The LTERs Get Hip!

It seems that blogs, twitter, etc, are beginning to really leak into the consciousness of ecologists! In two weeks, I’m attending the LTER All Scientists Meeting (ASM). As I browsed through the working grounp lists, I came across the following: Blogs, Posts, and Tweets: Potential Uses of Web-Based and Social Networking Media for Communicating LTER Science and Conducting Citizen Science.

Tres cool.

The LTER network, for those unfamiliar, is perhaps the oldest network of Long Term Ecological Research projects, well, anywhere. It consists of a collection of sites, each representing a different ecosystem type – from kelp forests to the arctic tundra to even urban ecosystems (oddly in my hometown). The data from these sites is largely out there and publicly available, and the network funds some really top-notch projects from established researchers and up-and-coming postdocs.

Whoops, how did that link get in there!

Because it is a network of sites sharing data and tools, there is a ton of cyberinfrastrcuture. Given the types of folk that has recruited into the project, I’m not surprised that the network is hip to blogs, twitter, and the like. And I’m pretty psyched that we’re having a working group on how to harness their power. Should be neat.

I’m an Editor?

So, someone over at was decidedly foolish, and asked me to be one of their new editors-at-large for Biology. That means, every Thursday, I’ll be posting the three biology (typically ecology and evolution) research paper reviews linked through that I enjoyed the most. My first post is up, and hopefully there will be many more to come!

Tweeting A Trashy Voyage

For those who aren’t following it, the SEAPLEX cruise blog is pretty amazing. SEAPLEX is a cruise being led by none other than Miriam Goldstein of The Oyster’s Garter to explore the Great North Pacific Trash Gyre.

The Seaplex Cruise Track. Not quite a three hour tour.

OK, so, a gyre of trash may not be that great, but, you know, it’s Great. As in Awesome. By which I mean Awe-inspiring kinda Great. Not great. You know. Sheesh.

The cruise is not only ambitious in its goals to map out the garbage patch itself (and to see, is it a big patch, a bunch of islands, or what), but it’s both blogging and tweeting away giving the public a fascinating snapshot into real oceanographic and ecological science in real time. And, they’re being pretty candid, as can be seen below.

Science in real time.  The good, the bad, the silly.

Science in real time. The good, the bad, the silly.

So keep your RSS-feeds updated, check your twitter feeds, and let’s see just what Miriam and her hearty crew find out!

Sir Sea Squirt

For the fashionable marine biologist: Some months back, I fell upon a website called Sir Critter selling t-shirts of organisms bedecked by a monocle, top-hats, and cane. I asked the designer if he would create a Sir Sea Squirt. He was delighted, and just posted the resulting shirt, Sir Sea Squirt.

For those of you out there who don’t think Sea Squirts are, indeed, the coolest thing on earth. *ahem* They also have Sir Urchin (I’m getting one with a purple S. purpuratus), Sir Squid, Sir Jellyfish, Sir Sea Slug, and more. The designer has also mentioned that he’ll be updating with a few new critters every month.

Penis Fencing: Dangerous or Decadent?

I’ve gotta, say, Roughgarden’s The Genial Gene is so far pretty awesome. It is fulfilling its promise of being meaty, laying out the real some real testable predictions for her theory of Social Selection, and also pointing out some of the logical, historical, and cultural fallacies of sexual selection. I’m going to be very curious to read some of the reviews that will come out by sexual selection advocates, but so far, I think she is presenting a fairly compelling argument.

I just finished reading a section on penis fencing in hermaphroditic flatworms. The example was used to demonstrate how we write the narrative that we want to see – virile strong rapacious flatworms, dueling it out! The loser slinks away in shame to bear the burden of being a female. The winner is victorious, not having to incubate their own genetic progeny, but instead have farmed it out. It’s inspired papers such as Sex and Violence in Hermaphrodites (which shows that insemination is usually dominated by one individual, but doesn’t show anything about multiple copulation attempts, or the cost of being inseminated) or Evolutionary Conflict: Sprem Wars, Phantom Inseminations (about sea slugs, but, again, no fitness benefits v. costs). It’s also inspired at least one great comic strip.

There are a few questions this raises. First, if such a system of mating is SO harmful, then wouldn’t it be selected against? I mean, if “losing” a mating bout is such a huge cost to an individual…which implies a cost to their fitness, then selection should ultimately find a way around that? It doesn’t sound like the most evolutionarily stable of strategies – hurt the one who will bring your genetic contribution into the next generation! Make sure they’re in the worst possible condition while they go off and incubate your genetic future! This is not to mention the fact that all of the energy you’ve been putting into the eggs you yourself have produced (remember, these little suckers are hermaphrodites) have now been wasted! Yippee!

This does not sound like a good thing, when one stops to think.

More likely, she points out, a lot of this is just cultural bias creeping into our observations. I mean, I’ll be honest, fast moving flatworms whipping their penises around? It sounds like some frat parties I’ve been to! Well, ok, not really – I was in a co-ed literary society, but that is neither here nor there!

The point is, you can see how easy it is to write a narrative to these behaviors that can override more dispassionate reasoning. An example may help, however.

Below are two movies of flatworm penis fencing. One, the original, is dark, gritty, with the full on sexual selection narrative as its underpinning. If you’d like, ignore the narration, and just pay attention to the underscoring of the actual mating.

Now, compare this to the same mating event, but this time underscored with “No Quiero Otro” by the Bajofondo Tango Club.

Interesting stuff. Makes you think a little bit more about the true meaning (and evolutionary costs and benefits) of Apophallation.

UPDATE: Unbeknownst to me, it’s sex week over at Deep Sea News! All of which was inspired, in part, by their amazement at the very video shown here! How perfect! Whadda ya think of penis fencing, now, guys?

Shiny happy loci holding hands!

A few years back, I read Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden, and was a huge fan. In it, she builds a compelling argument that sex and gender are two different independently assorting quantitative genetic trains. I.e., Your sex (anatomy) and gender (behavior and sexuality)? Not actually the same thing. Also, not binary. Both (yes, sex, too) are continuous traits.

She builds a strong case for this both based on the wild variety of mating strategies out in nature (and shows how they don’t really fit into the binary gender paradigm of sexual selection) and even more thoroughly through human biology and history.

While it generated a kerfuffle about “Darwin was wrong!” (and sexual selection is really not a key piece of natural selection), the whole sex/gender division into continuous traits is really the most mindblowing part of the book.

But through it all, me and my biologist friends who read it were nearly jumping out of our chairs wanting some real scientific meat. The biggest question we had was “What is the underlying model of evolution, here?” It seemed there must be one, particularly given Roughgarden’s incredible prowess and a theoretical evolutionary ecologist. We were rewarded by hearing Roughgarden lecture on the barest beginnings of a quantitative framework a few weeks after finishing the book, but it was still just a sketch.

So I was totally jazzed to see that in addition to things percolating in the white literature she has recently published The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness.

Take that Richard Dawkins!

It appears to have just come out, so I’ve got an order in for one. But I admit, I’m pretty durned intrigued. Particularly because of the following from the book jacket:

“Building on her brilliant and innovative book Evolution’s Rainbow, in which she challenged accepted wisdom about gender identity and sexual orientation, Roughgarden upends the notion of the selfish gene and the theory of sexual selection and develops a compelling and controversial alternative theory called social selection. This scientifically rigorous, model-based challenge to an important tenet of neo-Darwinian theory emphasizes cooperation, elucidates the factors that contribute to evolutionary success in a gene pool or animal social system, and vigorously demonstrates that to identify Darwinism with selfishness and individuality misrepresents the facts of life as we now know them. ”

So, I’m curious. I’m sure sacred cows will be slaughtered left and right, but, at the end of the day, the whole will make sense as an extension of current knowledge. Although, I’m sure it will cause more than its share of controversy as well.