in nature,” said Doug Rasher, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory, in a press release. So he and his colleagues decided to look a little closer, zeroing in on the impacts of sharks on shallow reef habitats off the coast of Fiji.

A diagram of the shallow lagoons studied. Figure 1 a and b from Rasher et al. 2017.

A diagram of the shallow lagoons studied. Figure 1 a and b from Rasher et al. 2017.

The well-lit, shallow lagoons of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, are ideal habitat for tasty seaweeds like Turbinaria conoides, a favorite of herbivorous fish. Since the islanders established a no-take reserve protecting the fringing reef of Votua Village, Korolevu-i-wai, in 2002, the abundance of seaweeds has dropped dramatically, particularly in the more isolated back reefs, making room for corals to rebound. But not all areas of the lagoons are equally seaweed-free. The algae remain in the shallowest reef tops. Rasher and his colleagues wanted to understand why.

The research team put GoPros in the water to observe which fish were eating algae as well as when and where sharks were moving around the lagoons. They also surveyed for the presence of algae-eating fish during high and low tides, and to determine seaweed location and abundance. In addition, they calculated fish feeding rates on algae in shallow and deeper back reef areas during different tidal phases by deploying measured amounts of algae for the fish to snack on.

When they brought all that data together, a clear pattern emerged. The biggest predators like blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus), whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus,) and tawny nurse sharks (Nebrius ferrugineus) only entered the back reefs when tides were high—the researchers estimated that on average, each 40 square meter section of backreef is trawled by 4 to 5 reef sharks and 1 jack during each high tide. And when that happened, the herbivorous fishes like unicornfishes (Naso lituratus and N. unicornis) pretty much stopped eating and disappeared, presumably steering clear of the meandering predators.

That meant that the shallow reef tops received very little attention by the algae-eaters, as they could only be accessed when the reef sharks entered the shallows to feed. And in turn, those reef tops sported about 20 times the amount of seaweed. The researchers ruled out the possibility that these algae just do better on the reef tops for other reasons, like increased amounts of light, by comparing the growth rates of caged weeds in both areas. So the stark difference between the tops and deeper troughs in the backreef appears to be driven mostly by the fish’s fear of sharks.

A 2013 study in Shark Bay, Australia, had similar results, finding the risk of tiger shark predation affected the nature and abundance of seagrasses. Combined, they paint a much more interesting picture of the role sharks play in marine habitats. Their effects go far beyond what they consume directly, so their mere presence can “actually shape the way [an ecosystem] looks and functions,” explained Rasher.

On the practical side, these results suggest that we might be able to reduce our fishing impacts by taking this kind of thing into account. “Our example highlights the need to consider predator effects in ecosystem-based management,” the authors write in their conclusions. “With knowledge of predator movements and resultant herbivore migrations, resource managers could mitigate this negative human impact in similar ecosystems by regulating not only where but when herbivores are harvested.”

And ultimately, they underscore the need to better understand the ecological importance of sharks and other large predators. “Large apex predator sharks as well as the large mesopredator reef sharks studied here are now generally rare or absent on coral reefs exposed to heavy fishing pressure; thus, the effects we documented may already be extinguished from many places,” the authors write. “Despite these difficulties, we need to study Earth’s remaining wild places where predators still abound, and capitalize on chance events and variability in nature… Only then can we understand the ramifications of predator loss or recovery.”


Citation: Rasher et al. 2017. Cascading predator effects in a Fijian coral reef ecosystem. Scientific Reports 7, 15684. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-15679-w

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

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