VIDEO: SICB 2018 Editor’s Challenge Workshop: What is Stress?

At the 2018 SICB meeting in San Francisco, researchers gathered for the Editor’s Challenge to discuss the question “What is stress?” Several scientists shared their perspectives to prompt discussions, and we’ve posted their talks below.

For more information about the Editor’s Challenge, see our post here.

Dr. Fran Bonier, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Endocrinology & Environmental Physiology, Biology Department, Queen’s University.


Dr. Kristy Kroeker, Assistant Professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, University of California, Santa Cruz.


Dr. Andrew Whitehead, Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at University of California, Davis.


BOOK REVIEW: Australian Echinoderms: Biology, Ecology and Evolution

Australian Echinoderms: Biology, Ecology and Evolution

Maria Byrne and Timothy O’Hara

CSIRO Publishing ISBN: 9781486307623

The best kinds of science and nature reference textbooks are those that capture the reader with a knockout combination of a fascinating topic, clear and informative writing, and stunning photography. With Australian Echinoderms, editors Maria Byrne and Timothy O’Hara, and an impressive list of renowned scientist contributors, have provided us with a stellar example in spades. This book covers all things Echinoderm, although the title is a bit of a misnomer as fully half of the book is devoted to broad coverage of the group, and not solely to Australian representatives of the phylum.

The Echinodermata is one of the largest phyla, notable for being comprised exclusively of marine representatives (110 families and 7000 species, 1400 of which are found in Australia) that are often used to symbolize the sea, and sport common names that are positively oceanic, e.g. sea urchin, sea lily, sea daisy, sea cucumber, and seastar to name a few. Within the 624 pages of this book, the reader will no doubt learn a great deal about these organisms. Coverage of Australian species is geographically broad, ranging from those members found in all regions and territories of Australia from the Antarctic waters of Macquarie Island through to the Great Barrier Reef. It should be stated again however, that even though the book focuses on Australian Echinoderms, the fundamental information presented in this text is of global interest. Navigating the text is made easy through an extended table of contents and a comprehensive glossary of terms that is also included. The strongest additions to the text, however, are the inclusion of the stunning photographs, of both the whole organisms in their natural environments, as well as their microscopic parts in prepared specimens, and also the detailed scientific diagrams that are complete with comprehensive labeling.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part poses the opening question of “What is an Echinoderm?” and addresses that question through chapters devoted to an introduction to the group, their ecology and behavior, life histories, management for conservation and fisheries purposes, biogeography, phylogeny and geological history. Pertinent to the broad coverage of this half of the text are fascinating and novel text boxes that highlight mysterious or interesting aspects of Echinoderms, such as their ability to regenerate arms, their distinctive mutable catch connective tissue, or of the highly invasive nature of the North Pacific Seastar. Readers will find much to learn from these asides as the topics and groupings are relevant to echinoderms from many geographical regions. The second part focuses on echinoderm diversity with chapters that focus separately on each class of Echinodermata: Asteroidea, Crinoidea, Echinoidea, Holothuroidea, and Ophiuroidea. Each chapter begins with a general introduction describing the classification and phylogeny of each class, before focusing on representative orders and families. Importantly, each chapter is presented without complicated scientific jargon that would require further research to understand.

The book is clearly aimed at a wide audience and will be of interest to students of all stripes from high school through to professionals working with these organisms in field or museum settings. The book is not a pocketable field guide or identification book but rather an outstanding collation of information that provides a comprehensive overview for all things echinoderm. The editors Maria Byrne and Tim O’Hara have done a splendid job with this text and it is certain to be a classic in coming years. It is a must-have book for all who are interested in echinoderms, specifically, or sea life in general.

Justin S. McAlister

Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies

College of the Holy Cross

Worcester, Massachusetts



SICB 2018 Editor’s Challenge Workshop: What is “stress”?

Over fifty abstracts in the SICB 2018 program mentioned the word “stress”; one would assume that we should know what the word means. But, how unified is the academic community in how we think about, measure, and even attempt to manipulate “stress”?

“Stress” – a useful term, or has the struggle to define it become a ball-and-chain for scientists?

Coming up with a definition of “stress” was the ambitious goal of this year’s “Editor’s Challenge” workshop, which took place on January 3rd, before the full SICB 2018 program began in San Francisco.

Andrew Whitehead opened the short talks with a wonderful overview of his work on the comparative genomics and physiology of salinity tolerance in killifish. Anna Ahn challenged our preconceptions on what “stress” is by discussing the concept of physical “stress” in animal locomotion and biomechanics. Fran Bonier drew from her work on avian glucocorticoid physiology in the context of environmental change to remind us that we need to exercise caution and be specific in our work so as not to conflate the idea of “stress” as a stimulus with what we have termed the “stress response”, and the abstract state of “being stressed”. Kristy Kroeker talked about her research on community-level responses to environmental changes; finally, we wrapped up the talks session with Marco del Guidice, who presented a theoretical approach to thinking about the feedback mechanisms associated with “stress” that act to keep organisms within a range that promotes their survival and reproduction.

[We plan to post videos of most of the rest of the talks here soon – watch this space!]

These talks generated a lot of discussion that continued into the afternoon break-out sessions, where we broke into groups with the challenge of taking on board what we had heard, and coming up with a definition of stress we could all agree on. From the perspective of a relative newcomer to the field of “stress” physiology, it was fascinating and highly stimulating to hear how different everyone’s perspectives seemed to be on what a “stressor” is, and therefore what “stress” itself is. Needless to say we did not come close to a single definition with which to move forward – but sharing viewpoints and posing questions with other scientists researching the general idea of “stress” through different lenses was hugely useful. Our conclusions: as scientists we must be careful how we use the term “stress”, and we should be more specific and accurate in how we define and interpret “stress” in our research.

We asked ICB Editor-In-Chief Lynn Martin for his thoughts on the motivations and outcomes of the workshop.

This was the first “Editor’s Challenge” workshop – what was the motivation in setting this up?
We editors at the journal seek to increase the visibility and impact of ICB, and we thought this could be a good way to do so.  The Grand Challenges papers from a few years back really made an impact, and we wanted to facilitate something similar (and ideally recurring each year).
What made you decide on the topic of stress (in particular, the challenges in defining it)?
Most of we editors have studied it in the past, and much of SICB thinks a lot about it, although for different reasons and takes different approaches to understanding it.  We knew the ‘Define Stress’ wording would be provocative, but we never expected us to walk away from the workshop with a definition everyone would embrace.  We simply hoped to generate discussion and truly integrative thinking about a topic important to many of us in SICB.  In the future, we plan to facilitate workshops on other topics, and we encourage folks to send ideas our way!
What part(s) of the workshop did you particularly enjoy?
I really think the whole thing went very well!  The talks were wonderful, and the short format with discussion interspersed worked out great.  The afternoon small discussions led to several outlines for papers, which was really what we sought from the meeting.  Papers arising from the workshop will be what has the greatest impact, as folks not able to attend or not aware of the meeting can be engaged in the discourse this way.
What was the biggest success of the workshop? (e.g. bringing people together, generating collaborations, good papers to come)
Both of your parentheticals, in my mind.  Ultimately, as before, the papers will be the major contribution, but as we had many junior participants (PDs and grad students), I think a lot of folks walked away with contact and new ideas to apply to their own work.  We more ‘seasoned’ scientists also benefited from the fresh perspectives of student participants.  Such a mix of career stages, as well as expertise, really benefited the conversations.

Reflections of SICB – Daisy Horr (Trinity University)

The Society of Integrative and Comparative Biologists have been been meeting since 1960. Over this time the the meeting has been held in high esteem for many scientists and continues to evolve (forgive me). We reached out to a few of the recent participants at the latest SICB meeting in San Francisco to ask them about their overall  impression of the meeting.

Our second review and reflection was with Daisy Horr, an undergraduate student at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, in the lab of Dr. Michelle Johnson. Daisy is interested in how social behavior and body temperature may influence body color in the green anole (Anolis carolinensis). This was Daisy’s first time at SICB and she was willing to share her overall experience with us leading her to this point  in her academic career.

“My path towards science initially started with my parent’s own fascination with nature. Because of them, a lot of my favorite childhood memories are from summers spent camping in Texas, catching tadpoles in river streams, chasing after large dragonflies, and running along the nature trails with my friends. As I got older, I wanted to continue learning about natural life and natural processes, and studying biology seemed to be a great fit. One particularly memorable experience I had as a rising biology major, came from when I attended my first seminar given by Dr. Anthony Di Fiore from the University of Texas during my first year. His seminar was where I first learned about field research, and it was where I first became captivated with it. Dr. Di Fiore stories about being a field primatologist observing the fascinating behavior of primates in the Amazon forest had me hooked. His work helped me realize that vertebrate behavior, ecology, and evolution were biological concepts I wanted to learn more about, and that field research was one incredible way to do so.”

Daisy conducing field work at Palmetto State Park for her summer project (Photo Credit: Michele Johnson)

As a first generation undergraduate, the McNair Scholars program at Trinity University has been an incredibly important stepping point towards my goal in receiving a Biology PhD. The program has driven me to become a stronger scholar, and to seize opportunities that I would have likely been hesitant to pursue otherwise, especially by encouraging me to seek out research experience. I joined Dr. Michele Johnson’s lab during the latter part of my sophomore year, where I was able to do a research project over the summer comparing dynamic body color change in male and female green anoles when engaging in social behavior and regulating body temperature. I initially went in having little experience doing research, let alone field work. Yet, through my own project and though collaboration with other students in the lab, I was able to learn a broad set of critical research skills. Including how to develop an independent research project, observe and record behavioral data, capture and record body measurements, interpret data using statistical analysis, and effectively present my research. While joining Dr. Johnson’s lab gave me the opportunity to be a field biologist, a huge takeaway for me was that amid hours spend under the harsh Texas heat, either chasing after lizards or recording their behavior for hours at a time, I found myself truly enjoying the work that I was doing. Research with Dr. Johnson has helped put science in a whole new perspective for me and has really helped spark my ambition to be a researcher.”


“Attending SICB is somewhat of a Johnson lab tradition, and I felt lucky to have been given the opportunity to present at my first international conference. I was even luckier that the conference was held in San Francisco (where I took plenty of pictures next to the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39’s sea lions). The conference gave me the chance to attend numerous great talks and learn diverse biological topics, from shark migratory patterns, to weapon use in arthropods. Initially I was pretty nervous about giving my poster talk, but through prior practice with Dr. Johnson and with my lab members, once it came around to give my presentation, I felt more confident. I ended up being eager to share my work with whoever was willing to lend an ear, especially with other anole researchers! I would have to say for that reason that the poster sessions were probably one of my favorite highlights from SICB. It was an amazing chance to see and experience first-hand the sense of community between scientists, whether they were undergraduate students or seasoned researchers. It was a great thing to be a part of, and I would definitely jump at the chance to do SICB again.”



Reflections of SICB – Greg Pask (Bucknell University)

The Society of Integrative and Comparative Biologists have been been meeting since 1960. Over this time the the meeting has been held in high esteem for many scientists and continues to evolve (forgive me). We reached out to a few of the recent participants at the latest SICB meeting in San Francisco to ask them about their overall  impression of the meeting.

Our first review and reflection was with Dr. Greg Pask of Bucknell University, whose primary area of research focuses on the neurobiology of olfactory communication in insects. His work was recently made into an infographic by Pineapples & Whales:

Dr. Greg Pask (@G_Pask) just started his Assistant Professor position at Bucknell, a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI). Dr. Pask has not attended SICB previously and did not bring any students, as he was searching for a conference that would work well for his future research students and himself.

“The most eye-opening part of my first time attending SICB were all the interesting topics being discussed.  I found it extremely difficult to plan my day when scanning through the program book (that’s really a good problem).  For example, how am I expected to attend one session that includes ant and bee talks when another session called “Superfast! Power Amplification!” is at the same time?  (If you’re wondering, I went to the latter and got to hold a trap-jaw ant-inspired device… no regrets!).  The diversity of research questions and their associated organisms is surely part of the allure of SICB, and it appeals to me on several levels: as a teacher, a mentor, and a storyteller.”

“As graduate students and postdocs, we often take such a narrow focus and become leading experts on that one thing.  Five years ago, my working memory consisted of all things insect olfaction and I could describe figures and conclusions from most papers in the field.  But now as a professor, I’ve had to expand my expertise because every class can’t be about how insects smell things 😉   The model of a SICB session also mirrors how I prefer to teach.  “Ok class, we’re about to go in-depth on this specific question in biology, and then we’ll look at all the possible ways of finding answers to that question.”  But in each SICB session, I get to become the student again, absorbing information that can likely find its way onto my next syllabus.”

“As a mentor to undergraduate students, the diversity of research presented at SICB is a big plus.  It would be unreasonable for me to assume that all of my research students will pursue a future in insect chemosensation.  And it would be a disservice to them!  I want my researchers to have a solid training in the approaches of scientific inquiry while also being exposed to all its possibilities.  The SICB meeting can offer this to my students.  Hell, even if they all felt obligated to come to my own talk in the Animal Communication session, they’d also learn about cephalopods, lizards, spiders, and fish!  And perhaps a student might have his/her interest piqued in a particular SICB session and begin to fall down the rabbit hole toward a new field and, hopefully, a successful research career.”

“Lastly, when a given SICB session ranges from vertebrates to invertebrates to fungal zoospores, there isn’t any silent understanding among the audience about why that organism is an ideal study species.  The presenter must explain this (aka tell the story!).  Several talks and posters had me thinking at first, What kind of organism is this?  to the later realization of Yeah, that is a great animal to explore the research question!  And although you as a presenter may have to sacrifice the discussion of some datasets to tell this story, who cares?  If you successfully grab the audience with your storytelling, they may continue to follow all the sequels you publish later!”

In conclusion, Dr. Pask reflects on his first experience at this rapid paced and sometimes overwhelming meeting:

“I’ll be a SICBer for quite some time.  I’m truly looking forward to bringing my students to SICB and then, in the classroom, bringing SICB to my students.”


  • So many interesting talks and posters
  • Organization by research focus rather than organism
  • Seamless integration of both graduate and undergraduate student presentations
  • Emphasis on storytelling


  • 2AM earthquake while sleeping on the 29th floor
  • Not enough time!



Symposia in Focus: Behavioral and physiological adaptation to urban environments

Photo from

In the final day of this year’s SICB conference, there was a symposia focused on “Behavioral and Physiological Adaptations to Urban Environments” organized by Dr. Jenny Ouyang (U. of Nevada, Reno) and Dr. Davide Dominoni (Netherlands Institute of Ecology). This seminar featured a number of talks on the selective pressures of urban environments, and the consequences of these pressures on organisms across a wide range of taxa. The symposia also highlighted future directions of research at the nexus of urban ecology, behavioral ecology, and physiology.

We reached out to Dr. Ouyang about why she and Dr. Dominoni planned the symposia, and what excited them most about studying organisms living in urban environments.

What was the motivation to organize this symposia?

“Urban environments continue to expand. As the human population continues to grow, most of the growth is in urban areas whereas rural populations are staying the same. This growth comes with challenges to wildlife and an increasing number of studies have looked at the phenotypic traits that allow individuals to inhabit or avoid urban areas. However, we still lack a synthesis and studies that look from ontogeny to populations. Therefore, we organized the symposia for the following goals:

  • Develop an integrative framework for characterizing and predicting individual responses to urbanization at a larger and longer-term scale, one that will guide and inspire the field of behavioral and physiological adaptation and will aid the understanding of population responses to global changes.
  • Development of an experimental approach to the study of urban eco-physiology which has been so far largely lacking.
  • Integrate physiological mechanisms with behavioral studies for individual-based characterization of urban adapters or avoiders.
  • Develop new connections between SICB and the larger community of ecologists whose work involves urban ecology.

What were you looking forward to most about this symposia?

“Before the symposia, Davide and I were really looking forward to getting together a group of experts using innovative techniques to study urbanizing environments. We had a brain huddle planned to discuss plans for integrating and moving forward this field of study.

What future directions are you most excited about in the study of organisms living in urban environments?

“We now have the genetics, bioinformatics and field tracking tools to really have an integrative view of animals and urban environments. Merging these tools and different fields of study will be important to answer open questions in this field.

What do you hope attendees were able to take away from the Symposia? 

“Urban environments are incredibly difficult to quantify, therefore, defining urban areas and different types of cities will be important. We really need an integrative view; for example, one speaker talked about disease transmission with artificial light at night. This topic is a novel stressor not previously investigated in urbanization studies. Lastly, with more studies in more taxa and areas, we can now perform meta-analyses to address global scale of questions. These will be important to address hypothesis-driven questions.”

Look out for the articles associated with this symposium in the coming months from Integrative and Comparative Biology. You can find abstracts of from the presenters here.

Intragenome Diversity of Gene Families Encoding Toxin-like Proteins in Venomous Animals.


The evolution of venoms is the story of how toxins arise and of the processes that generate and maintain their diversity. For animal venoms these processes include recruitment for expression in the venom gland, neofunctionalization, paralogous expansions, and functional divergence. The systematic study of these processes requires the reliable identification of the venom components involved in antagonistic interactions. High-throughput sequencing has the potential of uncovering the entire set of toxins in a given organism, yet the existence of non-venom toxin paralogs and the misleading effects of partial census of the molecular diversity of toxins make necessary to collect complementary evidence to distinguish true toxins from their non-venom paralogs. Here, we analyzed the whole genomes of two scorpions, one spider and one snake, aiming at the identification of the full repertoires of genes encoding toxin-like proteins. We classified the entire set of protein-coding genes into paralogous groups and monotypic genes, identified genes encoding toxin-like proteins based on known toxin families, and quantified their expression in both venom-glands and pooled tissues. Our results confirm that genes encoding toxin-like proteins are part of multigene families, and that these families arise by recruitment events from non-toxin genes followed by limited expansions of the toxin-like protein coding genes. We also show that failing to account for sequence similarity with non-toxin proteins has a considerable misleading effect that can be greatly reduced by comparative transcriptomics. Our study overall contributes to the understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of proteins involved in antagonistic interactions.


Lead author Dr. Ricardo C. Rodríguez de la Vega tells us more about the research and goals behind this work:

What originally interested you in this area of research, be it venoms or intragenome diversity of toxin-like gene families? 

Both. My main scientific interest is how reciprocal selection in antagonistic biotic interactions is recorded at the genome level. The idea here is that recurrent interactions between species generate co-evolutionary dynamics such that, as one species evolves, selective pressures on the other change and vice-versa. This reciprocal selection would naturally ended up changing the genotypes of the interacting species, However, this co-adaptation signal can be difficult, even impossible, to read as multiple other selection pressures and random processes leading to fixation (drift) also shape the genomes. In my view, antagonistic interactions generate evolutionary battlefields with deployed “arms” that may be anything from behavioural to molecular traits. In a simple case where “effector” molecules produced by one organism are delivered into another organism targeting “receptor” molecules reducing its fitness, and insofar as these molecules have simple genetic bases, this can offer a direct link between identifiable genomic features and reciprocally selected multi-organism phenotypic outcomes.

I am convinced that animal venoms provide many parallel examples of such simple and tractable case. Yet, the systematic study of these processes requires, of course, the reliable identification of molecules mediating the antagonistic interaction. Enters thus the problem of identifying the “effectors” of these interactions. In the case of animal venoms, the effectors, aka toxins, are the venom components whose selected function has been shaped by the action they have on ecologically relevant foes. Ribosomally synthesized toxins conform multigene families in venomous animals, understanding how these families arise is of utmost importance to understand the evolution of venom function. Until very recently toxins were thought to mainly originate from recruitment events of proteins with intra-organismal selected function, be it after gene duplication followed by neo- or sub-functionalization, or by re-purposing the original gene once it is expressed in the venom producing organ.

Did you feel that there was something missing from the field that motivated this work?

Yes. The advent of high throughput sequencing and improvements in proteomic protocols have relieved the burden of painstaking characterization of individual toxins directly from the venoms. Indeed, it is possible to identify candidate toxins directly from the genes expressed in the venom producing organs or even in whole genome surveys, by comparing the translated sequences with those in toxin databases such as UniProt’s venom protein annotation program. However, the existence of genes homologous to bona fide toxins but with no selected function in the venom, poses the much real problem of distinguishing between toxin and toxin-like genes in simple similarity searches. Taking advantage of recently available whole genome sequences of several venomous animals, I asked two very simple questions: 1) can we distinguish genes encoding toxins from toxin-like proteins by similarity searches (i.e. annotation transfer)? and 2) what is the relative contribution of toxin and toxin-like encoding genes to their corresponding multi-gene families?

What new insights do we gain as a result of this work?

First, that properly done, similarity searches can distinguish between toxin and toxin-like encoding genes. Second, that for many toxin containing mutligene families, non-toxin homologs outnumber the bona fide toxins, Third, that merging toxin and non-toxin homologs mislead the interpretation of recruitment events and selection regimes.

What are the critical future direction(s) do you anticipate this field moving in?

Having demonstrated that toxins indeed belong to multigene families, but that most of their homologs are unlikely to have a selected function in the context of venom use is in line with more recent evidence of highly dynamic venom composition, not due to recent duplication and pervasive diversifying selection (the standard model of venom evolution), but rather to pervasive and differential gene losses and to the rapid turnover of genes to acquire venom gland expression (assuming these genes have/have had indeed a selected function in the context of venom use).

What did you personally find most interesting, fun, or rewarding about this research?

I found particularly rewarding to be part of what I consider an authentic coming to age volume on venom evolution.