Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Salamander Photoshoot

As part of the process of preparing the rewards for my SciFund donators, I'm trying to figure out a good way to get pictures of the salamanders in our lab. I decided to build a small photo studio, inspired by the designs here, and put it in the lab.
Not pictured: the work I should probably be doing.
I put this setup together this morning and got some of the animals out to try it out, and the results ended up being better than expected. I am going to try and get profile shots for all of the captive animals in this style before the end of the summer. Check these photos out at full size to get that up-close-and-personal feeling.

A large unisexual Ambystoma salamander

Same big girl as above

A beautiful streamside salamander (Ambystoma barbouri)

One of our tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum). They are especially tame and can often be found biting the sides of their cages when we walk in the room, expecting crickets.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

What I think is cool in science, June edition

Greetings all! I thought I would share some of the science links and stories that have really captivated me over the past few weeks.

It is really difficult to keep up with a specific field of science, and it is more so difficult to keep up with discoveries in multiple fields of science at the same time. I rely mostly on websites that aggregate science stories that I might be interested in, such as Science Daily, Reddit, Nature news, and Scientific American.

Smart people acting stupid: you can't fight bias
The first bit of science is summed up nicely by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker The study about which Lehrer writes is by a group of scientists from James Madison University and The University of Toronto and can be found here. Essentially, the authors were interested in how a person's perceived level of intelligence (think of tests like the SATs and the GRE) relates to their level of cognitive bias. There are many types of bias, but it generally means an inclination to hold a certain viewpoint even in the face of potentially valid, although contradictory viewpoints. Bias is one of the biggest scientific no-nos because it can purposely or unintentionally undermine scientific results.

The results of this paper are pretty shocking: people who are more "cognitively sophisticated" are more prone to bias, especially when comparing their perceived level of bias with others (called a "bias blind spot"). As a scientist who is friends with many other scientists, this is a scary result. In general, most scientifically minded folks consider themselves less prone to biases because they value evidence-based decisions and significant scientific backing for their decisions. But perhaps because bias is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious (as Lehrer writes), knowing what bias is and telling ourselves that we are better at avoiding it can make things worse rather than better.

I do know that this study provided all my lovely wife needs to quickly end the next disagreement we have where I demand objective results to change my mind.

Why aren't their giant insects?
Well, there are some pretty big insects alive today, like this giant Weta:
via Gizmodo.comhttp://gizmodo.com/5864195/the-worlds-biggest-insect-is-so-freaking-huge-it-can-eat-a-carrot
Look at that thing!

As cool as the giant Weta is, I'm talking about the kind of insects that were in all of my dinosaur books when I was growing up, like this ancient sea scorpion:
Not sure what's going on in the picture, but that ancient sea scorpion is awesome.

or these giant dragonflies, the Meganeura:

I want this on my office desk.

An estimation of what an Meganeuran would look like.

Well the common reason that I found for why I couldn't have a pet gigantic dragonfly is that these insects could get so large due to a higher concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere millions of years ago. As oxygen levels have been reduced, insects have been more constrained to smaller body sizes.

Ah ha, but not so fast! A new entry into the debate of what happened to the giant insects is from two scientists from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Clapham and Karr analyzed historic body size of insects along with predicted levels of atmospheric oxygen. What they found contradicted the prediction that insect body size would be reduced with reduced oxygen. Instead, they found that insect body size continued to decrease even when oxygen increased. So what gives?

It turns out that this decrease in body size matches up pretty nicely with the radiation and diversification of many bird lineages. The authors predict that predation by birds became more important in limiting the size of insects than the presence of oxygen.

So if you are terrified of large insects, you might give a little credit to these guy's ancestors for doing you a solid:
image via Charles & Clint

Your body is a bacteria party, and now we know the guest list

You are filled with billions and billions of bacteria, like it or not. These bacteria are necessary for your survival, and your health and survival has a lot of economic importance. The results of a huge effort to map the diversity and abundance of bacteria in the human body (the human microbiome) were released this week in Nature and got (unsurprisingly) a lot of press.

This paper is pretty difficult to read for someone who isn't very familiar with the terminology, so here is the take home message:
You are full of many, many, many types of bacteria and most of these bacteria are especially associated with certain parts of your body. Additionally, the abundance of different types of bacteria differ between people of different ethnicity, ages, locations, and body mass index.

So it turns out that bacteria aren't some group of organisms hitching a ride on humans, they are a diverse and necessary group of organisms that make up a large part of our bodies' function. 

Amazing stuff.

Monday, June 4, 2012

SciFund Facts and Figures

Year two of the SciFund Challenge officially ended last Thursday and I was lucky enough to meet my goal with time to spare. This year, 75 total projects raised $100,345.00 for scientific research, solely through soliciting donations from the public.

I get pretty excited when I find a quarter, so I think that's a lot of money.

I've done my best to shower my donators with thanks, and I really do mean it. This was a neat experience that introduced me to crowdfunding and the details of advertising science to the public. I was amazed that I had folks donate to my project from all stages of my life: family, friends from undergrad, former colleagues, current colleagues, and new friends (I hope!). I was also struck by how frantic the work was to make a SciFund happen, particularly at the beginning of the project when I was investing quite a bit of time into Facebook, twitter, this blog, and email.

Like any scientific mind, I really couldn't wait to tabulate the stats for this process and visualize who my donators were, how much they gave, and when they chose to give.

Here is a timeline of my daily contribution amount over the month, directly reported by rockethub:

What is immediately apparent here is that I got two really large donations on the 8th and 16th, plus a number of smaller donations on the first day. All of the analyses of last year's data showed that projects that started well typically made the most money and more often reached their goal. I was pumped to accomplish this.

Overall, I welcomed 26 contributors that donated an average of $71.31. The range of donations was huge, going from $1 to $500 (woah!).  The most common reward was the customized SciFund project t-shirt, proving the age-old mantra that people love t-shirts.

Here is the breakdown between different types of contributors:

What was tricky about classifying my contributors was that the friend and colleague categories blend into one another. I know scientific colleagues who have become friends and friends who have become scientific colleagues. If we ignore that, the "friends" category bested my "family" and "colleagues" in terms of number of donations (7) and total contributions ($245.00). Those are pretty good friends, I think.

"Unknown" folks are individuals who I had never met before SciFund, and they represented the highest number of individual contributions (10), the highest amount of money donated ($1,184), and the highest average contribution ($118.40). When you look at the average donation (below), you can see that the standard deviation (the black bars) is very high in the "Unknown" donators. This is mostly because of two very large donations driving up the average.

Other interesting statistics:
32: number of tweets about my project
95: facebook "likes"
224: project video views
928: views of this blog from 11 different countries
1: pretty happy grad student(me)

So there you go. Thanks so much!