Author Archives: Dr.B.


Just when you thought you knew all about how crickets make sound, some researchers have to go and add more information. Sheesh!

Tree cricket song…


Ornithologists at Cornell University were able to show that a bird from the rainforest, a club-winged manakin, made their mating sounds by rubbing their wings together! How cool is that? Really, it is cool. Watch the video and see below for an explanation.

Special thanks to my Mom for telling me about this little bird. Love you Mom!

This finch-sized bird just lifts its wings above its back. Big deal, right? That “lift” makes the noise. How? Slow motion video showed that the bird’s wings were a blur. This means that the bird was probably rubbing its wings together to make the sound. Dr. Kimberly Bostwick got herself a better digital video camera that could take 1000 frames per second. She finally was able to see the wing movement (you can too). It turns out that the bird is rubbing its wings together about 100 times a second. That is twice as fast as a humming bird.

The club-winged manakin uses a club-shaped feather as a pick to rake the ridges of another feather.
Illustration by Dr. Kimberly Bostwick

The frequency of the sound that was recorded was about 1400 hertz. That is quite a bit more than 100 hertz (wing beats per second). Dr. Bostwick was still missing a piece of the puzzle. She needed what she called a “frequency multiplier”. She looked more closely at the wing morphology of the bird. She found her frequency multiplier in the feathers. When the bird moves its wings, 2 special feathers rub together. See the illustration and caption on left for an explanation. The short answer is: cello and bow. One hundred times per SECOND. Beat that Yo Yo Mah!

These birds make the sound similar to the way crickets do. This shows that this type of sound making is not limited to insects, an amazing discovery. Evolution once again teaches us that no matter how much we may want to neatly put things in separate categories, life is just not that simple.

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Charles Darwin, last sentence from the Origin of Species.

If you’d like to see Dr. Bostwick’s journal article in Science, you can read it as a webpage or a pdf file.

Madagascar Again! And Again!

“Why do we bother spending so much money on NASA?”

Which is always followed by “We need to spend it here!” We do spend it here. There has never been a budget debate that involved sacrificing a program to allow NASA to be funded. I could go on, but Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” has an eloquent reply, so I see no need to repeat his work. I encourage you to read his article “THIS is why we invest in science. This.” Below are a few quotes from the article.

. . . we spend five times as much on tobacco in a year than we do on space exploration.

But it’s a rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives. If for no other reason that’s why we need to invest in science: in NASA, in NSF, in NOAA, and all the other agencies that explore the world around us. It’s for our own good. And it always pays off.

“What have you done for me lately?” you ask NASA. What a coincidence, NASA actually has a site “What Have We Done For You Lately?” This is a showcase of NASA inspired innovations. To quote from The Right Stuff, “no bucks, no Buck Rodgers”. NASA research produces and makes available not only first-rate technology, but the “raw materials” that many researchers world-wide use to create new technology, or “spinoffs”. You couldn’t navigate this page without both direct NASA technology and spinoff technology.

The next time you think NASA is wasting your money, first give up your smokes or pizza and then put that money toward helping the homeless (or world peace or whatever your social agenda may be).

Following Human Migrations

Analysis of human DNA has allowed researchers to refine theories about early human migrations such as the “Out of Africa” theory and how humans eventually got to North and South America.

A map shows human migration routes beginning about 100,000 years ago, based on mitochondrial (yellow) and Y-chromosome (blue) DNA evidence collected by the National Geographic Society's Genographic Project and other sources.

Some very well known examples of this type of genomic and mitochondrial DNA work are summarized in the excellent books Journey of Man and Deep Ancestry by Spencer Wells and The Seven Daughters of Eve  and Saxons, Vikings, & Celts by Bryan Sykes.

This type of genetic research is the obvious way to obtain information on human migrations. Yes, I’m implying there is another (less obvious?) way to gather information.

Of mice . . .

Norwegian Mouse, image courtesy George Shuklin

Researchers can use the “companions” we bring along with us when we move. A recent study about mice (Fellow Travelers) is “in press” at the moment at the BioMed Central (BMC) Evolutionary Biology journal. The researchers have documented that mice in Greenland are descended from mice in Norway. The Greenland mice must have come from Norwegian forebears that stowed away on the journey to Greenland. Very nice additional evidence to support the timeline of Viking wanderings.

. . . and lice

Body louse, Pediculus humanus var. corporis. Image courtesy of Scott Camazine

Dr. David Reed has learned about humans by using one of our very close companions. Dr. Reed studies ectoparasites, and has done considerable genomic work in lice. By studying lice, he found that body lice diverged from head lice about 170,000 years ago. Body lice require clothing to hide in. Therefore, according to Reed and his coworkers, clothing must have appeared on humans about 170,000 years ago. In his 2011 paper Reed says

A suite of complex behaviors and technologies associated with the transition of archaic to modern Homo sapiens, including improved clothing, are credited with facilitating the successful expansion of AMH [anatomically modern humans] out of Africa into higher latitudes.

Visit your ancestors

The Smithsonian Natural History Museum has finished a great looking exhibit “The Hall of Human Origins“. From online, it looks like it has the latest info on our human family tree along with some spectacular artwork and sculptures to bring it to life.

Depiction of early humans building a shelter. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studio.

This is on my list of things to see this summer. I know, I have a big “G” on my forehead. As a good friend of my husband’s once shouted (while standing in a parking lot holding a big-ass trophy we had won at a Star Trek convention), “We may be geeks, but we’re the best geeks!”

I plan to post a review of my trip and let you all know how much fun we had.

Tree of life has more leaves than expected

It turns out being a descendent isn’t as clear cut as it seems. As sequences of genomes fill the digital world, their analyses surprise many evolutionary biologists. It is hard to define exactly what a species is. Where do you draw the line between species? Wolves and dogs are clearly different. What about wolves and coyotes? Wolves and huskies? Coyotes and dogs? Labs and Newfies? Mutts and purebreds?

We have a habit of standing where we are and looking back in increments. How else can we learn about our world? Well, scientifically, we are growing up very fast, and need new perspectives. Just because the only information we have is that of clear, distinct species in a neat branching tree doesn’t mean that act of speciation is a neat business. In fact, I’m willing bet the farm that as we study genomes, we will find speciation is messy and “blurry” and species can only be distinctly identified long after the “speciation event”.

If there is even a single event. In some cases there may be a single change that allowed a new species to survive and the old to become extinct. I suspect that for many species (most?) it’s a continuum and that once you get far enough along the continuum, the species are then very distinct. Kind of like the visible spectrum. What’s the difference between 695nm and 700nm? Both are still red light. Once you get to 600nm, however, the light is very clearly orange. Can’t confuse those two colors. I think speciation is likely to the same way. At the very least, different species have interbred in the distant past, making the creation of family trees a bit more challenging.

Here are few stories about finding the “blurriness” in species by comparing genome sequences.

Why is “Extraterrestrials!” always the answer?

Because “Nature abhors a vacuum”. This is an old Latin proverb that can be first attributed to François Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) . Our minds can’t stand unanswered questions. So we populate the emptiness with answers like “Exterrestrials!”. Like the old maps of the world – men couldn’t leave the unknown parts empty and added “Here there be monsters!” or actually drew a few.

What has this got to do with biology? I could wave my hands and say of course behavior is driven by biology. Said and done. Moving on, I must confess, there is no direct link. I was  happily reading science news online and came across the headline:

Man looking for missing cat stumbles on buried ‘UFO’

Of course I was sucked in. I always am. I find it fascinating that the first explanation is always aliens. Even when there is clearly an obvious, logical explanation. There was in this case as well, but you can read the article for yourself if you’re interested.

I just don’t get it.

“When Fruit Flies Strike Out, They Like To Booze It Up”

NPR’s Scott Hensley reporting on brain biochemistry and alcohol. That’s all I have to say. Scott can be very humorous, and this report lends itself well to his humor. No spoilers here. Go read his work.

Drosophila melanogoster - fruit fly

If it’s not Madagasacar, it’s the Galapagos!

What are these things? Icicles? Stalactites? Here’s a hint: chomp!

Shark species identified: Bythaelurus giddingsi

It’s been around a long time, but us humans have just gotten around to seeing it. Shark species are becoming extinct worldwide, and one expert estimates that of the species present ~50 years ago, 90% have become extinct. Since it is now clear there are species out there we’ve never encountered, there are probably even more species becoming extinct than what we are aware of. Ignorance is bliss? No, more like extinction.

A close-up of the shark's pointy teeth. The species has a wide mouth good for grabbing passing fish and invertebrates. The research is published in the March 5 issue of the journal Zootaxa. Photo by Douglas Long

“Icy Finger of Death” posted by Phil Plait on Bad Atronomy