by Kaoru Esther Okamoto, Undergraduate at Agnes Scott College
Dr. Idelle Cooper, an Associate Professor of Evolution and Ecology at James Madison University, and presenter for SICB 2023’s Symposium 3: Sexual Diversity and Variation, is on a quest to unravel the mysteries behind the body and wing colors, as well as behaviors, of various damselfly species. Her research primarily focuses on the Calopteryx and Hetaerina genus of damselflies, also known as jewelwings, which inhabit the mainland US and Canada. Dr. Cooper investigates the role of sexual selection and species recognition in the evolution of wing traits and behaviors, particularly examining how wing color influences mate choice and species identification. Through her research, she seeks to illuminate the phenomenon of character displacement, where species evolve to become more distinct from one another to avoid competition.
Fascinated by damselflies’ delicate, iridescent wings and intriguing mating behaviors, Dr. Cooper, an art and biology enthusiast, found inspiration in the natural world. She designed experiments to study color patterns and ultimately developed a unique approach to better understand mating choices and preferences within damselfly populations—creating Franken-wing damselflies. This innovative method involved surgically altering the wings of these insects to manipulate their appearance while ensuring they could still fly, allowing Dr. Cooper to closely observe mate selection and species recognition processes.
To conduct choice trials with Franken-wing damselflies, Dr. Cooper and her students travel to various locations, such as a stream in Ontario. Using a van as a mobile lab, they present female damselflies with various wing patterns and observe which types are more attractive to the local males. One memorable incident during their research involved an unusual-looking Franken-wing damselfly escaping the van and being let loose in Ontario, (possibly) causing confusion and bewilderment among any unsuspecting male damselflies it encountered. This research contributes to a deeper understanding of mating choices and preferences within damselfly populations, shedding light on character displacement, as observed in the species Calopteryx maculata and C. aequabilis. These species have been found to evolve different traits to reduce competition when sharing territory.
For those interested in learning more about Dr. Idelle Cooper’s studies and witnessing the unique wing surgery technique, a video and additional information can be found on her website: https://www.idellecooper.com. Dr. Cooper’s innovative and unique approach to understanding the complexities of mating behavior and species recognition in the natural world continues to pave the way for future research and opens up new possibilities in the field of evolution and ecology.
–connect with our blogger
Kaoru Esther Okamoto, Third Year Undergraduate at Agnes Scott College
by Andrew Saintsing, Graduate student at the Poly-PEDAL Lab ,Berkeley
I’ve been blogging for Integrative and Comparative Biology for the past couple of years because I’m interested in journalism. It’s been a lot of fun meeting the scientists that make up the SICB community, learning about their research, and practicing my writing abilities. But what’s really been most fascinating to me is to see how the work that I do for ICB has interacted with my other journalistic pursuits.
For instance, this latest post is about Shawn Noren, a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I spoke to Noren via Zoom on Sunday, March 26. That was just three days before Integrative and Comparative Biology published her article“Building cetacean locomotor muscles throughout ontogeny to support high performance swimming into adulthood.” But rather than discussing the specifics of her latest paper or the talk she delivered at the 2023 SICB Annual Meeting, we focused more generally on doing research with marine mammals in aquariums and other tourist attractions.
As her paper title suggests, Noren’s research often focuses on cetaceans, like dolphins and other whales. She’s interested in questions about energetics and performance. In particular, she wants to know how these animals will perform in response to anthropogenic threats like fishing nets and wind farms and all the changes associated with climate change. She says,
“Many of these species, they’re always at sea. It can be stressful to capture them, so using animals in aquariums helps us understand vital questions that will help determine some data that can help change policy.”
Beyond just putting the animals in an accessible location, aquariums provide unique opportunities that would not be possible in the wild. For instance, some of Noren’s questions about swimming performance require carefully shot videos to answer. Because animals in aquariums are trained and used to people, she can rely on them for useful data. She says, “The angle of the camera matters … There’s no way I could have gotten a wild animal to go perfectly, the right parallel trajectory across the front of my camera.”
Furthermore, aquariums provide opportunities to interact with same animal, which was particularly important for Noren’s latest published study on the development of dolphins’ swimming performance over the first two years of their lives. If she was working with wild animals, Noren says that studying the same animal for a period of two years “would have been impossible.”
Even when researchers come up with methods designed to be employed in the field, those methods must be validated. Noren told me about a photogrammetry method currently being used to measure the body width of cetaceans in the wild in order to estimate the animals’ overall body condition. She points out that the method hasn’t been validated to understand when the animals get wider. She says, “If you go to the gym, and you work out your muscle, you can get wider biceps. It’s not fat.” So, she looked at calorie intake, girth, and blubber thickness in pilot whales at SeaWorld. Then, she took pictures like those that would be taken in the wild to validate the photogrammetry method.
Noren stressed that SeaWorld and other facilities have been hugely important in enabling her research. She says, “Do you know how much it costs to have a dolphin? The cost of the food? The veterinary stuff? These facilities do not charge us at all. We come in. We tell them what we want.” Plus, as far as she’s seen, they treat the animals well. She says, “All the facilities I work with treat their animals well. Great veterinary care, great husbandry care. Food is always given. It’s never withheld.” After all, she asks, “Why would you not take care of an animal that is helping bring in people?”
Coincidentally, the day I spoke with Noren, an elderly African elephant named Lisa was humanely euthanized at the Oakland Zoo. That may seem totally unrelated, but for me, it wasn’t. I live in Oakland, and right now, I’m an Audio Academy Fellow with KALW, a public radio station based in San Francisco. The fellowship trains aspiring journalists on reporting, writing, and voicing audio stories. Every Tuesday, I go into the station to work in the newsroom. Most weeks, I produce a ninety-second spot about local news, and as you may have guessed, I covered the story of Lisa’s death on Tuesday, March 28.
That morning I spoke to Alex Herman, the Vice President of Veterinary Services at the Oakland Zoo. She told me about Lisa — how the elephant had been living at the zoo since 1979, how the staff and guests had loved her, and how the vets had tried treating Lisa’s arthritis and other age-related illnesses in the last decade of her life.They even gave her cutting edge stem cell treatments. But ultimately, Lisa’s diminishing quality of life forced their hands. Now the Oakland Zoo is planning to move its remaining female elephant Donna to a reserve in Tennessee so that she can have companions and not be isolated.
But even as the Oakland Zoo was mourning the loss of a large land mammal,Safari West — which bills itself as “The Sonoma Serengeti” and offers guests the chance to see African wildlife in heart of California’s wine country — was eagerly anticipating the birth of a white rhinoceros. I saw the cosmic balancing act going on and the high likelihood of getting a member of the zoo staff on the phone for a statement, so on Tuesday, April 4,I covered the birth of a baby rhino. Erika Defer, the Director of Research at Safari West, told me about the amazing data they were able to collect over the course of the mother Eesha’s pregnancy. Defer was especially excited about how they monitored changes in Eesha’s body temperature using infrared photography. It looked to Defer’s team like heat signatures changed during gestation, and if analysis supports Defer’s hunch, the team may have found a new, non-invasive method for monitoring rhino pregnancies.
While these stories concerned land, not marine mammals, I thought it was interesting how they reinforced the major points that came up during my conversation with Noren. First, both Herman and Defer were taking the health and well-being of their charges very seriously. Second, caring for the animals offered an opportunity for research, whether that meant exploring the effectiveness of a stem cell procedure for Lisa the elephant or tracking behavioral and physiological changes over the course of a pregnancy in Eesha the rhino. Defer even described validating a potential field research technique.
But when I brought this up to Noren, she pointed out that the link between stress and captivity in marine mammals is an assumption. She conceded that she would not study behavior in captive animals. She says, “I would never do a captive study on behavior because you’re in a pool. You don’t have predators. You’re not trying to get prey.” On the other hand, she asks, “Have you ever tried to survive in the ocean with all these anthropogenic influences and disturbances?” Noren says she hasn’t seen “a smoking gun out there that says these animals are stressed compared to wild animals.” In fact, she argues that animal rights groups use “antiquated and skewed” information to make an emotional argument that captive marine mammals are stressed.
Noren’s comments made me think of the blog post I wrote last year about Liza Merly’s research on wild shark populations. Merly wanted to know if human activites were stressing out wild shark populations. One day, Merly explained to me, she hopes to use immunological markers in blood and tissue samples to assess the health of sharks, but first, she needs to collect baseline data to know what is normal for a shark. We talk about stress as a reality in our own lives so much that we forget how much we still have to learn about what it means in a physiological sense.
The bulk of that post was actually about Merly’s research on shark cartilage, which has been marketed as a cure-all despite a total absence of supporting evidence. Merly collected data showing that shark cartilage had no curative properties, but still peddlers of the product persisted. Merly became disillusioned when she saw that carefully constructed scientific arguments could not shut down the shark cartilage market. She continued to feel strongly about the issue, but her passion was always basic science. She didn’t want to spend her life continuously discrediting misleading and false statements. She decided to move on to new scientific questions and leave the fight against the sale of shark cartilage to advocates and conservationists.
I heard something similar in my conversation with Noren. To be clear, she has no intention of stepping back from her cause. She wants to continue to make people aware of how important captive marine mammals are to her research — research that has helped inform policies like the Obama administration’s regulations on dolphin-safe tuna fishing. But Noren says, “I don’t have the same time, energy, or money to invest to get my story out.” She’s teaching and doing research, which are obligations, she points out, that animal rights advocates don’t have.
Maybe it’s because I went to Berkeley for grad school, but most scientists I’ve interacted with seem comfortable advocating for causes they believe in. Finding time to speak out often enough to be heard through all the noise is another issue entirely.
By Myrah Graham, Environmental Science & Agriculture
Bow view of Antarctica aboard the Ocean Endeavor, March 2023.
The stories we tell allow us to see ourselves somewhere. Three weeks before coming to Antarctica, I would never have imagined I’d see it in my lifetime. Why?
Gorgeous documentaries from the likes of Cousteau and Sir Attenborough showed the incredible biodiversity of the White Continent, but only reflected its narrators as honored guests. I had never seen people of color being invited to Antarctica, (much less women of color), and so I had never imagined myself as a possible candidate.
When I got the call to join Kolossal on an expedition to film the colossal squid in Antarctica, my first thought was: Can I? Even though I worked and lived in the Canadian arctic, I still doubted whether I could handle 21 days at the opposite pole. But with some objectivity, if I was being invited for my technical skills with the Sub C Camera… the answer was YES!
Without realizing exactly what I had signed up for, I left Newfoundland with Jennifer Herbig who is also a student at the Marine Institute of Memorial University. Stepping aboard the Ocean Endeavor tourism vessel in Argentina was my introduction to the project: lowering a SubC Camera at various sites in Antarctic waters in the hope of capturing footage of the colossal squid in its natural habitat for the first time in history. We set sail on March 11, 2023 with high hopes.
Dreamt up by marine scientist Matthew Mulrennan, Kolossal is an ocean exploration and conservation non-profit organization. Despite the sensational nature of searching for the biggest invertebrate in the world, Kolossal’s fundamental mission is marine conservation. The byproduct of filming the seafloor of the Southern Ocean is hours of footage of benthic habitats that are largely undocumented. Discovery was a daily occurrence during camera deployments. With a video tether directly connected to our laptop, live-feed of the 20m-300m dive sites showed us what was beneath us. Unbelievable sightings included giant volcano sponges, Antarctic “Death Stars” (Odontaster validus), and multicolored rock reefs. Capturing this incredible biodiversity underwater mirrored that of the overwhelming animal life on the surface, and indeed is what is responsible for its richness.
When not deploying the camera or going ashore to see wildlife, uploading and processing the data was done. Eventually, the 20 hours of footage will be annotated, where labels are assigned to every organism and statistical analysis is applied to determine species richness and density. The hope is that by showing where biodiversity hotspots are, more protections can be applied via international Antarctic regulating and research bodies such as IAATO and CCAMLR. Being aboard a tourist vessel, scientific outreach was part of our daily work while simultaneously conducting the research. When filtering out of loading doors into smaller excursion boats, curious onlookers would peer over our shoulders to see the seafloor and ask us questions. The most common question, by far, was: “have you found the squid yet?”. The only answer we ever provided was: “not yet!”. But it opened the conversation to talk about all the other important organisms responsible for supporting the penguins, seals and whales they had come so far to see.
The surreality of being near the South Pole never left me, nor did the absolute joy of seeing penguins in real life. Still, the main question I had on my mind was: “why are there not more people of color here?”.
As an internationally neutral continent with a multilateral treaty system, Antarctica could be the perfect candidate for true diversity and inclusion. But not only was I an anomaly as a passenger aboard this vessel, up until being aboard I hadn’t even realized one could even book leisure travel there! On the privilege of conducting research aboard the vessel, I soon met the crew from the lower decks and realized that we come here all the time, just not for vacations. The segregation in affluence and opportunity was mirrored at all levels of the ship, and as an observer I felt even more grateful for where I was.
Recognition and encouragement for people of color to experience Antarctica is increasing. Adventure travel companies like Hurtigruten and Intrepid are in the planning stages of bridge programs and boards which would facilitate access for black and brown people. Within programming about Antarctica, acknowledgements of adventurers other than Shackleton and Cousteau mean we are seeing the full history of human exploration in the area. For instance, George W. Gibbs Jr was the first African American to set foot on Antarctica, with expeditions led by people of color going all the way back to the Maori landings in the 7th Century. Aboard the Ocean Endeavor, my presence was the first of its kind for a woman of color: Colossal Squid Hunter.
The colossal squid is still out there, and Kolossal will resume its search next season. Over southern winter, a percolation of our findings will influence how this work will continue in 2024. The only limit is our imagination (and funding). Seeing Antarctica with my own eyes, and experiencing this incredible opportunity expanded the horizons of what I thought possible. What enters the realm of possibility in our minds allows us to conceptualize and actualize our dreams. So even though I never thought I’d be in Antarctica, it’s still a dream come true. My hope is that more of us will see ourselves going further than we imagined.
Rosa R et al. (2017). Biology and ecology of the world’s largest invertebrate, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni): a short review. Polar Biology 40: 1871-1883.
by Francesca Giammona , PhD Candidate at Wake Forest University, @_fishology on Twitter
For the past nine months, I have had the opportunity to work at the North Carolina Zoo as a Research Intern. This internship is designed to give undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to gain research experience in a zoo environment. Interns work with curatorial staff to create and carry out research projects that directly inform the decisions management and zookeeper staff make about the zoo’s animals. Research projects can vary widely, and may deal with the social patterns of gorillas, the nocturnal behaviors of porcupines, or how a person’s perception of an animal may change if they are able to touch it, to name a few examples. Interns typically collect data for projects, and present their findings to the entire zoo staff at the end of their internship.
My specific internship experience was particularly rewarding because I was able to help design and implement a research project from the very beginning of the process. This project focused on the Eastern indigo snake, a non-venomous species that in the wild can be found throughout Florida and parts of southern Georgia. The North Carolina Zoo houses adult individuals of this species, and last year these individuals successfully mated. From this mating, twelve eggs were incubated and hatched. Having a group of snakes that are the same age and were raised in the same conditions from birth allowed for an excellent opportunity to perform a controlled study on snake welfare.
Many of the studies the zoo conducts are done to draw conclusions about animal welfare. According to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, animal welfare is, “an animal’s collective physical, mental, and emotional states over a period of time.” While this definition is a bit vague, using the existing body of knowledge about an animal’s behavior, we can determine if welfare is positively, negatively, or neutrally impacted by particular conditions.
For our Eastern indigo snakes, we were interested in how certain aspects of their enclosures might affect their welfare. Unfortunately, there are not many studies on the welfare of zoo-housed reptiles, so we focused on the effects of some basic enclosure elements, namely lighting and enrichment. Regarding lighting, we set out to compare the effects of fluorescent versus basking light on habitat use and behavior. Snakes are ectothermic, and so their internal temperature is dependent on that of the surrounding environment. If a fluorescent light is placed in a snake habitat, it solely provides illumination. If a basking light is placed in a snake habitat, it provides both light and heat.
Because basking light can warm the snakes, they may choose to be underneath it more often than they would a fluorescent light, due to the additional temperature regulation benefits. For enrichment, we sought to observe how habitat use and behavior differed between snakes that received enhanced enrichment and those that did not. It is known that snakes generally prefer to have natural enrichment objects in their habitats, and so all snakes were given multiple natural substrates and grass patches in their enclosures.
Snakes were placed in their enclosures in January of this year, and are currently still being observed. There are video cameras in each enclosure that run 24/7. We will likely not have a complete dataset until the end of the summer. My main task while this study has been underway was to help in developing a video analysis protocol and to begin analyzing video data. This means that I have spent a lot of time looking at videos of snakes, which can be tricky, as this species in particular likes to burrow under substrates and spends a lot of time hiding. I have witnessed many interesting moments however, such as snakes climbing on objects, drinking water, or moving enrichment objects in their habitats. I am incredibly excited to see the results of this study once it is complete!
As a scientist with a love for wildlife, it has been amazing to get a taste of what goes into the care of zoo-housed animals. All of the zookeepers I have interacted with are passionate about their work and truly care about what is best for their animals, so much so that they are often the ones most interested in the results of research studies. The curatorial staff also cares deeply about the zoo’s animals, and tries to develop the best research projects possible in order to obtain meaningful results. And though I mainly worked with snakes during my tenure at the zoo, there were many other research projects happening at the same time, so there was always a lot to learn about.
As research at the North Carolina Zoo continues to expand, it is the hope of the staff that their understanding of the animals in their care will steadily improve. If you are interested in wildlife, consider volunteering or interning at your local zoo. If you are a researcher, consider contacting a nearby zoo facility to see if research collaboration is possible – the experience is certainly worth it!
To learn more about the North Carolina Zoo, see here.
connect with Francesca via Twitter : @_fishology
Previous work from Giammona in a 2021 issue
Form and Function of the Caudal Fin Throughout the Phylogeny of Fishes
By Abby Weber, Department of Evolution, Ecology, & Behavior, at the Anderson Evolutionary Biomechanics Lab of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign\
If you’re already reading this, you might know a little about the Journal of Integrative and Comparative Biology, but for those of you who have stumbled here in search of interesting science, let us introduce ourselves! We are the blog for the Integrative and Comparative Biologists Journal! We highlight articles from the ICB journal, authors of those articles, and issues that scientists are passionate about. We also like to collaborate with other organizations, like Black in Marine Science, to highlight scientists in their network.
Now that you know what we do, you may be wondering WHO is behind all of these lovely sci com articles you are scrolling through? Many of the ICB blog posts are written by early career researchers and students! The ICB blog team helps provide budding scientists with mentorship and feedback on communicating their own science and the science of others in the Society. These bloggers are not just limited to current research topics either! The ICB blog also hosts topics of social justice, art, and book reviews!
So who are some members of this blog team that support growing science communicators? Rowan Marshall is one such member of our team who actually conducts her research on the efficacy of the blog! She is a senior undergraduate student at Florida Southern College, majoring in Marine Biology and Environmental Studies with a minor in Business Administration.
For her senior thesis, she researched things such as topics that were most widely read on the blog, the length of those articles, and the most common way readers access the blog. This work is crucial for the blog as we are able to use the findings to improve our outreach. For example, Rowan has found out most viewed topics are actually social topics, followed by art and scientist biographies!
These results from Rowan’s senior thesis help us to understand our most viewed blog topics!
To highlight the incredible diversity of topics researched by Rowan, here are some examples of our most read blogs types:
An Art in Bio post by Kaitlyn M. Murphy featuring art by Ben McLauchlin used in Kathleen Lu’s research
A post by Juliette Rault-Wang highlighting the importance of protecting trans scientists in the field for Trans Visibility Day.
We are also supported by the SICB blog coordinator! The blog coordinator helps us choose diverse topics, helps us edit blogs, and meets with us as needed to discuss upcoming blogs and opportunities!
Through the work and support of Rowan and SICB’s blog coordinator, the ICB blog is a great place for researchers to begin learning how to become better science communicators. We offer many opportunities for new science writers to practice their writing and outreach skills! The Magum Writing internship is offered once a year as a means for students attending the SICB conference to get their housing covered in exchange for an opportunity of writing for the blog! We also offer opportunities for writing through the Public Affairs Committee.
We are looking forward to hearing from all the future science communicators out there! The ICB blog is always looking to highlight diverse perspectives, interesting research, and current events topics that are crucial for keeping this field accepting and growing.
Some of the other ICB bloggers & team :
@AndrewSaintsing (blogger and Instagram) , @_fishology , @MattRock3415, @MarBioMoll , @NoahwithFish , @StacySchkoda (Instagram lead since 2020) , @Jason_Macrander , @KMurphyau
by Joseph Mack, PhD Candidate, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park
Of many significant events in 1944, perhaps the most important to the history of science occurred when the theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a book about life. In “What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell” he attempted to explain the phenomenon of gooey, wet, and mucky life with the same physical laws that predict the sterile, ordered behavior of atoms and planets. In the 79 years since Schrödinger’s elegant examination of life, many scientists have continued using physics to explain life’s most puzzling phenomena, including photosynthesis and magnetoreception.
At this year’s SICB conference, another fascinating fusion of physics and biology was introduced. During the symposiums6 Large-scale Biological Phenomena Arising From Small-scale Biophysical Processes, organized by Dr. Karen Chan and Dr. Jeanette Wheeler, on biophysics, Dr. Vivek Prakash presented his research that applies mechanics approaches to understand cellular flow in tissues of placozoans. I spoke with Dr. Prakash after the conference about physics and biology to better understand the relationship between the two fields and his path to placozoan research from a physics perspective.
Like many biophysicists, Dr. Prakash did not start in biology. His undergrad degree was in Mechanical Engineering, and his PhD research was in fluid mechanics, where he used massive water tunnels to understand the movement of bubbles in water. After his experience with physical systems, Dr. Prakash was eager to apply his skills to something “exciting in biology”. He serendipitously met his future advisor Dr. Manu Prakash (no relation) at an American Physical Society (APS) meeting and decided to pursue post-doctoral research in placozoans and sea star larvae at Stanford University. Dr. Prakash was especially drawn to the biophysical potential of Trichoplax adhaerens, one of several species in the enigmatic phylum Placozoa.
Affectionally known as “sticky hairy plates” by zoologists, placozoans are a relatively obscure and poorly understood group. Their simple body plan consists of a layer of fiber cells sandwiched between an upper and lower epithelium. They have no symmetry, organs, or nerves. In the lab, they are emerging as powerful models to study the evolution of nervous systems, cilia, and cellular interactions. For Dr. Prakash, the morphological simplicity of placozoans made them ideal subjects to study cellular flows in tissues. He emphasized that it is important to “look for new questions where you can leverage your previous expertise” when switching from physical to biological systems. In this case, Dr. Prakash was able to transfer his visualization techniques for tracking bubbles to track cell movements in placozoans during his postdoc. In his lab at the University of Miami, Dr. Prakash continues to train his students to apply physical techniques to investigate biological phenomena in marine organisms.
While simple organisms like placozoans can be ideal starting points to merge physics and biology, Dr. Prakash noted that there can be many surprises for a physicist investigating biological systems. Many biologists take a top-down perspective on nature, addressing complicated phenomena with a lot of data. This is distinct from the approach of most physicists, who rely on a bottom-up methodology to understand nature with first principles.
Adapting to these differences can be a challenging, but rewarding, process for scientists who transition to a new field. A physicist leaping into a biological problem will realize that organisms are always more variable and indeterminate in their behavior than particles, atoms, or stars. The behavior and needs of the animal must be accommodated when designing experiments, and a less hypothesis-driven but more adaptive experimental design may be necessary. When he transitioned to biophysics, Dr. Prakash commented that he learnt the importance of controls in biological experiments, given the large number of possible variations in biological systems.
While physics to biology transitions are common, career transitions in the reverse direction are rarer. However, Dr. Prakash notes that they can be very productive and contribute to important scientific discoveries.
For biologists looking to become more biophysical in their research, the biggest barrier is not mathematical or computational prowess, but a change in mindset to approach problems with a more reductive, bottom-up perspective.
Dr. Vivek Prakash
As physics and biology interact more in the future, Dr. Prakash hopes that scientists in each discipline will be able to learn from each other. Physicists can learn to appreciate the inherent variability and complexity in natural systems. Meanwhile, biologists can perhaps learn to zoom out from the fine details of specific patterns, like protein or molecular structure, and visualize the bigger picture.
Over the last few decades, biophysics has matured as a powerful subdiscipline of both physics and biology. Today, we see an increasing number of journals, departments, and courses that are dedicated to biophysics. Furthermore, conferences like SICB and APS are emerging as prominent crossroads for physicists and biologists looking to explore new model systems and scientific perspectives.
For those interested in transitioning from physics to biology, or vice versa, Dr. Prakash is eager to give advice, as he hopes to see closer and more fruitful interactions between the fields. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can connect with him on Twitter @Viveknprakash.
In 2021 Dr. Kirsty MacLeod, host of The Women in Ecology & Evolution Podcast, shared with ICB’s blog about animal physiologist and marine scientist Carly Anne York.
Ever since, ICB has greatly enjoyed Carly Anne’s Twitter feed and invited her to share about her recent work.
Carly Anne York’s post :
My morning began with a donkey that broke into the feed room and helped herself to breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rosie is a mini donkey, standing only about 3ft tall, but she is larger than life when it comes to finding trouble. After chasing Rosie out, I give Jude, her reserved donkey friend a pat on the cheek, and hope Rosie never becomes a bad influence on her sweet nature. I place hay under a shelter, and make sure the water buckets are clean and full before slogging back to the house in the rain and mud. The sun is still an hour away from showing its face, and I haven’t had my coffee yet. As I am sitting at my desk to write this blog, there is a kitten with a broken leg attacking my feet. It’s my fault- I chose to put on the socks with the stupid little decorative furry balls. Over the whirl of my coffee maker, I hear a strange cry from the kitchen. That would be one of my other feline residents hacking up a hairball. I guess I should go clean that up. While not always easy, I chose this life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My home is an animal sanctuary. Literally.
I am an animal physiologist, and not a particularly focused one. I began my career studying equine social behavior and stress physiology, but while I was working on my master’s, I got distracted by a Marine Biology course and fell in love with cephalopods. I decided that I had to get a PhD studying these ocean aliens, even though I don’t like water and I get seasick standing on a dock. Then came time to get on the tenure-track, and I found myself in the mountains of North Carolina, where there are no cephalopods to be had. I did, however, inherit a colony of African Clawed Frogs who became my next area of research. Throughout my career, though, one thing has remained constant, and that is my love and appreciation of animals.
My partner is not a biologist. He’s a Christian Theologian. You might imagine the colorful debates we hold, and while there certainly is some good academic fun to be had, we agree on more than we disagree. He too is a lover of animals, and much of his research has been focused on the care of “creation”. Between the two of us, we spent about a decade dreaming up the place we now call home- Dominion Animal Sanctuary.
We chose the name Dominion from a quote in the Old Testament, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28). This quote is often high-jacked and manipulated to infer that humans have authority and control over the animal kingdom to do as they please (which is usually only in their best interest). The Hebrew word, “dominion”, however, translates to “care for”. We wanted to create a place that would be a physical embodiment of this concept of dominion. Neither of us are religious people, but from our disparate academic training, we found this idea to be representative of how we both want to exist on this earth.
Our goals at Dominion Animal Sanctuary are to be a safe place for domestic animals, such as our donkeys, horses, cats and chickens, but we also want to create a safe haven for wildlife. The farm is about 10 acres, but about 4 of those are untouched forests that are home to owls, hawks, foxes, frogs, racoons, snakes, and opossums. There are often deer that pass through, and sometimes they even choose to stay awhile. Last summer there was a doe with twins who decided to stay with us for several months. They would bed down in the forest at night, but in the earliest hours of morning, they would come up to the house and nibble on the nearby pear trees. I don’t mind sharing my fruit with them at all. Each year there has also been a family of wild turkeys that choose to raise their turklets on the farm. I had no idea how tiny a baby turkey was, and I certainly did not know they could fly before they joined us. We also try to care for the invertebrate critters by leaving the leaves on the ground, and choosing no-till methods of gardening, and avoiding pesticides.
I’m lucky if I can get to the classroom without mud on my pants, or hay in my hair, and I am often very tired, but I love this life I have chosen. It’s been five years since we started this project, and every year comes with new challenges and wonderful surprises (like this kitten that has finally fallen asleep in my lap).
By Matthew Rock, B.S. Environmental Biology, Providence College
As soon as autumn begins the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird prepares for their long winter migration by ‘Packing on the Pounds’ . Migratory hummingbirds travel thousands of miles between their winter foraging and summer breeding grounds. They spend the winter in Mexico and Central America where they have access to flower nectar and comfortable temperatures. During the summer, they will travel as far north as Canada to breed and raise their young before the cold sets in and the cycle repeats.
However, this trip is energetically expensive, so the hummingbirds must put on weight prior to migration. On average migratory hummingbirds will gain 25-40% of their initial body weight, with some individuals even doubling their pre-migratory weight. Dr. Rossi was interested in exploring how ruby-throated hummingbirds put on weight so quickly, hypothesizing the answer may lie in a breakdown of the leptin negative feedback loop.
Leptin is an appetite suppressant hormone produced by body fat. In mammals, this hormone is used to regulate body weight. As mammals accumulate body fat, there is a direct correlation to the amount of leptin produced and circulating throughout the body. Leptin signals the hypothalamus to decrease energy intake and increase energy expenditure. This is known as a negative feedback loop, where the product of a reaction (leptin) inhibits that reaction (body fat development). A breakdown in the negative feedback loop would lead to leptin resistance and obesity.
Migratory hummingbirds gain a significant amount of weight prior to migration however little is known about the biological mechanism that causes this. Dr. Rossi hypothesized that hummingbirds become resistant to leptin in the months prior to their southern migration. Dr. Rossi began by evaluating the level of leptin in hummingbird urine. Despite the hummingbirds gaining weight, feeding more, and using less energy during this period, there was no impact on the amount of leptin in their urine. This led Dr. Rossi to conclude that premigratory fattening was not influenced by leptin. To further investigate the role of leptin, Dr. Rossi injected birds with leptin; however, this had no impact on weight gain, food intake, or energy expenditure.
Although not mediated by leptin, Dr. Rossi believes that overeating and reduced energy expenditure are responsible for weight gain in the ruby-throated hummingbird prior to migration. One major way in which hummingbirds can reduce energy expenditure is through the use of torpor. Torpor is similar to hibernation but occurs on a daily basis. Torpor users experience a drop in activity, body temperature, and metabolism during the night to conserve energy. By using torpor during the night, hummingbirds are able to lower their energy expenditure, which could explain how the ruby-throated hummingbird is packing pounds before their annual southern migration.
Torpor during Reproduction in Mammals and Birds: Dealing with an Energetic Conundrum
This year, the ICB blog and BIMS, Black in Marine Science, has continued to collaborate with the BIMS organization by hosting a monthly blog from one of their members.
We hope this collaboration will further foster connecting a phenomenal network of colleagues in marine bio and inform our readers about BIMS research as well as their continued work to not only create a network but also a safe space for their members.
We are happy to host Janelle Monet Layton’s post for April below:
My path to becoming a fisheries scientist was not always clear and actually I first entered my undergraduate career as a biology major on a pre-medical track. Growing up in a world where there is little representation of Black marine scientists, it didn’t seem like a viable career option. However, after taking ecology-based course work and volunteering as a teaching and research assistant in college, I knew that switching my major to Marine and Environmental sciences was the right choice for me.
I attended Hampton University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), where I felt at home academically. Various research and academic experiences enhanced my desire to pursue a career more specific to fisheries science.After graduation, I knew the next step in my journey was to begin a research-based graduate program. Now, I am a full-time graduate student at Oregon State University (OSU) where my research focuses on the effects of increasing temperature on development in early life history stages of Nassau Grouper.
Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) is a large predatory reef fish endemic to the tropical and subtropical waters of the western North Atlantic Ocean. They are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act and Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Reproductively active adults from this species will travel great distances to form spawning aggregations from November to February around the full moon. These spawning aggregations historically consisted of thousands to tens of thousands of individuals which broadcast spawn at a common location before returning to their home reefs.
The most serious threat to this species currently is overharvest from both commercial and recreational fishing and the lack of effective regulations and enforcement. While forming spawning aggregations is an effective tool for reproduction, unfortunately it puts the species at an elevated risk of being overfished when their spawning aggregations are being targeted. Previous studies have shown that almost one-third of grouper spawning aggregations have disappeared because of overfishing (Sala et al. 2001).
The Grouper Moon project (https://www.reef.org/programs/grouper-moon-project-protecting-caribbean-icon), one of the most successful Caribbean fish conservation programs in existence, has led to the recovery of Nassau Grouper in the Cayman Islands (Waterhouse et al 2020). There is an aggregation site on the West end of Little Cayman, Cayman Islands and is believed to host the single largest remaining Nassau Grouper aggregation in the entire Caribbean. This is also the study site for my graduate work.
As I mentioned before, my research focuses on the effects of increasing temperature on development in early life history stages of Nassau Grouper. It is already well known that climate change, and climate variability, have substantial impacts on the early life history of fishes. Understanding these effects specifically on the early life history stages of Nassau Grouper is extremely useful to developing conservation and management efforts for this critically endangered species.
That is the traditional background I would give someone about me as a scientist and my research. I have this super cool project, interesting questions, and a lot of excitement to grow as a scientist. However, starting my graduate program during the peak of a global pandemic was challenging. It felt like so many things were working against me as I began graduate school, and I want to share the other side of the story that also helped me mature as a scientist.
Transitioning from an HBCU, Hampton University, to a Predominately White Institution (PWI) like, Oregon State University was an interesting experience. That feeling of being at “home” was no longer there and I realized I was not the only Black person that felt this way when entering graduate school.
The field of marine science is not racially diverse so for those of us interested in joining or learning more about the field, we are expected to enter these spaces lacking representation for long periods of time.
Janelle Monet Layton
In addition to this, I have never felt more isolated in my life until starting my graduate program. I felt like the minority within the minority.
Just being Black in the state of Oregon is rare. According to the Oregon State Census 2.3% of people in the state of Oregon identify as Black or African American alone. On top of that, the amount of Black people pursuing higher education is minimal. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, during the 2018-2019 academic year only 7% of all master’s degrees and 5% of all doctoral degrees within STEM fields were obtained by Black people.
How many of the 7% or 5% do you think live in Oregon? How many of the 2.3% do you think are involved in fisheries science? While I don’t have exact numbers, I can tell you that I was 1 of 2 graduate students in my department when I first moved here and now, I am 1 of 1.
One major lesson I learned since starting graduate school was to not drown in the negatives of a situation and instead work towards finding solutions.
Janelle Monet Layton
I knew that my biggest problem was that I didn’t feel at home and in turn I wasn’t happy or productive in both my professional and personal environments. I knew that surrounding myself with like-minded and encouraging people could help with this issue. Organizations like Black in Marine Science (BIMS), Black Women in Ecology Evolution and Marine Science (BWEEMS), and Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) literally changed my life. I no longer felt as isolated as I once did with these groups providing support.
Furthermore, in a world of zoom meetings and virtual interactions, I turned to social media to interact with peers and younger students to show my journey as I’m figuring out being a scientist. I realized there is a whole world of people interested in this type of field, feeling just as isolated as I was. Becoming more active on social media helped me grow as a science communicator and expand my network. As a scientist, I became more productive once these other layers of my life started to fall into place.
Outside of issues regarding race, the pandemic limited travel which meant field work for my research was delayed with no real answer on whether or not it would be allowed the next year. Another huge lesson I learned in graduate school was to become more flexible and adaptable to changing plans. Eventually, I was allowed to travel for field work. It wasn’t the plan I set out for myself 3 years ago but that’s okay. My life would not be how it is now without these challenges and these changes allowed for me to ask questions I never would have thought of pre-pandemic. Overall, things are not perfect and there’s always room for improvement. However, I’m forever grateful for the challenges and learning experiences that I’ve encountered as I have matured and can now grow and develop even more as a scientist and person because of them.
As I mentioned before, my path to becoming a scientist was not always clear. I hope this blog post, the work I’m currently doing, and everything that I have gone through will help others have a better idea on how to handle certain issues when entering the field.
By Bushra Moussaoui, MS from New Mexico State University, Science Writer
Could it be that what makes us human is the very same array of qualities that sets birds apart from the rest of the animal kingdom?
This intriguing question is artfully answered in Dr. Antone Martinho-Truswell’s debut book The Parrot in the Mirror: How evolving to be like birds made us human, in which he argues that though featherless, flightless, and certainly not bird-shaped, we are behaviorally and evolutionarily more bird-like than ape-like. In crafting his case, Martinho-Truswell draws from his expertise as an ornithologist and behavioral ecologist, findings from both wild and laboratory studies of animal behavior, and fascinating stories of avian ingenuity, ultimately delivering a book that is equally rich in wonder as it is in knowledge.
Beginning with a description of the proliferation of an unnamed group of animals with “big, creative brains” who soon became “the smartest animals anywhere on Earth (pp. 1-2),” Martinho-Truswell reveals, to the reader’s surprise, that he is not describing our own species but parrots, which evolved these impressive traits 50 million years before the origin of our own lineage. With the reader humbled, enticed, and slightly bewildered, Martinho-Truswell then sets out to thread together evidence in support of his claim that “by discovering, adopting, and adapting the strategies that birds had discovered before us, we became the bird without feathers (p. 6).” Each subsequent chapter illustrates one of these similarities: exceptionally long lives, innovative intelligence, doting biparental care of young, a system of learned vocal communication, and most poignantly—in the most humanlike group of birds, the parrots—an appreciation for art.
In each focused chapter, Martinho-Truswell also highlights the ways in which each trait is interconnected with the others. For instance, longevity and intelligence are caught in a ‘virtuous cycle’ in both humans and birds; Martinho-Truswell writes, “we both live a long time, and so need to be intelligent; we are both intelligent, and this helps us live longer (p. 73).” Similarly, Martinho-Truswell explains that the long developmental time afforded by diligent parental care of vulnerable offspring facilitates the development of powerful and flexible brains because “brain mass gained in the womb or egg is less valuable to intelligence than brain mass gained out in the world (p. 107).” These examples are among many others that elucidate the ways in which we and birds have tapped into the same fitness-enhancing life strategies to achieve parallel success.
The complex biological concepts at the core of Martinho-Truswell’s argument for our ‘birdishness’ are explained both elegantly and simply, thus facilitating the book’s appeal to a wide range of readers. Convergent evolution, rather than inheritance from a common ancestor, is identified as the fundamental process by which we arrived at our bird-like characteristics. Avoiding technical jargon, Martinho-Truswell explains the significance of this evolutionary route, writing “if two very different groups of animals hit on the same solution, despite their very different anatomy and evolutionary background, it tells us that they faced similar challenges in their history, and found similar ways of meeting those challenges (pp. 25-26).” Much attention is also given to the intricate challenges of comparing complex behavioral traits, such as intelligence, across vastly different species. Martinho-Truswell dissects the important factors that must be taken into consideration, such as the brain-to-body mass ratio, and also warns of the common mistake of conflating true intelligence—the ability to devise novel solutions to problems—with ‘well-adaptedness’—an inevitable manifestation of a time-tested genetic program. Martinho-Truswell not only conveys such concepts and nuances but also engages with likely counterarguments to his claims by predicting and responding to the logical skepticism of a thoughtful reader. Despite being a book deeply rooted in science and empirical research, it is anything but a sterile compilation of biological facts—Martinho-Truswell quotes Shakespeare, retells Aesop’s Fables, and includes a healthy dousing of puns and witty interjections for a lively reading experience.
As a student who is no stranger to the avian world, studying the neurobiology and social dynamics of vocal mimicry in lab parakeets, I still learned a great deal and often found myself inspired to reflect on the broader implications of my own work. I especially appreciated the personal stories Martinho-Truswell shared about his time working alongside world-renowned researchers of animal cognition, such as Dr. Irene Pepperberg who studied Alex, the famous talking African Grey parrot. For instance, after discussing the ongoing debate among scientists regarding whether or not parrots understand the words they imitate, Martinho-Truswell recounts the moment when Alex recombined words he learned from Pepperberg to ask a question about himself—the first question asked by a non-human animal. Alex’s question, followed by stories of rhythmically dancing and drum playing cockatoos, leave the reader to ponder the remarkable nature of birds as the only other group of animals that touch upon the quintessential hallmarks of humanity—language, innovation, introspection, and art.
Martinho-Truswell, A. (2022). The Parrot in the Mirror: How evolving to be like birds made us human. Oxford University Press.